The bench press is perhaps the most recognized and famous upper body exercise. It has been suggested the bench press has its roots dating back to ancient greek times. For over hundreds of years there have been countless discussion inside and out of gyms regarding training tips, myths, and actual scientific facts. With so much information coming in and out of the gym from “experts”, its hard to filter out the good versus the bad. In this article, we’ll break down scientifically proven ways to maximize your bench press gains, break PRs, and how to break through that bench press plateau.
To quickly review, Power (P) is a measurement of work (W) divided by Time (T). Therefore, increasing the amount of work or decreasing the amount of time increases power! If you’ve ever read an article or come across a training program with contaction times, a common tempo is 1, 1, 4, 0. Meaning, during the bench press, you should spend 1s raising the bar (concentric), 1s holding the bar in the shortened muscle position (isometric), 4s to lower the bar (eccentric), and 0s holding the bar at the bottom (isometric).
According to an article by Buitrago et al. 2013, a Δ ,1, 1, 1 setup (with Δ meaning explosive) at either 55% or 85% of your One-Repetition-Max (1RM) maximizes power output! When looking at NSCA recommendations for power training, you typically see > 90% 1RM. Reviewing this information, you can maximize power by either 1) increasing the amount of work by increasing weight, or 2) increasing velocity, which will decrease the time you spend performing the movement. This is one way to break through that bench press plateau!
Slow-loaded eccentrics, also termed “negative reps” have been consistently shown to increase 1RM in the bench press. According to an article by Doan et al. 2002, subjects who performed the bench press exercise with an added 5% of total weight during the lowering phase of the bar, followed by raising the bar without the added weight increased their 1RM 5-15 pounds. This study was strictly 1RM testing, this wasn’t even a training method over a few weeks! So load the barbell up with heavy weight and focus on slow-loaded eccentrics, followed up with having your training partner help lift the bar up back to starting position. This is another way to break through that bench press plateau!
Speed Things Up
If you’re still having trouble breaking through that bench press plateau, try this! According to an article by Padulo et al. 2010, training 2x/week for three weeks at 85% of your 1RM with 80-100% of your maximal speed may increase the maximal load you can lift by 10% and maximal speed by 2.22%. This is an essential training technique for the experienced weight-lifter trying to burst through a plateau! Another study by Gonzalez-Badillo et al. 2014 supports this claim, “bench press strength gains can be maximized when repetitions are performed at maximal intended velocity.” It comes down to rate of force development (RFD), equals the change in force over the change in time. Force (F) equals Mass (M) multiplied by Acceleration (A). Increasing velocity increases accelerations, which increases force. This leads to a greater change in force with a decreased amount of time, thus RFD is increased!
Performing the bench press at high velocities increases the number of repetitions for other reasons as well. When you perform the bench press at a high speed with no pauses, you actually decrease muscle activity, when comparing to slower speeds with a pause at the top of the motion. According to an article by Akihiro Sakamoto and Peter James Sinclair from 2012, this muscle relaxation at the end of the concentric phase allows blood flow to the working muscles via a muscle pump action. The study also concluded higher fatigue levels during slower bench press speeds, and this may be due to neuromuscular transmission failure or central nervous system (CNS) fatigue. This all makes sense now when we watch college football players at the NFL Combine, dropping the bar and exploding up actually promotes increased performance!
Supplement elastic resistance bands
Supplementing elastic bands with the bench press is becoming a hot commodity for good reason. According to an article by Lopez et al. 2014, rugby players that utilized elastic resistance bands accounting for 20% of the 85% 1RM load they were lifting made substanstial acceleration gains. In terms of numbers, rugby players experienced a 35% increase in accelration and 17% increase in maximal velocity, with a greater increase in acceleration compared to recreational-trained athletes. The elastic bands actually help balance the tension throughout the entire range of motion, this eliminates the need to fully decelerate the bar at the top of the movement. These type of gains are essential and desired by athletes that engage in velocity dependent sports such as rugby, football, or boxing! This personally helped me break through my bench press plateau!
Using resistance bands during the push-up exercise has shown to be beneficial as well! According to an article by Calatayud et al. 2015, using an appropriate resistance band that meets a 6RM challenge for the push-up for 5 weeks was shown to increase muscle strength in the 1RM and 6RM. What’s interesting to note is performing the push-up at a 6RM with elastic bands demonstrated comparable strength gains to performing the bench press with free-weights at 6RM in a 5-week training program!
Supplementing resistance bands with the free-weight bench press has consistently shown strength gains in recent research. According to another article by Bellar et al. 2011, training with elastic tension contributing to 15% of the load with a total load of 85% 1RM produced raw strength gains greater than the standard bench press training. These results occurred with a training program that consisted of 2 sessions/week for 3 weeks, 5 sets of 5 reps with 90s rest breaks. Utilzing elastic bands can maximize strength gains in both the average Joe, and the trained athlete! It’s all about overload and providing a new stimulus to the body, using this piece of equipment is a game changer. Now go break that bench press plateau!
So what the research says this and that, now what? This article is meant to provide you with more options and ideas in your training toolbox to break through that bench press plateau!. It is easy and rather convenient to get comfortable doing the same exercise, the same way, over and over. At some point you’re going to plateau with your results, and in order to reach new goals you need to provide a new stimulus. Getting bigger, faster, and stronger requires progressive overload with varying stimuli. Utilizing these concepts (variations of the bench press, training parameters, body alignment) can provide that new stimulus to reach your training goals. Stay tuned for parts two and three of the bench press bible to learn more about bench press training variations, muscle activity, and debunking training myths.
- Buitrago S, Wirtz N, Yue Z, Kleinoder H, Mester J. Mechanical load and physiological responses of four different resistance training methods in bench press exercise. J Strength Cond Res 2013;27:1091100.
- DOAN, B.K., R. U. NEWTON, J.L. MARSIT, N. TRAVIS TRIPLETT- MCBRIDE, L.P. KOZIRIS, A.C. FRY, AND W.J. KRAEMER. Effects of increased eccentric loading on bench press 1RM. Strength Cond. Res. 16:9–13. 2002.
- Padulo J, Mignogna P, Mignardi S, Tonni F, D’Ottavio S. Effect of different pushing speeds on bench press. Int J Sports Med 2012; 33: 376–380
- Gonzalez-Badillo, JJ, and Sanchez-Medina, L. Movement velocity as a measure of loading intensity in resistance training. Int J Sports Med 31: 347-352, 2010.
- Sakamoto A, Sinclair PJ. Muscle activations under varying lifting speeds and intensities during bench press. Eur J Appl Physiol 2012;112:1015–25.
- Garcia-Lopez, D, Herrero, AJ, Gonzalez-Calvo, G, Rhea, MR, and Marin, PJ. Influence of “in series” elastic resistance on muscular performance during a biceps-curl set on the cable machine. J Strength Cond Res 24: 2449-2455, 2010.
- Calatayud, S. Borreani, J. C. Colado, F. Martin, V. Tella, and L. L. Andersen, “Bench press and push-up at comparable levels of muscle activity results in similar strength gains,” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 246–253, 2015.
- Bellar DM, Muller MD, Barkley JE, Kim CH, Ida K, Ryan EJ, Bliss MV, Glickman EL. The effects of combined elastic- and free-weight tension vs. free-weight tension on one-repetition maximum strength in the bench press. J Strength Cond Res 2011; 25: 459–463