Is there some trick to determine which of the three basic muscles is the weakest in a bench press? I'm referring to the pectorals, shoulders and triceps.

I have been working my chest with dumbbell presses and flies like crazy. Same with tricep extensions and shoulder press.

What am I missing?

The bench press muscle related exercises that I do:

  • Dumbbell bench press : 80lbs @ 10RM
  • Dumbbell flies : 60lbs @ 10RM
  • Barbell shoulder press : 185lbs @ 5RM (including bar)
  • Dumbbell shoulder press : 45lbs @ 10RM
  • Dumbell front raise : 25lbs @ 5RM
  • Bent over Dumbbell Tricep Extension : 45LBS @ 10RM
  • Cable tricep pushdown : 205lbs @ 5RM
  • Barbell bench press: 185lbs @ 5RM (including bar)

The reason I asked is that I can't feel the tension anywhere once I get tired. I can't tell if a muscle is doing more work to compensate for another. I might as well be pushing against a brick wall and wouldn't tell the difference.

It's the only exercise where my issue seems to be more mechanical than anything else. Maybe it's just a matter to do a lot of light/medium weights until I learn to use all muscle as an ensemble properly.

Here's my routine, all exercises are usually done in the order listed:

Monday: Legs

  • Barbell deadlift : 5 sets of 315lbs @ 5RM (including bar)
  • Lying machine squat : 5 sets of 410lbs @ 5RM (this is maxed out)
  • Lying leg curls : 5 sets of 175lbs @ 5RM
  • Leg extensions : 5 sets of 310lbs @ 5RM (this is maxed out)

Wednesday: Chest

  • Barbell bench press : I can only do a couple of sets of 185lbs @ 5RM, then drop down to 135lbs @ 5 reps
  • Barbell decline bench press : 5 sets of 165lbs @ 5RM
  • Dumbbell fly : 5 sets of 55lbs @ 5RM
  • Cable cross over : 5 sets of 75lbs @ 10 reps. My 10RM is 110lbs.

I've just started doing the following:

  • Dips : 5 sets of 5 reps with body weight. I just started doing these
  • Cable internal rotation (rotator cuffs) : 1 set, 30 reps of 15lbs
  • Cable external rotation (rotator cuffs) : 1 set, 30 reps of 15lbs

Friday: Shoulders and arms

  • Shoulder press : 5 sets of 140lbs @ 5RM
  • Superset the following three exercises:

    • Dumbbell Arnold press : 5 sets of 45lbs @ 6RM
    • Dumbbell lateral raise : 5 sets of 35lbs @ 5RM
    • Dumbbell bent over delt raise : 5 sets of 25lbs @ 5RM
  • Dumbbell front raise : 5 sets of 25lbs @ 5RM

I also do arms on Fridays, but haven't settled on what works yet. But my latest stats:

  • Cable tricep pushdown : 205lbs @ 5RM (maxed out)
  • Triceps pushdown V-Bar : 5 sets of 180lbs @ 7RM
  • Bent over Dumbbell Tricep Extension : 45LBS @ 10RM
  • Dumbbell alternate bicepo curl : 5 sets of 45lbs @ 5RM
  • Cable standing triceps extension : 5 sets of 135lbs @ 5RM - this one really burns
  • Eazy-bar preaqcher curl : 5 sets of 70lbs @ 5RM (bar not included)
  • 2
    Good question. What's the immediate problem you're facing? Why do you think it's one weak muscle instead of all of them? Are you not getting results with your current programming? Aug 9, 2012 at 21:42
  • 1
    A little detail on your lifting program would help. Working like crazy could mean 1000 reps with 3 lb weights.
    – JohnP
    Aug 9, 2012 at 21:45
  • 3
    The answer is the triceps, since it's the smallest. But I think you're trying to figure out what's holding back your bench press progress? It sort of doesn't matter. If you just keep bench pressing in a well planned program, the weak points will sort themselves out and you'll be able to increase the weight.
    – user3085
    Aug 9, 2012 at 21:58
  • 3
    I just noticed that your bench press is equal to your overhead press. Either something is seriously wrong with your benching, or you're push-pressing/jerking the overhead press, because that's a solid overhead pressing number. Maybe your shoulders are way more developed than your chest and triceps--do you do dips? Decline press? How often do you bench compared to overhead press and all the other shoulder work? Aug 10, 2012 at 20:36
  • 2
    @DaveLiepmann Agreed. A more thorough/exact outline of your scheduling and program (like when were the last 10 workouts, and what did you do in them?) will also be very useful in helping us diagnose your problem.
    – user3085
    Aug 10, 2012 at 20:40

3 Answers 3


I'm going to give you one possible path to solving your bench press issue. Other plans may also work, but whatever you pick, stick with it and see it through.


