The bench press is an upper-body compound exercise that primarily targets the chest muscles (pectorals). The pecs are the primary movers while the triceps and shoulders (anterior deltoids) are the secondary muscles involved in the bench press. The shoulders (anterior deltoids) are also heavily engaged during the bench press to perform shoulder flexion (raising your arm straight up to your face).
There is some involvement of the muscles surrounding the shoulder blades (rotator cuff muscles) to help shoulder joint stability whilst bench pressing. Activation of the back muscles (latissimus dorsi) is very small in the bench press, they do not contribute much to the movement (4). The lats may assist a little with stabilising the shoulder.
Bench pressing is a great movement to improve overall upper body strength, which may carry over to tasks of daily living. Additionally, as the bench press targets multiple muscles of the upper body, it can be a useful exercise to increase the size of the chest, triceps and shoulders. If you are looking to maximise the size of your pecs, we recommend including other exercises, which take the chest muscles through a greater range of motion (including dumbbell/machine chest pressing and dumbbell/cable/machine flies). These exercises activate the chest muscles to a high degree whilst accumulating less fatigue than the bench press
If you’re looking to learn how to perform the bench press correctly, read our guide on how to bench press or watch our instructional video below.
Below are the most common cues used when bench pressing. This guide is not the only way to bench press.
The first step is to lay on the bench. You need to be careful not to lay down too high or too low on the bench. When you are lying on your back the bar should be in line with your eyes. If the barbell is too far behind your head, it can be challenging to unrack the barbell as the distance between the barbell and your shoulder joints will be far. This will require more force at the muscles surrounding the shoulder joint to unrack the barbell, making it much more difficult to unrack.
If the barbell is too close to your body, such as in line with your chin, you will likely find that there may not be much room between the barbell and the bench press racks. If there is little room between the barbell and racks, you might clip the racks with the barbell as you press upward.
In conjunction with setting your body position, this is when you can begin setting your back arch. These techniques are ideal for driving and wedging your upper back into the bench to create an anchor point. There are a few different ways the back arch can be set:
There are generally two types of feet positions (on the toes and flat feet). Bench pressing on the toes allows the legs to be further behind the hips, allowing for a bigger arch. The downfall with being on the toes is that you might lose leg drive as your feet are located behind you, making it challenging to drive your shoulders into the bench. The downfall of flat feet is generally less arch, however, the greater ability to use leg drive.
The position of the feet can differ depending on the individual. Some people prefer having the feet wider from the bench, whereas others prefer the feet closer to the bench. For most people, bringing the feet close to the body towards the hips is ideal as this position usually allows for good leg drive, reduces the feet slipping forward and can help with arching the lower back.
If your bench press allows you to set the rack height, you will need to set the height correctly. If the rack is too high, your elbows may be close to fully straight, making it hard to push the barbell off the rack. If the rack is too low, your elbows may be too bent, therefore wasting a lot of energy to unrack the barbell. The rack height should be in a position that results in a slight bend in the elbow as you grab the barbell before pushing it off the rack.
Just before you unrack, it may be helpful to take in a big breath of air and brace your midsection. The extra stability from bracing can help with making the unrack feel a little easier. After you have unracked the barbell, it will be helpful to pick a point on the ceiling and stare at a single focal point and not the barbell. Following a moving object can change the body’s position and may reduce the consistency of where the barbell touches your chest. It is also important to make sure your elbows are fully locked and not soft after unracking.
Before lowering the bar down to your chest, there are a few steps you will want to make sure you have completed before bringing down the bar. These 3 steps can be done individually in a specific order or all at the same time.
Once these three steps are done, you are ready to bring the bar down in a controlled fashion. As you are bringing the barbell down to your chest, try to flare your chest high, like you are trying to bring your ribs towards the bar. Maintaining a high chest will assist with keeping your shoulder blades retracted and help increase your lower back arch. A higher back arch will reduce the range of motion you have to move the barbell.
The bar touch on the chest can differ between individuals but is generally where the pec meets the stomach, which is usually just under the nipple. When the bar touches your chest, it should be a very light touch and you should not let the bar sink into your chest. Dumping the bar on your chest makes the range of motion longer. Bar dumping can also cause the bar to deviate forward once it hits the chest along with causing the elbows to move behind the bar. If you want to compete in powerlifting, you will have to practice having the bar coming to a dead pause on your chest for around 1-2 seconds.
When you are pressing the bar off your chest, reapply your leg drive and push your upper back into the bench pad. It is important to keep your shoulder blades retracted as you will most likely find the chest will sink and the shoulders round forward if you don’t. Furthermore, rounding the shoulders and losing retraction may eventually lead to shoulder pain in the long term.
