The Bench Press: A Complete Guide

What is the Bench Press?

The king of the pre-lifting lifts, a gauge of strength for NFL Testing and a fundamental part of pressing strength the bench press is a compound movement that helps build a powerful upper body.

By setting-up horizontally in a bench rack with the barbell above you, you drive your shoulder blades back into the bench, arch your back and drive your feet into the floor.

Then unrack the barbell, take a deep breath, control the bar down to just below your chest and push up and backwards.

The bar should travel in a slightly diagonal line, not straight up.
You’ve just bench pressed bitch!

What is the Bench Press good for?

The bench press is essential for building a powerful upper body.

It’s a pressing movement that develops your chest size and strength like nothing else.

It also trains a host of secondary muscle groups including your triceps (especially the close grip variation) and deltoids.

A beach body essential, especially in bulking season, whilst teaching you how to utilise leg drive in pressing movement.

Sensational for overall pressing strength!

What Muscles does Bench Pressing work?

There are various misconceptions around the muscles involved with bench pressing, but essentially it’s a full body movement.

Much like the squat and the deadlift.

Whilst the pectorals are the main muscles involved, your lats and upper back must be engaged and there should be an element of hip drive in order to press effectively.

Alongside your pectoral muscles (both minor and major), bench pressing will more indirectly work all 3 heads of the tricep, your deltoids and the serratus anterior. So it’s a killer exercise and you don’t have to be a powerlifter to reap the rewards.

I have gone over this in much more detail in this what muscles does bench pressing work post.

But as an overview the below is true for the majority of bench press variations.

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

What are the Types of Bench Press?

The bench press is commonly utilised in sports and athletic performance coaching to improve upper body power and explosiveness.

American football players setting up
Sports bitch!!!

Variations such as the paused bench are an excellent way to increase power production. There are such a plethora of different types of bench press variations that you need to understand what’s available and what each lift does.

Close grip bench press

Performed by shifting to a narrower version of your traditional bench grip. In doing so you more effectively target your triceps and the lockout of your lift.

Wide grip bench press

Exactly the opposite. A wider grip that improves power in the bottom portion of the lift. Much more pectoral targeted.

Paused bench press

A pause variation of any lift is designed to improve explosive power and stability in the bottom portion of the lift.

Pin bench press

Instead of setting the bar on the bench rack, you set pins above your chest for the bar to sit on. You are able to press with no danger of getting stuck under the bar.

A great technique to improve your lockout strength and overload the weight.

Incline bench press

Incline variations alter the moment arm of your lift and mean that you need to use less weight.

Better for chest development than flat bench, incline is your friend if muscular development is what you’re after.

Dumbbell bench press

The increased ROM (Range of Motion) make the dumbbell bench absolutely perfect for higher rep, lower weight hypertrophy focused training.

Top 7 Benefits of the Bench Press

The king of the presses, benching is an upper body exercise that has a whole host of exceptional benefits associated with it.

From overall pressing strength to beach muscles and joint health, the bench press has something for everyone!

benefits of the bench press infographic

1. Improve overall Pressing Strength: Any press variation is going to help you improve, but the bench press activates almost every muscle in the upper body, ensuring tightness and stability.

2. Increasing Upper Body Strength: With it being such an all-encompassing upper body movement, it’s not just your chest that reaps the rewards. Enhancing your bench press will translate very effectively to almost any pressing movement.

3. Increase Upper Body Muscle Mass: You can train your upper body with greater frequency and volume than it’s lower counterpart. Unfortunately it typically requires more volume to grow.
But given it places less stress on your CNS, bench pressing is a fundamental compound lift that will increase muscular size.

4. Improved Bone Health: Resistance promotes bone health and various studies highlight it’s applicability when helping medicate osteoporosis

5. Beach Muscles: Everyone wants to look good. A full chest and powerful lats go a long way in helping you do that. But you need to work your antagonistic muscle groups to achieve symmetry.

Symmetry is everyone’s friend on the beach, so train your back more with roughly 1.5-2 times the volume you train your chest to negate the chance of injury. And give your delts a little loving too.

6. Fat Burning: Any compound exercise helps burn fat. Bench pressing in particular is an exercise you can perform consistently (upwards of 3/4 times a week) with high repetition sets – great for circuits and lung-bursting, fat-busting sets.

7. Joint Health: As you age, the cartilage in between your joints starts to deteriorate, something that can cause a lack of motion, severe pain, and things osteoarthritis.

Exercise (and resistance exercise in particular) helps replace the nutrient deficient fluid in your cartilage. So for optimal bone and joint health you should be benching.

Whilst the bench press is essential for powerlifting competitions and a incredibly useful accessory for strongman competitions, it can be a hindrance in Olympic weightlifting.

Pressing overhead is an important facet in the clean and jerk, an oversized chest can limit flexibility in the snatch.

