August 12, 2021
There are 6 primary foundational movements that must be trained in fitness - Push, Pull, Squat, Lunge, Hinge, and Rotation. All 6 are equally vital, but today we will just focus on push, and thus, bench press, as BENCH PRESS is the KING of PUSH. In order to excel in this essential movement pattern, it’s important to learn everything you can about it. As such, we've put together this guide where we cover how to do the bench press (with right & wrong form cues), the inimitable benefits of bench press and the muscles worked, the many variations of bench press (barbell and dumbbell chest presses) and how to program this principal functional strength movement into your routine.
The bench press, which is also referred to as a chest press, is an upper body exercise in which you press a barbell or dumbbells upward while lying on a weight training bench.
The primary movers of the bench press are the pectoralis major, anterior deltoids and the triceps. The purpose of bench presses is to strengthen and increase the size of these muscles, as well as to improve stability for pushing movements.
Note: The bench press is a powerful compound movement so other muscles of the upper body will be activated as well. We will get more into the muscles worked later.
The bench press plays a very important role in weightlifting, bodybuilding and powerlifting as it is one of several staple compound exercises. Specifically, the barbell bench press is one of the Big Three in competitive powerlifting, alongside squats and deadlifts. This is because with squats, deadlifts and bench press, you have a clear picture of overall total body strength. As such, the bench press is considered the ultimate upper body exercise.
Variations of the Bench Press
There are many variations of the chest press, such as incline and decline bench press. However, the principal version of the chest press is the flat barbell bench press, which is used in competitive sport.
The term 'bench press' on its own will always refer to a flat bench press.
Essentially, when it comes to strength training, other variations of bench press, which includes dumbbell bench presses, are worked into routines around the flat barbell bench press, if at all, albeit beginners may simply use dumbbells when starting out.
All in all, the flat bench press would always be considered a main lift, not an assistance lift like incline or decline bench presses may be depending on the program. We will go over programming bench press into your routine later in this guide.
Below is how to do a correct flat bench press using a barbell.
We will go over different variations of bench presses further below, but as the flat bench press is the primary chest press exercise, it deserves the most detail on form. Plus, a lot of these same cues apply to all the other chest presses, as you will see, and if they don't we will make note of it.
How to do a bench press:
While there are different grip variations of flat bench press (such as wide grip and close grip), the standard grip should be a little wider than shoulder width. This way, when you lower the bar down, your hands will be directly aligned with your elbows, which will allow you to have the greatest force production.
Your arms should be at about 45˚ from your torso when doing a standard flat bench press. This will allow you to distribute the weight across your chest, shoulders, and triceps better and is generally the safest position for your shoulder girdle. The 45˚ angle also makes scapular retraction easier.
That said, it should be noted that having a 90˚ angle (elbow directly in line with the barbell) or your elbows tucked is ok, it’s just different. With your elbows at almost 90˚, you will distribute more weight on your chest, and with your elbows tucked near your sides, it will place more emphasis on your triceps and shoulders. Generally, people will be the strongest with their arms at 45 degrees because they recruit the primary movers more evenly.
Note: If you have a bit of shoulder pain, a happy-medium for strength and pain-free bench presses is a 75˚ angle.
Arms & Head:
When you lie down on the bench, your eyes should be in line with the bar.
After unracking the barbell, position your arms so they are perfectly vertical. This is the safest and strongest position to be in.
Keep your head neutral at all times.
Forearms & Wrists:
Your forearm should be perfectly vertical when the bar touches your chest. If your wrists bend back, grip the bar a little lower on your palm. You want your wrist straight.
Shoulders & Upper Back:
Keep your shoulders (rear delts) on the bench throughout the lift. Don’t shrug them forward when your press up. A good cue is to think about pushing yourself away from the bar rather than pressing the bar away from your chest.
Keep your shoulder blades squeezed together as well. Imagine you are holding a pen between your shoulder blades. This will keep your upper back flat and your shoulders stable during bench presses. The squeeze of your shoulder blades should happen even before you unrack the bar.
Butt & Chest:
Since your lower back is naturally curved, it’s actually best to have a slight arch in your back. But definitely don’t exaggerate the arch like powerlifters sometimes do in competition.
