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Demolish Your Bench Plateau

by Tim Henriques
Has your bench press been stuck for a while?
Been shooting for three plates for what seems like forever, but just can't seem to get there?
Take heart. All good lifters get stuck on a plateau every so often, and while it can be
frustrating, it doesn't have to be insurmountable. Here's a six-week program for busting
through the most stubborn plateau. I call it the Plateau Breaker.

This program is geared specifically toward the bench press, but the concepts can be applied to
any lift. It's designed for intermediate or advanced level lifters (because if you're a beginner,
then you shouldn't be hitting any plateaus yet).
The principles of this program are pretty simple. The two best ways to build maximum
strength are the maximum effort method and the repetitive effort method, so that's what we'll
be focusing on. You also need a lot of hard work (no shortage of that here), coupled with
adequate rest to allow the body to recover.
Since you will be hitting the chest specifically only once a week on this program, you'll get
enough rest and you'll need it. Finally it's been suggested that regular heavy training with the
same exercise can lead to CNS burnout after 4 weeks, so we have some necessary variety in
the program as well.
Here's what I want you to do: first, we need to know how much you can actually bench, so
we'll have a test week. On Monday (or whichever day you train bench the heaviest), go in and
find your max on the bench press. Obviously, you should use a spot, but don't count the lift if
your form goes to hell, or if your spotter touches the bar. Then train as normal for the rest of
that week (but don't train your chest again). Starting the following week, for the next six
weeks, follow the Plateau Breaker program outlined below.
Week 1: Maximal Effort Week

Week 2: Repetitive Effort Week

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Exercise

Sets

Reps

12-20

Bench press
Bench press

3-5

Incline bench press

3-5

Incline bench press

12-20

Close grip bench press

3-5

Close grip bench press

12-20

Cable crossover

5-8

Cable crossover

15-25

Week 3: Maximal Effort Week


Exercise

Week 4: Repetitive Effort Week


Sets

Reps

Exercise

Sets

Reps

12-20

Bench press
Bench press

3-5

Decline bench press

3-5

Decline bench press

12-20

Hammer Strength Incline

3-8

Hammer Strength incline

12-20

Board press

1-5

Board press

12-20

Week 5: Maximal Effort Week


Exercise

Week 6: Repetitive Effort Week


Sets

Reps

Exercise

Sets

Reps

12-20

12-20

Floor press
Floor press

3-5

Dumbbell press

3-5

Dumbbell press

Dumbbell fly

5-8

Dumbbell fly

15-25

Pause bench press

3-5

Pause bench press

12-20

As previously mentioned, this program is designed to be followed on a once a week split. A


good split that works well with this setup is:

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6 & 7

Chest

Back

Cardio

Legs

Shoulders

Rest

Abs

Biceps

Rest

Lower Back

Triceps

You can flip either days 1 and 2 or days 4 and 5 if you prefer (not both of them), but since
we're focusing on chest for 6 weeks, train it when you're fresh and feeling good. You can do
abs more than once a week if you want.
The exercises listed are in the order they need to be performed, so don't change the order.
Here's a quick explanation on some exercises that might be confusing:
Bench press
You're probably saying, "well, duh." Yes, I know you know this exercise, but bear with me.
It's the cornerstone of this program, so I want to make sure we're all doing it properly.
Grip the bar wider than shoulder width, so that your forearms are perpendicular to the bar at
the bottom of the range of motion. If you already have a grip you love, go with it. Touch your
chest on the lower half of the sternum. Nipple level works well.
Keep your elbows tucked 45-60 degrees on the way down, and on the beginning part of the
way up. Slightly arc the bar back up toward your head as you press, particularly with the
heavy weight and lower rep sets. Your butt, head and feet don't move during the set. A little
arch in the lower back is fine if it works for you.
Close grip bench press
Don't grip it tooclose: keep your hands just outside of the chest at the bottom. I find that
putting two fingers on the smooth part of the bar and two fingers on the grip (knurling) works
very well for almost everybody. Keep your elbows tucked.

Cable crossover
Like a fly, but you start with your hands shoulder height, then bring them down in front of
your waist.

Start position

End position
Hammer Strength incline
If you don't have access to this machine, you can substitute another incline machine that you
like, or else do incline dumbbell presses.
Board press
Use two or three boards (two if you're weak near the bottom, three for everybody else). If you
don't have boards, you can use a yoga block, a foam roller, or some 25-pound weights. In a
pinch you can use a rack and do rack presses, but you really should get some boards, they're
very useful and easy to make.

