How to Do a Bench Press: Muscles Worked, Benefits, Tips

How to Correctly Perform the Barbell Bench Press – And Do You Make These Common Mistakes?
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The bench press is a classic upper body strength training exercise, performed on a flat, incline or decline bench. In this exercise, you push a barbell or a pair of dumbbells up and away from your chest in a controlled movement.

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Bench presses primarily work your chest muscles, helping to develop your upper body strength and size. It also improves the health and strength of your bones.

There are different variations of the bench press that target different parts of your chest and arms, making it a versatile exercise that fits your individual fitness level and goals.

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Jump to

Equipment needed

To perform the bench press, you will need a few pieces of equipment:

  • Barbell or dumbbells - A standard barbell is used for the traditional bench press, including most variations. You can also use a pair of dumbbells in any variation of the bench press. Dumbbells provide a greater range of motion and can also be used to address muscle imbalances between the left and right side of your chest and arms.
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photo - Woman performs bench press with dumbbells.
  • Adjustable bench - You will need a flat bench for the standard bench press. To perform the inline or decline versions of the bench press, you will need to use an adjustable bench. This is common equipment in most gyms.
photo - Woman sits on an adjustable gym bench. The bench is currently inclined.
  • Safety catch - It's strongly advised to use a safety catch or safety rack, particularly when you are lifting heavy weights. This will catch the barbell if a lift fails, preventing serious injury.
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Spotter

The bench press is one of those exercises where you should have an experienced spotter present when you perform the exercise.

photo - Woman performing the bench press exercise while a spotter holds the bar for safety.

A spotter can prevent injury if you fail a lift, but they will also help you train more effectively.

Benefits of the bench press

There are a number of chest exercises you can use in your workout routine, including push-ups, chest flyes and cable crossovers. These exercises target your pectoral muscles, while also engaging your triceps and anterior deltoids.

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But the bench press has some key advantages that make it a popular exercise...

Lifting heavier weights

The bench press is a compound exercise that engages multiple muscle groups at once, including your chest (pecs), shoulders (deltoids) and arms (triceps). The use of multiple muscle groups means you can utilize a greater force in the exercise, and this ultimately allows you to lift a heavier weight.

By comparison, dumbbell flyes or cable crossovers primarily engage your chest muscles, which means you cannot lift as much weight. These exercises also demand greater balance and coordination skill compared to the bench press.

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As with any exercise, the amount of weight you can lift will depend on your current fitness level and exercise.

Progressive overload

Push-ups are another popular chest exercise, but they have an important downside for both beginner and intermediate to advanced trainees. If you are a beginner, you may find the push-up difficult because you have less upper body strength. Unlike the bench press, you can't adjust the weight you are lifting with.

For intermediate to advanced trainees, on the other hand, it's impossible to increase the weight. This will ultimately limit your muscle and strength gains over time.

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The bench press is beneficial because you can easily adjust the weight you are lifting to match your ability and fitness goals. This allows for progressive overload, where you gradually increase the resistance over time.

Muscles worked

Pectoral muscles

The pectoral muscles, commonly known as “pecs”, are the muscles located in your chest area. They are made up of two parts:

  • Pectoralis major – This is the larger of the two muscles, and is the most visible muscle in your chest. It is fan-shaped and stretches from your collarbone and sternum to the humerus in your upper arms. It’s responsible for movements like pushing and pressing.
  • Pectoralis minor – This is the thin, flat muscle that’s located beneath your pectoralis major muscles. It stretches from your ribs to your scapula. It plays a key role in the movement and stabilization of your shoulder blades.
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diagram - Showing the anatomy of the chest area. The pectoralis major and pectoralis minor are labelled.

Your pecs are one of the primary muscles targeted by the bench press. The incline variation of the bench press puts greater emphasis on the upper part of your pecs, while the decline bench press puts more emphasis on the lower part. To ensure well-rounded chest development, it's recommended to include multiple variations of bench press in your regular workout routine.

