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November 09, 2020 10 min read

The bench press is quite possibly the most recognizable exercise. Everyone in the gym has different goals, some people are there to lose weight, others to get stronger. You may be there to get toned, your friends might be going for muscle mass, but one thing is for sure, if you stay in the gym long enough, you’re bound to see someone bench pressing at some point. The gym has a way of digging strength out of everyone, and bench pressing is the most obvious way to show off your power. The sound of the weights clattering down onto the rack, the perfect smooth motion of the weights, everything about bench pressing is mesmerizing and exudes pure strength. If you’re taking your time in the gym seriously, then you’re eventually going to try your hand at the bench press, and you will, without fail, get hooked. When you fall in love with bench pressing, you’re going to want to get stronger. This is where we come in.

Muscles Involved in Bench Pressing

Any time you pick up a new exercise, it’s important to know what muscles you’re working out. With knowledge of your muscles, you know what to engage, how your body should feel when you’re done, and what to target if you’re having trouble upping your reps. Isolating a problem area with a different exercise is a great way to continue working towards your goals while overcoming an obstacle.

The Pecs

Your pecs are doing the most work here. When you’re shoving that weight away from your body that’s your pecs at work. The most obvious job of your pecs is attaching your arms to the rest of your body. Without your pecs, your arms will just sort of pop out of your shoulder. Your delts do a lot of the work, but because your arms are so complex and multi-functional you need another set of muscles to rotate and pull your humerus in ways that your triceps and delts can’t handle on their own. Try sticking your arm out at a 45-degree angle and flexing your pecs. That underhand motion your arm makes is one of the many things your pecs do for you. 

Once you make your way past the halfway mark in your bench press, your pecs kick into overdrive to get those weights all the way up. You can feel this if you try making the motion of a bench press with your free hand on your chest. Your pecs are naturally a large muscle in your body, so they can handle a lot of weight on their own, which is part of why bench pressing looks so powerful.

The Triceps

Your triceps are the muscles that extend your arm. If you’ve ever reached out to touch something, thank your triceps. Their name comes from the three heads that work together to make the muscle group in question. Your medial, lateral, and long head all lie along the back side of your humerus, acting in contrast to the biceps on the opposite end. Every single action in your body is powered by a set of muscles that allow it to take place and an opposite set that acts in the reverse. You can think of your body as a set of pulleys distributed everywhere you need to move. 

Everybody goes crazy for well-defined biceps, but the triceps are the unsung heroes in the arm game. Without this set of three silent protagonists, you wouldn’t be able to push open the door, much less even think about beginning to shove the barbell away from your chest. 

Additional Muscles

The pecs and triceps have nabbed the starring roles in your bench pressing journey, but there are a few extra muscles you engage by virtue of moving your upper body the way the bench press demands. Your deltoids are the muscles that cover your shoulder and they’re going to be involved any time your shoulders are doing anything at all, be it rotating your arm, or maxing out at the end of a long day. 

Finally, way in the background, we have the serratus anterior. When you feel that soreness in your side after a good day of bench honest presses, that’s your serratus anterior. These muscles push your shoulder bone in towards your chest to allow you the rotation you need to get your arms into the pushing position. When you bench press, they’re also engaged in a resistance exercise to keep your arms from rotating the weight over your head and slamming it into the rack. So thank them for their service. 

A man doing a bench press in a gym.

How to Bench Press

You know all of the muscles, you know you want to get stronger, and you know that you’re going to be pushing some weight. But how? What’s the proper form for a bench press, and how do you get the best results? What do you need, and where do you even start?

We suggest doing bench presses on a bench, it’s right there in the name. If you don’t have a bench, and you’re not going to be moving too much weight then it’s perfectly possible to do bench presses on the floor, either with a barbell or a set of dumbbells. A good habit to get into, especially when you start stacking on that weight is having a spotter. A spotter is going to be there when you’ve taken on too much weight or lose your balance. You don’t want this stuff crashing down on your chest or crushing your neck. A spotter can be your friend, your trainer, or someone in the gym that doesn’t want anything gruesome happening while they’re around. Bench pressing isn’t about pride, it’s about results, and you’re not going to get any results if you’re waiting on your clavicle to mush itself back together. 

Let’s talk form. Learning how to do the most basic bench press is going to set you up for success in the future. Starting with good form is going to let you end with good form, and it’s going to allow you to adjust your form for variants like the incline bench press or the close grip bench press, and isolation when you want to look for trouble areas to improve. 

The first step is going to be setting yourself down on the bench. Sit down on the bench, with both of your feet planted firmly on the floor, once you find a comfortable position, keep your feet on the floor and lie down. Make sure your back is flat and your head is resting on the bench as well. If you’ve got a rack, you should grab the barbell with your arms fully extended. If you don’t get that weight up above your chest with your arms fully extended. Either way, we’re going to start our workout by lowering the weight to our chests in a controlled fashion. Think about it sinking rather than falling. It’s a feather in the air, not a brick in a pool. Once the weight is down around your middle or upper chest, your elbows should have naturally tucked themselves in towards your body, if they haven’t, make sure you’ve done so. Flaring your elbows will probably lead to twisting your wrists, and twisted wrists aren’t going to help you take full advantage of bench pressing. To get the weights back up into your starting position, you want to think of the opposite of getting it down to your chest. Pushing the weights back up is a much quicker motion than lowering it to your chest. Explode outwards with your chest, and make sure you don’t twist your wrists once you reach the top. Repeat as many times as you safely can, and return the weights to their appropriate home.

