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Bench press sticking points

Selecting the right exercises for progress

In my first years in the gym, I was a notoriously bad bench presser. Tried and proven strength routines were usually hit or miss, while more refined programs brought along mixed results at best. It wasn't until I got familiar with the concept of 'sticking points' within the movement, and learned to link those to particular weak muscle groups, that I managed to consistently improve my presses. In this article I will explain the concept of sticking points, and subsequently provide you with some guidelines as to what (bench) pressing variations are most likely to suit your needs.

photo by @wearebru

Let’s first clarify the concept of sticking points. You probably know that the bench press is an interplay between mainly the chest, shoulders and triceps. An important notion to add here, though, is that these muscles are not participating equally throughout the whole movement. Generally speaking, a strong chest and shoulders drive the bar off your chest, while strong triceps are needed to push the bar through to the top. This means that if you're weak in any of those areas, you tend to get stuck in the corresponding portion of the bench press. Hence the name sticking point.

This predisposition for a certain sticking point is dependant on two factors: skeletal build, and muscular development. Regarding skeletal build, it’s important to realise that your skeleton basically functions as a series of levers (bones), and pulleys (joints), which are moved by muscular force. The longer a lever, the more force a muscle needs to generate in order to overcome its resistance. Simply said, if you have long arms, you need more triceps strength to extend them, and vice versa. Then, secondly, comes muscular development. Because even if you have favourable levers for the bench press (short arms), if your triceps are too weak, you will still struggle at the top of your press.

Yours truly displaying a typical high sticking point: weak triceps

It's for this reason that basic programming advice with one-size-fits-all exercise selection usually only seems to fit some. Let's say that you're slow off the chest when the weight is sufficiently heavy. This means that your 'bottom end' pressing muscles (chest/shoulders) are the limiting factor - and specifically targeting these will be the quickest way to progress. You can then train triceps-dominant presses all you want, but if you’re unable to get the bar off your chest, your triceps will never even get to join the party. Needless to say, it works the other way around as well.

So, rather than coming up with a cookie-cutter program that might miss its mark, I'd like to provide you with a host of (bench) pressing variations that will specifically help combat particular sticking points. Here we go:

Low sticking point:

How to identify: Barbell comes off the chest slowly and accelerates towards the top. Usually accompanied with a weak shoulder press. Typically gets stuck within the first 15cm of a max press.

Weakness: Chest/shoulders

Effective strategy: Presses that force more time to be spent in the bottom position, or that require more of the shoulder girdle.

Typical go-to's: Presses with a pause at the chest, presses off low pins in the power rack, (steep) incline presses, shoulder presses, and dumbbell presses. Pressing with a wider grip may also help.

High sticking point:

How to identify: Barbell flies off the chest but slows down at the top. Usually accompanied with a strong strict press. Typically gets stuck in the last 15cm of a max press.

Weakness: Triceps

Effective strategy: Presses that take away the bottom portion of the lift, presses that overload the top portion, and anything with a narrower grip.

Typical go-to's: Floor presses, presses off high pins in the power rack, presses with bands or chains, the swiss barbell, and anything with a narrow grip.

That should help get you going. The general take-away here is: be mindful of where you tend to get stuck within a movement, and then identify what muscle or muscle group you need to strengthen in order to overcome this sticking point. Because long before considering sets, reps, and rest breaks, any program starts with making sure you're training the right movements.

Good luck!

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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