Are you tired of your bench press being limited by the same old sticking point? We’ve all heard the phrase ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’. But what causes it and more importantly, what can be done about this troublesome region?
What is the sticking point?
The sticking point is not necessarily where the bar stops or where it begins to slow down. Really, it is where the lift becomes most challenging. It can occur on successful and unsuccessful attempts. The exact spot can vary from rep to rep as much as it does between individuals.
What probably doesn’t cause the sticking point?
Self-proclaimed experts will be quick to offer easy to accept but unproven solutions – maybe it came from their five minutes of gym experience! Anecdotes and personal experience are invaluable and equally persuasive, but are not evidence. Maybe it was from something they read in an article, probably written by someone else equally clueless who read another article. If it’s on the internet, then it must be true! And worth mindlessly repeating. But what is quick to consume is not always easy to digest, and despite not fully understanding the complexities, these helpful souls are still keen to serve it up to everyone else.
It is an easy sell. There is no shortage of lifters who want quick, salient and agreeable answers and these sorts would no doubt be the first in line to drink the Kool-Aid. I remain skeptical of quick fixes, unless they become long term answers.
Contrary to popular belief, the sticking point isn’t where there is a muscular weakness, or an inability to produce maximal force against the bar. Neither is it caused by changing lever length, mechanical disadvantage or even confined to just one particular point. It may not even be where all these effects overlap.
Do not assume a 1% improvement in power, strength or muscle size will equate to a 1% improvement in your bench press or that it would only take 1% more effort or work to accomplish. Even a big improvement in any or all of these factors may only produce negligible gains in your performance (if any).
As a result, the typical strategies used to overcome this constantly moving target are largely ineffective. Knowing this, we can avoid wasting time on speed work, strengthening specific regions of the lift or building individual muscles.
Usually, around now someone will chime in and say ‘well it worked for me!’ Yes, it all works – in that you may have used these methods and seen progress, but that says very little. This stuff may win small battles, but not the war. Progress will not always be easy, but it can almost always be safely assumed. You’d have to be doing something pretty bad to be working out regularly for good few years without seeing any improvements. There are plenty of lifters with delusions of adequacy saying that they have gotten stronger – remember stronger is a far cry from strong and doesn’t mean ‘strong enough’.
Don’t deconstruct the lift too much. Pretending it can be seen as a series of isolated components could lead you to thinking a) they can be altered independently and b) changing one would lead to any meaningful change. Focusing on the minutiae before true limits have been found just condemns us to mediocre purgatory.
So what does cause the sticking point?
As a lifter strains their way through those difficult reps the muscles may be forced to grow, but at the same time the movement itself atrophies and weakens. You may end up with bigger, stronger muscles but a weaker and less skilled bench press, ‘Fine by me!’ you may say. But I believe that the sticking point is caused by, not overcome by, grinding out those more strenuous reps and much more finesse is needed.
It is only by training your bench press to be a smooth and continuous motion that you will ever develop and enhance the synchronous coordination of individual muscles and impulses. These beautiful, unwrinkled reps will reduce any delay in the muscles coordinating and working together to make bench pressing a more seamless effort.
This process is called synaptic facilitation and is a statement of ‘Hebbian theory’, which is neatly described as ’neurons wire together if they fire together’ – i.e. you learn to coordinate the muscles with the movement. The aim is not only to learn how to push as hard as possible or be able to simply ‘repeat on demand’.
To take the bench press to the next level and to weights you have not yet lifted, you need to develop both the movement and the muscle, not just one or the other. The aim is to produce consistent and adaptable movement patterns whilst using enough load to challenge the muscles.
This means every rep should be performed with as much force as is needed, not simply as much as can be produced. Push too hard and that is all you learn how to do. How can you overcome the sticking point which is precisely where this is a problem? The force required will differ from rep to rep and vary at different points of each rep. To become a good bench presser it is not you vs the bar; you must learn how to ‘feel’ the bar during the bench and react to the feedback it provides.
“Skilled motor activity comes from making optimal use of body levers, decreasing or increasing their length as occasion demands, and timing the muscular control to act on them with only an optimal amount of force”.
Just as the music will not change based on how you dance, you must also learn to almost press to the beat of the bar.
This will give the impression of a flat, uniform bar speed, although the internal effort required to produce this effect may be anything but.
It does mean some reps (and some portions of reps) will feel relatively easy and if you are new to this style of lifting, you will have to contend with stopping sets seemingly prematurely. You may be able to push the bar to lockout a couple more times, but not with the constant tempo required. We should accept that training can be tough, but we do not have to actively seek out discomfort. If you want this method to work, you must accept that usually you will decide when a set needs to end, not what the plan says and not when the body thinks.
‘It is in self-limitation that a master first shows himself’
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Results are produced not just by the quantity of reps or the quality of the reps, but by the quantity of the quality. Bad reps are not only wasted effort but negate the work leading up to it too.
Reps should flow
A single silky rep can’t make you strong and strength is built over the course of sets, so only one of these isn’t sufficient either. The work begins as soon as the bar has been received and from here the lifter is switched on and ‘benching’ until the bar gets re-racked. There should be no rest between reps. A set is made up from a series of repetitions. The reps should not pulse – there may be deliberate pauses at the chest, but the lockout should move seamlessly into the starting point of the next rep. This gives a sort of tidal quality to the movement rather than a jerky, stop-start style of lifting.
That’s too easy
Here is the point that gets missed. Your reps will look comfortable and they may be less physically demanding, but this style of training is not easy. You are not getting out of ‘proper training’. The loads used must still challenge your muscles and build strength. We are just adding an extra element to the mix. You are also learning and developing your skill.