Guide For a Novice When the Bench Press Stalls

Jesse Irizarry


Strength and Conditioning, Strength Training


My Bench Press Has Stalled

It must be one of the most frequently asked questions on internet fitness forums. It’s also the most common conversation I have with every member at my gym who practices powerlifting.

The conversation starts something like this - My squat and deadlift are consistently progressing but my bench press has stalled, or it hasn’t improved all that much from the start.


The typical advice is that doing X will produce Y result. It’s always so simple, isn’t it? Things don’t need to be purposely made complicated, but they do need to be thought through with sufficient effort. The roadblocks to progress need to be identified according to respective needs. I still hold the belief that when it comes to strength and fitness, no one’s training plan needs to be completely individualized. Physiologically, people fit into categories, and this is what needs to be identified with care.



We hit keys on our laptop, and the same words reliably appear on our screens, and we seem to think that people should behave the same way as computer coding. But we can’t always tap the same keys for every type of person and expect the same response and the same result.


So, if you’re dissatisfied with the weight you’re benching, stop treating yourself this way and instead take a moment to identify what you’ve done, where you are, and the tools you need for your particular situation. Let’s go through them.


What’s Your Story?

Many of those asking this question usually didn’t grow up lifting weights. They probably got into strength training later in life. If you’re a part of this crowd, you have the benefit of being given much better advice and instruction that the rest of us who were lifting weights badly in the dark ages of meatheads.


But you do need to recognize that, although you have the potential to increase your strength and muscularity pretty significantly, you may have missed specific physical developmental windows unless you have an athletic background that matches the demands that someone who spent their late adolescence in a weight room had. Plainly put, you haven’t been lifting as long as the people who would give you the typical generic advice seen on these forums I mentioned.


Why is it so important for you to come to terms with this scenario? Because if you haven’t been lifting weights for over a decade, you haven’t had enough time to build the muscle to be as strong as you think you should be. This is especially important when dealing with the bench-press. This may be a gut punch to some people, but we need to be a little more mature and stop lying to ourselves and each other to save some hurt feelings.


Significant amounts of skeletal muscle that produce force take a very long time to build. Bloating and fluid retention of cells that appear to add to a person's physical size happens quickly but vanishes in only weeks of inactivity and does little to keep a heavy barbell from crushing your chest.


So while technical tweaks and training refocused on weaknesses can help someone with a decade of strength training experience, it may do little for someone who doesn’t have the muscle to support the technique and who has no specific area of weakness because everything needs to be bigger and stronger.



You’re Not Doing the Right Type of Training

The good thing about being a newcomer is that you’re not as beat up as us old meatheads who are beat up because we did most things incorrectly and worked unnecessarily hard toward no end until a more rational voice finally emerged.


If you prioritize your training to focus on generality and volume of work, you will set a better foundation to push the bench press harder and longer and keep it from stagnating. Put another way, you need to spend more time doing whatever you can to build muscle, and in doing so, also strengthen, condition, and reinforce the tendons and ligaments.


There are three basic phases of training:


  1. General hypertrophy phase where volume is high and focus is on building muscle.
  2. A strength phase where you teach that muscle to produce more force.
  3. A peaking phase where you practice doing maximal weights.



You need to understand how to ration your time and that if you’re a more novice lifter, you should spend most of your time in the general hypertrophy phase building capacity and muscle, especially for the bench press.



Too much emphasis is placed too soon on technique, positions, and neurological or muscular coordination increases. This works well for the squat and deadlift at first, and so people mistakenly think that the same is true, to the same extent for the bench press.


But this misinformation is why there are so many cases where squat and deadlift numbers increase, but bench maxes don’t budge much. Many are focusing too much on their position, arch, and timing. There’s just less coordination and complexity involved in improving the bench press initially than the other two power lifts.


There’s Not Enough Muscle in the Right Places

Muscle moves weights, this is a law, although one that seems to have fallen out of favor. And an improvement in the bench press is more dependent on muscular size than the other two power lifts. There is less total musculature involved in pressing movements then big lower body lifts so these muscles that are used need to be bigger to lift bigger weights.


You need:


Your back is the point of leverage and put very rudimentarily; the muscles in the front can’t contract if the muscles in the back aren’t big and strong enough. Look at all strong bench pressers, and you’ll notice that their backs are very, very big.



What You Can Do, Now

Dumbbell Press


This is the best advice I have for those of you whose story is that of someone coming to strength training later in life. The first track you can take is to add a second big pressing day. Once again, remember that most of your time training should be spent in hypertrophy. Say you want to max out in 12 weeks, you could arrange your training to do:


  • Eight weeks in hypertrophy training.
  • Then three weeks in a strength cycle.
  • Finally, one week of practicing the heavier weights and reducing some fatigue getting you ready to max out.


So, during these hypertrophy cycles, you could space two bench press sessions over a training week:


  1. One could be your main bench press focused day.
  2. The other a variation such as an incline press or even something more general like an overhead press.


From here you can increase the volume to build the pressing muscles we mentioned by having 2-4 bodybuilding accessories exercises each of those pressing days. Or you could opt to do an entire day of upper-body bodybuilding, working more extensively on all those muscles.


Finding ways to strategically layer volume that builds muscle needs to be your highest priority and if the more you practice it, the better your training will be.


Jesse competes in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, and he was also formerly a competitive powerlifter. He was featured in main strength and fitness publications. You can read more of his work on his website.

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