bodybuilding plateau (1)

How To Overcome Your Pesky Bench Press Plateau

Overcoming a bench press plateau can only be solved with one approach: an integrative fitness program. 

 I swear: about 80% of my job as a fitness professional is to remind people that they need to do more than lift heavy or burn calories to be fit.

(The other 20% of my job is reminding people to breathe during exercise)

An integrative fitness program is a fitness program that includes a plan for:

  • Strength training
  • Joint stability training
  • Muscular endurance training
  • Nutrition & Hydration
  • Rest/ recovery 
  • Strength testing
  • Deload periods

Yes, that means that you can’t simply show up and push weight at the gym and expect to make progress week after week.

At some point your body is either going to stop being challenged enough to build strength, or develop a cumulative stress injury.

Both of these things will swiftly halt your progress. 

Prevent the injury and keep yourself appropriately challenged: work on an integrative fitness program.

My goal with this blog is to help you understand what is going on during a bench press plateau, and how to make the necessary adjustments to fix it.

These are the questions that I will be going over in this blog:

  1. What muscles are used during the bench press?
  2. What is the plateau effect and how does it happen?
  3. What are other contributing factors in the plateau effect?
  4. What are some exercises for bench press plateau?
  5. When should I try for a bench press PR?

I will be linking more information throughout but don’t worry: I will recap it all at the bottom of the article for you!

What Muscles Are Used During the Bench Press?

The bench press is a compound movement which uses more than one muscle group, so let’s start with a basic understanding of what muscles are responsible for your ability to perform the bench press…

(Learn more about the benefit of Compound Movements here)

Primary Movers

The primary movers during the push of the bench press are the Pectoralis Major, Pectoralis Minor and Anterior Deltoid.

These are the muscles across the chest and front of the shoulder.

The Pectoralis Major is the biggest of the 3 muscles and covers the majority of the chest.

The Pectoralis Minor is a smaller muscle across the upper chest (about right under the collar bone), and the Anterior Deltoid is the smallest of the 3 muscles, sitting on the front of the shoulder cap.

Together, these 3 muscles do the majority of the work anytime you are pushing forward with the arms: bench press, push ups, punching, etc.


Stabilizing Muscles for the Bench Press

Stabilizer muscles are the muscles responsible for keeping the joints from wobbling while you perform a movement.

Stabilizing muscles for the bench press include the Triceps and Serratus Anterior. 

The Triceps are the muscles on the backside of the arms and support the extending or straightening of the arm and elbow.

The Serratus Anterior is the muscle group along the side of the ribcage, under the armpit area.

The Serratus Anterior is activated by the bracing of the ribcage during pushing, pulling and overhead movements.

What is Plateau Effect and How Does it Happen?

Plateau Effect Definition

The plateau effect is simply when what you are doing is no longer working-if you were to look at your progress on a line graph, the line would stop going up and would start being horizontal, like a plateau. 

A plateau can happen in any part of someone’s life, but in fitness we look at plateaus that relate to someone’s physical conditioning.

For example:

  • Weight loss plateau
  • Bodybuilding plateau
  • Performance conditioning plateau
  • Metabolic conditioning plateau

In the fitness industry, you are considered to be “In a plateau” if your conditioning has not shown improvement for the last 4-6 weeks (sometimes longer for bodybuilders).

Why a plateau happens

Plateaus happen when your body becomes conditioned to what you are doing and cannot make any more success without changing the program.

There are a myriad of changes you can make to your workout program, but in my experience, a bench press plateau is best corrected with:

  • Stability training
  • Plyometric training
  • Endurance training
  • Proper nutrition
  • Intentional recovery practices

I will be going into more detail on all of these later…

Contributing Factors In Plateau Effect

Overcoming plateau by recovering

For the life of me I can never figure it out, but recovery is easily the most neglected part of people’s fitness program!

You need recovery time to heal!