Be careful of putting the weight on your lower back. This might make it easier, but that easy comes at a price. We don’t like to lift with our lower backs, and punishing it with way more weight that you were ever meant to place there is a surefire way to end up having to take a couple weeks off from the gym. While we’re talking about your lower body, real powerlifters  don’t cheat themselves out of a good rep by using their feet as an assist. Keep them firmly planted, this is a good time to think about what your glutes are doing; we’re using our muscles, not momentum. If you want to work out your lower back, then adding some deadlifts into your routine is the way to go.

Bench Press Variants

  • Close Grip Bench Press: The close grip bench press adjusts the position of your arms in a way that engages the triceps much more than your standard bench press. If you feel like you have trouble extending your arms towards the end of your bench presses, then this variant will kick your triceps into high gear in no time. Getting the close grip bench press is simple once you’ve gotten your bench press form down. Just bring your grip. 
  • Dumbbell Bench Press: If you feel like you’re favoring one arm over the other when using a barbell, one way to really test that is to swap a bar out for dumbbells. Splitting your weight in between two dumbbells means that you can’t rely on your dominant side. Your pecs are either going to get that weight up or they aren’t.
  • Dumbbells come with the added benefit of taking the guesswork out of your bar balance. Just get them into your hands, and keep the same basic principles of form in mind while you pump away.
  • Bench Press with Chains: Adding chains to your bar has an interesting effect on your workout. If you feel like the beginning of your bench press is no sweat, but you start struggling once you reach the top, then adding some chains might solve this problem for you. 

When you add a decent length of chain to your barbell, you end up adding more and more weight as the bar goes higher and higher. As each of those thick links leaves the ground they challenge your body more and more. The key to utilizing these chains effectively is making sure you have a good length. If your chains are too short then all you’re really doing is practicing stability. Which is nice for your lats and the serratus anterior, but that may not be your goal when adding chains.

The Three Day Program

You know how to do a perfect bench press, you know what muscles you’re targeting, now how do you put it all together to get stranger and move more weight more effectively? Well, you could just go to the gym three times a week and do ten sets of three with more and more weight each week, but that’s just one exercise, and while you will eventually reach your goal, this isn’t the best way you could be spending your time. This three day a week program will have you isolating different muscles and then topping off your session with your bench press workout of choice, making sure to add on to the amount of weight each time you come back to increase your rep range. If this is your first time working on your bench presses, then start with a reasonable amount of weight. There’s no sense in showing off if you’re just going to get hurt.

Day One

On the first day of your bench press program, we’re going to focus on our pecs. Some simple bodyweight exercises are a great way to go. Get some pushups into your routine. These will also get your core some action as you engage it to keep your back straight, and marry them with some pec flies to isolate them as well as really working all the way through your range of motion to increase their overall growth. Finish off with several sets of light bench presses, because you’re going to be feeling the burn in your pecs by the end of this session.

Day Two

On day two of this bench press program it’s time to focus on your triceps. Your triceps are just as important as your biceps. They’re partners in getting your arms to move. When you’re doing your bicep curls, make sure to even out your routine with some tricep extensions. This is also a great shoulder warmup, because we’ll be getting some excellent behind the head motion going on here. If you want an exercise to really shred the entirety of your tricep muscle group, then we suggest adding in some skull crushers or pullups. We’re going easier on the pecs today, but if you don’t want to neglect them, this might be a great time to work in a couple of overhead presses. Top off tricep day with medium weight on your barbells.

Day Three

Start day three with some good warmups. Get your deadlifts in, because we want to keep our lower body strong. Having a powerful upper half is great for showing off, but balance is important when you’re exercising. You don’t want to be top heavy or applying too much passive tension on your body by neglecting the other parts of yourself. Your body is an instrument that wants every aspect to be in tune.

Day three is where we’re really going to hit it. Day three is where you want to try maxing out. By this time your pecs should feel up to the task. As long as you’re making sure not to overdo it on the second day with your medium bench presses. Load up your weights. By this time you should be able to pack on more than you did last week. You’ve tempered the steel of your body by hacking away at imperfections throughout the week, and now is the time to see the fruits of your labor. Be sure you’ve got your spotter with you, and push yourself. Don’t let day three go to your head. Start with maybe five pounds more than your max from last week, and if you feel like you’re not going to make a rep, then a bruised ego is better than a cracked chest. 

Of course, no workout program is set in stone. If you want to switch things up, then by all means, do what you need to in order to get your chest muscles feeling right. Remember that bodybuilders weren’t sculpted in a single day, and keep at it. 

A man doing the bench press in a gym.

To Lockout or not to Lockout. That is the Question

Locking out is great for powerlifters and pushing the boundaries of your one rep max. By fully extending your arms and locking the weight up at its height for a moment you’re really making absolutely sure that your exercise is wielding the results you’ve been wanting in regards to strength gains and maintaining excellent form. However, locking out isn’t necessary. You’re going to be building muscle by maintaining tension all the way throughout your exercise, so if all you want is consistent growth, and you’re not worried about becoming the next great powerlifter, then you don’t need to be aiming to lockout with every rep. 

Pressing Matters

Bench pressing is an excellent way to show off the work you’ve done at the gym. It’s excellent at showcasing some of the biggest and most beautiful muscles in your body. When you bench press you’re engaging in a tradition as old as powerlifting itself, dedicating your body to something great. Benching more and more of those heavy weights is a love letter to your body, and it’s immensely gratifying. It’s not easy, but if you have a plan you can develop the muscles in your body, and work them in concert to play an incredible symphony of steel and power. Watch out for your back, be sure to take the proper supplements, and use all of your newfound bodybuilding to make those bars sing.