Table of Contents
- What Muscles Does the Bench Press Work?
- How to Bench Press
- Bench Press Variations
- How to Increase Your Bench Press Numbers
Visit any gym in the country with free weights and you’ll see at least one person bench pressing.
It’s one of the top three weightlifting exercises, partially because it distills the lifter’s art:
You take a heavy weight and use your body’s power to overcome gravity.
Bench pressing is simple and easy to learn yet can never truly be mastered and even has an element of danger.
Whether you’ve never bench pressed before and want to know how, or are a veteran looking for a way to mix up your workouts, this article is for you.
What Muscles Does the Bench Press Work?
The bench press hits your chest the hardest. This means pecs.
Your pectoralis major muscles are the primary movers of this exercise. Well-developed pecs make both men and women look better, which is a major reason why bench presses are so popular.
However, your chest isn’t alone in this movement.
Deltoids, triceps, and the serratus anterior all function as synergist muscles, helping out your pecs.
Your lats and rotator cuffs get a workout as well by stabilizing your shoulders.
Even your abs, spinal erectors, glutes, and hamstrings get into the fun when advanced bench pressers turn it into a full-body exercise by driving their feet into the ground for stability!
How to Bench Press
The core of the bench press move is simple:
Lay down and push a weight up and down over your chest.
Proper form is vital if you don’t want that heavy-laden bar to drop down onto your chest or neck.
Proper Bench Press Form
Here’s how to get ready to bench press properly:
- Set up the weight on the bar
- Lay down with your head under the bar
- Stick out your chest by pulling your shoulder blades together. You can think of this as arching your upper back, but don’t arch your lower back!
- Keep your glutes on the bench
- Place your feet flat on the floor
- Place your hands on the bar in an overhand grip, just wider than your shoulders
How to Move the Bar
Now that you’re in position, let’s get into the bench press and move that bar.
- Lift the barbell by pushing it and forward slightly, so it’s over your chest, with your elbows extended but not locked
- Bend your elbows to lower the weight
- Halt before the bar reaches your chest
- Push the barbell up with your entire body, driving your feet into the ground and keeping your buttocks and upper back on the bench
- Stop just before your elbows lock out
That’s one rep!
Keep going until your set is over, then rack the weight back on the bench.
Tips and Tricks
Keep your wrists straight the whole time. You don’t want extreme weight hyperextending your wrists.
Don’t let your elbows drop below the bench’s top. That’s too far down.
Don’t flare your elbows out, either. That’s a sure way to get shoulder pain. 45-degrees away from your body is the most common elbow angle.
Make sure to keep your shoulder blades pulled together, or “pinched” back. If you have trouble doing this, lay on the bench with the barbell racked, use the bar to pull yourself up, pull your shoulder blades together, then lower yourself back on the bench so your body’s weight holds the shoulder blades in position.
Also, don’t rotate the bar’s position over your body. It should drop and rise perfectly vertically.
Lastly, always use a spotter if you’re lifting more than warm up amounts of weight!
Don’t let ego get in safety’s way. You will eventually fail a rep, and you don’t want that weight coming down onto your neck!
Bench Press Variations
The movement I just described is the standard flat bench press.
There are many ways to change this movement, which can affect which muscles are targeted. All variations fall under three categories:
Let’s look at those in detail.
Different bench press angles refer to your position. So, you won’t be able to do these without benches made for each technique.
Some gyms have dedicated angled benches. Others have adjustable benches.
An incline bench press sees your upper back raised in relation to your bum.
This shifts the muscles used higher on your body. The clavicular head of your pecs is used more than the other parts. It also recruits the shoulders more.
Remember to go straight up and down and don’t lower the bar toward your stomach!
As you can tell from the name, a decline shoulder press involves lowering your head below your hips.
This is a less stressful version of the bench press that still lets you get a larger chest and increase your pushing strength.
Changing up your hand position can greatly affect your bench press!
The more you move your hands further away from each other on the bar, the more the bench press emphasizes the chest and shoulders.
