The bench press is the exercise that almost everyone thinks of first when weight training is mentioned. Even people that have never lifting in their lives know what a bench press looks like and why people do it. Bench press is the ultimate chest exercise and where most young athletes and bodybuilders start (along with the bicep curl).
Pectoralis Major – The Large Chest Muscles
The reason to bench press is to build larger pecs, or more precisely the pectoralis major, the two large chest muscles that cover the area from the shoulder blade down the ribs and connect to the upper arm.
In addition the the pectorals the front deltoids and triceps are worked which make the bench press such a great upper body exercise.
As well as their aesthetic appeal for men the pecs play an important functional role in many sports such as tennis, gymnastics, martial arts (especially grappling) and also golf.
The Basic Barbell Bench Press
The most common bench press is the basic barbell bench press on a flat bench. There are a variety of alternatives such as inclined, declined, dumbbell presses as well as close grip bench presses.
To perform a basic barbell bench press is great for building mass across the whole of the pecs. You should ideally use a good quality solid bench with supports on either side – the best piece of kit to train in is a power rack as this will support the bar and prevent injury should your muscles fail suddenly and unexpectedly.
The basic bench press is on a flat bench with a medium width grip, which means grasping the bar so that your forearms remain vertical on when the bar reaches your chest. This grips requires the pectorals to do most of the work and the triceps and rear deltoids the least amount.
Start by lifting the bar off its supports and hold above your chest, then slowly lower until it just touches your lower pecs – never bring the bar down towards your upper chest or neck. This can lead to shoulder injuries.
When lifting your elbows should point outwards throughout the move as this opens up the chest and ensures that the pectorals are doing the bulk of the pushing. With the bench press you should lift the bar to its maximum height with your arms fully extended and the elbows locked out. Pause for a second before returning the bar to your chest.
The Inclined Barbell Bench Press
The inclined bench press works the middle and upper parts of the pecs and also the front delts. You will not be able to lift as much weight with this exercise so reduce the amount of weight a little.
With the incline bench press you perform the same movement but on an incline but with a slightly wider grip. Again, it is important to ensure that when you lower the bar it is not directly towards your neck or upper chest but down towards the solar plexus / bottom of the pecs.
It is best to start with a lighter weight with the incline bench press until you get used to your correct lifting line. A common problem is that while attempting to lower the bar to the lower chest area it is push too far forward and then you lose control.
Flat, Incline and Decline Dumbbell Presses
Often people consider dumbbells as simple being the poor mans weight training equipment. Many people start out getting a pair of adjustable dumbbells before they move on to the “real” weight training. However, dumbbells are extremely useful for weight training as they allow a greater range of motion and engage more supporting muscles too.
Another advantage of using dumbbells is that it ensures that you work both sides of your chest equally – it is very easy to allow your stronger side to lead slightly with a barbell press.
Flat Dumbbell Press
The aim of these presses is to work the middle and outer regions of the pectorals more.
To perform a flat dumbbell press you lie on the bench as normal, either with your feet flat on the floor or on the end of the bench with your knees bent. When lifting always keep your palms facing forward. Lower the weights as far as they comfortable go, to either side of your chest, before lifting them up again.
Incline and Decline Dumbbell Press
Incline presses work the middle and upper region of the pectorals. The higher the bench is inclined the more that you engage the delts. They are performed in the same controlled manner as the flat presses.
Decline presses effort on the middle and lower parts of the pectorals. These are performed in the same way as the other dumbbell presses.
How Many Reps Should You Perform?
This largely depends on your goals, although in general people working the chest a lot are aim for muscle size, so the best rep range for bench press is around 10-12 reps per set for 3 sets.
For martial artists that are looking in increase the power of their punch then you should aim to develop more explosive muscle fibers, which means working out with heavier weights in shorter sets, generally 4-6 reps per set, with 5 sets with increasingly heavier weights.
Working out through a range of movements, i.e. doing many variations of the bench press, is important to develop an overall strength that is not just mono-directional. Also variety means that the stabilizing muscles are worked harder, building a stronger upper body overall.
Read this article for more information on the different rep ranges: How To Train for Muscular Strength, Size and Power
Bench Press Video Tutorials
This video from Sci-unisonfitness.com explains the correct form well for both the flat and inclined barbell presses, the inclined dumbbell presses.
Tips From Dillen Steeby
One of you readers kindly gave some good advice in the comments below, covering hand placements, plus advice on not arching the back;
“those of you who arch your backs are in my opinion cheating yourself out of the weakest half of the movement and if it were up to me to judge it I’d disqualify your poundage. Focusing on your strong points and ignoring your weaknesses keeps you weak.”
Photo by A. Blight