The barbell should move in a backward diagonal fashion. Aim to press the barbell towards your throat and shoulders as you’re pressing off the chest. The final position should have the barbell hovering over your shoulders. Any deviation of the barbell forward from your shoulders will make the lift harder as you are pressing away from your shoulder joints. The head and glutes should remain in contact with the bench pad at all times.
After you have finished the repetition, the bar should be over your shoulders and your elbows should be locked out. As you prepare for the next repetition, you should take your time to reset your position and redo all the steps explained from leg drive to retracting shoulder blades.
When grasping the barbell, avoid holding the barbell high up in your hand and under your fingers as this can result in a cocked back wrist position. The barbell should sit somewhere in the middle of the palm and try to keep your wrist joints underneath the barbell. You may need to readjust your wrist position as you complete each repetition if you find your wrist is bending back as the set progresses.
The general rule of thumb for determining grip width is that your forearms should be perpendicular to the floor when the bar is touching your chest. If the grip is too wide, the forearms will be angled outward relative to the elbows. If too close, the forearms may angle inward relative to the elbows. We recommend trying different grip widths to find what is comfortable for you.
The barbell should be placed lower down your hand and towards the middle of the palm. This can help keep the barbell stacked on top of the wrist joint. The wrist position should be close to neutral and not be bent backwards. This could add stress and cause pain to the wrist. Ideally, the barbell, hand, wrist and forearm should be stacked on top of one another. If you finish a repetition and have noticed your wrist has bent backwards, readjust your wrist position before the next repetition.
Arching the lower back can help bring your body closer to the barbell and reduces the range of motion the barbell needs to travel. The arch can also help squeeze your shoulder blades together and create tension in the upper back. Keeping the shoulders back may help increase the use of the chest muscles during the bench press whilst taking some load off the shoulders. Driving your legs into the floor to push shoulders blades into the bench and raising your chest to the bar can increase your back arch further.
When the barbell is on your chest, your elbows should be slightly in front of the bar when looking from the side. If the elbows are behind the barbell, try tucking your elbows more. If you are tucking your arms but the elbows are still falling behind the barbell, this may be a sign that you are touching the bar too low on your torso. The forearms should also be slightly diagonal, angled towards your shoulders as you look from the side. This places the elbows in the direction in which the bar is being pressed upward. As you press the barbell upward, the elbows should travel directly underneath the barbell, and should no longer be in front of the barbell.
The chest position should be high during the entire bench press. Maintaining a high chest position is important as you are pressing the bar up off your chest to help maintain your back arch and helps to keep your shoulder blades retracted. It is common for individuals to begin with a high chest and sink their chest during the press. The position of your chest should change minimally between the descend and ascending phases.
Proper breathing and bracing technique can help improve spine stability and the transfer of force throughout your body. Breathing and bracing should be completed at the start of the movement before lowering the barbell. It may help to take a big breath in and brace as you are unracking the barbell. You should breathe in like you are trying to inflate the sides of your stomach and contract your abdominals as if someone is going to punch you in the stomach. After you unrack the barbell, you can either maintain this brace or retake your breath and brace as you lower the bar. You should be holding your breath any time the barbell is moving. So, as you’re bringing the barbell down and back up, the breath is being held. Do not breathe out as the barbell is being pressed back up.
Leg drive is the process of pushing the feet into the ground to push the upper back into the bench. Driving your upper back into the bench can help raise your chest higher and create a bigger arch. This will help reduce the range of motion between the barbell and your torso. Driving your upper back into the bench can help retract the shoulder blades, which may help with reducing shoulder pain as it may put less stress on your anterior deltoids. You should be using leg drive during the setup of your bench press both before and during the barbell descent. Once the barbell has paused on your chest, and you are ready to press, re-apply your leg drive to get any extra push from your legs that you can. Using leg drive whilst pressing the barbell up can make the lift feel a little stronger.
To get the proper feeling of leg drive, try setting up on the bench like you are going to bench press without holding a barbell. Next, from pushing your legs into the floor, you want to push your upper back into the bench pad so that it causes your upper back to slide down the bench. This is what it is meant by driving your feet into the ground to push the upper back into the bench. Leg drive is not just about pushing your legs into the floor. It is pushing your legs into the floor to wedge your upper back into the bench pad.
