The bench press is one of the most popular exercises among men. It’s easy to understand why, given that it allows you to build up your chest muscles by pushing weights away from your body. But if you want a bigger chest, there are some things you should know about this exercise.
If you’re doing the bench press correctly, it will come together to help increase your chest size and strength over time – but let’s focus on how positioning can affect your workout routine!
How much do you bench press? Possibly the most common question asked in the gym. The bench press is probably the most popular weightlifting exercise of all time, yet many people bench press incorrectly. So what is the infatuation with the bench press?
Like the squat measures lower body strength, you can use the bench press to assess your upper body strength. The National Football League (NFL) hosts a yearly combine for America’s best college football players.
The NFL tests the athlete’s upper body strength using the bench press during the combine. A 1999 study found that muscular repetition with an absolute load of 225 lb can predict one repetition maximum (1-RM) on the bench press.
What you need to know about the bench press and the role it plays in bodybuilding
The bench press is a commonly used exercise that you can find in gyms. It is an upper body strength exercise focusing on the chest, shoulder, and tricep muscles.
While we recognize it as an essential strength exercise for many athletes, it can also be dangerous if not performed correctly, so those who know what they are doing should only do the bench press. It is also vital in weightlifting as it is part of the competition lifts.
We do not know who invented this exercise, but what is certain is that it has been around for many years. The first documentation of the bench press was in the machine section of a fitness book from 1894, which included what looked like a bench press with a wide grip showing that it may have been a prior record of what we now know as the bench press.
The Oxford English Dictionary listed the bench press as “an action performed by a weightlifter while lying face-up on a bench with feet on the ground, raising a barbell above chest using mainly arm strength until the weightlifter is unable or unwilling to go on.”
The purpose of this exercise is not just for pure strength, but also as an accessory movement linked to practical training, such as squats and deadlifts. This exercise can increase muscular strength, power, and hypertrophy. The bench press alone is not what develops the chest muscles. It is what you do before and after that makes the difference.
Increasing the load lifted in this exercise will help build muscle faster. However, what you do with your back, shoulders, and arms is just as important to stimulate growth. For example, what you do with your shoulders and what type of back exercise you choose to influence your results from the bench press.
The major muscle groups that the bench press works
Few body parts can rival the drawing power of the pecs. A muscular, well-defined chest is one of the distinguishing attributes of an alpha male. The chest muscles include the pectoralis major and minor.
The pectoralis major aids the serratus anterior in drawing the scapula forward as it moves the humorous flexion and internal rotation.
We use the pectoralis major powerfully in pushups and dips. It works closely with the anterior deltoid and as a helper of the latissimus dorsi muscles when extending and abducting the humorous from a raised position.
We also use the pectoralis minor and the serratus anterior in abduction without rotation. Finally, we use the pectoralis minor in depressing and rotating the scapula downward from an upwardly rotated position. We best accomplish this by raising the body a few inches higher in the top part of bar dips.
The primary muscles for the bench press work when performed correctly
- Anterior Deltoid
The secondary muscles for the bench press work when performed correctly
Some proven tips to help increase your bench press
Find the perfect grip! The complete bench press rep starts with finding your ideal grip on the bar. If your grasp is too broad, you use more chest and spend energy pushing outwards. If your grip is too narrow, you use more triceps and spend energy pushing inwards.
A 1992 study on the effect of grip width on bench press performance found that the grip width affects maximal bench press performance of experienced male weight lifters.
In addition, observation of the bar path at different grip widths revealed a decrease in the bar’s distance from the shoulder as the grip width increased.
The increase in grip width correlated with a decrease in the force’s movement around the shoulder axis.
Subsequently, the middle grip width, the sticking region, occurred at a greater vertical distance from the shoulder axis and lasted for a smaller percentage of the ascent phase than for the narrower or broader grip.
Meta-Physics of the bench press
The bench press, like all exercises, follows the laws of physics. The force travels from the chest to the shoulders, through the arms (primarily triceps), the hands, and finally to the barbell. Physics says we must transfer energy; therefore, some part of your chest, shoulders, arms, and hands is always at work when you bench press.