This plan will solve your problem by focusing on the exercise you want improved, planning appropriately for progression, leaving adequate recovery time, and adding the back squat to your bench press day to stimulate testosterone and growth hormone release.

This may look very stripped down, but I think that's what you need. This schedule is focused solely on improving your bench press. The squat work is only present because of it's ability to stimulate anabolic hormone release. The deadlifts are scaled back to allow for easier recovery. I've removed a lot of accessory exercises so you can focus only the bench press and the exercises that will help it. Shoulder press, chin-ups/pull-ups, and dips are the most useful assistance exercises for the bench press.


Monday (legs day):

  • Low-bar back squat (3 sets x 5 reps)
  • Whatever other leg stuff you want to do, but make sure you can do squats and deadlifts on Wednesday, so I'd advise against the 5x5 deadlift that you've scheduled on Monday.

Make Wednesday this (bench press day):

  • Low-bar back squat (3 sets x 5 reps)
  • Bench press (3 sets x 5 reps)
  • Deadlift (1 set x 5 reps)

Adjust Friday this way (press and assistance day):

  • Low-bar back squat (3 sets x 5 reps)
  • Shoulder press (5 sets x 5 reps)
  • Chin-ups/pull-ups (3 sets to failure, and if you can do more than 15, add weight to a waist chain)
  • Dips (3 sets to failure, and if you can do more than 15, add weight to a waist chain. Get triceps below parallel at the bottom, and chest up with elbows locked at the top.)


  • Squats: Find a good starting weight. If you succeed at every rep of every set, add 5 lbs next workout. If not, stay at this same weight next workout. The back squat is the best exercise for stimulating anabolic hormone release, so I've included it every workout to get it up to a weight that will be useful to you on your bench press day.
  • Deadlift: Use your current deadlift weight, but just do one set at your work weight (you can do warm-up sets at lower weights). You'll need to back-off on the deadlift volume (5x5 is a lot of stress!) so that you can do squats every workout. If you succeed at your 5 reps, increase the weight for next time.
  • Chin-ups/pull-ups/dips: These are going to really help your bench press, so I've given them focus on your "shoulders/arms" day. If done with proper attention to scapular retraction, these should really help your rotator cuff as well.
  • Bench press: You say you can only do two sets at 185, then back off to 135. That is not standard. You should find the weight that you can use for 3 sets of 5 reps and start with that. If you succeed, increase the weight by 5 (or 2.5lbs) on the next Wednesday. Use proper form, lowering the bar to your chest for a brief pause, no bouncing at the bottom.
  • Overhead press: Same progression as bench press. Find the weight you can do for 3 sets of 5 reps and start with that, increasing weight the next workout if you succeed.

Possible adjustments

I really don't know your strength levels and recovery ability, so some of these might not be enough volume to stimulate adaptation in you. If you find your bench press isn't progressing under this plan, increase bench press and overhead press to 5 sets instead of 3 sets.


It's odd that your shoulder press (is this a standing overhead press?) is equal to your bench press. Normally, bench press is well ahead of your shoulder press. This could mean you have a form issue on your bench press that's not allowing you to make the best use of your strength.

If you decide to film a form check video, please follow this guidance to get the best feedback: http://startingstrength.com/resources/forum/showthread.php?t=20249. Feel free to ask a form-check question on this site. There aren't many (any) yet, but they're welcome!

  • See, your last comment pretty much points out my issue. I can push a lot of weight with many exercises, but my bench press is where I am stumped. I've been thinking of hiring a personal trainer to help me out with that.
    – Salsero69
    Aug 10, 2012 at 20:14
  • @Salsero69 As Sancho notes, detailing your current programming/lifting schedule would help. It could be as simple as giving too much time to non-benching/horizontal-pushing activities. Aug 10, 2012 at 20:51

Yeah, there's a very simple "trick".

Perform a max bench and have a friend watch you (or better a camera).

Notice the point where you start to struggle. That's your weak point.

If you have trouble getting it off your chest then the problem is in your pectorals.

If you have trouble locking it out then it's likely in your triceps, elbows etc.

  • Elbows drifting backwards may signify weakness in the anterior delts as well.
    – Thomas Markov
    Apr 15, 2022 at 11:35

So after a couple of years of doing some isolation exercises and paying attention to the mechanics of a bench press I've determined that my front delts were the culprits. And so when I was originally doing bench presses, I think my delts weren't activating. But now after some time working on them, I finally feel them working when pressing. I haven't gotten pass the plateau, but working on it.

I'm currently doing weighted dips in order to increase the amount of weight I can push with my delts and the amount of weights I've introduced has increased drastically in a short amount of time. So hopefully I can go beyond 185 lbs.

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