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key strength exercises: bench press

Why Your Gains Have Stalled On 4 Key Strength Exercises

For those of us who hit the weight room regularly with the intention of building and defining our muscles, there’s nothing more frustrating than stalled progress—especially when the reason for our lack of results is a mystery.

Sound familiar? We’re here to help you push the restart button and get those gains back on track. Ahead, certified strength and conditioning specialists outline the common reasons why you’re not seeing progress with four key strength exercises, plus exactly what it takes to achieve results again. 

What It Takes To Get Stronger 

Before diving into the possible reasons why you’re not seeing progress, you need to understand exactly how you get stronger in the first place. In simple terms, when you adequately challenge your muscles, you shear microscopic tears into your muscle fibers, explains certified strength and conditioning coach Jake Harcoff, C.S.C.S. head coach and owner of AIM Athletic. Following repair, these muscle fibers become thicker and stronger than they were before. That translates into bigger-looking biceps and new squat PRs. 

Read More: Exactly What To Eat And Drink After A Workout To Boost Recovery

This means that getting stronger requires two key things: adequate training stimulus and ample recovery. You can properly challenge your muscles by continuously lifting heavier, speeding up or slowing down your reps, or tacking on additional reps or sets, according to certified strength and conditioning specialist Bill Daniels, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., owner of Beyond Fitness Online. And you can support the muscle-repair process by logging enough hours of sleep, putting enough of the right nutrients into your body (hello, protein), and managing your stress levels, to name just a few things. 

So, How Long Does It Take To See Strength Gains?

No doubt, it can be frustrating when you’re not seeing progress as quickly as you want toespecially when you’re putting in the time. But before you officially declare yourself in a fitness plateau, consider how long it actually takes to make noticeable gains in the first place. 

Assuming you’re exercising hard enough and recovering properly, you’ll get fitter and stronger after your body recuperates from each and every workout, says Harcoff. If you’re a newer exerciser, you’ll most likely take notice of these changes in your gym performance and/or body aesthetics after a few weeks. (Newer exercisers experience large, noticeable improvements in strength rather quickly, due to neurological changes taking place in the body, says Harcoff.) At an advanced level, meanwhile, it can take months just to marginally increase the amount of weight you can lift. 

Why Your Progress In 4 Key Movements Has Stalled

If you feel you’ve hit a plateau, it’s time to take a look at the nitty-gritty of your workouts. Here, the experts break down the different reasons why you might feel stuck in four key strength moves.

1. Back Squat

A weighted exercise that involves sitting your butt towards your heels before standing back up, the barbell back squat is an excellent way to improve full-body strength. In particular, it excels at strengthening your quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes, according to Harcoff. 

However, in order to maximize the muscle-building magic of the movement, you need to move through the exercise with sound form. Unfortunately, according to both Harcoff and Daniels, many lifters (yes, even long-time lifters) short-change themselves by moving with imperfect movement patterns. “In order to maximize the amount of weight you can lift the bar, your lift needs to be biomechanically sound,” explains Harcoff. 

In a technically-solid back squat, for instance, your chest remains upright. If you lean too far forward, the load shifts forward, Harcoff says. When this happens, in order to protect your spine and keep you from falling forward, your body recruits your lower back erector muscles. Not only does this compromise the integrity of your spine and increase your risk of lower back injury, but it also keeps you from lifting more weight because those small, supportive muscles simply are not strong enough to bear the brunt of suboptimal form at higher weights. 

The goal here is to edit your technique or mobility so that your chest doesn’t lean forward and you’re able to sit back into your heels, says Harcoff. In some cases, the solution may be to incorporate hip flexor mobility or glute activation work into your warm-up. In others, simply adjusting your stance to be a bit wider is enough to allow you to sit back instead of lean forward.

Your move: Have a personal trainer look at your lift and give you feedback on your form, suggests Harcoff. If that’s not accessible to you, record yourself squatting from the side and compare it to a demo video on YouTube or Instagram. 

2. Strict Pull-Up

Can’t seem to get your first unassisted strict pull-up or log additional reps? Take comfort in the fact that this is a very challenging exercise, according to Harcoff. “What can make the strict pull-up difficult to improve on is that there are so many factors that influence your ability to do it,” he says. A few: Your form, body mass to strength ratio, where the weight in your body is distributed, and how much weight fluctuation you experience from day to day. 

For many people, however, the main issue is that they aren’t doing enough strict pull-ups or strict pull-up variations. “Doing just a few strict pull-ups or variations isn’t enough volume to make the necessary strength adaptations to increase pull-up capacity,” says Harcoff. You need hit three sets of eight to 12 reps of any pull-up variations you do in order to adequately strengthen the muscle fibers in the lats, which are the primary mover in the exercise. 

Read More: Can’t Do Pullups? These Moves Will Get You There

The variation Harcoff recommends: banded strict pull-ups, which train you to move your body weight with good form against gravity. “Once you can consistently hit sets of 12 with good form, you can lower the band resistance you use so that you’re pulling more of your overall body weight,” he says. Continue to work your way towards less and less resistance and eventually you’ll be cranking out strict pull-ups, he says. 

3. Deadlift 

The deadlift truly is one of the best exercises for improving full-body strength, general athleticism, and overall health. As such, it makes sense that you’d want to be able to deadlift as much weight as you possibly can. 

The issue, according to Harcoff, typically isn’t that your hamstringsthe primary movers of the exerciseare too weak to handle a greater load, but that your grip muscles are. “At a certain point, your hands aren’t going to be able to hold onto the amount of weight that your posterior chain muscle would be able to handle,” he explains. 

So what’s the solution? One option is to add grip-strengthening exercises like farmer carries, fingertip push-ups, and plate pinches into your routine, Harcoff says. Another is to switch up the grip you use while deadlifting, Daniels suggest. If you normally use an overhand grip (palms facing toward you), for example, he suggests trying a mixed grip (one hand overhand and the other underhand). Likewise, if you tend to use a narrow grip, try widening it. 

You could also start using lifting straps when lifting more than 80 to 90 percent of your deadlift one-rep max. “Some people shy away from lifting straps because they think that using lifting straps makes the lift less impressive, but they don’t,” Harcoff says. “The reality is that the muscles on the posterior chain are just bigger than those in the hands and wrists, and therefore stronger.” No shame there.

4. Bench Press

A classic exercise beloved by powerlifters and bodybuilders alike, the bench press is tops at strengthening your chest muscles and giving the upper body a full look and feel. If you’re not loading plates to your bar as quickly in this movement, though, it’s possible that there isn’t enough variety in the type of bench pressing you’re doing, Harcoff says. 

You see, there are a few different barbell bench press variations (flat, incline, and decline), each of which favors a different segment of the pectoral muscle network, he explains. The incline bench press primarily works the upper portion (the clavicular head) of the pectoral muscle, while the decline bench primarily works the lower portion (the sternal head) of the pectoral muscle.

If you bench press more than once per week, Harcoff recommends incorporating different variations into your routine. Otherwise, you risk not giving the primary muscle group enough time to recover between bench pressing sessions. If you hit the same variation before the muscle fibers have time to recover properly, you don’t actually get to reap the rewards of your strength session, he explains. 

“Switching to incline or decline for one of your training sessions will allow the portion of the pec you worked earlier in the week enough of a break to actually recover fully,” he says. As a result, you get stronger and lift more when you do the traditional bench press.

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