Exercise Essentials, Part 7: Bench Press

In this series of 7 posts, I am outlining several of the most basic lifts with which every lifter should be familiar.  I consider them the cornerstones of intermediate and advanced exercise programming.

See also – Part 1: SquatPart 2: DeadliftPart 3: Chin-UpPart 4: Overhead Press, Part 5: Row, Part 6: Dip

What is a bench press?

Of all of the Exercise Essentials, the bench press is easily the most popular (and possibly the most misunderstood).  Lie on your back on a bench, arms/weight above your chest in your hands.  Lower weight to chest.  Press back to elbow extension.

bench press

Why bench press?

The bench press, a horizontal press, recruits the triceps, anterior delts (front of shoulders), and pectorals (chest) as prime movers.  A properly executed bench also involves plenty of stabilization from the core/abdominals and many other upper body muscles of the shoulder girdle and upper back.

Bench press for chest or shoulders?

The bench press is often touted as a great chest exercise, which it certainly can be – in the right individual.  However, the bench involves three powerful muscle groups as prime movers (pectorals, triceps, deltoids), and the load is not necessarily shared between them equally.  When a heavy object (or two) is threatening to crush your chest or face, your body is going to lift with what it’s got, not focus on one area in particular.

In people with relatively stronger pectorals, the pecs get the most action, and the bench press is a great chest builder.  In people with relatively stronger delts (like me), the shoulders do more of the work while the chest takes a little nap (not really).  Same for triceps.  Thus, the bench press tends to focus on what’s already the strongest.  Luckily, we can pick different varieties of bench presses to help focus on the muscles we want.  For instance, I tend to pick decline versions to target my chest more powerfully.  Read on.

Types of bench presses

Bench presses can be categorized on a couple of continua, each of which results in slightly different muscle emphasis.

  • Angle of bench/torso - Traditional bench presses are performed on a flat bench (parallel to the floor), but the press may be performed on various degrees of incline or decline.  Greater incline results in increased shoulder involvement and decreased chest involvement – as it becomes more like an overhead press the higher the bench angle gets.  Likewise, decline angles increase the activation of the chest and reduce the recruitment of the shoulder as the movement becomes more like the action of a dip.
    jamie eason incline bench

    Incline bench - more shoulder, less chest

    decline bench

    Decline Bench - more chest, less shoulder

  • Barbell vs Dumbbell – Bench press can be performed with a barbell or dumbbells (or even cables/bands if you get creative).  All are fine loading methods.  Barbells require the least stabilization (aside from machines, which are not fine), and thus generally can be loaded the heaviest.  I like dumbbells the best personally, but switch them up with barbells for variety.

    dumbbell bench press

    Dumbbell bench press

  • Width of Grip – The wider your hands, the more of the work can be done by the shoulder adductors (pectorals and deltoids).  Therefore, a narrow grip tends to emphasize the triceps to a greater extent (and reduce the loading possible – as your chest and shoulders help out less).  The degree to which the chest and shoulders are emphasized at the wider grips depends on your personal muscle dominances.  I find a medium to narrow grip (about 18 inches between index fingers) provides me with the best of all worlds.  Vary it up, and find what works for you.

    close grip bench press

    Close grip bench press - more triceps

  • Angle of Grip – Bench press (with dumbbells anyway) can be performed with grip angles from the most common pronation (palms down) to neutral (palms facing each other).  Different angles do different things for different people, so try out some varieties and see how they feel.

    neutral grip bench press

    Neutral grip bench

Performing the bench press correctly

  • Retract and depress – A strong bench press requires a strong base.  Before beginning, retract and depress your scapulae (shoulder blades) hard.  Squeeze those things together.  This creates a powerful “shelf” of contracted upper back muscle to press from.  Your shoulder blades should stay pinned in this powerful position throughout the set.  Note: this is much easier when you have a hand-off (a spotter putting the bar or dumbbells into your hands).  It takes some getting used to if you’ve just been flopping down on the bench and going at it, but it will add big weight to your bench.
  • Strong foot positioning – Your feet should be solidly on the floor (unless performing a decline, when they are generally locked into the bench supports).  Place your feet wide and draw them as far up towards your head as you can without lifting them off the floor.  This will create a strong arch in the lower back and put more pressure on the upper back shelf you created.  The tension generated in your legs will translate to a stronger bench.
  • Use a full range of motion – Each repetition should begin with elbows at nearly full extension (but not quite locked).  Pull the bar down to your chest.  It should touch the chest every time (or very nearly touch).  Stopping a rep 3 inches above the chest is not a full rep.  You do not bench 300 if you can lower it 1 inch and press it back up.
  • Keep the elbows in – Bodybuilders like to press with the elbows cocked out to a 90 degree angle from the torso (“it smokes the chest bro!”).  It also smokes the shoulder joint.  Keeping the elbows close to the body is far easier on the shoulders.
  • Do not bounce – Bouncing the bar off your chest makes the press easier.  It also creates injuries.  Touch softly; no slamming or bouncing.

For even more in dept treatment of bench form, I highly recommend Dave Tate’s Bench Press 600 Pounds article on T-nation.  Granted, most of us will never bench that much, but it’s still good to hear the advice of a guy who can.


Take home points on bench pressing

  • The bench press is a great upper body push exercise, but it tends to emphasize what you’re already good at.  Choose variations accordingly.
  • Depending on your torso angle, you can emphasize the chest or shoulders more.
  • Experiment with different equipment (barbells, dumbbells), grip angles (pronation, neutral), and grip widths for best results.