Create A Goal Plan
When looking to improve any lift in the gym, or to achieve any goal in life, it is necessary to set out an effective plan that will guide you to success. As the well known saying goes, “fail to prepare, prepare to fail”.
Training Volume for Strength Gains
When it comes to benching improvements, benching once a week will simply not suffice, regardless of how many sets and reps are performed in one session.
By following the traditional 5 x 5 method, 25 reps will be completed. That’s 25 reps for the week which is undoubtedly insufficient if the goal is to improve bench press performance.
Instead of training the bench press once a week, it is worthwhile performing it more frequently. Not only will this increase training volume, which can lead to an increase in strength (1), but substantial time can be spent refining technique.
More substantial improvements will be made with an individual practicing multiple times each week than with an individual who practices sporadically.
Even something as simple as switching to benching 3 x 5, twice a week is of great benefit. While the total volume only increases by one set in comparison to 5 x 5, the quality of those sets will be much greater.
Because only 3 sets are being performed, as opposed to 5 sets, the workout volume decreases, the muscles are less fatigued, and therefore, the reps are much smoother.
Frequency is undoubtedly important, but so is the quality of the movement. For strength gains, precise, frequent reps are much superior to sporadic, substandard reps.
Ensuring that the training volume is correct is the first step. However, if a bench press improvements are still stagnant, there are 3 methods that should be employed.
1) Practice Frequently
As mentioned, focusing on the skill acquisition instead of the weight on the bar is an effective method of improving one’s technique.
Regularly benching will allow you to increase overall training volume and consequently allow you to push heavier weights as strength develops.
An effective method of practicing and upping training volume is to add 5-8 sets of 1-3 reps of bench into your training program. Ensure to use a lighter weight and focus on the movements.
By simply adding this in, you will complete 24 additional reps to your weekly training volume. In turn, this will enhance benching technique and strength capacity.
In terms of frequency, anywhere between 2-4 sessions per week would be enough. As referred to, it is possible to add in lighter-weight practice sets into an existing program, if necessary.
It is absolutely fine to tweak the program until you find the optimal combination of both intensity and frequency that brings about results.
2) Performing Effective Variations
If you have been benching for a number of years, it is likely that you have reached a training plateau before. A plateau is simply where progress seems to have stalled or ceased entirely.
One method that is particularly effective for moving beyond a training plateau is to use exercise variations. There are a vast number of variations for the majority of compound exercises.
For the novice, strength gains come easily. This is partly because their nervous system adapts rapidly to the new training stimulus which causes an increase in strength (2).
Frequency should take precedent for the novice and exercise variations are not necessarily required at this stage. Strength will rocket with frequent practice and patience.
However, over time, the body becomes more and more accustomed to the stresses of training and therefore, the rate of adaptation begins to slow as the body becomes more accustomed to the training stimulus.
As a result, increased frequency alone will not have a large muscle stimulating impact. It is at this stage that would be wise to consider bringing in exercise variations.
Studies show that exercise variance is more effective for improving muscular strength in trained individuals than traditional loading schemes (3).
There are a number of factors that should be considered when selecting appropriate variations for bench, or any other exercise for that matter.
The movements involved in the exercise should engage a great amount of muscle, allow for heavy loading and involve a large range of motion.
Keeping this in mind, it should be easy to see why an incline bench press is superior for building strength than a cable fly.
The movements involved in a cable fly may indeed allow for a greater range of motion, however, muscles activation is greater and more weight can be pressed with the incline bench.
With all exercise or sport-specific training, variations should be chosen based on improving a movement rather than strengthening a specific muscle group.
With this understanding, once again, the incline bench press trumps the cable fly. In order to develop benching ability, it is wise to select exercises that replicate the movement patterns of the conventional bench press.
A few examples of effective bench press variations include: decline bench, touch and go bench, pause bench, tempo bench, feet-up bench and slingshot bench.
3) Comprehensive Recovery
The effort that you put into tailoring and executing the perfect bench program will be in vain if adequate recovery from exercise is not prioritized.
There is much more to recovery than simply ensuring that rest days are scheduled into the week. Sleep, nutrition and hydration will all play a role and will therefore have an impact on how effectively you recover.
Firstly, proper nutrition is essential for bringing about changes in body composition. A calorie surplus is required for muscle gain – this is where you consume more calories per day than the body requires (4).
The additional calories are required to accelerate recovery and causes muscle fibers to increase in size.
It is recommended to track your daily calories when looking to add muscle size. This way you can be sure that enough calories are being consumed to cause growth. If you fail to track, you are shooting in the dark.
In addition to this, adequate protein should be consumed every day. Protein is also required in the recovery process from the stresses of strength training.
Failure to consume enough calories and protein each day will fail to bring about optimal muscle growth and strength gains.
The body needs time to recover from the everyday stresses and strains of life and it does so through sleep.
Requirements for sleep tend to vary from person to person, however, typically the recommendation is to aim for between 6-8 hours per night.
It may take a little trial and error to understand how much sleep your body really needs. Often, more sleep is better.
If you’re uncertain about whether or not you’re getting enough sleep, look to go to bed slightly earlier each night and assess if this has a positive impact on your performance in the gym.
Inadequate sleep has been found to hamper muscle building progress predominantly through reducing exercise performance (5).
Finally, hydration often has a bigger impact than many perceive. Drinking water regularly throughout the day can help to keep the body functioning optimally.
For many, hydration levels are not maintained throughout the day which can lead to poor performance in the gym (6). Drinking a vast amount during exercise is simply not enough.
It is important to space out water intake rather than drinking it all in a short time period. Look to be consistent with hydration on both training and rest day.
For those who are unsure how much water they should be drinking each day, aim for half your bodyweight in ounces. From that point, water intake can be steadily increased if necessary.
Proper nutrition, ample sleep and good hydration should not be seen as a privilege, rather an essential for developing strength and size.
If you are fully committed to improving in the gym, then you must be serious about the time spent outside of the gym too.
While it is crucial that proper programming is in place, it is equally important to consider other factors that significantly influence strength gains. Appropriate nutrition, sleep, hydration and even genetics will all determine whether or not success is attained in the gym.
1-Services, Department of Health & Human. “Resistance training – health benefits”. www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au.
2-Mangine, Gerald T.; Hoffman, Jay R.; Gonzalez, Adam M.; Townsend, Jeremy R.; Wells, Adam J.; Jajtner, Adam R.; Beyer, Kyle S.; Boone, Carleigh H.; Miramonti, Amelia A. (2015-8). “The effect of training volume and intensity on improvements in muscular strength and size in resistance-trained men”. Physiological Reports. 3 (8). doi:10.14814/phy2.12472. PMID 26272733.
3-pubmeddev; al, Fonseca RM , et. “Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength. – PubMed – NCBI”.
4-Leaf, Alex; Antonio, Jose (2017). “The Effects of Overfeeding on Body Composition: The Role of Macronutrient Composition – A Narrative Review”. International Journal of Exercise Science. 10 (8): 1275. PMID 29399253.
5-pubmeddev; al, Knowles OE , et. “Inadequate sleep and muscle strength: Implications for resistance training. – PubMed – NCBI”.
6-pubmeddev; al, Judelson DA , et. “Hydration and muscular performance: does fluid balance affect strength, power and high-intensity endurance? – PubMed – NCBI”. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.