You can determine which muscles get worked by applying physics to the lift. Physics requires muscles to respond to weight at the point of force. The closer the power is to the energy point, the more it reacts to the pressure.
For example, the shoulders, a rotating muscle group with three parts, make many bench presses possible. Therefore, performing the shoulder press and other shoulder exercises improves your lift on the bench press.
By changing the force point, you change the muscles that respond to the exercise. Thus, changing the lift’s direction and angle changes the muscles affected by the lift.
The horizontal stretch to bench pressing
The horizontal stretch to bench pressing begins at the sternum and extends to the triceps. You control the bench press’s horizontal force through your handgrip.
A research study on the effect of handgrip showed that as the handgrip widened, the vertical path of the bar decreased. The study results also showed that a shoulder-width handgrip resulted in a bigger bench press performance than narrow or wide grips.
The distance that weight moves over time determines the amount of work performed on the bench press. The further the space, the more work performed, which improves muscle hypertrophy, endurance, and power.
Therefore, a narrow grip builds muscles, while a wider grip improves performance on the lift. Changing your handgrip changes the force required to lift the weight and how your muscles respond to a workout program.
The perfect grip allows you to build muscle and power while improving bench pressing performance.
When benching for strength, we often neglect the bench press handgrip, but it also affects how much volume we can do when pressing for hypertrophy.
So let’s get to know the handgrips more in-depth. A handgrip is a horizontal move directly affecting muscles across the chest from the sternum to the triceps. Here is how to use the correct handgrip to affect bench pressing performance:
The handgrip mimics the neutral (hammer) grip benching position, which puts the shoulders and elbows more secure while bench pressing. It is best for powerlifters because it allows them to bench more weight with optimal bench press bar path and less rotation.
Place your hands on the bar at shoulder width to perform a narrow handgrip. Now, move your hands closer together, about 3-5 fingers of movement, to get a feel for where your hands should be. You should feel a slight tightening in your chest. You can also use the threads on most barbells as a reference point.
The handgrip is the most commonly used grip for bodybuilders because it puts the shoulders in a more balanced position of strength between internal and external rotation.
Also, it allows you to bench more repetition and volume, both of which are goals for hypertrophy and strength.
Place your hands on the bar at shoulder width to perform a shoulder-width handgrip. It’s also called a bench press medium grip because it balances internal and external shoulder rotation strength. Also, this grip gives you a clear bar path to create maximum power.
The handgrip mimics the bodybuilding lift used in squats and deadlifts. It puts you at a biomechanical disadvantage, so weight is limited, and it also places the shoulders in an unstable position (rotator cuff muscles).
The wide grip benefits hypertrophy because it increases triceps activation and hypertrophy by preventing shoulder rotation. It also decreases bench press bar path and bench press power because it reduces the pressing force of the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, and upper chest.
Place your hands on the bar at shoulder width to perform a wide handgrip. Now, move your hands slightly apart, about 3-5 fingers of movement, to get a feel for where your hands should be. You should feel a slight tightening on your shoulders. You can also use the threads on most barbells as a reference point.
How do you find your perfect handgrip? Start with no weight on the bar, then lie back on the bench and lift the bar—lower the bar to the bottom part of your chest, close to your sternum. Now adjust your hands’ position on the bar until your forearms are as vertical as possible. This hand placement and bar position are your optimal bench press position.
The vertical stretch to bench pressing
While you can use the horizontal stretch to grow your muscles from your sternum to your shoulders, the vertical stretch works best from the clavicle to lower pecs. This is because you control the bench press’s vertical force through the bench’s position—you can make three bench adjustments: decline, flat, and incline.
Incline bench press
The Incline Bench Press builds the upper chest muscles, building a thicker chest. The exercise primarily works on the upper pecs and will not neglect your lower pecs like a flat bench.
For this reason, we often prefer it as powerlifters and bodybuilders. It also does a superior job of increasing strength in shoulder muscles. You can perform this exercise on a flat bench simply by adjusting the angle to be greater than 30 degrees but less than 90 degrees.
When performing the incline bench press, you lie flat on your back at an inclined angle while grabbing the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder handgrip.