Triceps brachii

Your triceps are at the back of your arm, and play a particular role in pushing movements. The triceps have three heads, known as the long head, the lateral head, and the medial head.

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  • Long Head – The long head of your triceps originates from your scapula. This head helps with extension at the elbow and also adduction and extension at the shoulder joint. It runs down the back of your arm to your ulna (the long forearm bone).
  • Lateral Head – The lateral head originates from your humerus. It is positioned on the outside of your upper arm and gives your tricep its unique ‘horseshoe’ shape and width. It inserts into the olecranon process of the ulna. The lateral head allows rapid and forceful arm extensions, and is key in any pushing or punching movement.
  • Medial Head – The medial head originates from your humerus to your ulna, and plays a key role in precision movements and stability.
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diagram - Triceps muscle diagram showing lateral head, medial head, long head and ulna.

The triceps are primarily responsible for the extension of the elbow joint, which allows the arm to straighten.

All variations of the bench press will engage your triceps, but the close grip bench press places greater emphasis on your triceps and less emphasis on your pectoral muscles.

Anterior deltoids

Your anterior deltoids, also known as front deltoids, are one of three parts of your deltoid muscles. They are located at the front of your shoulder and are engaged when you move your arm upward in front of your body. Strengthening your front deltoids can improve your shoulder stability and enhance your performance in everyday pushing, lifting or throwing movements.

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diagram - Showing location of the anterior (front) deltoid muscle.

All variations of the bench press engage your anterior deltoids, and an incline will emphasize this muscle further. Inclines greater than 45 degrees will really engage your anterior deltoids, but at the expense of your pectoral muscles.


Flat bench press

diagram - How to do the barbell flat bench press

The bench press primarily targets your pectoral muscles in your chest, as well as working your shoulders and triceps. Being a compound exercise that strengthens multiple muscle groups at the same time, it's an effective upper body exercise to include in your push day or chest and tricep routine.

Being a compound exercise, you should usually do the bench press at the beginning of your workout. This is when your energy levels are at their highest, which allows you to lift a heavier weight.

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If you are a beginner, you can start with a lighter weight to get familiar with the movement. As you progress, you can lift a heavier weight while maintaining the proper form throughout the entire range of motion.

How to do

  1. Lie down flat on your back on a bench. Plant your feet onto the ground. Your eyes should be lined up level with the bar.
  2. Lift up your arms and grab the bar. Your hands should be 4-6 inches wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Unrack the bar from the rack and hold it directly over your chest with your arms fully extended. A spotter can help you to unrack the barbell from the bench, as there is not much leverage.
  4. Breathing in, slowly lower the bar towards your chest until your elbows are at a 45 degree angle to your body.
  5. Now, press the bar back to the starting position as you breathe out.
  6. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
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Sets and reps

The standard recommendation for strength training is 3-4 sets of 5-8 reps. This is optimal for muscle growth and strength development.

Performing fewer reps with more weight will increase your strength and the size of your muscles, whereas doing more reps with a lighter weight will improve endurance.

Incline bench press

diagram - How to do an incline bench press

The incline bench press is performed on a bench adjusted to an angle between 0 and 45 degrees. Since the bar is still lifted directly upwards, this changes the muscle targeting so that your upper chest and shoulders get engaged more.

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To build a well-rounded and balanced upper body, it's worth including multiple variations of the bench press into your workout routine.

How to do

  1. Set up an adjustable bench to an angle of 45 degrees.
  2. Sit down on lean back on the bench. Plant your feet onto the ground.
  3. Lift up your arms and grab the bar. Your hands should be 4-6 inches wider than shoulder-width apart.
  4. Unrack the bar from the rack and hold it directly over your chest with your arms fully extended. A spotter can help you to unrack the barbell from the bench, as there is not much leverage.
  5. Breathing in, slowly lower the bar towards your chest until your elbows are at a 45 degree angle to your body.
  6. Now, press the bar back to the starting position as you breathe out.
  7. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
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Decline bench press

diagram - How to do a decline bench press

In the decline bench press, you angle the bench so that your head is lower than your hips. This will put greater emphasis on the lower part of your chest. Again, combining different variations of the bench press can help build a well-rounded and balanced chest.

