Ask any Powerlifter what the hardest lift to improve is and 9 times out of 10 you'll hear, "the Bench Press". Although there are a few outliers in the sport, Jen Thompson is an excellent example, but for the most part the Bench is the hardest lift to progress on and PRs are often hard to come by. Just because the Bench is hard to improve, doesn't mean you should stick with the status quo and stop exploring different methodologies! The following are two different strategies that I have used on myself, as well as my athletes to bust through plateaus and make consistent, measurable progress. Enjoy.
High Set, Low Repetition
Unlike the Squat, I find that training with higher sets (8-10) and lower repetitions (3-5) is more appropriate for lifters who aren't as technically proficient as they need to be (for example, newer lifters or people who are learning the intricacies of a Powerlifting-style Bench set-up). By using lower repetition sets it allows the athlete to focus on rep quality, as opposed to quantity and by having a higher set protocol it allows for high amounts of volume without the technical breakdown that comes with sets of 8-10 for example.
"Missing reps doesn't make you stronger, but making them does." - Chad Wesley Smith
When it comes to the Bench Press speed and rep quality are crucial. If you're constantly grinding reps, missing reps or not practicing 'perfect' technique then you will more than likely not see the desired adaptations. Although there's a time and place for heavy singles and max repetition sets, I firmly believe that the majority of training time should be spent in the 60-80% range, executing quality repetitions and always leaving 2-3 reps left in the tank.
Soft Touch Method
One of the most underrated, yet effective tools for increasing the Bench Press is the "Soft Touch" method where you bring the bar down, barely touch at the bottom, then drive up and back while maintaining tension throughout the entire lift; especially at the bottom portion where tightness is often compromised. This is an excellent tool to help teach tightness throughout the movement (much like the "Spoto Press"), increase overall tension in the lower half and help improve bar path.
The Soft Pause Method is also an extremely effective tool during Hypertrophy/Higher Volume phases of training due to it's difficulty and increased Time-Under-Tension (TUT). Often when an athlete does a regular pause on the Bench Press they lose tightness at the bottom, but with the Soft Touch Method they are forced to maintain tightness the entire time. This creates good habits, while also potentiating future gains because when you go back to regular pausing ("sink pause" for example) you'll be able to press more since soft touching is more demanding as opposed to the sink method (in most cases).
One of the best examples of a Soft Touch Bench Presser is Mike Tuchsherer of Reactive Training Systems (RTS). As you can see in the video below he brings the bar down under control, barely touches his chest then explodes up and back. Excellent lift execution by an IPF World Record Holder.
"Bench 460x1 session w commentary" by Reactive Training Systems
Using different methodologies and exercise variations to increase the difficulty of a lift during a Hypertrophy/Higher Volume phase of training is an excellent example of Phase Potentiation in action. By increasing the difficult (range of motion, time-under-tension, rest periods, etc) and repetitions early in a prep you're able to potentiate future gains down the road through varying stimuli. All training is dictated by the Principle of Specificity and if you are 16-20 weeks out from your next meet then you are able to have a lower level of specificity, but a higher level of variation. This allows for new training stimulus, as well as potentiating future gains down the road as you drop the variation and become more specific with your programming. Once you go back to the competition-style Squat, Bench and Deadlift you are able to drive "new adaptations" because you have not tried those particular movements in 5-7 weeks, as well as improve technical proficiency through varying intensities, volume and frequencies.
As always if you have any questions feel free to post them in the comment section below or on the Facebook page. Thank you for reading!