You want to ensure you are squeezing your shoulder blades together before lifting the weight off the rack. Then inhale as you bring the weight down slowly and exhale as you push the weight up quickly. Pause for a split second at the bottom of the lift to control the weight before pressing upward.
Also, keep your body on the bench and your feet grounded. As you press up with your hands, press down with your feet.
Decline bench press
The decline bench press is an excellent exercise with incline and flat bench press since it will work the muscles differently. The decline bench press will place more resistance on the lower chest. It also takes the pressure off the shoulders, giving those with shoulder problems an extra edge to increase the chest’s size, strength, and definition.
When performing a decline bench press, you need to consider a spotter. While this may seem obvious, many gym-goers often overlook it. This is because you are placing the bar in a lower position than usual, which can cause injury if you’re not careful.
First, set the bench to a negative 30-degree angle to perform the decline bench press. Next, you want to place your feet on the ground and ensure they are at a shoulder width that will allow you to keep your balance.
When performing the decline bench press, inhale as you bring the weight down slowly and exhale as you push the weight up quickly. Pause for a split second at the bottom of the lift to control the weight before pressing upward.
Also, keep your body on the bench and your feet on the ground. As you press up with your hands, press down with your feet.
Flat bench press
A study examining the relationship between bench angle and muscle activation supported using a flat bench to achieve muscular activation of the pecs’ upper and lower heads.
A bench incline angle of 30° or 45° resulted in greater muscular activation during specific time points, suggesting that it is crucial to consider how muscular activation affects the chest at various times when selecting bench press exercises.
The pressure and hypertrophy decrease in the upper chest when adjusting the bench downward, and the stress and hypertrophy increase in the upper chest when changing the bench upward.
Therefore, the decline in bench press builds the lower chest and the triceps. The flat bench press works across the chest and front of the shoulders. And the incline bench press works the upper chest and top of the shoulders.
Changing the bench press angle changes the pressure applied to the muscles and how the body responds to the exercise. Each bench press position is unique and provides different results, like the handgrip.
For example, a vertical approach creates vertical results across the chest, shoulders, and triceps.
The in-depth approach to bench pressing
The last element of meta-physics that affects the bench press is time. The body has two types of muscles: fast and slow-twitch muscles. Fast-twitch muscles are more massive than surface muscles, while slow-twitch muscles are smaller and deeper. We base the process of activating different muscles on a muscle’s time under tension.
Scientists conducted a research study on 20 resistance-trained subjects. They randomly divided them into two groups, differing only regarding the bench press pushing speed.
Both groups trained twice a week for three weeks with a load equal to 85% of 1RM and monitored with an encoder.
After three weeks, participants showed a significant improvement in the fast push speed group: the maximum load improved by 10.20% and the maximal speed by 2.22%, while in the slow push speed group, the effect was < 1%.
Thus, the study showed that high-velocity training is required to increase muscle strength in subjects with more training experience. This is possible by measuring the individual performance speed for each load.
We can engage the primary and secondary muscles more by speeding up the concentric and slowing down the eccentric part of a lift.
Besides time under pressure, rest time varies how the body access energy, which determines power, endurance, and muscle hypertrophy.
Increasing rest time increases ATP–CP, which increases muscle power. Subsequently, decreasing rest time increases oxygen use, increasing muscle endurance.
Finally, the average rest time of around 60 seconds increases glycogen use, which causes hypertrophy. Therefore, you must maximize time under tension and rest to get the most out of the bench press.
Large, surface muscles like the back, chest, and butt have a much higher ratio of fast-twitch fibers.
Slow-twitch fibers dominate smaller, deeper muscles like the supraspinatus muscle (the rotator cuff), quadratus lumborum (deepest abdominal muscles), and piriformis (more minor buttock muscle). Variations in fiber-type dominance show a difference in function between muscles. The large surface muscles, dominated by fast-twitch fibers, should rest most of the time. Therefore, we should recruit them for short-duration, powerful movements.