Always keep your butt to the bench.
Overall, by squeezing your shoulder blades together, your chest will lift up a bit towards the ceiling and you will naturally have a mild arch in your thoracic spine. This will ensure safety of your shoulder joint and maximum strength.
By the way, be sure to drive your feet into the floor. This will help you create more force and thus lift heavier.
Lower the bar down to your lower sternum (about nipple level). This will usually create a slight “J-curve”. Essentially, at the top of the lift, the bar is directly over your shoulders and at the bottom when the bar touches your chest your forearms are vertical.
The bench press has a number of inimitable benefits. Here are the main reason why you should be doing bench presses:
1. Bench Press Builds Upper Body Mass Like No Other
We all know that the bench press is great for hypertrophy of your pecs, but it will also build up your shoulders and triceps big time. There’s no better exercise for these muscles because the bench press allows for the greatest overload.
Considering your triceps make up 70% of your upper arm, wide shoulders give you an impressive V-shape, and big meaty broad pecs give off a very impressive, almost-godly appearance, the bench press is one of the most important exercises if you want to increase your upper body mass.
Overall, if you want a muscular upper body, the bench press is a must. The bench press is like 1/3 the battle for upper body hypertrophy. This makes it an extremely efficient exercise, as most big compound exercises are. All you really need is bench press, OHP, rows and pull ups. Everything else is accessory.
2. Bench Press Is the Best for Upper Body Pushing Strength
While the Overhead Barbell Press is a great upper body pushing exercise too, the Bench Press allows for greater strength simply because it’s easier to progress with.
The best part about getting stronger at bench press is it doesn’t only get you stronger at bench press! It will make stronger in all your pushing exercises, like overhead press. Not only that, but it will improve your ability to create force, which is essential in sports. If you want to throw farther, punch harder, resist force coming at you, bench press will get you there.
When it comes to upper body strength, the bench press is the number one determining factor.
3. Bench Press Increases Bone Density
Lifting weights is not all about your muscles, it’s about your bones too! Lifting weights is great for your musculoskeletal system as a whole.
By lifting heavy loads, your bones will get denser and stronger. Considering your strongest upper body lift will be the bench press (without question), then there is no better exercise for upper body bone health than the bench press.
4. Bench Press Boosts Testosterone
Another great thing about lifting heavy, which you can do with bench press better than any other upper body exercise, is that it boosts the natural production of testosterone. The same goes with squatting and deadlifting. The more testosterone in your body, the more muscle you will build and the stronger you will get.
Note: This does not happen to women to a notable degree.
5. Bench Press Improves Metabolism
First of all, the bench press will burn a ton of calories because the exercise is so taxing. Second of all, the more muscle you build, the more calories you burn while resting. As such, if you are training bench press on a regular basis, it will contribute greatly to improving your metabolism.
Besides physical benefits, the bench press is fairly easy to learn and its efficient. You can work a lot of muscles in one shot.
Both barbell bench press and dumbbell bench press should have their place in the average weightlifters routine.
The barbell bench press is great because it allows you to lift the heaviest load possible. This is why it is used in powerlifting. You can do a one rep max with barbell bench press (as you can with barbell squats, deadlifts, and OHP).
With dumbbells, you simply can’t go as heavy because you have to bring them off the floor and into position. Moreover, each arm is independent of each other, which forces more stability, thus making things more difficult.
Another great thing about barbell bench press is you can increase in smaller increments. You could add as little as 1.25lbs to each side, which is essentially 1.25lbs per side. With dumbbells, the smallest increment will be 5lbs when you get to the heavier sizes.
Now, there are also some notable advantages of dumbbell bench press.
One of the advantages of dumbbells relates back to the point of stability. Because dumbbells require more stability, you will be working your muscles differently, which is good for hypertrophy, and you will be better targeting your stabilizer muscles to a higher degree.
Some studies show that dumbbells activate the pecs better than barbell bench press. However, what the barbell may lack in activation it makes up for it in total load. The greater the load, the greater the effect on muscle fiber recruitment. So, both have merit on the hypertrophy front.
Another reason why dumbbells are great is that they allow for an even greater range of motion, which is part of the reason why they have such great muscle activation.
