How to break plateaus in your bench press and overhead press (and pretty much any other lift you want)

I used to have a real hard time improving my upper body strength in the last year up until this October. My bench press was stuck at a pitiful 85kg one rep max, and I’m not even going to tell you what my overhead press maximum was – it was just embarrassingly small.

While my deadlift went up and up on a consistent basis due to my naturally strong hips, my upper body pressing strength came to a really frustrating sticking point.

I know for a fact that I wasn’t alone in this, and I also know that the majority of you reading this have experienced a bench press sticking point at some point in your lifting career, if you’re not already experiencing it right now.

There can be a lot of reasons why these sticking points happen, and it’s usually easier than you think to cure them with some simple changes that you can apply right now to your workouts.

Do the lift more often

First off, you just plain need to do the lifts more often. This one tip is just so basic and fundamental it’s what you should always be doing when facing a sticking point.

Make sure you bench press or overhead press at least three times a week and if you do both in one workout, do your OHP after not before your bench (this is important). Your OHP will follow your bench and vice versa so there’s loads of carry-over.

In fact, if you’re really dedicated to the lift, do it even more often than that. When it comes to strength gains in particular, the more frequently you train, the faster you improve.

Are you truly dedicated to this sport, this pursuit of lifting heavy stuff? Then you’ll make the time to come to the gym and do the lift. Getting more work in is a sure-fire way of accelerating your strength gains.

Look at professional athletes training almost every day, and compare that to the average gym-goer’s twice a week. Do you think it’s a coincidence that the former lift more than the latter? You get the results that you invest the time and work in.

What this extra frequency does is get your body used to benching on a frequent basis, forcing it to adapt much faster. This means both your muscles and your nervous system become attuned to the pressing movements, accelerating your strength gains.

Strength is a skill, and you need to practice it a lot in order to get better.

Obviously though, you still need to manage the training load and rest to not burn yourself out. Training every day will get you faster gains, but you also need to consider your joint integrity and your health.

I would therefore suggest not going too heavy every time you train. Your central nervous system takes a beating every time you lift near your one rep max, and depending on the load and the lift, the CNS can take between 48 hours and 10 days to fully regenerate.

Luckily, pressing movements and leg movements impose much less of a CNS taxation than pulling movements and high-intensity plyometric activities. Anything where grip strength is a factor will take more of a toll as a rule of thumb.

Coming to joint health and soft tissue health, you need to buy yourself a foam roller and use it every day. If it doesn’t hurt like hell, you’re not doing it right!

Also make sure to stretch muscles that are tight. If you have a kyphotic posture, you need to fix it by stretching the muscles involved with upper body flexion or risk back pain when you get older.

Bench press

Lift less weight

Secondly, you need more volume in your workouts, and you need to do higher-repetition sets, and stop going too near your one rep max in each workout.

I know, you’ve probably been told that low-repetition sets is what you need to do for strength. Well that is true, but the truth is, higher-repetition sets are astoundingly effective for building strength.

Back in October, Sarah and I moved into her parents’ house out on the west coast of Scotland. We had invested in a barbell set, and that was all the equipment we had at that time. The only upper body press lift I could really do was the overhead press.

And I did it old-school style, by cleaning it up and pressing it.

So I did my OHP as a regular part of my weights sessions in the house, but I decided to do something different to what I normally did. I decided to try out sets of 12, 15, and 20 with lighter weights, mixed along with heavier sessions once every couple of weeks.

The reason I did this was that I wanted my CNS to be fully charged for my sprinting training sessions (in case you didn’t know, I’m in training to be an elite sprinter). Up until that year I’d done too much low-rep work, going only up to five reps in each set.

But the amazing thing was, after several months, my strength had gone up and up. I was doing more weight for more reps, and my one rep max had gone up by 15kg in a matter of months.

And it was all down to focusing on perfect form, and trying really hard to get a good muscle contraction on each rep. Not only was I getting stronger, but my upper body was looking more muscular than ever. I had gotten leaner and more muscular.

Then, Sarah bought us a pair of stands so we could do some proper bench pressing.

And then it happened.

The first day I tried benching again, the first time in almost six months, I surpassed my previous bench max, by doing it for five straight reps.

I had gotten a lot, lot, stronger by mixing up my rep parameters and predominately working with sets of 10 reps or more. And the volume wasn’t even that huge. Even now I usually do about three or four sets per upper body lift so I’m fresh for my main training sessions out on the track.

So the lesson here is that higher repetition sets aren’t just for bodybuilders. It’s imperative that you mix them into your workouts and get those reps in. You’ll get much stronger, faster.

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High repetition calisthenics

Thirdly, you need to try and add in some variety into your pressing movements, and in particular I recommend you do some high-rep calisthenics. That means you need to add in some high-rep dips and push-ups.

I know, I know, that just sounds like a lot of pain, but trust me, while high-rep push-ups and dips suck, and while your chest and triceps are gonna hurt like hell the next day, these are going to really push up your bench press (pun 100% intended).

It’s the same sort of concept as the one above. You need to treat calisthenics as lifts in their own right, and respect them properly. Go to the end of each set and do the absolute maximum number of reps you can.

Too easy? Then make it harder. Put a weight on your back (safely), or get someone to apply pressure to your shoulders, NOT your back or your spine. Or if you’re super strong, get them to sit on your shoulders. That’s how they do it in prison :) apparently!

That’s also why I recommend doing dips if you find press-ups too easy. They’re slightly harder than press-ups, and you get a great pump across the chest and in the triceps if you go for a good number of reps.

Also make sure guys that when you’re doing this big volume of pressing movements, that you’re balancing it out with a lot of pulling movements, so you’re gonna want to do a load of seated rows, barbell rows and chin-ups. This is to keep your shoulders balanced and healthy.

Woman doing press-ups

Takeaway tips

  1. Perform a lift at least three times a week to get better at it
  2. Sets with 12+ repetitions are astoundingly effective at building strength as well as size, and not nearly as stressful on the central nervous system as low repetition sets
  3. Include unweighted press-ups, dips, chin-ups, and other calisthenics in your workouts for as many reps as you can in each set. Treat them as a lift in their own right

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In short, guys, if you want a huge bench press, you’re gonna have to challenge yourself to do a lot of work in the next couple of years. We can all get 400lb bench presses if we do enough reps and work hard enough in our training sessions.

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