Driving your upper back into the bench can help retract the shoulder blades, which may help with reducing shoulder pain as it may put less stress on your anterior deltoids. You should be using leg drive during the setup of your bench press both before and during bringing the barbell to your chest. Once the barbell has paused on your chest, and you are ready to press, re-apply your leg drive to get any extra push from your legs that you can. Using leg drive whilst pressing the barbell up can make the lift feel a little stronger.
During the bench press, you want to focus your eye gaze at a single point on the ceiling and avoid following the barbell with your eyes. Focusing on a single point on the ceiling and lining up the bar with a landmark on the ceiling can help encourage a consistent bar path. You should avoid following the barbell with your eyes as your gaze will move whilst pressing, which can lead to an inconsistent bar path. Additionally, looking at the bar as it touches your chest may contribute to the rounding of shoulders and sinking of the chest.
The bar path can be visualised by looking directly at the side of the bar. The bar path is very important as it can drastically change the efficiency of the lift and change how much weight you can press. There are two things to focus on when moving the barbell:
Where the bar touches on the chest is generally going to be the highest point of the torso. For most people, this is usually just under the nipple line. People with a large back arch sometimes need to touch the bar a little lower, towards their abdomen. Touching the barbell on the highest point of the torso will be the shortest range of motion and contributes to a more efficient bench press.
You will want to avoid bringing the bar too high on your body (e.g. middle of the chest). You will also want to avoid bringing the bar too low towards your stomach as this increases the distance between the shoulders and the barbell. When you are pressing the barbell off your chest, you should focus on the end barbell position. The barbell should be hovering over your shoulders when your elbows are locked out.
As soon as you press the barbell off your chest, aim to push the bar towards your throat/shoulders. Pushing the barbell backwards will reduce the distance between the barbell shoulders and will make the lift easier. The further away the barbell is from the shoulders, the harder it will be to press the barbell upward. Pressing the barbell backwards towards the shoulders gives the appearance of a diagonal type bar path.
People often make mistakes during their bench press from unracking to the up phase. Read below about some of the most common bench press mistakes that you could be making.
The incline bench press is a variation that can place a little more emphasis on the upper portion of the chest when using an incline of approx 30 degrees. However, using a higher incline of 45 and 60 degrees appears to reduce the muscle activity of the pecs and places more emphasis on the anterior deltoids (shoulders). Incline bench pressing can decrease activation of the triceps relative to a flat bench press (4). As people generally use less weight on the incline bench press than a flat bench, incline pressing might be a good option for those with sore elbows or shoulder joints.
Based on the current evidence, people may use an incline bench press if they are looking to place a little more emphasis on the upper portion of the chest and/or adding volume to the anterior deltoids. Additionally, suppose someone is experiencing pain such as a pinchy shoulder. In that case, they could try an incline variation to see if it alleviates some of the pain whilst still getting in some bench-pressing volume.
The close grip bench press is similar to the regular flat bench press, except the bar grip should be closer in, approx shoulder-width apart. Bench pressing with a close grip is harder as the range of motion is longer. The close grip bench press appears to provide similar muscle activation of the pecs as a regular grip bench press, however, increased triceps activation. There also appears to be decreased activation of the anterior deltoids (shoulders) (2).
The close grip bench press could be used to increase the strength and size of the triceps. It may also help with improving strength during the middle and end range of motions of a regular bench press. For those who experience discomfort or pain in the shoulders, using a close grip may take some stress off the shoulders whilst still providing significant muscle activation of the pecs (2).
A wide grip bench press involves holding the barbell wider to one’s regular bench press grip. This may even include gripping the bar outside the allowed grip legal in a power-lifting competition for taller individuals or those with a wide arm span.
When using the wide grip bench press, there may be a little less triceps activation compared to a regular grip bench press (1, 5) However, activation of the pecs appears to be no difference between grip widths (5). Due to the small differences in muscle activation between a wide and regular grip bench press, using a wide grip is probably not going to be the difference in building a huge chest.
The tempo bench press uses a numbering system to represent the speed of lifting the barbell. This is broken down into the lowering phase, pause, and the up phase (press). For example, 3-1-0 means 3 seconds down / 1 second pause / fast up. A range of tempo variations can be used, which may be modified depending on the goals one is trying to achieve from purposely slowing down their bench press.
A review paper by Wilk et al (6) found that purposely slowing down an exercise does not seem to benefit muscle size more than a regular tempo. When an exercise is purposely slowed down, the increased time under tension a muscle experiences can increase muscle gains. However, the trade-off is the number of repetitions and load is reduced. Thus, again in time under tension is offset with decreased training volume. As a result, muscle gain is likely similar using both slow and fast tempos, so long as someone is not going to either extreme of the tempo ranges.
