Q: I've been lifting seriously for a couple of years, but no matter what I try, I can't get my bench over 305 pounds. What kinds of techniques do powerlifters and strength athletes use in these situations?
I've trained numerous world-record holders in the bench press and more than a dozen 600-pounds-plus raw bench pressers. And I was the youngest person to bench press 600 pounds until my student, Peter Edgette, recently broke my record at age 22. Here are fourstrategies I encourage competitive strength athletes to try in order to bust through plateaus and reach new heights.
1. Train Bench-Press-Specific Isometrics
With isometrics, you push as hard as you can, but the bar doesn't move. This can strengthen the specific point in the range of motion in which you're training, plus or minus about 10 degrees. So if you do isometrics at your sticking point in the ROM, you can turn a weakness into a strength.
Isometric contractions allow you to produce 15 percent more force than you can concentrically and for a longer time. Think about it: In your weakest spot, you're producing more force for a longer period of time! No wonder this technique has a successful track history among benchers.
To do isometrics, press the bar upward against the pins or safety bars (set at your sticking point) in a power rack. Push as hard as possible for 6 seconds. Then rest for 2-3 minutes before benching 70 percent of your 1RM (a weight you can do for 12 reps) for just three reps as fast as possible. Wait another 2-3 minutes and repeat. Do this entire sequence three times.
2. Do More Sets but Fewer Reps
Bodybuilders employ muscle confusion in hopes of greater gains, but when you're training for strength, you want to get into a groove that you practice over and over again. In fact, muscle confusion is your enemy! Since you're ultimately looking to increase your one-rep max, you need to train the skill of strength. This is done through more sets but fewer reps.
Think about it this way: When doing three sets of eight, you get a total of three first reps. But you could alternatively do eight sets of three, giving you eight first reps. Since you're strongest on your first rep, spreading first reps over many sets provides a better strength stimulus than the three-sets-of-eight protocol. Leave that for bodybuilders.
3. Stop at the Bottom of Each Rep
A "dead" bench (sometimes called a paused bench) is done in a power rack with the weight resting on the pins set just above your chest. The weight starts from this position—not in the arms-extended position—and is pressed upward as explosively as possible.
As you lower the bar between each rep, it must settle on the safeties. This eliminates what's called the stretch reflex, or elastic energy, which builds up on the negative portion of the lift. Without the aid of elastic energy, initiating the lift from a dead stop will be much more difficult, forcing you to work harder out of the hole.
Even if you must lower your poundage on the lift, don't give up; over time, you'll develop tremendous starting strength at the bottom of each rep. This will be especially useful when you go back to normal lifting without the pause.
Do this technique only with single repetitions. To increase intensity on the dead bench, shorten the rest intervals between singles, add more singles of the same weight, or add more weight to the bar.
4. Break Apart Your Set With Rest-Pause Training
The rest-pause method has more variations than the selection of whiskey at an Irish pub! The one you'll use here breaks one set down into three mini-sets with 20-30-second rest intervals. Load 80-90 percent of your max on the barbell bench press (a weight you can do for 4-8 reps) and do as many reps as possible (but stopping one rep shy of failure). Rest for 20-30 seconds, then unrack the bar again, repping again just short of failure. Repeat this process again for a total of three mini sets—that's one set!
You can do this one more time in a single training session, but I do recommend reducing the weight by 5-10 percent on the second set.
Ultimately, you may find you're able to do about double the number of reps with a given weight, providing a nifty stimulus for greater strength and size.