Overhead view of a woman setting up in the bench press position
powerlifting

What Muscles does the Bench Press work?

How many Muscles does Bench Pressing work?

The bench press is the king of the pressing lifts. Anyone who tells you it’s the overhead press is an arsehole because it’s a largely impossible lift to lift a lot of weight in.

It’s a complete compound exercise that utilises virtually every muscle in your upper body (to some extent), it’s an absolute essential in any strength or muscle building program.

Overhead view of a woman setting up in the bench press position

To bench press effectively you must have an incredibly tight setup. You incorporate leg drive, push your lats back into the bench and force the bar up utilising all the above.

Your pectorals and anterior deltoids and the primary muscle groups in this lift. Also known as the agonists. But without a strong support network around them, you’ll get nowhere near your absolute max.

The group of muscles in the support network include:

  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Serratus anterior
  • Triceps
  • Rhomboids

These secondary muscles are called the synergists.

But clearly bench pressing isn’t an effective way to train your legs. This is more to help you understand just how much goes into the bench press. It’s not an ego-lift.

That’s a beginner misnomer compounded by the guys who squat and deadlift more often. Sad little men annoyed they can’t bench press 300lbs.

Get trapped under a heavy weight and then see what you think.

Muscles worked in the Bench Press?

Muscles Worked Degree Benefits
Pectorals High Overall chest pressing strength
Anterior Deltoids High Overall pressing strength
Latissimus Dorsi Medium Pressing stability and power ‘in the hole’
Triceps Medium Lockout strength at the top of the lift
Serratus Anterior Medium – Low Stability (and looking shredded)
Rhomboids Low Scapular retraction
Coracobrachialis Low Horizontally adducting the shoulder blades
Core Low Stabilisation

The bench press really does work almost every muscle in your upper body to some extent.

Outside of your biceps, you’ll feel it in all of your major muscle groups. It promotes complete pressing strength, arm size, upper body power production and definitely tightens t-shirts.

Muscular man posing for the camera

What’s not to like?

Now Read: What Muscles does Squats work or What Muscles Do Deadlifts work?

Powerlifting vs Bodybuilding Bench Pressing

Benching for powerlifting is significantly different to bodybuilding bench pressing. The two goals are very different.

But that doesn’t mean one can’t be of use to the other.

Whilst the primary goal in powerlifting is to lift the most weight, you can’t consistently be training to hit a new 1RM PR or to failure. You need to build volume and train both types of hypertrophy:

  • Sarcoplasmic: Primarily a bodybuilding style of hypertrophy that occurs with high repetition, low weight training. Much less taxing on your CNS and a core component of both bodybuilding and powerlifting training as it helps you gain size and strength in the long-term.
  • Myofibrillated: A style of hypertrophy stimulated with heavy weights and low repetitions. Typically lower than 6 reps and > 85% of your 1RM and more consistent with powerlifting style training.

But both styles of training can be very effective for both sports. To be an elite level powerlifter you need to build size and strength. But you can’t always rely on myofibrillated hypertrophy because it increases your propensity for injury.

Higher rep, lower weight sets drive muscular growth and are far less taxing. It’s much easier to cram volume in with controlled, lighter sets that make you focus on the mind-muscle connection.

If you’d like to know more on the topic, then my powerlifting vs bodybuilding article is a more comprehensive look at the two forms of weightlifting.

Barbell Bench Press vs Dumbbell Bench Press

Whilst both variations work largely the same muscle groups, there are subtle differences between the two types of bench pressing.

Utilising dumbbells means:

  1. You’re forced to use a lower weight
  2. You focus on the mind-muscle connection
  3. Requires greater shoulder stability
  4. Increases the ROM (range of motion) you’re able to use

Barbell bench pressing means:

  1. You can use more weight because the barbell is far more stable
  2. There’s more opportunity to train for pure strength
  3. Greater variations available

Again, both have their place.

Dumbbell pressing is better for lower weight, higher-repetition training. The mind-muscle connection and higher-repetition sets are optimal for bodybuilding style muscle growth. Essentially ‘the pump.’

A close up image of a varying weight dumbbell set to 20kg

The greater range of motion and lower weight allows you to fully focus on the contraction. The individual weights foster a lifting environment where

So using this in the hypertrophy portion of your training in a powerlifting sense allows you to control the possibility of overtraining whilst cramming in more volume under your MRV.

You also need to understand periodisation and how to manipulate volume and intensity over time to get stronger.

Bodybuilding is more focused on the pump. The higher-rep training. But there’s equally a place for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

You’ll never feel as thicc* as when you properly utilise heavy weight compound movements properly. Without proper size, you’ll never be able to model your frame into an elite, or even good, level bodybuilder.

The number of variations available mean barbell pressing is ideally suited for improving your weak points and isolating portions of the lift. Close grip pressing improves the lockout portion of your lift, wide-grip improves power out of the hole etc.

In my opinion you can’t just rely on barbell or dumbbell pressing to be successful. You need to incorporate both into your training.

