The bench press is one of the most popular and widely used exercise to increase strength in the upper body and build chest muscle. In this guide, we will discuss the bench press, the muscles worked, and some beneficial styles and variations to boost your bench press and help you maximize strength and muscle gains and minimize injury.
In this bench press exercise guide, we’ll cover multiple topics, including:
- How to Do the Bench Press
- Benefits of the Bench Press
- Muscles Worked by the Bench Press
- Who Should Do the Bench Press
- Bench Press Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
- Bench Press Variations
- Bench Press Alternatives
- Frequently Asked Questions
Bench Press Video Guide
Check out our in-depth video guide, featuring acclaimed powerlifter Taylor Atwood, for a thorough walkthrough.
Their bench press is a movement that requires upper body strength and mass. In the below step-by-step guide, we discuss how to perform the barbell bench press (flat). If you are a powerlifter looking for powerlifting specific bench press technique, be sure to take a look at our powerlifting-specific bench press guide.
Step 1 — Get Set
Before you even initiate the press, you need to get the weight ready. Start by firmly planting your feet on the floor with the knees bent at 90-140 degrees. With the buttocks and upper back planted on the bench, allow your back to naturally arch. Set your grip, and depress the shoulder blades down and back.
Form Tip: Your legs and body should be rigid, and you should feel the hamstrings, glutes, and back muscles engaged in the setup.
Step 2 — Set the Back
Once your back is on the bench, you want to squeeze your shoulder blades together. Also, make sure your feet are actively pressing into the floor. Doing so will help create more recruit more muscles in your body to help with the lift. Think of the back muscles as the base of this lift. By squeezing your scapulas together, you’re tensing the back and engaging those muscles. As you pull the weight down, you’ll feel your lats tighten, almost as if they’re springs ready to explode upwards.
Form Tip: The elbows should be directly underneath the wrist, as this will help keep the shoulder joint in proper positioning.
Step 3 — Lower the Barbell With Control
Keep your elbows pointed at 45 degrees, and begin to lower the weight. Avoid letting your arms waver from your pressing path. Lower the weights until the barbell is at your chest. At the bottom of the press, the barbell should be towards the lower half of the chest or sternum.
Form Tip: As you lower the bar, think about pressing yourself deeper into the bench and pulling the barbell towards you.
Step 4 — Press the Weight
Once your back is tight, and the weight is sitting at chest level, drive the barbell up over your chest. Be sure to keep your elbows tucked in at 45 degrees throughout the lift to maintain proper pressing mechanics.
Form Tip: Keep your feet screwed into the floor. This extra leg engagement will help you push even more weight, especially as you lift heavier loads.
The bench press is a potent upper-body mass building exercise that stresses some of the body’s largest muscles. The chest, triceps, and even back can be trained with high volume and intensity with the classic lift. Increasing muscular size and density can lead to enhancements in strength and performance capabilities as well.
The bench press is one of two pressing movement patterns (the other is vertical pressing). Using horizontal pressing (bench pressing and all the variations below), can maximally induce strength development through the upper body chain. This is useful not only for a bigger bench but also for overhead pressing strength and power output in front of the body. (For example, a fighter throwing a punch.)
The bench press is an upper-body pressing movement to increase the size, strength, and performance of primarily the anterior upper body. Below are the primary muscles used, as well as secondary muscles used to assist and support the movement, in order:
The pectoral muscles are the prime mover in the bench press and are targeted in all bench press variations (flat, incline, decline, etc.). Factors that can influence the loading demands placed on the pecs during the bench include grip width, eccentric control, pauses, and range of motion.
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 the grip width into shoulder width or slightly even narrower to make this a close grip bench press.
The shoulders, primarily the anterior (front) head of the deltoid, are responsible for assisting in the bench press. While the triceps and pecs do most of the work in this movement, the shoulders are an assistance muscle.
The bench press is a versatile movement that can be done with barbells, dumbbells, and specialty bars to increase upper body strength, hypertrophy, and sport-specific performance. Below we will discuss what types of athletes can benefit from the bench press and why.
Strength and Power Athletes
Strength and power athletes use the bench press to increase overall strength, add quality muscle massto the chest and triceps, and improve sport-specific performance.
- Powerlifters: The bench press is one of the three competition lifts (squat, bench, and deadlift), making it vital to perform for powerlifters. While this is not to say that powerlifters shouldn’t perform other pressing variations and alternatives (take a look at the below sections), it is strongly urged that powerlifters master bench press technique to maximize competition-specific performance.
