By Michael Berg, NSCA-CPT
In M. Night Shymalan’s blockbuster film Unbreakable, there’s a memorable scene where Bruce Willis’ character David Dunn bench presses. With his son looking on in awe, Dunn does one set with relative ease, then another. By the last set, every available plate is stacked on the bar, and some paint cans are attached for good measure, equaling “about 350 pounds,” Dunn estimates. With each passing rep, he slowly realizes that he possesses superhuman strength.
Every aspiring bodybuilder who watched that scene? Totally, totally jealous.
Yes, it would be amazing if our bench press totals could increase so effortlessly, with nary a hiccup. Of course, reality tells us that’s never the case. We might have a few weeks or even months when we’re progressively getting stronger and making new personal bests on a regular basis — but suddenly, often inexplicably, the steady climb suddenly stops. No matter what you do, or how hard you push yourself, you can’t inch your way off the strength plateau.
Sticking points are inevitable, but that doesn’t mean you need to give up. Nor should it mean that you belligerently continue doing your workouts in the exact same way in an effort to push through it. Consistency is key, but in that continued effort, you also need to adapt.
That’s where these three helpful training tricks come in. Each of the three makes use of the Smith machine, where your range of motion is locked into a fixed path, allowing you to make some adjustments that focus solely on your sticking point. Try one or more over the coming weeks, and see if it doesn’t nudge you forward.
Keep in mind, all of these require the usual thorough warm-up — never jump right to a max lift, and even in a Smith, you’ll want a trusted spotter on hand throughout.
Say you can bench 275 for a rep or two, but have had no luck going any higher. You’ve resorted to the (very handy) two-and-a-half pounders, but you can only move 280 a few inches off your chest before you hit the proverbial wall.
This is where the multiple stops built into the Smith come to the rescue. By setting the safeties at or just above the level of your sticking point, you can practice reps in a more limited range of motion, from that point up to the top of the rep.
In this way, you can get used to that weight in your hands, moving it through space, which can help build strength and confidence simultaneously. After a few workouts of successful attempts, you can re-try your max on the free-weight bench.
It’s a physiological fact that muscles are stronger when under eccentric (lengthening) load than concentric (the shortening, or positive portion of a rep). In other words, while you may not be able to get that max attempt up off your chest to full extension, you may be strong enough to lower it from the top down.
As with the range-of-motion example, the goal here is to get your body accustomed to controlling that challenging weight. So after working your way up to your max attempt, and thus in a fully warmed-up state, you’ll finish your benching session with Smith-machine negatives.
For these, set the safeties to stop the bar at your chest, and have a partner help you get it in hand and to the top (elbows straight but not locked) position. Now, with your partner trailing with hands near the bar the whole way, under your own power lower the weight as slowly as you can down to your chest. From here, your partner should give an assist to lift it back to the top if you want to attempt another — you’ll want to try 1–3 negatives total, no more, as they can become increasingly dangerous as you fatigue.
Typically, partials are done at the end of a set, through perhaps one-half to one-fourth the full range of motion as you strive for complete muscle failure.
Partials in this case, however, involve not just the bottommost portion of the ROM — with the help of a Smith, you can control what “section” of the full range you want to concentrate on via the safeties.
In this way, you can break down the rep into two or three components, and work within each of those smaller ranges separately. In other words, you can do 1–4 reps in the lower one-third of your range of motion from your chest, 1–4 in the mid-range, and 1–4 in the upper one-third to lockout (or vice-versa). You can also focus on just one of those ranges in a workout, then another next time out.
For these, you don’t necessarily need to try the technique with your problematic max weight. If your sticking point is the aforementioned 280, the partials could be just as helpful if you’re working with 265 or 275. Building strength at those lower rungs will eventually translate to that next lift.
A Final Note
Sometimes, sticking points are a sign. When you reach one that is especially stubborn, you need to review all the aspects. Are you overtraining and not giving your body adequate time to recover between workouts? Is your nutritional approach everything it needs to be? Are you simply at a point you need to cycle back from pursuing maximum strength, and incorporate a few months of higher reps and lower weight (i.e., a periodized program)?
All of those factors play a role — and unless you’re the type who can walk away from catastrophic train crashes without a scratch and push 350 in your basement without breaking a sweat, you need to listen when your body sends you a message.