How to Do the Bench Press For a Bigger and Stronger Chest

If you want to turn heads while you bench press, you need to learn the ropes.

Everyone loves the bench press. It’s the international hallmark of lifting weights — if you’ve ever mentioned to someone during a conversation that you like to hit the gym, there’s a solid chance they’ve mimicked the arm movement of the bench or flat-out asked you how much weight you can “put up.” 

The reputation of the bench press may precede it, but only barely. It is, for good reason, one of the most popular and versatile exercises you can do for increasing your upper body strength or building more muscle

To that end, we’re going to pull the curtain back on the bench press and teach you everything you need to know so you can be a rockstar in the gym during your next chest workout. Behold the best — and only — bench press guide you’ll ever need: 

How to Do the Bench Press

The bench press is for everyone, but certain athletes approach the movement differently. If you’re a bodybuilder or just hitting the gym to get in better shape, the steps below should serve you nicely. But if you’re an aspiring strength athlete, you may want to refer to a more powerlifting-specific guide

Step 1 — Get Set

Setting up for the bench press
Before you even initiate the press, you need to get your setup in order. Start by firmly planting your feet on the floor with your knees bent. Arch your back and ensure that your buttocks and upper back are firmly contacted against the bench. Make sure that your scapula are pinched together and compressed. 

Coach’s Tip: Your legs and body should be rigid, and you should feel engaged and tense from head to toe. 

Step 2 —  Brace and Unrack 

Setting the back for bench pressing
Establish full-body tension by inhaling deeply and actively pressing your feet into the floor. The barbell should be roughly over your eyes. From here, hold your breath and “pull” the bar out of the rack such that it ends up directly over your shoulders. Exhale sharply to contract your abdominals as you move the bar into place. 

Coach’s Tip: Avoid “pushing” the bar upward out of the hooks. You may inadvertently protract your shoulders, ruining your scapular pinch. 

Step 3 — Lower Under Control

Pressing the barbell
With the barbell directly over your shoulders, break at the elbows and lower it down toward your chest. The point of contact depends on your anatomy and grip width — if you have short arms or a close grip, you’ll generally make contact with the bar lower on your chest.

Aim to touch at the same point on every rep, and keep your elbows directly under the bar at all times as you descend. 

Coach’s Tip: The barbell should drift down and slightly away from your head. Don’t attempt to lower the bar in a straight line. 

Step 4 — Press Up

Lowering the barbell for bench press
Once the barbell touches your chest, pause very briefly and then aggressively drive it back to the starting position. The barbell should move up and back towards your head, such that your shoulders, elbows, and wrists are all in vertical alignment when the rep is complete. 

Coach’s Tip: Keep your feet screwed into the floor and your butt planted on the bench. The extra leg engagement will help you push even more weight, especially as you lift heavier loads.

Benefits of the Bench Press

A big lift begets big gains. Below are some of the key benefits of the bench press you can expect to attain if you dedicate yourself to becoming a proficient presser. 

Muscular Hypertrophy

The bench press is a potent upper body mass-building exercise that stresses some of the body’s largest muscles. Since it’s a compound movement, involving multiple joints acting at once, the bench recruits huge portions of your overall musculature.

flat barbell bench press
Credit: Maksim Toome / Shutterstock

Your pectorals, triceps, front deltoids, and even your upper back all get plenty of love on each and every rep of the bench press. 

Upper Body Strength

You need to feed all of your movement patterns a proper diet of the right exercises to get truly strong. The bench press is fantastic for developing upper body strength simply because it demands so much of both your muscular and nervous systems. 

The exercise is bilateral, meaning it involves both of your arms at once, which enables you to work with much heavier weights than if you were to use dumbbells or a machine. Compound, bilateral, and a high loading potential is the recipe for successful strength gains.

Convenience

The high level of muscular engagement also makes the bench press a fantastic choice if you’re short on time in the gym. If you’re only able to get in one or two upper-body lifts per session, you need something that targets several muscles at once and allows you to lift heavy

The bench press is comprehensive in terms of stimulation and convenient to boot — all you need is an open station and you’re good to go. 

Muscles Worked by the Bench Press

The bench press builds your chest, but there’s a lot more at play than just pulverizing your pecs. Here are all of the muscles that are involved every time you unrack your barbell, ordered by their biomechanical importance: 

Pectoralis Major (and Minor)

The pectoral muscles are the prime mover in the bench press and are targeted to varying in all bench press variations. Factors that can influence the demands placed on the pecs during the bench include grip width, eccentric control, and the range of motion you use.

