The bench press is a standard part of every powerlifter’s, bodybuilder’s, and weightlifter’s program, and is one of the most important lifts in competitions and meets.
Having a good bench press gives you a lot of cred in the lifting world. Because of this, many people spend a lot of time working on their bench press, often with a lot of struggle.
Sure, your squat and deadlift are important, but many lifters would likely say bench press is their top lift of focus for growth and improvement.
What is a Bench Press?
Even if you do bench presses regularly, you may not actually be aware of the mechanics and specifics of the movement. Having adequate knowledge about a movement is important in doing the exercise correctly and effectively. Knowing which muscles are used in a bench press may be alone enough to boost your awareness and overall ability during the lift.
Bench presses are typically a barbell exercise, although there are variations done with dumbbells and even kettlebells. Of course, as the name suggests, bench presses are done using a weight bench. The weight bench is typically a flat bench. However, there are variations of the movement done with angled benches such as a decline bench.
Bench presses, while popular in powerlifting, are also utilized by those in bodybuilding, CrossFit training, and even just general fitness and strength training. They can also be helpful to those interested in cardio as any muscular power can help support drive and explosive power.
Like many exercises, bench presses can be varied and changed to become more efficient and specific to your own needs. However, you should aim to master the traditional form before moving onto anything more complex.
While some muscles that the bench press works may seem obvious, there are several other muscles that may surprise you. Bench presses work an array of upper body muscles, including:
Chest Muscles: Your chest is the main mover of your bench presses and you should keep this in mind when doing the movement. Bench presses are especially great for building killer pecs.
- Shoulders: During most any press movement, your shoulders will get some action. Bench presses are no exception. For the most part, your front delts will be given the most attention when benching.
- Triceps: Triceps can also be affected when benching. While this usually depends on your grip, the triceps are a secondary mover in bench presses.
- Biceps: Your biceps are not the main mover when it comes to your bench presses, but don’t be alarmed if you feel some burn here.
- Core: While this may sound like a stretch, your core actually does get a significant amount of love if your bench presses are done correctly. Like nearly any lift, you should be bracing your core and using this power for stability and power throughout the movement.
The Benefits of Bench Presses
If you’re on the fence about integrating bench presses into your program, that is understandable. They are intimidating and, quite frankly, very difficult. However, there are many benefits to bench pressing outside of getting jacked and looking like a badass. Once you get your bench presses down, you’ll open up a whole world of fitness potential. With bench presses, you can look forward to:
- Efficiency: Bench presses are a compound movement, meaning they work multiple muscle groups at the same time. Isolation movements, or movements that only work one muscle or muscle group, are fine but are not friendly on time. To get a full upper body workout, you’d have to do many different isolation exercises whereas a full upper body workout can easily be achieved with just a few compound movements.
Increasing Grip Strength: Benching is great for getting a stronger grip which can easily translate into your everyday life. Not only does a good grip strength allow you to pick up and move heavier things with more ease, but it also has been shown to lower your risk of heart attack and stroke.
- Increasing Upper Body Strength: You’re probably thinking “DUH!”, but many people get caught up in pressing and forget that it’s a great way to increase other lifts, as well. If you’re looking for a way to increase your upper body strength but aren’t sure where to start, definitely try incorporating bench presses into your routine.
How to Do a Barbell Bench Press
Whether you’re familiar with bench presses or are completely new to the movement, form is always important. If you find yourself stuck with your bench press progress, your form may be to blame.
- First, you’ll need to locate a bench. Some gyms have a designated bench press set up, but some gyms require some self-assembly. Whatever your solution, always utilize a rack for safety. A gym buddy may also be a good idea for spotting and supervision.
- Next, sit on the middle to lower half of the bench, placing your feet firmly on the ground. Lay back. The barbell should be right above your face, so adjust if necessary. You may need to shuffle your feet back towards the barbell some.
- Now that your body is placed correctly on the bench, we need to fix your contact points. In other words, where your body actually touches the bench. Your chest should be out and slightly up, creating some space between the shoulder blades. Your shoulders and upper back should be in contact with the bench. Your lumbar spine, or lower back area, should be rounded up off the bench to create an arch. Your glutes should be the next point of contact, so be sure your foot positioning does not inhibit your glute contact. And of course, your head should also stay in contact with the bench.
- Grasp the bar at a comfortable width. For most people, a barbell press grip is shoulder-width or beyond. A closer grip bench press will place emphasis on the triceps, but this form is not common for powerlifters as they typically utilize a wide grip width.
- Now prepare for the movement by engaging the core and being sure your contact points are anchored and strong. Lift the barbell off the rest stops and away from the rack.
- Next, unrack the barbell and begin the movement by lowering it down towards your chest. This movement should be controlled and moderately slow.
- Stop the barbell at your chest, then press the weight back up. Maintain a controlled and fluid form of movement throughout. Don’t forget about your form, keeping the chest out, the back arched, and your feet planted firmly on the ground.
Additional Bench Pressing Tips
Doing your bench presses with the correct form is just one piece, albeit a large piece, to the puzzle of success. There are a few other aspects of this lift that can help you reach your fitness goals.