Lastly, they are less risky in terms of pushing yourself. If you fail to do a rep (and you don’t have a spotter), you can simply drop the dumbbells.
All in all, it’s great to do both or mix it up throughout your training cycles.
No matter what variation of the bench press you do, pretty much all the same muscles will be activated. However, the different variations of the bench press will emphasize certain muscles.
Let’s look at the quintessential, standard flat bench press to see all the muscles that are worked, and then when we demonstrate the different variations further below, we will make note of the muscles emphasized for each specific variation.
FLAT BENCH PRESS MUSCLES WORKED
Primary muscles worked:
Technically your anterior deltoids and triceps are synergist muscles for the bench press and your pec major is the agonist. This means that the pec major is the primary muscle that generates force while the anterior deltoids and triceps act around the moveable joints (anterior deltoids = shoulder joint; triceps = elbow joint) to produce motion in concert with the pec major. However, due to how much activation and thus development the anterior delts and triceps get, they are generally also considered main muscles targeted along side the pec major during bench press.
Note: Grip width will change up the dynamics of the muscles worked. With a moderate-to-wide grip, you decrease the range of motion and your elbow will be more directly under the bar, which activates your chest to a higher degree and shifts emphasis away from your shoulders and triceps. With a narrow grip, your elbow move in front of the bar and this shift the emphasis to your upper chest, shoulders, and triceps. The closer your hands are together, the more your triceps will be activated because your elbows will move through full extensions, which is powered by your triceps. The standard, slightly-wider-than-shoulder-width grip will more evenly distribute weight across the three muscles, which is why strength is usually greatest with this grip.
In addition to the dynamic muscles of the lift that we just went over, you have stabilizer muscles...
These stabilizer muscles help to decelerate the bar and restrict inefficient movement mechanics. For the most part, these muscles will be activated through isometric contraction, which means they will all get stronger when performing bench press.
In summary, the primary movers work in collaboration with the stabilizers to produce maximum force and well-coordinated movement. In terms of the greatest strength and hypertrophy development, it is your primary movers that will receive the greatest effect. However, together, there is a substantial effect on overall upper body strength.
Below are 10 barbell bench press variations plus some other techniques you can use to increase your strength. After we go through the barbell bench presses, we will look at some dumbbell bench press variations.
We’ve already went over all you need to know about the standard grip flat bench press. If you need to learn how to do it, scroll up to the 'How To Do A Bench Press' section.
The barbell bench press will always be the main lift for strength programs. It will put your chest, shoulders and triceps in the greatest position to lift heavy and use a large range of motion. You should perform this exercise first. The standard grip, which is 1.5x your shoulder width, is the best for overall development of the chest, shoulders and triceps.
An Incline barbell bench press will be at an angle of about 30-45˚. With incline bench press, you can do different variations of grip, just like you can a flat bench, but we will just go over what the general purpose of the incline bench is.
For incline bench press, the emphasis is on your shoulders and upper chest (more formally known as the clavicular head of the pec major), although your triceps will get similar activation as a flat bench press.
The form of the press is the same. The standard grip is about 1.5x shoulder width and your elbows will be tucked at around 45-70˚. Because of your body positioning, the bar will come down higher up on the chest with an incline bench press. So, rather than about nipple level, it will be near your upper chest. You should still bring the bar down to touch your chest if you have the shoulder mobility to do so (if not, work on that).
A decline barbell bench press will be at an angle of about -15˚. Just like incline and flat bench, you have different grip options, but standard grip is 1.5x shoulder width.
The decline bench press emphasizes the lower part of your lower chest (which is called the sternocostal head).
Honestly, the decline is the least important of flat, incline and decline bench presses for the average lifter. You can get just as good effect for the lower chest with weighted dips and its safer. Really flat and incline are the most important bench press variations. Nevertheless, a lot of lifters like to do decline barbell or dumbbell bench presses as accessory lifts.
Close grip barbell bench press has your shoulders at about shoulder width apart. This will have your elbows close to your torso and out slightly in front of the bar when you lower the barbell down.
Note: You can play around with how close your hands are, but the typical close grip will have your hands just outside of your chest.