If you are not intentionally promoting recovery, you will not heal enough to continue building pec strength and bench press PRs.

Here’s everything you need to know about recovering for a good bench press:

  1. Give yourself days off. That means, don’t do chest workouts more than 3 days a week, and take an entire day off of everything at least once a week! (You won’t lose your gains so don’t panic!)
  2. Stretch before and after workouts. Stretching before workouts should be dynamic (moving) so as to promote blood flow, and stretching after workouts should be static (held in one spot) so as to restore normal length to the muscles.
  3. Foam roll as necessary. Foam roll at least a few times a week to remove any muscular adhesions that may limit mobility.
  4. Get enough sleep. Sleep is the time when you are actually building muscle so if you’re not getting 7-10 hours a night, you’re not giving your body the time to get stronger.
  5. Soak if possible. Soaking in a salt bath or taking a trip to the jacuzzi is great for promoting blood flow and reducing tension that prevent recovery and limits joint movement.

Being intentional about your recovery is one of the best things you can do to ensure success on your fitness journey-no matter your goals!

Eating to overcome weightlifting plateau

Nutrition is another thing that a lot of people think they can put reduced efforts into without it affecting their weightlifting…


It would actually be easier to swing a bad diet when working on a weight loss goal, than it is to neglect your eating habits when building strength and muscle.

The amount of fatigue, pain and soreness you feel when lifting heavy and eating whatever is miserable-trust me, I’ve done the dirty bulk and it’s not as fun as it seems.

Instead, follow my 5 muscle-building nutrition basics:

  1. Time your meals. Eat balanced meals or snacks every 2-4 hours to improve recovery. Make your preworkout meals higher in carbs, and your post workout meals higher in protein.
  2. Eat high protein. “High protein” is defined as 70-100% of your body weight (in pounds) in grams of protein daily. So if I were 100lbs, I would aim for 70-100 grams of protein a day.
  3. Eat high veg. Vegetables are going to help you digest the increased protein intake, provide nutrients that promote healing, and also help manage inflammation of the joints.
  4. Hydrate and be wary of alcohol. Hydration is important to prevent cramping and muscular adhesions that will prevent movement. Alcohol will not only dehydrate you, but also stops muscle protein synthesis. Learn more about managing alcohol consumption on your fitness journey here.
  5. Don’t avoid carbs and fats. Carbs and fats are necessary nutrients: without carbs you will not have energy to lift, and without fats you will cause a hormone imbalance and prevent nutrient absorption. Eat normal amounts of all nutrients while working on your bench press.

This is a very brief nutrition recommendation: please see my full Female Nutrition Basics Blog for more detailed information on this topic.

Training styles to get past a weightlifting plateau

Chances are, if you are experiencing a weightlifting or bodybuilding plateau, you are only working on one training style.

You’re probably only doing strength training or powerlifting or isolated movements for muscle building.

This is a big mistake because you’re not changing enough factors of your training to continue challenging yourself…you’re also going to end up making yourself bored of your training so you become less hyped to go in and lift heavy.

Instead, try squeezing in a random exercise modality once a week or so.

These are my favorite exercise modalities to have my lifters try:

  1. Yoga: Yoga is a great workout to improve balance, stability, mobility and strength. It will also help you build mind-body connection and learn functional breathing techniques.
  2. Dance/ Barre: Dance is a great agility and endurance workout, and barre is doubly so. Depending on the style of dance, you may also benefit from cardiovascular training.
  3. TRX/ Suspension Training: TRX/ Suspension Training are rigs that are anchored into the wall or ceiling so that you can suspend yourself from a hanging strip of fabric. It is great for stability training and also for stretching due to the positions the rig can support.
  4. H.I.I.T./ MetCon: Interval and MetCon training are great for helping you increase your daily energy levels as they boost your metabolism-this will help get you through your workouts with less fatigue.
  5. Swimming/ Water Exercise: Swimming and water exercise is great for building endurance and also strengthening the breathing due to the weight of the water around the chest.