More minor, deeper muscles dominated by slow-twitch fibers are postural muscles optimally positioned for long-duration and low-intensity activities. Muscles with a balanced ratio of fiber types offer variable functions. Deliberate, detailed rest time and speed of concentric and eccentric motions control an exercise’s duration and intensity.
Find your perfect bench position.
Lie back on the bench, not too close or too far away from the uprights, as this can either waste valuable energy when taking the weight off or hit the uprights when you press the weight up.
Plant your feet firmly on the floor with your knees bent to approximately 80-90 degrees. Keep your feet flat and heels on the floor. Grip the bar with a perfect grip and lock your shoulders back onto the bench.
Squeeze your shoulder blades together, push your chest out, and then drive your shoulder blades back into the bench and ‘lock’ them into position. Next, lower your glutes down onto the bench and squeeze. Your body should be tight and feel locked and secure on the bench.
NEVER put your feet on the bench, as this will make you dangerously unstable.
The Downward Phase: Take a deep breath, raise your chest, and close your body to the bench. Lower the bar, keep your elbows locked tightly against your sides, and use your hands to pull the bar apart. Touch the weight to your chest.
Always press your head, back, butt, and feet down to control the weight and get the most from the lift‘s eccentric and isometric portion. Once the weight slightly touches your chest, you have entered the isometric phase of the move.
To build your chest correctly, maintain force across your chest muscles during the eccentric and isometric portion of the lift. Never rest the weight completely upon your chest.
To train to failure or not to train to failure, that is the question – do you want a bigger chest or not?
Scientists conducted a 2005 study on training leading to repetition failure enhances bench press strength gains for junior athletes. Participants who trained to failure had substantially more significant increases in the 6-RM bench press than participants who did not work to failure.
When you train to failure, you exhaust the glycogen stores in the chest. Once the glycogen stores are empty, the chest does not have the energy to produce power. The body responds to this exhaustion by building more muscle to store more glycogen.
Do you want to build a massive chest? Train to failure. Bench press 6 – 12 reps for 4 – 10 sets with 30 to 60-minute rest time between sets. New lifters should try The 5×5 Workout Program To Build Strength. Experienced lifters should try the German Volume Training to add size and strength.
NEVER bounce the weight off your chest, as this can cause injury.
The Pressing Phase: Press the barbell up and drive with your legs. This transfers the power from your legs into pressing the bar quickly upwards. Drive the bar straight up hard and as fast. Exhale forcefully throughout the press, which will help you maintain torso stability. A weightlifting belt can help with core stability.
Keep your feet firmly planted on the floor throughout the bench press. Then, drive the bar upwards as fast as possible and with as much power as possible until your elbows ‘lockout’ and your arms are straight, completing your first bench press.
How much should you bench press based on your age?
To find the strength of your bench press–first, determine your 1-RM; second, determine your bench press rate by dividing your 1-RM by your bodyweight; third, use the table below based on your gender and age to find your rating.
Finally, look to determine your strength rating on the bench press. For example, a 24-year-old, 250-pound man who bench-presses 300 pounds with a bench press rate of 1.2 (300/250) has good strength.
Mix up your approaches and techniques for optimum results.
You must correctly combine the horizontal, vertical, and in-depth lifts to get the most out of the bench press and reach your desired goal. Biomechanical and anthropometric factors, including bar path, handgrip, chest depth, and genetics, influence the maximal bench press performance.
For example, a flat bench press with a narrow grip and 60-second rest time where the concentric motion is fast and the eccentric movement is slow creates different results from a flat bench press with a wide grip and 30-second rest time.
The difference between barbell and dumbbell press?
The barbell bench press is the king of chest exercises. No other activity provides as much bang for your buck to build chest mass and strength.
It works the entire pectoral muscles, primarily clavicular heads (upper chest) and sternal heads (lower chest). Although the pecs are a big fan-shaped muscle that spans the shoulder, upper chest, and front of the armpit, they are most dense at their insertion points, on the upper two-thirds of the humerus bone.
Most guys perform bench pressing in a way that lets this muscle fiber orientation do little but stabilize the weight. They roll their shoulders forward, so there is little heavy loading on the upper chest. The clavicle takes a beating as it is bent back and forth under the bar—resulting in an injury-prone shoulder joint that gives way at some point.