Triceps

The triceps are responsible for elbow extension and are the primary assistance muscle for the pecs in the bench press. You can increase loading demands on the triceps during the bench press by moving your grip width inward, but your triceps still get plenty of love no matter how you set up to bench.

Anterior Deltoids

The front head of your shoulder helps your pecs out every time you bench. The biomechanical motion of bench pressing is called shoulder flexion, a movement that your anterior deltoid is heavily responsible for. It’s common for beginner lifters to feel more tension in their shoulders than their chest before they properly “connect” with the bench press. 

Upper Back

Although it doesn’t physically move the weight, the muscles that make up your upper back provide a critical base of support to press off of. Furthermore, the scapular pinch, a critical technique for all barbell benching, is created via isometric tension from your middle traps and rhomboids. 

You need a strong and stable upper back if you want to build up your bench press — period. 

Who Should Do the Bench Press

The bench press is a versatile movement that can be done with barbells, dumbbells, and even some specialty bars to increase upper body strength, hypertrophy, and sport-specific performance.

If you’re stuck wondering whether the exercise is appropriate for your goals, the answer is probably a resounding “yes.” Still, read on to find out why. 

Bodybuilders

Every aspiring physique athlete needs at least a couple of exercises that stay in their repertoire year-round. Many bodybuilders make the bench press a cornerstone of their chest training, and for good reason. 

You can tweak, tailor, and modify the bench press in a multitude of different ways so it provides you with the most effective stimulus possible for creating quality muscle growth

Strength Athletes

If you’re a powerlifter, you have nothing short of a contractual obligation to bench press regularly. After all, it’s one of the three events you’re tested on at every competition.

Strongman and weightlifting enthusiasts both have a few reasons to dabble with benching as well, even if the lift isn’t a training requisite. For strongmen, benching with a barbell can be a nice reprieve from working with the log or axle bar and can provide some welcome variation to training.

woman setting up for bench press
Credit: UfaBizPhoto / Shutterstock

Weightlifters do most of their pressing from a standing position, but you can still include a bit of bench work here and there as part of your accessory routine

Functional Fitness Athletes

Whether you’re a CrossFit ride-or-die or just enjoy partaking in functional training overall, you need strong pressing muscles. The bench press may not feature in many practical, real-world workouts, but the pressing strength you gain from the bench will undeniably carry over into other tasks like push-ups or tire flips. 

Regular Gymgoers

You don’t need to have competitive aspirations to make use of the bench press. If you go to the gym for personal fulfillment or just to live a healthier, more active lifestyle, the bench press merits inclusion in your exercise plan due to its simplicity and accessibility. Anyone can bench — and bench well — and reap the benefits. 

Bench Press Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations

Generally speaking, the bench press should be done earlier in a session if the primary emphasis is on upper body strength and/or muscle hypertrophy. However, like most training programming, muscle hypertrophy, and endurance work often occur after power and strength exercises.

To Gain Muscle

If you are looking to build significant amounts of muscle mass, it is important to lift with good technique and emphasize the eccentric, or lowering, portion of each repetition. Therefore, if you’re benching for size, you should keep an eye on your form and not go too heavy. 

Start with four to six sets of six to 10 repetitions with moderate loads. Rest for 45 to 90 seconds.

To Gain Strength

To add pounds to your one-rep max, you need to lower your repetition count and stack up your volume. Gaining strength is a complex and intricate process, but in general, more weight and fewer reps will serve you well overall.

Perform anywhere between three to six sets of up to five repetitions with 75-85% of your 1-rep-max.

To Improve Muscular Endurance

If you need to build up your work capacity, the best and most straightforward method is to simply work more. When utilizing the bench press, this will take the form of more repetitions per set and less time spent resting. 

Hit two to three sets on the bench press with as many as 20 repetitions and light weights. Rest only as long as you need to catch your breath, usually under a minute.

Bench Press Variations

Below are several barbell pressing movements that you can implement if you want to increase your overall pressing strength, address mobility or technique limitations, or just build more lean mass overall. 

Incline Bench Press

The incline bench press is a good exercise variation to increase strength and development of the upper chest muscles, triceps, and anterior shoulder. This exercise can also be done with dumbbells if you want a break from the barbell.