Using a tempo bench press may help fix the technique, particularly for people who are inconsistent in touching the same spot on their chest, tend to dump the bar into their chest, or have an inconsistent bar path. Additionally, as the load will have to be reduced during a tempo bench press relative to a regular bench press, slowing down the lowering phase might be suitable for those who have and/or recovering from an injury.
If you decide to use tempo bench press in your program, a 3-5 second lowering phase is recommended.
The paused bench press is a variation that increases the time under tension and removes stretch reflex. It involves using a longer than usual pause on the chest, generally around 3 seconds, before pressing the barbell back up. The increased pause length results in less weight being benched in comparison with a touch and go or regular bench press. This variation is ideal for those who need to fix technique issues at the chest such as dumping the barbell, losing tension and/or losing elbow position. It can also be used by those who have a pec or shoulder injury as the pause may help alleviate some of the pain.
Feet up bench press involves the feet being on the bench instead of the floor. When training loads are equated, elevating the feet increases muscle activation in the pecs, triceps and deltoids compared to when the feet are on the floor (3). However, the load that can be lifted in feet up bench press is less than that of a regular bench press. As muscle activation generally goes up with load increases, muscle activation will probably be similar between the feet up and regular bench press if training load is not equated.
In the study by Muyor et al (3) subjects lifted 60% of their regular bench 1RM. Because people lift less on feet up bench press, this 60% 1RM load would have been more like 70-75% of the subjects’ feet up bench press 1RM. This likely contributed to why muscle activation was higher in the feet up bench press.
Using this information, feet up bench press could be a variation to reduce stress on the body, but still getting high levels of muscle stimulation. Bench pressing with a lower absolute load may take the load off the shoulder and elbow joints. Furthermore, feet up bench press usually results in less back arch, so it might be a good alternative for someone who is experiencing lower back pain.
A standard Olympic barbell weighs 20kg and a beginner should look at doing a minimum of 5 repetitions. If you are unable to lift this, you can use dumbbells or start with push-ups until you build sufficient strength to press 20kgs. If you have never bench pressed before, a good starting point is to perform 3 sets of 5-8 repetitions. Beginners should focus on technique before adding load too quickly. When you can perform the high end of the repetition range for all sets, you can increase the load between 1-5kg depending on your size, strength and age etc. If you are not able to hit the high end of the rep range for all sets, repeat the load in the following workout and try to increase repetitions.
For a beginner, a bench press frequency of 2-3 times a week should suffice. Continue to use the same three sets for 5-8 repetitions each session and increasing the load when able. Avoid starting with the maximum weight you can lift. Using the 5-8 rep range for your first session, I would suggest selecting a weight that you can do over eight reps with. You are better off starting too light and working the weight up over the sessions to practice your technique. If the load is too heavy, it will be difficult to get the technique right. For someone going from no benching to some benching, this is a significant increase in training stress, and adaptations will result even if the load is light.
Bench pressing every day is not necessarily bad unless you are experiencing pain stemming from too much volume or intensity. However, the high volume and frequency are likely not optimal for progress. For most people, more gains can be made from doing less volume and having some recovery between sessions. However, bench pressing up to 4 days a week is not uncommon and could be effective for someone who responds well to high volume and/or frequency on the bench press.
If your bench press is stalling and you cannot get stronger, there are multiple other variables to consider before increasing frequency or volume such as:
Depending on your budget and space availability, you could purchase a bench press that is solely designed for bench pressing. Alternatively, you could purchase a half or full squat rack and a flat bench, which will allow for a great range of exercises to be performed versus buying a stand-alone bench press.
Equipment that can help with performing the bench press are chalk and wrist wraps. Chalk can help dry out the hands and increase friction between your hands and the barbell to avoid your grip slipping. Chalk can also be applied to your upper back to reduce slipping on the bench. Wrist wraps can help create stiffness in the wrist to minimise your wrist bending backwards. Wrist wraps can also be good for those who experience wrist pain during the bench press.
Like any other exercise, the bench press can be dangerous if you use a poor technique, lift too heavy or do not use any safety precautions. The most dangerous thing that can happen during a bench press is not being able to push the barbell back up. Benching within a squat cage or a bench press with safety arms would be the safest option.
Something to consider if you are training alone is not to use barbell collars. If you were to fail the lift and the barbell gets stuck on your chest, you will usually be able to tip the barbell to the side to let the weight plates slide off. However, just be prepared for the barbell to flip to the other side as the weight will be all on one side after one side falls off.