*Thicc (For fat see muscle)

Definition of thicc
Thicc definition from the Urban Dictionary

Now Read: How Often should I Bench Press?

What Muscle Groups are used in Bench Press variations?

Bench pressing variations are an essential tool in your arsenal.

You need to work on your weak points to be successful. Close grip bench pressing is more tricep dominant and it helps work on your lockout strength.

Basically you’ll be less of a weakling in the top portion of the lift. But you need to understand what variation works which muscle groups so you can properly setup your program.

Or at least buy a program that does it for you.

Close Grip Bench Press

Muscles Worked Degree Benefits
Pectorals High – Medium Overall chest pressing strength
Anterior Deltoids High Overall pressing strength
Latissimus Dorsi Medium Pressing stability and power ‘in the hole’
Triceps High Lockout strength at the top of the lift
Serratus Anterior Medium – Low Stability (and looking shredded)
Rhomboids Low Scapular retraction
Coracobrachialis Low Horizontally adducting the shoulder blades
Core Low Stabilisation

Good for: Improving the lockout strength of any pressing motion. Tricep strength impacts the top portion of the lift. If you find yourself coming unstuck halfway through the lift, then you need to work on the top portion of the lift. Slightly less taxing than the true bench counterpart and a great way to train arms. Given the tricep makes up almost 2/3 of your arm muscle, it has multiple benefits.

Weakness: Almost as taxing as the true bench press, so not something you can pump an enormous amount of volume into. Not a true chest exercise either.

Wide Grip Bench Press

Muscles Worked Degree Benefits
Pectorals High Overall chest pressing strength
Anterior Deltoids High Overall pressing strength
Latissimus Dorsi Medium Pressing stability and power ‘in the hole’
Triceps Medium – Low Lockout strength at the top of the lift
Serratus Anterior Medium – Low Stability (and looking shredded)
Rhomboids Low Scapular retraction
Coracobrachialis Low Horizontally adducting the shoulder blades
Core Low Stabilisation

Good for: Improving power in the bottom portion of the lift. Much like the pause squat, the wide grip bench variation is a fantastic movement designed to improve strength in the bottom position. Utilise it if you struggle to create enough power to shift the weight, wide grip variations are a useful alternative.

Weakness: Much like the close grip bench, it’s slightly less taxing than the true bench. But it’s not a variation you can do another 100 reps a week with. You need to program it accordingly.

Dumbbell Bench Press

Muscles Worked Degree Benefits
Pectorals High Overall chest pressing strength
Anterior Deltoids High Overall pressing strength
Coracobrachialis Medium Horizontally adducting the shoulder blades
Latissimus Dorsi Medium – Low Pressing stability and power ‘in the hole’
Triceps Medium – Low Lockout strength at the top of the lift
Serratus Anterior Medium – Low Stability (and looking shredded)
Core Medium – Low Stabilisation
Rhomboids Low Scapular retraction

Good for: The increased ROM and lower weight utilised with dumbbell pressing is ideal for muscular development and contraction. Properly programmed, dumbbell pressing is fantastic for chest size enhancements – and the larger your chest, the smaller the distance you have to press.

Weakness: You can’t use as heavy a weight when dumbbell pressing as the single weights lack the stability of a barbell.

Incline Bench Press

Muscles Worked Degree Benefits
Pectorals High Overall chest pressing strength
Anterior Deltoids High Overall pressing strength
Latissimus Dorsi Medium Pressing stability and power ‘in the hole’
Triceps Medium Lockout strength at the top of the lift
Serratus Anterior Medium – Low Stability (and looking shredded)
Rhomboids Low Scapular retraction
Coracobrachialis Low Horizontally adducting the shoulder blades
Core Low Stabilisation

Good for: Better for overall chest development than flat bench pressing as the range of motion is greater. It also has tremendous carryover to more upright lifts such as military pressing. 

Weakness: Compared to the flat bench, incline pressing requires a weight typically around 15-20% less given the more upright nature of it. So for absolute strength training (for powerlifting purposes) it’s less specific and doesn’t 100% carryover.

See the below diagram on moment arms for why this occurs.

Moment Arm and the Force System
The smaller the angle of muscle insertion, the easier it is to lift heavier weights. Hence why flat bench pressing is so much easier than military pressing.

Now Read: How Often Should I Deadlift or How Often should I Squat?

What type of Bench Press should you do?

The type of bench press you should be doing entirely depends on your goals.

If you’re a powerlifter, you should spend the majority of your time utilising the barbell bench press and all of it’s variations. Whatever you’re going to be doing in competition, you should spend more time doing when training.

If you’re weaker in the top portion of the lift, then implement some close-grip pressing. If you’re weaker in the bottom portion, then utilise pause and wide-grip variations.

If your goals are more chest and muscular development based, then you should be doing more dumbbell and incline variations because they have a greater ROM and allow for a better contraction.

But you should be stimulating both types of hypertrophy if you’re looking to get stronger and / or bigger. So vary the rep ranges and be consistent to achieve the best physique and strength gains.

 

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