Pin Press

You can use the pin press to address weak points in your pressing strength. By limiting your range of motion, you can load up extra-heavy weights or zone in on certain areas of your form that may be lagging. 

Floor Press

The floor press, which can be done with bars or dumbbells, is a bench press variation without the bench. It’s another way to create a partial range of motion, since your elbows can’t dip below your torso, and comes with similar benefits to the pin press. 

The floor press also gains points for convenience if all the benches in your gym are taken. All you really need is a barbell and you can get right to work. 

Bench Press Alternatives

Below are two bench press variations that do not include a barbell, which can increase unilateral strength and hypertrophy or add variety to your training program.

Dumbbell Bench Press

The dumbbell bench press allows for a greater range of motion, stimulates unilateral development, and can better accommodate your personal movement patterning if you find the barbell bench uncomfortable.

Push-Up

The ability to perform push-ups is critical for bench press performance. If you can’t even push your own body weight off the ground, you’re likely to have little success working with a heavy barbell. Further, the push-up can be a great way to take your training back to basics if you’re struggling with a plateau

You can also chuck in a few sets of push-ups between your working sets on chest day to introduce more total fatigue. They’ll also keep your form fresh and polished as you work through sets on the bench itself. 

Common Bench Press Mistakes

Whether you’re new to the gym overall or just haven’t dabbled in the art of bench pressing, you should be aware of what can go wrong when you lift. The bench press looks simple at a glance — and there are certainly more challenging movements out there — but there’s still plenty that can go wrong

Not Touching Your Chest

Barring an anatomical limitation or injury, you should probably touch your chest with the bar when you bench. More range of motion is generally better than less, but plenty of newbies stop short out of fear or a lack of confidence with the bar. Play with your posture and grip until you find a setup that allows you to comfortably bring the bar all the way down. 

Bouncing the Bar

At the other end of the spectrum from cutting your reps short, you have the dreaded bench bounce. Athletes who can’t control their tempo with the bar, or who have too much of an ego, may find themselves slamming the bar against their sternum to help lift it.

Not only will this lead to some painful bruising on your body, exploiting the momentum of a severe bounce is likely to rob you of the stimulus from the movement that creates gains in the first place. 

Lifting Without a Spotter

There’s absolutely no shame in having someone watch your back while you lift. The bench press can be perilous if things go wrong, so if you’re lifting heavy, you should probably have a spotter present. A good spotter can provide both security and the motivation to help you lift as well as you can.

Bench Business

The bench press is all it’s cracked up to be, and then some. There’s a reason you see it performed in powerlifting competitions and the NFL Combine alike. There are few better uses for the barbell than getting horizontal and blowing your pecs up with a heavy set (or two, or five). 

If you’ve been on the fence about it, it’s probably time to get on the bench instead. Your strength, and chest, will thank you. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the proper grip width for the bench press?

Generally speaking, the standard grip width for the bench press is slightly wider than shoulder width. The wider the grip, the greater stress is placed on the AC joint, which can be problematic for individuals with shoulder discomfort.

A narrower grip (shoulder width or narrower) will increase loading on the triceps and take the stress off the shoulders. As you approach the narrowest of grips (hands placed a few inches apart), some individuals may experience wrist pain. Therefore, it is important to understand that there is not one perfect grip placement, but rather it can vary based on the individual and the goal of the press (maximal powerlifting performance vs chest growth vs triceps growth vs pain management, etc).

Simply put: play with it and go with what feels right.

What are some effective press swaps for people with shoulder pain?

While bench pressing isn’t inherently bad for your shoulders, poor technique and excessive loading and training volume (like anything) can cause great shoulder problems and pain. If you are experiencing pain during the bench press, stop doing this movement and allow for the joint and connective tissues to heal and rest.

After addressing your limitations with a medical professional, you could integrate pressing movements like the floor press or swiss bar bench press, as well as work on proper setup and scapular stability in the bench press.

Should Olympic weightlifters do the bench press?

Some coaches fear that bench pressing will impede overhead mobility and impact the snatch and clean & jerk and add additional stress to the shoulders, however when done properly and not in excess, the bench press can be a great accessory movement to gain triceps strength and upper-body mass. This can be very helpful for lifters who have weak overhead stability or generally struggle with upper body strength. In turn, it will help weightlifters support loeads overhead. 

Featured image: Maksim Toome/Shutterstock