All of these modalities will benefit your ability to lift and will also allow you the opportunity to get off routine and explore other parts of the gym-the ladies in barre class won’t bite you, I promise.

Exercises for Bench Press Plateau

Now, within the realm of strength-based exercises that will improve your bench press, you’re looking for a few things…

Unilateral and Contralateral Movements

Unilateral movements are movements performed exclusively on one side of the body-the goal is to train each side of the body to be evenly stable and strong.

For example, a single arm chest press with a dumbbell is a great warm up exercise for the barbell bench press.

During this movement, you would focus on engaging the core to prevent torso rotation and create even muscle activation throughout the chest and arm. 

With a single arm movement you will have more of an inclination to let the torso and shoulder wobble so you will have to focus harder to controlstarting your workout with this focus on stability will improve the stability and power on the heavier barbell lift later.

Unilateral movements are also used in Corrective Exercise to help correct muscular imbalance that increase risk of injury.

Learn more on my Corrective Exercise Blog.

Contralateral movements are exercises that use opposite sides of the body for the purpose of functional training.

During movement, the body never isolates muscle and joint work-instead, it disperses the force across a (usually diagonal) myofascial sling to create balance.

My favorite example of this (and perfect for a bench press warm up) is a single leg hip thrust to contralateral chest press.

Perform as such:

  1. Grab a dumbbell that you can chest press in one arm.
  2. Come to a bench and prepare for a hip thrust.
  3. Take the dumbbell into the right arm and lift the right leg off the floor-left leg stays.
  4. Press the left foot into the floor and thrust the hips up, keeping only the upper back on the bench.
  5. Keeping the hips lifted, perform a chest press with the right arm.

You may feel the inclination to twist, and to prevent that your core is going to clench really quick…That’s the purpose of contralateral training.

Whether you realize it or not, when you press forward with one arm your body will try to help stabilize itself by pressing into the back of the opposite hip.

This effectively activates nearly all the muscles from your right chest to the back of your left hip, and if you’re not trained functionally for that, you will end up hurting yourself as you lift heavier.

This is why you may hurt the left side of your lower back by throwing or lifting something with your right arm.

Cue the single leg hip thrust to contralateral chest press-not only does it train stability strength, but it also serves to strengthen the functionality of your myofascial slings and prevent injury.

Endurance-based movements to increase bench press PR

Endurance is defined as your ability to spend extended amounts of time under pressure.

My two favorite ways to build endurance that will improve a bench press is to implement isometric holds and compound sets.

Isometric holds are simply sitting in one position (with muscle activation) and holding it.

For example, here are some Iso Holds that get included in my client’s chest workouts:

  • DB Anterior Hold
  • Chaturanga (Bottom of Push Up) Hold
  • Vertical Plate Press Hold at top
  • Single Arm Plank Hold

Isometric holds build stability and endurance simultaneously and they are great for strengthening not only the muscles but also the joints!

Compound sets are when you perform two exercises for the same muscle group, back to back without break in between.

These are my favorite Compound Sets to Improve Your Bench Press:

  • DB Chest Fly + Vertical Plate Press
  • Push Ups + Tricep Dips
  • Anterior Arm Raise + Decline Bench Press
  • Alternating Side Plank + Incline Chest Press

The goal with the compound sets is to keep the chest/ tricep/ delts under pressure and working for an extended period of time, even if swapping exercises.

By very forwardly challenging your ability to endure back to back chest exercises, it will increase your muscular endurance which will support you building more strength.

My recommendation for endurance-based movements is that it be it’s own workout instead of as part of the warm up or the heavy lifting.

These exercises can be tiring and you may not be able to lift heavy after having performed some of these. 

Alternatively, you may also not have the endurance to perform these exercises safely, after having lifted heavy.

Power Movements and Tempos to Build Strength

Power and plyometric movements are explosive movements that are performed with a lot of force and speed.