The decline bench press is not recommended for beginners because of the angle of the bench makes this variation more challenging.

How to do

  1. Lay on a decline bench, with your legs secured at the end of the bench.
  2. Lift up your arms and grab the bar. Your hands should be 4-6 inches wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Unrack the bar from the rack and hold it directly over your chest with your arms fully extended. A spotter can help you to unrack the barbell from the bench, as there is not much leverage.
  4. Breathing in, slowly lower the bar towards your chest until your elbows are at a 45 degree angle to your body.
  5. Now, press the bar back to the starting position as you breathe out.
  6. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
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Close grip bench press

diagram - How to do a close grip bench press (incline variation)

By simply moving your hands closer together on the barbell, the bench press puts more emphasis on your triceps and less emphasis on your chest. This makes it a great variation if you are looking to increase the strength and size of your triceps.

We've showed the close grip bench press on an inline bench, but you can also perform it on a flat bench, too.

How to do

  1. Lie down flat on your back on a bench. Plant your feet onto the ground. Your eyes should be lined up level with the bar.
  2. Lift up your arms and grab the bar. Your hands should be closer than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Unrack the bar from the rack and hold it directly over your chest with your arms fully extended. A spotter can help you to unrack the barbell from the bench, as there is not much leverage.
  4. Breathing in, slowly lower the bar towards your chest, keeping your elbows close to your body throughout the movement.
  5. Now, press the bar back to the starting position as you breathe out.
  6. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
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Dumbbell bench press

diagram - How to do a dumbbell bench press

Instead of using a barbell, using can also perform the bench press using dumbbells. The dumbbell bench press has a greater range of motion, allowing a deeper stretch at the bottom of the movement. This can lead to increased muscle activation, helping develop strength and size in your upper body.

Using dumbbells is also an effective way to address imbalances between the left and right sides of your chest and arms.

How to do

  1. Lie down flat on your back on a bench. Plant your feet onto the ground.
  2. Hold a pair of dumbbells in each hand, then bring them inline with your shoulders.
  3. Press the dumbbells up, allowing them to follow a slight arc, moving closer together (but not touching) at the top of the movement.
  4. Lower the weights back down slowly, until your elbows are slightly lower the level of your body.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
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Tips

Grip position

When it comes to your grip position, there are certain factors which must be taken into consideration, such as height, arm length, and reach. Typically speaking however, you should try to grip the bar in a neutral grip, which is around 4 – 6 inches wider than shoulder width. From there, you should grip the bar firmly, ensuring there is no chance of it slipping.

You can however, also use a narrow grip, which is about the same width as your shoulder width. This type of grip is ideal for working your triceps, rather than your chest.

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Safety and unracking

If you intend on benching heavily, or have never benched before, it's ideal to have a spotter nearby. A spotter can help if you encounter any difficulty, and will be there to ensure that you don't drop the bar on yourself.

A spotter will also help you to un-rack the barbell from the bench, as this is actually difficult for a lot of lifters, as there is simply not much leverage.

Vision markers

A great tip to help ensure that your body remains still and in control when you perform this exercise, is to choose a spot on the ceiling, and concentrate on staring at it and focusing on it with your eyes.

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Look for a mark on the ceiling, or even a light fixture, something for you to focus on so that you don’t move around and lose control whilst you perform the exercise. Basically, you’ll be watching where you want to be pressing the bar to.

References

Rodríguez-Ridao, D., Antequera-Vique, J. A., Martín-Fuentes, I., & Muyor, J. M. (2020). Effect of Five Bench Inclinations on the Electromyographic Activity of the Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoid, and Triceps Brachii during the Bench Press Exercise. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(19).


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