Let’s be honest, the bench press is one of the funnest lifts we can perform in the weight room. However it is easy to reach a plateau in your strength here and without applying the correct principles of training like progressive overload, it can be very difficult to break these plateaus. In this article I will talk you through a variety of different variables you can manipulate to apply progressive overload to the bench press.
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In this article I am not aiming to provide an extensive explanation of progressive overload, I have covered that in this extensive article on the topic . I am looking to provide practical examples of how you can progressively overload your bench press so you can improve your strength in this lift.
Progressive overload is when we incrementally make an exercises more challenging in order to create more stimulus and therefore adaptation. This might sound simple, and it is, but the successful practice of it does require some thought.
One of the simplest ways to apply progressive overload is to increase the weight you’re lifting. This can be done on the bench press by moving weight up in increments of 1.25-2.5kg. The bench press, unlike the squat and the deadlift, needs to be moved up in smaller increments.
This is a very effective method if your have always been lifting the same weights for extended periods of time. What you will soo discover is that there cannot be just linear progression in terms of weight increase while sets and repetitions remain the same. This is why increases in weights might need to be done alongside decreases in repetitions. A sample block of six weeks might resemble something like this:
Week 1 - 5 x 5 @80kg
Week 2 - 5 x 5 @82.5kg
Week 3 - 5 x 5 @85kg
Week 4 - 5 x 4 @87.5kg
Week 5 - 5 x 4 87.5kg
Week 6 - 5 x 3 @90kg
In this example we use a male individual who has a max of 110kg on his bench press. As you can see, two weeks we use the same weight, this might happen often in a well run cycle, we do not make systematic progress continuous. Do not be surprised if in a training block you have to repeat a weight or even move back on a weight.
Increasing weight is an effective way to achieve strength training adaptations rather than hypertrophy (muscle gain) adaptations.
Increasing the number of repetitions performed during a set is another very effective way to apply progressive overload. The number of repetitions performed is usually done whilst keeping the weight relatively fixed, it is very rare that we increase repetitions while lowering the weight throughout a cycle.
Increasing repetitions can either be done in a block of strength or a block of hypertrophy, is just depends of the starting point. Here are two examples:
5 x 3 @87.5kg
5 x 3 @87.5kg
5 x 4 @87.5kg
5 x 4 @87.5kg
5 x 5 @87.5kg
5 x 10 @65kg
5 x 12 @65kg
5 x 12 @65kg
5 x 15 @65kg
5 x 12 @67.5kg
5 x 15 @67.5kg
5 x AMRAP @67.5kg
These are both examples of very effective strength and hypertrophy blocks and show how increasing repetitions can be used as a form of progressive overload.
The frequency of training is one of the most important factors when it comes to having a successful programme. The amount of sets performed within a week on a muscle group and movement pattern will be a huge predictor of success in the movement. Therefore increasing the frequency of bench press with be a very effective way to apply progressive overload successfully to the bench press. In practice this may mean moving from 5 working sets a week too 10 working sets a week, this will likely create a huge progress overtime.
The number of sets performed within a cycle is also on of the most common manipulated variables to create progressive overload. Often cycles are started with around 3-4 sets per exercise and then increased to 4-6 throughout the course of a training block, this is to incrementally increase the stress placed on the body throughout a cycle. This is a very effective way to increase the amount of sets you are performing in the bench press and will likely help you move towards improved strength or hypertrophy.
The accessory exercises you perform in the horizontal pressing movement pattern are important to your success in then bench press and progressive overload should be applied to these, and they will indirectly apply to the progressive overload of the bench press. If you are currently only applying 8 sets in total to the horizontal press through 5 sets of bench press and 3 sets of dips, this can be increased by moving to 5 sets of dips and adding 5 sets of DB Bench Press. This takes you from 8 sets to 15 sets, making a meaningful difference to your progress in the lift. If this is done in conjunction with adding a second bench press session per week and some tricep hypertrophy, a good nutrition regime, sleep and some patience it’s almost impossible not to be enough to create change.
The final way to apply progressive overload on the bench press is to try different lifting techniques like tempos / pauses (moving the weight at a specific pace in order to make the lift more challenging). This can make the lift itself more challenging and this can be viewed as a form of progressive overload. Doing a training block with pause bench press can help you increase your strength, then when coming back to the bench press you can feel stronger.
Being in a rush often leads to injury and shows a lack of patience. If strength training is something you do on a regular basis, learn to accept how long adaptation takes and learn how to successfully apply all these variables at different times for creating effective training programmes. When we are applying progressive overload we are looking for our body to respond with an adaptation, this takes times. Do not be tempted to apply increase all variables at once, you cannot increase the sets, reps, frequency and weight all at once. Take slow, incremental and methodical steps when moving towards your goal. Most importantly, have fun whilst you’re doing it.
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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.