Busting Through A Plateau- How I Broke Through A 4 Year Bench Block
Since 2016, I have been stuck at 150kg as my lifetime bench press PB.
This month, I finally benched 152.5kg!
Apparently being pregnant means you don't look super happy to be spotting me all the time!
Below, I will address how I overcame my bench press plateau.
Stuck To The Prescribed RPE
RPE stands for 'rate of perceived exertion' and is a way of rating the difficulty of a set of a movement.
As I get older, I can't go balls-to-the-wall during every set and still make progress; I have to be more tactical.
Below is an example RPE chart you can use to apply to your own training.
This image was produced entirely by Reactive Training System and features in THIS article
It is complicated at first and will throw up more questions than answers. As you get used to the concept it becomes an excellent tool for regulating your training.
Most of my benching is programmed at 8RPE.
This means I've always got another rep in me when I've finished a set.
I threw in the occasional 7 RPE day to reduce fatigue and towards the end of the program, i progressively moved up a RPE point each week until I was ready to go for a 9 RPE single bench press with a 2 count pause.
It went something like this:
Week 5- 7 RPE single
Week 6- 8 RPE singke
Week 7- 9 RPE single (hit a PB here)
Week 8- 9-10 RPE max testing (didn't do as I'd already hit a PB!)
I didn't fall into the old powerlifting trick of seeing a programmed RPE, picking a number beforehand, deciding I was going to go for that number, and then lying and saying it was definitely the 8 RPE rep regardless of how difficult it was.
No. Not this time. For the first time ever. For a full program. Like a big boy.
Started to think about PBS rather than comps
I think it was Boris Sheiko who said you shouldn't compete until you know you are going to hit PB's.
While I don't fully agree with this, I decided to follow this philosophy as there are no competitions on the horizon.
The aim is to compete AFTER I've hit gym bests, rather than entering a competition and hoping I will PB.
My mindset is now different. I have to earn my next competition. This has given my training a new drive. This means I may never compete again in powerlifting, but with the newfound intensity, it propelled me to hit a bench PB within 8 weeks. Another 2 lifts to PB and I can compete again!
Better Sleep (Without Tracking It)
If you don't sleep well, you increase your likelihood of injury and have a cascading amount of negatives getting in the way of lifting the most weight you can. A night of bad sleep doesn't affect you, but many in a row, such as when you have a newborn baby waking you every hour or so, do in a big way.
Currently, we are in lockdown so I don't need to set an alarm, for the first time in my life.
My body can wake up when it wants to wake up. I have a regular bedtime. I'm not getting high or drinking alcohol beyond one beer a week. I read before bed and I even got a new mattress to ease my slumber.
I often struggle with tinnitus on an evening, so I've begun having a fan on in the bedroom or using an app called 'Tinnitus Calmer' playing brown noise into the bedroom to stop it bothering me.
One day I will be mature enough to not fall over laughing at the term "brown noise."
My sleep is better so my recovery is improved. This means my performance is less likely to be hindered by injury or poor decision making.
Great sleep doesn't necessarily make you bulletproof or guarantee a personal best, but I've strongly noticed the difference with my training recently.
I've begun supplementing vitamin D to go alongside my daily creatine habit. I feel much better. I'm not sure if it's the placebo effect, all I know is I feel like I have more focus and energy.
Lower Physical and Mental Stress
I'm driving less during lockdown and not getting stressed out by traffic.
My sleep is better.
This compounds itself with better decision making and I'm more able to stick to prescribed RPE.
I have less niggling injuries.
This meant when I came to train, my state of readiness was improved. A higher state of readiness means my body was in a position to achieve my best lifts.
Fatigue and stress mask performance. A reduction of these facilitates performance.
Before lockdown, I would spend approximately an hour in the car each day.
I HATE TRAFFIC WITH A PASSION WHICH BURNS LIKE THE FIRES OF HELL.
Not being in traffic significantly reduces the amount of stress I feel outside of training.
An hour driving each day sometimes hurts my knees.
A reduction in pain doubles as a reduction in stress.
Less stress means a higher ability to recover and adapt. If I'm better at recovering my results should be better.
Indeed, that has proved to be the case.
Less putting other people's weights away
Pre-lockdown, I regularly coached 30+ sessions per week in the gym. That's a lot of weights to put away!
As a Personal Trainer and coach, I can't help but put people's weights away.
Over a week this will mean I will lift 1000's of kilos per week outside of my training.
This impacts recovery. This will reduce performance.
Young PT's stack on muscle putting weights away all day. It's crazy to see and makes me intensely jealous. The fact putting weights away builds muscle in those who haven't trained shows it can have a big impact on recovery.
In lockdown, I'm putting minimal amounts of weights away so I can enjoy the fruits of increased recovery and a reduction in fatigue.
Even my elbows feel great!
More Reactive Programming
Typically, people will look at their training plan and think "this get's done" making no changes depending on the circumstances they find themselves in or how they feel on the day.
If you have an unusually high amount of DOMs, performing a high volume high weight session may not end well. Injury risk is increased due to fatigue.
The same applies to injury. If an injury or niggle is feeling particularly pissed off, people will carry on with their plan BECAUSE IT IS WRITTEN without making any changes in terms of load, volume, or other training variable.
I have traditionally done this without fail, until now.
When DOMS was intense even after caffeine, I'd make it easier. If the RPE was much higher than usual, I would back off quicker.
If I was injured, instead of doggedly carrying on, I'd adapt.
It was great.
If I hurt and had no motivation, I had a deload or wash-out block of 2-4 sessions where I allowed myself to heal before progressing with the written plan.
A wash-out block is where you have a period of training doing something a bit different.
A deload is a block of training using your current training plan but with less work in order to allow you to recover.
Both can be effective when used correctly, which I did for about 12 weeks. I think this was one of the most important contributing factors to busting through the 150kg 4-year plateau.
Chalking My Hands
When you bench with a wide grip you also produce force outwards. If your hands slip outwards as you press we see an energy leak. We can't put as much force into the bar. Less force into the bar means we lift less weight.
If you chalk your palms where they come into contact with the bar, you increase the friction between the two surfaces and make it unlikely you will see any slipping outwards or loss of power.
So I chalked my hands religiously between sets.
This is a minor but powerful detail to remember for big benching.
When you have hit a plateau and stayed there for a long time (months and years) it takes several factors improving to bust through that plateau.
When those factors aren't improving or being managed or maintained it often ends in frustration and the plateau stays very much in place.
A coach can help you with many of the factors above. Looking into your own habits in and out of training can provide you excellent info as to why you are stuck at a plateau.
Above, I haven't discussed all the reasons why you may be stuck at a certain weight on a certain movement but I have discussed factors I felt were influencing me.
I hope it can provide you some perspective, some knowledge and help you form a plan to allow you to wave that plateau goodbye.
Until you hit another one.
Thank you for reading my friends!
By Chris Kershaw
The Heavy Metal Strength Coach