- Start Off Easy: Yes, a heavy bench press will have you looking macho and strong, but you can’t get there without establishing a good foundation. Don’t go too heavy on your first tries and use progressive overload with caution. Form is an important part of being able to eventually lift heavy…
- Take it Slow: You’ve likely seen your local gym bros pumping out press after press, no hesitation. While this looks impressive, a truly impressive lift is one that is controlled…
- Avoid Overpressing: Often, we feel the need to finish out a press by doing an extra movement with the shoulders ater the elbows lockout. You should not round out your shoulders at any point as this causes your chest to cave inward. After your arms have completely extended, you should lower the barbell.
- Hitting the Chest: While “hitting chest” is something you should be doing during your bench presses, actually hitting your chest is not good. Sure, your barbell should slightly touch your chest at the bottom of the lift, but try not to hit the chest too hard or use your chest to propel the barbell in any way. Not only is this bad for your chest, but it is also not helpful in reaching the full potential of your muscle building.
- Issues with the Elbows: Allowing your elbows to point outward as they fold in may feel right, but it creates issues when you eventually want to move heavier weight. Instead, think about moving your elbows in line with your wrists and hands. This will not only support heavier lifting, but also protect your shoulders and back from injury.
- Maintain a Good Arch: When you’re bench pressing like a powerlifter, there are a few main cues and aspects of the form you should especially focus on. One in particular is the arch in your back. While all types of bench pressing form require a back arch, powerlifting bench presses really capitalize on this aspect. Many powerlifters exaggerate the arch which helps you lift heavier by decreasing your overall range of motion.
- Utilize Leg Drive: Like the arch, powerlifters also emphasize leg power. You may be wondering what your lower body has to do with an upper-body movement. Grounding your feet and using them as the starting place of your power and support, and ushering that force up through the arch, creates a powerful and explosive drive for moving some serious weight.
Warm-Up: The necessity of warming up is somewhat up for debate. While it may not do exactly what we think warming up does, it can be a good way to mentally prepare for your lift. Warming up for benching can be as simple as doing the movement with a very easy amount of weight that allows you to focus on form and internal cues and not so much on performance.
- Aim for a Uniform Bar Path: We know you’re not a robot, but aiming for uniformity in your movements is essential to maintaining awareness of proper form. One way to monitor good form is to follow the path of the bar. If the path is constantly and drastically changing, you may be lifting too heavy and your form may be suffering.
Proper Nutrition: If you’re struggling with performance in the gym, your form may not always be to blame. Check in with your dietary habits, making sure you get in proper protein, carbs, and fats. Your body cannot properly function without a well-balanced and adequate diet, let alone hit PRs with your bench presses. If you struggle with protein intake, try Steel Supplements Veg Pudding Protein Powder Mix!
Bench Press Variations
The great thing about barbell presses is that there are many variations if you’re limited or simply bored with the movement. Here are some of the best bench press variations to keep your muscles on their toes:
1. Close Grip Barbell Bench Press
While powerlifters commonly choose a wider grip, you can use a close grip to target your triceps if desired. To do this, simply grip the bar slightly inside shoulder width and be sure to pay attention to excess elbow flaring.
2. Dumbbell Bench Press
Not everyone has an Olympic barbell laying around. The good news is you can still effectively bench press with just two dumbbells. Just hold one dumbbell in each hand and utilize much of the same form for a barbell press. This time, however, you will not need a weight rack and may find yourself unable to lift as much weight because of this.
3. Decline Bench Press
Working your muscles from several angles is key in overall and well-rounded development. This is exactly what decline bench presses aim to achieve as your chest muscles will have to work in different and new ways to properly lift the weight. You can also do this exercise with dumbbells rather than a barbell.
4. Incline Bench Press
Like the decline bench press, incline bench presses are another way to work your muscles from a different perspective. Try an array of bench angles to see which suits you most.
5. Reverse-Grip Bench Press
Building your upper chest can be difficult, but reverse-grip bench presses may be your solution. However, be careful when performing this movement as a reverse-grip is very unnatural. Be sure to have a spotter and lift less than you would with a traditional overhand grip.
6. Floor Press
If you have a lot of issues with form when doing presses, try using the floor instead of a bench.
This movement reduces your range of motion, which makes the overall lift much easier. You can do this for a while before moving onto a regular bench.
7. Bench Press With Pause
If you’re new to the movement or have an especially underdeveloped chest, no worries! You can still perform bench presses, adding a pause at the bottom of each movement. Simply pause for a few seconds once the barbell reaches your chest, then finish out the movement.
8. Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press
Sometimes, moving one arm at a time is best for focusing on form as well as targeting imbalances. It is not uncommon for one side of our bodies to naturally become more developed than the other when strength training. Being aware of these discrepancies through these simpler movements like the alternating dumbbell bench press is great for really honing in on these issues.
If you’re worried about your bench press, you’re not alone. Benching huge numbers is impressive, but you won’t get there without proper instruction and direction. Being sure to prioritize form, and even nutrition, over heavy weight and ego, is essential to reaching your goals.
However, don’t be intimidated if you’re just starting on your benching journey. Sure, the form can seem daunting and you may feel a ways off from your goals, but remember that even the greatest athletes, such as fitness legend CT Fletcher, all started somewhere.