Clap push ups, for example, is a power movement because you explode upward with force and speed to lift yourself off the floor high enough to clap.

Without weight, power movements are calisthenic muscle-builders: they yield a hypertrophy response similar to heavy lifting.

With light weight, they are great for adding lower impact strength training and muscle building to your program.

Now obviously we can’t jump in a bench press and we don’t want to start throwing weights (please don’t) so what do we do instead?

We play with the tempo of the movement!

Try this:

  1. Prepare for a bench press at 30% of your max (you can increase later if possible and desired.
  2. Unrack the bar and slowly bring it down towards the chest to the count of 3.
  3. Hold the bar hovering above the chest to the count of 3.
  4. Quickly and explosively press the bar back up to the count of 1.

It should feel as though you are prepared to throw it (but obviously will not!).

Like with endurance movements, I recommend that power movements are part of their own workout, separate from the heavy lifting.

When Should I Try for a PR?

A PR is a “Personal Record” and can also be referred to as a PB “Personal Best” or “Max Lift”. 

This is the maximum amount of weight you can lift on a specific exercise.

Periodizing Strength Programs

If you are looking to make a Bench Press PR, you need to make sure that your coach is periodizing your program.

This means that they have intentionally included progressive overload of various tensions that tapers up to your attempted PR and back down in time for a competition or PR test.

This requires you to have set a specific date to have achieved this goal by, and oftentimes it will include performance benchmarks that you should expect to hit along the process.

Periodized programs are the best way to achieve success in your fitness goals because it’s essentially a realistic road map from where you are, to where you want to bewith consideration to all potential roadblocks.

Testing PRs

Testing PRs should always be done in a safe environment, and under supervision-especially for the bench press because it’s so easy to get stuck under the bar.

  1. When attempting the bench press PR, make sure you have properly warmed up and activated the entire torso including the back.
  2. If you don’t have a gym partner to help, ask a peer at the gym-most people are nice and happy to help, even if they look a little stern (I’m one of those people!)
  3. Do 2-5 starter sets working up to your heaviest weight (this is going to depend on how heavy you can go, honestly).
  4. When trying for your PR, put on music that pumps you up and be confident while you push-get a little angry if you need to.
  5. If you try and fail, that’s okay. Try again if you feel you can without hurting yourself, or try again in 2-4 weeks.
  6. If you try and succeed: yay, congratulations! If it feels easy, try going up in weight a little. If you barely got it done (but you did it) leave it at that for the day and move on to something else-don’t push it and hurt yourself. 

I recommend that PRs not be attempted on the same exercise more than once in the same 2-4 weeks.

New lifters who build strength much faster will often be the exception to this, and can sometimes hit PRs every week, but still need to be careful.

Deload Period

A deload is a period of intentionally reduced intensity, or time off of training completely so as to allow the body to fully recover.

Deloads are especially important to athletes because of the intensity with which they train for their “season”, but I put all of my clients on a deload every 6-12 weeks for their own physical and mental health.

During deload, my clients may:

  • Do nothing
  • Try new new fitness classes
  • Travel
  • Get massages
  • Stretch daily

Really, it’s giving your brain and body some time away from a strict program so you can recover and be refreshed to get back into your next lifting program.

As your training intensifies, deloads become essential to prevent injuries.

What’s the takeaway?

Plateaus are normal and easy to correct!

You just need an integrative fitness program that helps you address the many factors that play into your physical strength.

Chat with a coach about what your fitness program needs for you to be able to overcome your bench press plateau! 

Here are some other Health & Fitness Articles you’ll enjoy:

You can easily overcome your plateau by learning to take the time to slow down and focus on other facets of your training. 

Your body is a complex system that needs various training styles and time to heal.

This article was written by Elexis Smolak CPT, CNC, WFS founder of Adapted Fitness and Integrative Health and Fitness Specialist for Women. Learn more or schedule a virtual coffee at