By Greg Merritt Flex
Progress rarely travels in a straight ascending line. If that were so and everyone grew stronger from one workout to the next, perpetually using more weight or doing more reps, then strength records would surely be broken on a weekly basis and gyms would be full of Olympia-caliber physiques. Even easygainers don’t grow stronger during every workout, and hardgainers can be stuck at the same relative strength level for months or even years. Ronnie Coleman has a saying posted in his house: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. To go beyond, you need to do something different. When you reach a roadblock, take a detour or you’ll never move forward.”
In this article, we detail ways to overcome a strength plateau for a specific lift, using the bench press as our example. Let’s say you want to set a new personal best for the bench press. Workout after workout, you pyramid up to 225 for six reps, but no matter how hard you struggle, you can’t do seven on your own, nor can you get six reps with more than 225. Sometimes you can get only four or five reps, but even on your best day, six is your limit. For both neuromuscular and psychological reasons, six is your Waterloo (orWeightloo). You’ve reached a roadblock. Here are seven routes for getting around it.
ROUTE 1: Lighten up
Training lighter to get stronger might seem antithetical until you understand that with low reps (six or fewer), each rep taxes you more than if you do medium (seven to 12) or high (13 or more) reps. Therefore, the more reps you do, the easier it is to do one more when approaching failure. Put simply, if you have only 10% of your strength reserves left, it will be much easier to get a 13th rep after doing 12 than to get a seventh after doing six. Stop performing low-rep sets until you’ve grown appreciably stronger in the 10- to 12-rep range.
ROUTE 2: Go heavy during related lifts
To take the focus off the targeted lift but still strive for low-rep strength, place your focus instead on a related lift. For example, do heavy incline presses, decline presses or dumbbell bench presses after the heavy work for other lifts. Either avoid barbell bench presses entirely or do only light sets. To heighten the effectiveness of this technique, rotate the related lifts, never going heavy during the same exercise two workouts in a row. When you’ve increased your strength for the related lifts, return your primary focus to the target lift.
ROUTE 3: Prioritize the secondary muscles
When focusing on boosting strength during compound basic lifts, the key is frequently the secondary muscles. For the bench press, pectorals are considered the primary muscles, but front deltoids and triceps are typically the muscles that give out first. (In fact, science proves the triceps are the single most important muscles in a successful bench press.) For at least one month, don’t do regular bench presses for fewer than 10 reps. Instead, focus on heavy shoulder presses in your shoulder routine and close-grip bench presses in your triceps routine, pyramiding up to maximum sets of six reps.
ROUTE 4: Go faster
Plyometric exercises focus on the speed of movement by first stretching a muscle and then immediately contracting it. For example, rapidly jumping up and down from a squatting position improves the vertical leap of basketball players. Plyometric techniques are also used by powerlifters and Olympic lifters to decrease the amount of time a muscle contracts, thus boosting power. As a bodybuilder trying to overcome a bench-press plateau, you can either perform lighter bench presses very rapidly, pushing up the bar twice as fast as it’s lowered, or you can do rapid “pushups” after sets of bench presses. Do not pause between the descent and ascent; instead, transition from one to the other as quickly as possible.
ROUTE 5: Constrict your range of motion
Lifts tend to fail in the same position — the proverbial sticking point — each time. For the bench press, this is usually somewhere between midway up to just before lockout (when the front deltoids and triceps are doing most of the work). To overcome sticking points, target them. Set a flat bench in a power rack, adjust the pins so that the bar stops and starts at approximately midway, and place the bar on the pins. Pressing off the pins to lock out each rep, do three or four sets of these bench presses during each chest workout. Do other chest exercises, but don’t return to full bench presses until you have appreciably increased your strength in the upper half of the movement.
ROUTE 6: Expand your range of motion
This may seem to contradict the previous approach. However, they both have a similar effect of altering your range of motion so that you’re stronger when you return to the original lift. This is akin to a baseball player warming up with a loaded bat, thus making his usual bat feel lighter when he swings it again. For the bench press, you can either use dumbbells or a cambered barbell to increase the stretch at the bottom. Don’t go heavy with a cambered bar, and don’t lower the middle portion all the way to your chest if your shoulders won’t comfortably allow it. The emphasis should be on a fuller range of motion than usual, not on maximum low reps.
ROUTE 7: Try tri-cycling
Another long-accepted powerlifting technique is cycling strength training so that reps get progressively lower and weights get progressively heavier over a period of weeks. For bench presses, divide the cycle into thirds. Start with 12- to 15-rep sets for the first three weeks, then go to eight- to 12-rep sets for the next three weeks, and finally pyramid up to five-to-seven-rep sets for the final three weeks. Always strive to use more weight or to get more reps with the same weight.
LESS OF THE SAME
We used the bench press for our example, but all of these techniques can be utilized, with the possible exception of “Expand your range of motion,” to boost your strength for compound basics such as squats, deadlifts, bent rows and shoulder presses. You can sometimes use more than one technique simultaneously. The important thing is to give up the belief that greater effort applied to the same “go heavy or go home” workout is all you need. More of the same is not the answer; less of the same is. Be willing to take detours to avoid the roadblocks and reach your destination faster.
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