- Strongmen and Strongwomen: Similar to powerlifters (with the exception that the bench press is not a lift performed in competition), the bench press is often used to increase overall pressing strength and muscle mass. The bench press, in addition, to push presses, jerks, single-arm presses all hold a valuable place among upper body strength training exercises for strongman athletes.
- Weightlifters: Olympic weightlifters can use the bench press to increase overall pressing strength and add upper body muscle mass (chest, triceps, shoulders), especially with lifters who may lack upper body strength and size. While there is no sport-specific movement in weightlifting similar to the bench press (as weightlifting is an overhead sport), it can be integrated for general upper body strength and hypertrophy training.
Functional Fitness Athletes
Functional fitness competitors can use the bench press, like other pressing variations, to increase chest and triceps overall strength and hypertrophy. Increasing muscle mass will universally increase an athlete’s capacity to increase strength, muscular endurance, and pressing performance (strength and abilities can then carry over to movements like push-ups, burpees, handstand push-ups, dips, jerks, to name a few.)
The bench press can be used for most individuals looking to increase chest mass and strength. It is important that lifters master proper bench press technique and add various dumbbell variations, bodyweight push-ups, and other pressing alternatives to maximize performance and muscle growth while avoiding overuse injuries to the shoulder and wrist (often the case with individuals who bench incorrectly or too frequently).
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
The bench press can be used to increase muscle size and overall chest and triceps hypertrophy. If you are looking to build significant amounts of muscle mass, it is important to understand the eccentric loading (lowering of the weight) and tension is key. Therefore, making sure to use loads that you can control yet still push challenging reps is necessary. Start with four to six sets of six to 10 repetitions with moderate to heavy loads (70-90% RM). Rest as needed (generally on to three minutes).
To Gain Strength
For general strength building sets, athletes can perform lower repetition ranges for more sets. The actual programming will vary based on the individual program, however generally speaking, the lifers will perform three to eight sets of one to five repetitions with moderate to heavy loads (80-95% RM), resting two to four minutes between sets.
To Improve Muscle Endurance
Some lifters may want to train greater muscle endurance (for sport), in which higher repetition ranges and/or shorter rest periods are recommended. While this can vary drastically in terms of loading, rest periods, and training volume (sets and reps), you can start by performing two to three sets of 10-20 repetitions with 45-60 second rest with light to moderate loads (30-70% RM)
Below are four barbell bench press movements that can be done to increase overall bench press strength, address limitations, and increase the muscle mass of the chest and triceps.
Incline Bench Press
The pin press (also very similar to the board press) can increase strength at a specific sticking point throughout the bench press range of motion. Similar benefits to the floor press or the rack pull for deadlifting, this movement can be done to address weakness in certain ranges, add hypertrophy and stress to particular muscle groups, and even limit movements for cautious athletes with injuries or special considerations.
The floor press, which can be done with bars or dumbbells, is a bench press variation with a lifter assuming a lying start on the floor. By performing the press on the floor as opposed to a bench, the range of motion is decreased, specifically targeting the triceps. This partial bench press movement can be beneficial for adding muscular hypertrophy to those muscle groups, lockout strength, or a variation to allow pressing with athletes who may have shoulder injuries or precautions.
Fat Bar Bench Press
The fat Bar is a variation (either using Fat Gripz or fat bar) to increase grip strength and stabilize the arm and shoulder during the press. Doing so, less ability to compensate with excessive extension of the wrist (due to the fat grip) can lead to better elbow and shoulder joint function, increasing emphasis on the triceps and chest.
Below are three bench press variations that do not include a barbell, which can increase unilateral strength and hypertrophy or add variety to a training program.
Dumbbell Bench Press
The dumbbell bench press allows for a greater range of motion (increases stimulus), unilateral development, and can better adjust the angles movement patterning best to fit every athlete’s anthropometric differences at the shoulder.
While this is not a “bench press” variation, the ability to perform push-ups is critical for bench press performance. Without the ability to support oneself on the push-up can lead to injury and weakness in supported pressing styles.
Swiss Bar Bench Press
This pressing style has a lifter use a Swiss bar to perform the movement, which differs the hands’ angle on the bar (and width). By doing so, the stress on the shoulder is decreased, with a large increase in triceps and pectoral development. Like the floor press, this can be used for strength and hypertrophy specific to those groups, lockout performance, and precautionary measures for shoulder concerns.
What is the proper grip width for the bench press?
Generally speaking, the standard grip width for the bench press is to be taken slightly wider than shoulder-width. The wider the grip, the greater loading is placed on the chest, and the anterior deltoid. Additionally, 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.
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