The close grip barbell bench press shifts emphasis to your triceps. It also hits more of your inner chest (get that good separation between left and right side). This variations is typically used as an assistance lift to build up the three-headed monster aka triceps, so it wouldn’t take the place of a standard grip or even wide grip bench press as it has less focus on the pecs. The close grip barbell bench press not only develops your triceps amazingly well, but it will also improve your strength in the standard grip bench press.
The above is true for close grip incline and decline presses as well.
Note: The close grip internally rotates the shoulder joint which can be hard on the shoulders for some people. It also places greater stress on the wrists. So, this is something to pay attention to. Generally speaking, you will be using considerably lighter loads for close grip bench press than you will with standard or wide.
Wide grip barbell bench press is around 2x shoulder width apart. This will have your elbows at a little under 90˚, which is safe for your shoulders. As you lower the bar down, your elbows will be kept directly under the bar.
The wide grip barbell bench press shifts emphasis to your pectoralis major, specifically the lower, middle and outer area of your pec major. Most people use this grip if they really want to hone in on their chest and take emphasis off their triceps and stop the shoulders from being a limiting factor. This is true for incline and decline bench presses.
Note: The wider grip makes it harder to keep your shoulder blades retracted, which means it’s harder to have a sturdy bench press. Because of this, usually wide grip bench press is recommended for intermediate and advanced lifters, especially when it comes to lifting heavy loads.
The reverse grip barbell bench press can be done using a flat or incline bench. It can also be done with a close, standard or wide grip. Either way, the purpose of the reverse grip bench press is to take pressure and work off the shoulders. The reverse grip places emphasis on the upper chest and the triceps.
If using a flat bench, studies show around a 30% increase on upper chest activation. So, if you want to target your upper chest without as much shoulder work, flat bench reverse grip is great. The same is true for incline, but the increase to the upper chest is not as great, consider the incline position already targets the upper chest more with the standard grip. With incline reverse grip bench press, you’ll get about a 5-10% increase in upper chest recruitment.
You can play around with the close and wide grip as well to shift emphasis more from your triceps to your chest.
While the standard bench press lowers the bar down to nipple level, you can play around with different lowering targets. One variation is to lower the bar down to the neck on a flat bench. This is called a guillotine bench press.
The guillotine bench press works the same muscles as any bench press (chest, shoulders, triceps). However, due to the unique path of the bar and the way the elbows are flared, you will be minimizing the anterior deltoids and maximizing your upper chest (clavicular head) significantly. In fact, some EMG studies actually show it’s better than any other bench press for total pec major activation. The only issue is, it’s more dangerous considering you are lowering the bar to your neck and can be harder on the shoulders because you elbows are flared. This is not an exercise for those with shoulder issues.
Some key cues, which you’ve probably gather by now are, you need to lower the bar to your neck level and your elbows should be direction under the bar, so they will be at 90˚ with your body.
This is a standard bench press in terms of form and body positioning and everything. The only difference is you will use bands to hang weights off the ends of both sleeves of the barbell. By doing this, you will be completely changing the dynamics of stability. You will need to focus much more on stabilizing the barbell as you lower it and press it. This is great for activating your primary movers in a different way, but more so it increases the demand on all of your stabilizing muscles. This is a great way to develop overall strength that will translate to stronger more stable standard presses.
This is a very similar concept as the hanging weights. Keeping your legs up like this will significantly increase the demand on your core stability, which in turn allows for greater levels of strength. That said, because you can’t drive force from your feet, you won’t be able to lift as much. The same is true for hanging weights, as the stability demands will require you to lower the weight.
If you don’t have access to a bench, it doesn’t mean you can’t do chest presses! The floor press is a good alternative that targets the same muscles as the bench press, albeit with a lesser range of motion.
That said, the floor press is not just used for those who don’t have a bench. In fact, it’s more common, at least in terms of barbell floor presses, to use them to work on increasing lock out strength and tricep and shoulder development. It’s essentially a partial rep exercise in this case. When it comes to dumbbells, they are most commonly done because people don’t have access to a bench. Nevertheless, the same is true.
Speaking of partial reps...partial reps can be done with a bench too, to work on specific segments of the bench press. Usually its quarter or half range of motion. With that, significantly heavier loads can be used, since it’s the bottom range of motion that is the harder when it comes to bench press.