Board press using three boards.

Variations using yoga block and foam roller.

Homemade board press boards.


Floor press
This is simply a bench press performed on the floor, which limits your range of motion. Use
about as much or more weight for this exercise as you do for the bench press.

When doing the floor press without a power rack, you can "rack" the weight on the end of a
bench.
Pause bench press
Perform a normal bench press, but include a distinct pause on the chest for each rep, just like
in an actual powerlifting competition. Count to yourself "one thousand one" (or "one
Mississippi," or "one Jamie Eason" or whatever) with the bar on your chest and then press,
doing this for each rep. Since this comes at the end of the workout and you may not be used to
it, your weight will be down significantly, perhaps as much as 20% lower. The other reps are
all touch and go.
The sets listed are work sets: we're assuming that you'll do 2 to 4 warm-ups sets on the first
exercise of the day and 1-3 warm-up sets for every other exercise.
On the max effort days you can do sets across (the same weight for each work set like 275 x 5
x 5) or you can do ascending sets (i.e. 255 x 5, 265 x 5, 275 x 5, 285 x 5, 295 x 5), whichever
you prefer. I generally prefer the ascending set style, especially on the first exercise.
On the repetitive effort days you can do sets across if you can manage it (often the weight
stays the same but the reps drop like 225 x 20, 225 x 16, 225 x 12) or you can do descending
sets where the weight decreases each set (i.e. 225 x 20, 205 x 20, 185 x 20). If you can't get
the minimum number of reps listed on either day, the weight needs to be decreased.
When you repeat the bench press on weeks 3 and 4 try to use more weight than you did on
weeks 1 and 2 (increase 2.5 to 10 pounds). So if you finished with 275 x 5 on week 1, try 280
x 5 on week 3.
This program is pretty brutal, so be prepared. On weeks 1, 3, and 5 you'll be going pretty
heavy for a good number of exercises, and on weeks 2, 4, 6 you'll probably be doing a lot
more reps than you're used to. You'll most likely get a huge pump in your chest (like someone
is trying to blow air into the muscle; it feels fantastic!).
You may notice the weight you're lifting drop off a lot on the latter exercises, but don't sweat
it. What this means is that you've fatigued the muscle, which is exactly what we're after. Don't
let your ego get involved and lift heavy without doing the amount of recommended reps on
the rep effort days.

Make sure your rest periods on the max effort days are as long as you need: 2-5 minutes
usually works well. On the rep effort days, keep the rest under 3 minutes. These workouts will
usually take about 60-90 minutes to complete.
Don't test your one-rep max again for any reason during this program. Once you've completed
the plan, then you'll do another test week.
The week after you finish week 6, come in and max out again on the same day that you've
been doing chest. Follow the same procedure that you used to find your one-rep max earlier,
but this time, instead of just repeating your max, add 5 pounds to it. If you're successful,
congratulations, you just set a new PR! If you have some strength still left in the tank, throw
on another 5-10 pounds and try it again.
I'm not going to bullshit you and say you should expect to add 50 pounds to your bench in 6
weeks with this program. If you're intermediate or advanced, and on a true plateau, you
already know that's practically impossible. But the vast majority of people who follow this
routine add an honest 5-10 pounds to their bench, and I've had a few people add 20 pounds to
it.
This routine isn't designed to be followed indefinitely. Once you do it for the recommended 6
weeks, follow another program for a while and wait at least 3 months before you come back
and try it again. Each time, test your one-rep max before you start and after you finish so
you'll know for sure what actually happened to you. Good luck with it. If you have any
questions about the program, post them in the discussions section and I'll try to answer them
there.
About the Author
Tim Henriques is the Director of the National Personal Training Institute of VA. NPTI is a 500
hour, 6-12 month long school for personal trainers. He's been devoted to fitness for the past 15
years, in college he was a collegiate All-American Powerlifter, he has competed in several
local strongman and arm wrestling events, and he currently holds the USAPL VA state record
for the deadlift of 700 lbs at 198. He attended James Madison University where he got his
degree in Kinesiology with minors in psychology and coaching. He is lifetime drug free. Tim
can be reached via email at NPTITim@aol.com.
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