However, it also adds additional stress to your shoulders compared with a narrower grip.
Moving your grip closer than shoulder width, however, de-emphasizes your chest and shoulders and instead focuses more on your triceps and forearms.
It also decreases your stability, so the stabilizer muscles have to work more.
You can also more easily tweak your wrists with a close grip.
False Grip (Suicide Grip)
If you keep your thumb on the same side of the bar as your fingers, you’re using a false grip.
This can take some of the pressure off your shoulders and hit the triceps harder.
I like these for pull-ups, but not for bench presses.
Because you greatly increase your chance of injury.
Your thumb can no longer help hold the bar stable and cannot prevent it from rolling out of your hands, onto your vulnerable chest.
That’s why this grip is also called the suicide grip.
A much better way to minimize your chances of shoulder pain while working out your triceps more is to use a reverse grip.
When grasping the bar, face your palms toward you instead of away from you.
Everything else is the same!
Yes, moving your feet can make bench presses different!
On the Bench
Feet flat on the floor let you push through them into the ground, helping recruit your glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors, and abdominal muscles.
If you place your feet on the bench, laying flat the whole way down, you can’t do that anymore.
This makes bench presses more difficult as your upper body has to do all of the work, not just most of the work.
So, feet-off-the-floor is good for breaking through plateaus but not for reaching new personal records.
You can also use dumbbells rather than a barbell for your bench press.
First the bad thing about dumbbell presses:
You won’t be able to lift as much weight. Starting may be more difficult, too, since there won’t be a rack to hold a bar.
However, you may still want to consider them, because they’re less stressful for your shoulders.
They’re also safer when you don’t have a spotter because you can drop too-heavy dumbbells to the side, so they won’t land on your chest.
How to Increase Your Bench Press Numbers
Like all free weight exercises, the simplest way to increase your bench press numbers is to consistently push more and more weight.
This is called progressive overload and how to do this is explained in my Beginner’s PPL split routine article.
But what if you hit a plateau and can’t seem to make it through the next full set?
The bench press is a compound movement that relies on multiple muscles working together. A good way to increase your bench press is to mix it up with different bench press variants.
You’ll lose some numbers now, but after a couple of weeks, you’ll get them back and then some.
But if that doesn’t work, you need to identify your weak points and focus on the muscles used at that point in the press.
For example, if you have trouble getting the weight all the way up, your triceps may be holding you back.
Thankfully, I have a tricep workout that will help you!
Finally, the problem can be as simple as something wrong with your form.
Ask a personal trainer or fellow gym-goer you trust to examine your form and make sure you’re doing everything perfectly.
When done poorly, the bench press is a recipe for disaster and rotator cuff injuries.
But when done well, bench presses will broaden or perk up your chest, making the male form more masculine and the female form more feminine.
Not to mention how satisfying it is to grind through a set and know that you can press your own bodyweight!
How Much Should I Be Able to Bench Press?
Many people compare lifts with raw numbers. This can be impressive, but when it comes to bench presses, I prefer using your bodyweight ratio.
The average guy who’s just starting out with bench presses can lift about two-thirds of his body weight.
The average girl who’s just starting out with bench presses can lift about one-third of her body weight.
Once you can bench your body’s worth of weight on the bar, you’ve left “novice” behind. Congratulations!
What Is Bench Press Good For?
Bench presses are good for both aesthetics and functional strength.
I’ve already said how the can make you look better.
But the moment you’ll be glad you started benching is when an emergency arises and you have to push something heavy.
My girlfriend’s car broke the other day and wouldn’t go into reverse. I had to push the car–slightly uphill!–out of her parking spot.
You can be sure I was glad for my hours of benching then!
How Many Times a Week Should I Bench Press?
I’ve seen recommendations from 1 to 5 days a week.
I’d advise you to bench press twice a week until you’re at the point where you are experienced enough to create your own routine.
Then, experiment with benching more often.
Or, even less often! Some people do better benching once a week.