But it’s still a useful tool for almost every sport, but how do you increase it?

How can I make my Bench Press stronger?

Build volume over time. Increase in intensity and specificity as your training program progresses until you’re ready to test your 1RM.

Simple. Or not.

If you’re really serious about increasing your bench, then you need to take a look at my in-depth guide on how to increase your bench press.

Because you have to understand where your weaknesses are. If you get stuck at the bottom of the lift, you must utilise pause bench and wide-grip variations, as they both build power out of the hole.

If you struggle at the top end of the lift, you need to build your tricep strength with close grip bench presses and skull crushers.

If you get stuck in the middle use pin variations of the lift. Or tempo repetitions with a slow eccentric (lowering) portion of the lift.

And you can’t forget antagonistic muscle group training. Without an equally strong upper back and shoulder region bench training alone is almost worthless.

Then you need to understand how often you should be benching. Too much and you’ll hinder your long-term progress. Too little and you won’t progress at all!

Shit.

How often should I Bench Press?

Typically between 2-4 times a week is ideal for bench press frequency. If you want to read about this in more detail then you should read my guide to optimal bench pressing frequency.

If you struggle with 2 or more there’s a good chance you’re training with too high a volume on the day(s) you bench. I find it optimal to bench three days a week and on each of those days do 4 sets of additional chest hypertrophy.

As an intermediate level lifter I find something like the below optimal for bench press frequency, intensity and volume:

Day 1

Exercise Sets Reps
Bench Press 4 8
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press 3 12-15

Day 2

Exercise Sets Reps
Paused Bench Press 5 3
Weighted Dips 4 10+

Day 3

Exercise Sets Reps
Feet Up Bench Press 5 5
Incline Chest Flies 4 12-15

On top of this I will train back (outside of deadlifts) in a similar format for 2 days a week and likewise for shoulders and overall joint health. For every set of pressing work I think you should do at least 1.5 for back training. It will become your most effective method of injury prevention.

If you would rather cram this volume into two days you probably won’t see quite the same power output on your final sets of bench, but I don’t see a problem with it if you can recover and you don’t feel like your performance will suffer. Just make sure to train the antagonistic muscle groups effectively.

So How do I Bench Press More effectively?

Now you’ve ingested all the above information you should have an idea of how to increase your bench press. If you have no body image concerns, then eating and benching more is the most effective way to increase your chest strength.

However if you’re like me and you still want to look half decent, then you should follow the below steps to do so:
1. Find your optimal bench press frequency. As a beginner you don’t need to bench press more than 1-2 times per week. You will progress on a linear model i.e. weekly progression just by increasing the weight slowly. You don’t need to start more advanced models of periodisation until you plateau

2. Increase your chest and tricep volume: As a beginner you can gain muscle and strength simultaneously (and easily). By pumping volume into your core muscle groups you’ll not only increase your strength in the short-term, but you’ll reap rewards from the potentiation created in the long-term.

3. Factor in antagonistic muscle groups: To have a strong bench you must have a strong upper back. You should be able to barbell row as much as you can bench and if you can’t do 10 pull-ups, you need to work on that.

4. Eat: Simple. Food = energy. Consistently being in a caloric surplus (or bulk) makes lifting heavier weights much easier. Sustainably increasing your calories is the simplest way to bench press a greater weight.

5. Program: As a beginner just keep increasing the weight week by week. As you get more advanced, you need to choose a specific program. If you really want success – get one that’s created for you by an expert.

Does Bench Pressing give you bigger arms?

Yes. Mainly if you use the close grip variation.

As explained above close grip variations are an excellent way to train triceps with a heavy weight.

As triceps make up around 60% of the muscles in your arms, it’s essential to use heavy weight to some degree to train them.

Tricep pull downs are all well and good for higher repetition sets, but you should try to stimulate both types of hypertrophy for optimal muscle growth.

But benching isn’t effective for training biceps.

I’m Confused – is Bench Pressing for chest or arms?

Well, both.

The primary muscle group targeted is your pectorals. If you’re regulation bench pressing.

If you switch to a narrower grip then your triceps will burn out before your chest.

Remember they’re a smaller muscle group, so easier to burnout.

There are more effective ways to target your chest for muscle growth*, but it’s an excellent all round upper body exercise.

*Using dumbbells instead of a barbell utilises a greater ROM (Range of Motion) as an example

So will Bench Pressing make my Shoulders bigger?

Bench pressing will make your shoulders bigger yes.

But if you don’t balance out your exercises you’ll lose symmetry and will create strength imbalances.

Benching primarily targets your front delts in this scenario. If you bench press too much you’ll end up with rounded shoulders as you overdevelop your chest and front delts.

So make sure you train rear delts with behind the neck presses and isolation exercises to mitigate injury risk in the long-term.