T Nation

Weak Upper Body, Bench Plateaus


I have a question, both to experienced women-powerlifters and to men. But mainly to women because I presume that more women have encountered this problem – weaker upper body – than men.

I have been doing barbell training for slightly longer than a year. Before that I was a typical cardio bunny: I was not doing any sports in particular, just walking a lot on a daily basis (10 km and more), and was a typical skinny fat: about 58–60 kg at 174 cm, at the age of 35.

After my boyfriend introduced me to lifting (I began with Starting Strength), my bodyweight went up from 60 to 68 kg. My lifts went up from an empty 20-kg barbell (yes, I started from an empty barbell, even on deadlifts; on military press, I started from even less – 12 kg) to the following figures: squat – 5x75, deadlift – 5x85, bench – 5x40(41), military press – 5(3)x30, Pendlay row – 5x42.5 kg.

My squats and deadlifts have been growing slowly but steadily: at first, fast, as for any novice, then – slower. I have been doing regular deloads, and after every deload I was adding a certain amount of weight to the barbell.

But my bench (and assistance exercise – military press) has been plateauing. In the last half a year, I have added about 15 kg to my squat. But to my bench I have barely added a couple of very unstable kilos (meaning that one day, depending on how I feel, I might do my max, and on the other day I may miss it – which almost never happens with squats and deadlift.)

(Although my shoulders and back definitely grew – I absolutely do not fit into my sports bra, which was perfectly ok for me 1.5 yr ago :slight_smile: )

Lately, I have been feeling that bench is defeating me :)) Sure, I know it all: “suck it up, eat, sleep, and train”. And I try to, although not always I manage to sleep for 8 hrs – usually about 7, and am a very sensitive and light sleeper (which is partially the cause of me being quite sleepy and tired during days). But negative motivation does not seem to work well on me.

Now, for your attention :)), THE QUESTION: Maybe those girls and women who have defeated their bench plateaus have some advice: how they beat them?

My stats: age – 35, height 174 cm, weight 68 kg.

My last week’s routine:

Squat: 5x40, 5x50, 5x60, 5x55, 2x70, 5x75
Bench: 5x20, 5x25, 5x30, 5x35, 2x27.5, 3x42.5 (it had to be 5x42.5, but for two days in a row I missed the 4th and 5th lift)
Pendlay row: 5x20, 5x25, 5x30, 5x35, 2x27.5, 5x42.5

Squat: 5x40, 5x50, 5x60, 5x60
Military press: 5x20, 5x22.5, 5x25, 5x27.5, 3x30 (it had to be 5x30, but I keep on missing. There were a few days when I made it to 5x30, but this lift is very unstable: one day I manage 3, the other day – I don’t even manage one (mainly because I get afraid of the weight, it “defeats me” before I even try lifting, and I start pushing the bar to the front – not upright, so I lose the force)
Deadlift: 5x50, 5x60, 5x70, 3x75, 2x80, 5x85

Squat: 5x40, 5x50, 5x60, 5x55, 2x70, 3x76, 5x60
Bench: 5x20, 5x25, 5x30, 5x35, 2x27.5, 5x42.5 (will try to do it, but since I already missed it twice, I have this fear that “bench will again win over me” :slight_smile: ), 8x30
Pendlay row: 5x20, 5x25, 5x30, 5x35, 2x27.5, 5x42.5, 5x30

P.S.: I have quite a limited amount of time in the gym, especially on weekdays, since I train during my lunchbreak, so cannot afford to spend in the gym more than, roughly, 1 hr. So, if I needed to add some assistance exercises to my daily routine, I would most probably need to cut some of the main exercises from the routine.


Sounds like technique or you’ve just plateaued which is expected. If all lifts are still progressing, set your bench back and progress from a lighter weight. If other lifts are seeing the same slow progression, try find a new programme. Push/Pull/Legs or Upper/Lower templates are good. I’d recommend 5/3/1 because I love it


You may want to try working on hypertrophy in your chest and tris. Coach Thibs has suggested this sometimes in women who are getting stuck with strength goals. Attempt to fill out size in arms and chest.

I had to take a break from BB benching and BB OHP for over a year due to an irritated shoulder. During that time away from BB training, I focused on the DB Neutral Press and/or DB Squeeze press. The MEAT of my chest and tris split was hypertrophy accessories with DBs, followed by Cable Chest and Tri variations. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my BP really moved, and I was much stronger when I came back to it. For what it’s worth, my BP has always moved in sync with pull-ups and row strength. If one moves, the others tend to move as well.

FWIW, your Military Press is actually quite good when compared with your BP. You’d expect a ratio of about 60% of your Bench. Unless I’m looking at your numbers wrong, I believe you’re exceeding that, and are closer to 74% of your BP.

I don’t train OHP/ MP as an accessory to BP. I focus on horizontal pressing.


Thank you for the replies. Sorry that I could not have responded and thanked you all earlier.

We (me and my boyfriend, with whom we train together) have now switched our programme to the Texas method: 1st day – high volume day, 2nd day – active recovery, 3rd day – high intensity day. I am not quite sure if the high volume day will be the exact equivalent of working for hypertrophy, but I hope it will contribute to some muscle growth. For example, now my weekly bench press routine looks like this (excluding warmups):
1st day (high volume): 5x5 at 90% of 5RM
2nd day (active recovery): 3x5 at 80% of 5RM
3rd day (high intensity): 1x5 at 100% of 5RM

In addition to that, I do light Pendlay rows, OHPs (3x10 at approx. 65–75% of 5RM), lat pulldowns as accessory exercises (which is, well, more of upper back rather than chest accessories…). Maybe I should look up and switch some upper back accessories to chest accessories, or at least interchange them.


Also try upping your calories more. If you want to see the weights move you’re going to have to start eating more. I screams slowly by maybe 200 calories every two weeks, and then go from there.