If you think about strength curves, the movement is easier at the top than it is the bottom. So, when choosing a weight load, you are essentially catering to your strength in the bottom range of the movement. With partial reps, you are catering to the top range only, so you can go heavier.
This can also be done with bands and chains. This is called variable resistance...
With resistance bands, the more they stretch, the more resistance they have. So, if you anchor a band to the bottom of the bench or to the floor somehow (i.e. with a dumbbell or some kind of weight to hold it down) and then attach the other end to the sleeve, you are going to have added resistance from the band. With that, in the bottom range of the bench press, the band has less tension, almost to a negligible point, so the weight load is not really more difficult than it normally would be without the band. However, as you press up, the band stretches, so when you reach the mid to top range, the band adds resistance so what would normally be the easier part of the lift becomes harder. This essentially eliminates the strength curve.
Pause reps are used to implement isometric training into your lifts. Basically you just pause for a couple or several seconds at the middle range or just before it reaches your chest then continue as normal. This switches you from eccentric-concentric contraction to isometric contraction. Overall, it is good for building strength, as isometric contraction is great for getting stronger. This will translate to you being able to press heavier loads.
We really don’t need to go into too much detail with dumbbell bench press variations as much of the targeted muscles are the same. However, we have a couple different variations for you.
But, before we show you the dumbbell bench press exercises, we want to make note of the key differences with using dumbbells.
As we mentioned, dumbbells are said to provide greater activation of the pecs, yet not as great of a load can be used. So, they are very effective and most lifters use dumbbells as much if not more than barbells. Usually they will use barbell for one main lift (i.e. flat bench or incline bench) and then dumbbells for the other pressing variations or chest exercises.
The reason dumbbells are so great is that they provide a greater range of motion and they allow your arms to work independently, which can iron out muscle imbalances. Moreover, it requires them to activate to a slightly higher degree to stabilize. With dumbbells, you can get a greater stretch and squeeze in your pecs (you can bring them closer together at the top of the movement, which forces your chest to contract more).
All in all, you definitely want to implement dumbbells into your routine. The only people who really don’t both with dumbbell bench presses are beginners who are doing a very basic strength program.
Here are the various dumbbell bench press variations...
Muscles Worked: Pec Major, Delts, Triceps, Core
Muscles Worked: Pec Major (Emphasis on Upper Chest), Delts, Triceps, Core
Muscles Worked: Pec Major (Emphasis on Lower Chest), Delts, Triceps, Core
Muscles Worked: Pec Major (Emphasis on Upper Chest), Triceps, Delts, Core
Muscles Worked: Muscles Worked: Shoulders, Triceps, Pec Major, Core
The single arm dumbbell works all the same muscles as a bilateral chest press, however it requires more core stability since you are only pressing on one side and you must keep your body squared up/forward.
The main benefit of single arm dumbbell bench presses is that you can address muscle imbalances. This is also a good exercise for athletes as sports can be very unilateral, albeit so can life in general.
Overall, the same is true for alternating dumbbell chest presses as well.
The hammer chest press takes a little stress off the shoulders while emphasizing the inner and lower pec major. The movement is quite similar as a regular db bench press except your hands will be held in a hammer grip (neutral grip with palms facing in) and you will have your arms at about 90˚. With hammer grip chest presses, you will have an even greater ROM because you can bring your hands closer together at the top of the movement.
This variation uses the same grip as a hammer press. However, you will be keeping the dumbbells at your centerline throughout the exercise. The dumbbells will stay pressed together and you will simply press up and down in a straight path. The act of squeezing the dumbbells together throughout the movement does a really great job of keeping a lot of tension on your pecs. Overall, the emphasis will be on your upper, inner and outer chest as well as your triceps.
Related: What Size Dumbbells Should I Buy?
The bench press is not the end all be all when it comes to chest development. However, if you want to build maximal pushing strength, bench press is a must. Being strong in the bench press will allow you to be successful in all other functional push movements, not to mention in sports and in life.
Back to chest development (as well as front delt and tricep development)...
