How to Bench Press – Chest Exercises

Flat bench pressThe 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

More like this in the Strength Training section

  10 comments for “How to Bench Press – Chest Exercises

  1. Jamsheed khan
    January 22, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Sir my left arm is weak than right . Sir what is correct solution for it

  2. MotleyHealth
    January 23, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Use dumbbells for some sessions to that you left arm has to work harder, cannot be supported by the right.

  3. Shami
    February 24, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Overall good article. It has important information. I found some good tips on bench press while googling ‘Mankind muscles’.

    One should also take a look.

  4. dillen steeby
    April 26, 2011 at 7:43 am

    whether you do incline, decline or flat the pec engagement is still the whole pec there is no partial pec upper vs. lower. the pec has two parts which are layered one on top of the other like onion layers across your chest. the term lower pec which you and every other shoulder and trap wrecker refers to portion closer to your feet is incorrect description and doing decline is actually the strongest movement and best to get a greater pec percentage involved in the movement because that is its design to move in and downward across your body.

    engagement of lats or triceps is dictated by hand placement. lifters with stronger triceps will do better on bench with a closer grip and lifters with stronger lats and biceps will benefit with a wider grip.

    ****for example: a wrestler or mma athlete uses twice as much back muscle power (pulling) as they do front (pressing/thrusting) so will probably benefit with a wider grip when it comes to adding pounds to the movement.

    since the pecs movement is downward and across the body it has to split the movement of a flat bench press with the delts and traps to move the weight straight away from the body. the incline engages delt more because the angle favors the natural movement design of the delts. Bench press engages every muscle in the body when done properly.

    I notice you didn’t mention anything about keeping elbows in for triceps peak engagement which will add weight to your lift.

    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.

    I didn’t see anything regarding grip strength. a tight grip and trying to tear the bar apart again draws greater tricep intensity along with medial and posterior deltoid action which provides greater overall strength in the movement.

    There are alot of things to mention which have gone unmentioned here.

  5. MotleyHealth
    April 26, 2011 at 8:44 am

    Thanks Dillen, there is certainly a lot of re-writing to be done around the site, especially in the weight training articles. We are working on it. Thanks for your excellent feedback.

  6. MotleyHealth
    April 28, 2011 at 12:54 am

    Made a few updates, it is aimed at the beginner really, hopefully this provides a foundation in the bench press at least.

  7. vishal
    June 10, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    Hi,

    my age is 20
    I have just started going for gym.
    I am aiming to reduce body fat around my stomach and lower back by doing a lot of cardio that is cycling and step ups.
    I am also working out for a square chest by doing incline dumbbell press.
    but now I have noticed that there is lot of fat deposited on the lower back”love handles”.its more compared to my case before joining gym
    help!!

  8. MotleyHealth
    June 10, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    Hi Vishal, if you have accumulated more fat then you must still be eating too much. Maybe you have just lost fat elsewhere and your love handles are more noticeable now. How long have you been going to the gym? You say just started, if less than 2 weeks then it is still very early days.

  9. Carole Hobbs
    May 14, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    You can’t write about the chest without writing about the flat barbell bench press. Almost ALWAYS the main exercise in every chest workout routine, the bench press is one of the best compound exercises there are, period.

  10. MotleyHealth
    May 14, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    Um, it was the first thing we mentioned. Did you read the article? Or are you just here to promote your website? Sorry to ask, but it happens a lot.

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