You must move the weight through a range of motion for optimal growth, emphasizing these insertion points. Move the weight through a more extended range of motion to stimulate the upper chest. Stop the bar 1 inch from your upper pecs at the negative phase (lowering).
After maximum pectoral hypertrophy, the barbell bench press is superior to dumbbell pressing.
The difference in effectiveness hinges on how much weight you can move through a full range of motion. Heavier weights will stimulate more growth. If there is no significant difference between dumbbells and barbells, then why bother with dumbbells?
First, dumbbells are more joint-friendly. Second, the rotator cuff muscles can handle an average weight on the barbell bench press, but you will overwork them any heavier.
The second benefit is that you don’t need a spotter for heavier weight. If you can’t lift the weight with a dumbbell, you can always drop the weight on the floor without hurting your body. With the barbell, if you can’t lift the weight, then it will land on your body and rest on your body until you can remove it off of your body.
The third benefit is the range of motion that the dumbbell provides.
You are probably familiar with the difference between free weight and machine chest exercises. Dumbell presses are somewhere in between these two extremes.
However, because there is no machine pin, you must keep the dumbbell stable throughout the movement. This stabilizing effort stimulates the chest more than on a machine.
The last benefit is that dumbbells are more convenient to use; you can lie down on them quickly, and they fit under your chin, so you don’t have to move things around or contort yourself as you do with barbells.
It’s important to note that if you are a beginner, learn to bench press on a barbell before attempting dumbbell presses. Knowing the correct form with a barbell will be easier because the range of motion is more extended, and there is no eccentric stress (lowering) to deal with.
Also, once you have mastered the basic barbell technique, dumbbells will feel more like a natural extension of your body.
Don’t forget to warm up correctly.
Since this is a compound exercise, you must warm up first for safety reasons and optimize your results during the first few sets. 5-10 minutes of light cardio on an upright bike is enough. Next, move to some basic calisthenics, pushups being a good choice. Do as many as you need to feel your chest and shoulders muscles.
A few sets of dumbbell flyes at 20-30% of your max weight will increase blood flow to the joints. We recommend using several progressively heavier warmup sets with just the bar (45 lbs for most people). You can get in some extra volume along with the warmups.
Here is a list of weight lifting exercises that build your bench press strength, chest size, and supporting muscles:
- The primary muscle is the fly isolates and builds the chest during the press.
- The bar dips build triceps and shoulder supporting muscles during the bench press.
- Cable Crossover is another exercise that isolates and builds the chest muscles.
- Skull Crushers build the triceps, a supporting muscle during the bench primary.
- Front Arm Raises build the anterior deltoid, a supporting muscle during the bench press.
- Reverse Fly builds the rotator cuff, a supportive group of muscles in the shoulder.
Use the bench press with these popular expert-recommended workouts:
What is the proper position for the bench press?
- Lie on a flat bench in a supine position.
2. Plant your feet firmly on the floor, wide enough to press them into the ground.
3. Place the head, shoulder blades, and sacrum firmly on the bench.
4. Maintain a natural arch in the lower back.
5. Grasp the barbell with a pronated grip.
6. Place the hands approximately 6 inches wider than shoulder-width.
What is the proper technique for the bench press?
- Always use a qualified spotter when performing the bench press.
- Rest the head, shoulder blades, and sacrum firmly on the bench.
- Keep the wrist firm.
- Choose the correct handgrip and bench angle to work specific muscles.
- Lower the bar slowly and progressively tighten your muscles.
- Pause for a split second at the bottom of the lift.
- Never bounce the weight off of your chest.
- Press the bar quickly back up on a vertical pathway,
- Press your feet firmly into the floor during the press.
- Always inhale to lower the weight and exhale to press the weight.
What are some common mistakes to avoid for the bench press?
- Lift head, shoulder blades, or butt off the bench while pressing.
2. Lift the feet off the ground while pressing.
3. Keeping the wrist loose and flexible.
4. Bounce the weight off the chest to press more weight.
5. Hold breath during the eccentric or concentric portion of the lift.