The bench press obviously does a fantastic job of building these muscles. Moreover, it does so in an efficient manner. Rather than doing various more isolated exercises for countless reps, you can bench press heavy loads (relative to your strength) with less volume to the same or even greater effect.
All in all, if you want to build an impressive chest, and upper body horizontal pushing strength, the bench press is the most effective and efficient way to do so.
BUT THERE IS A CAVEAT...
The only reason we would say that you shouldn’t bench press is if you have shoulder joint issues, as bench press is shown to be hard on the shoulder joints, especially if using poor form for extended periods of time.
And while it would be easy to say you should do bench press with this exact form to avoid injury, and if you didn’t follow that, it’s your fault, not the bench press’ fault, that would be wrong because not all cues work for all benchers. This is because not everyone’s bodies and joints are structured the same. As such, you need to get a form down that is right for you. This applies to both maximizing strength and keeping your joints free of injury.
Related: If you have shoulder joint injuries, try these Resistance Band Rotator Cuff Exercises
Not every variation of the bench press will be right for you. You may find that certain variations are hard on your joints or simply ineffective. This includes the flat bench press. So, you need to shop around.
It also depends on what’s your training goal.
For example, if you want to be a powerlifter, then the flat barbell bench press is a must, as that is one of the three lifts used in the sport. However, if you just want to improve body composition (like a bodybuilder) then you could theoretically skip barbell bench presses altogether and just stick to dumbbells.
That said, we still recommend using barbell bench press lifts like flat and incline bench press as it allows you to maximize strength, which will only help your bodybuilding and body composition goals as the more strength you have, the better your hypertrophy potential will be.
For powerlifters, you really don’t need any fluff. Especially as a beginner. You could just stick to the flat bench press and maybe the incline bench press. As you get more advanced, you will have options for incorporating assistance bench press lifts into your routine, like close grip bench press and dumbbell bench press, but if you are advanced enough, you already know this.
For the average lifter who just wants to look better, feel better and get stronger, we recommend alternating between flat barbell bench press and incline barbell bench press and then adding the other variations into your routine as you see fit. Below is an example of how you can add the variations into your routine.
Month 1 Workout:
Month 2 Workout:
You could even have this kind of alternation weekly or bi-weekly.
If you are a true beginner, then you really just need to stick to one bench press variation, and we would recommend that to be the flat barbell (or dumbbell) bench press. You will see rapid gains as a beginner and there is no need for fluff as just maximizing one lift and progressing in it will be more than enough to see the improvements you want. That’s the beauty of being new to fitness. Once you get more advanced, you’ll need to start adding in variety.
This really depends on your fitness goals and your workout program. Most beginner strength programs will involve keeping the same rep range and increasing the intensity over time, with intensity typically being the weight load. However, intermediate and advanced lifters and programs will likely want to mix up rep and load ranges.
The below are standard rep and load ranges for power, strength, hypertrophy, and endurance.
Whatever you choose, you want to challenge yourself to get the most out of your reps to see gains, but always be safe. Remember, the bench press is a very high risk, high reward exercise when done with heavy weights.
This will depend on your fitness level and the program you are following. Generally speaking, beginner and intermediate lifters will see the best results by benching twice a week. Studies show that training a muscle group twice a week will show better results than once a week.
Be that as it may, you may be following a program that only has you hitting bench press once a week and also overhead press once a week. You may also be at a more advanced stage where you need more time for recovery between sessions, so training bench press once a week is best.
All in all, you should use your best judgement and see how you feel. Over time you will find a happy medium between undertraining and overtraining/overreaching. If you feel you could be doing more, then add another day of bench press to your routine. If you feel that your body is exhausted and not recovering after consecutive weeks of hitting bench press twice a week, take a deload week or simply remove the exercise from one of your days for the time being. Use deload weeks smartly and frequently (i.e. every 4-8 weeks) and you shouldn’t have any issue with doing bench press twice a week (if your routine calls for it).
Related Content: Can I bench with a Smith Machine?
BENCH PRESS: MORE BENEFICIAL THAN YOU THOUGHT?
Now that you know all there is to know about the bench press, its variations, and the many benefits, how do you plan to add them to your routine? Whatever you decide, we hope that you use this great upper body compound exercise to your fitness advantage and you can build more muscle and smash your upper body goals.
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