How To Bench Press & What Muscles They Work
There are many different exercises that build upper-body strength and muscle tone, and one of the most effective, challenging and popular exercises is the bench press.
It’s one of the three fundamental compound exercises you’ll find in Sweat’s BUILD program, alongside squats and deadlifts. Let’s dive into what bench presses are, what muscles they use, how to perform them correctly and why they’re so great when it comes to building upper-body strength.
What is a bench press?
A bench press is an upper-body exercise where you lie on your back on a bench and press a barbell (or dumbbells) away from your chest directly up into the air, then lower the weights back down towards your chest and repeat.
Walk into the weights section at the gym and you’re bound to see at least one person performing this popular movement. You’ll find this exercise in most lifting programs and they’re an effective way to build upper-body strength because of how many muscle groups they work at one time.
Bench presses with a weighted barbell can be tough, especially if you’re new to strength training or don’t have a lot of upper-body strength, but you can certainly build up to it with the right program, correct weight selection, patience and consistency!
What muscles does a brench press work?
Here at Sweat, we’re big fans of compound exercises - the movements that target multiple muscle groups and joints at once for a functional, efficient and effective exercise. Incorporating compound exercises in your workout routine is a way to get more bang for your buck, and the bench press definitely ticks that box. It’s a great way to develop holistic strength and improve your ability to perform other upper-body exercises, too!
Bench pressing primarily targets your arms, shoulders and chest, or to be specific, your pec majors (the large muscles in your upper chest), your anterior deltoid (the front of your shoulders), your triceps and your core. Performing different bench press variations can also alter which muscles are targeted.
How to bench press
Before you hit the bench, make sure you’ve either picked a realistic weight OR you’ve got someone to spot you if you’re going to lift a more challenging weight.
Your warm-up should also be an essential part of your pre-workout routine. Heading straight into lifting without warming up your muscles will not only limit your ability to lift heavy, it’s also unsafe. A good warm-up isn’t just for beginners, it’s essential for everyone regardless of fitness and experience level.
Here’s how to perform a traditional barbell bench press:
- Place a barbell on the rack and add any additional weight in the form of weight plates with barbell collars to hold them in place. If it’s your first time, we recommend starting with just the barbell. If you’re completing the BUILD program, you’ll be provided with weight recommendations once you’ve completed your One-Rep Max (1RM) in the Sweat app.
- Lie down on the bench so your head is beneath the barbell. Your eyes should be looking directly up at the bar.
- Plant your feet on the floor on either side of the bench, or on the bench itself.
- Place both hands on the barbell in an overhand grip (palms facing away from you), slightly wider than your shoulders. Push the bar away from you to unrack the barbell and extend your elbows to hold the barbell directly in front of your chest. This is your starting position.
- Inhale. Bend your elbows to lower the barbell towards you until the bar touches your chest, keeping your knuckles facing the ceiling and wrists strong.
- Exhale. Extend your elbows and push the barbell away from your chest to return to the starting position. Repeat for the specified number of repetitions before returning the barbell to a secure position on the rack.
Bench press tips for beginners
New to strength training or just starting to work on improving your upper-body strength? The bench press can be a challenging exercise for beginners, so we recommend starting with light dumbbells or an empty barbell to focus on your form and get comfortable with the movement. As your technique improves and your confidence builds, you can progress to using a barbell or lifting heavier weights.
Opting for dumbbells can also be a safer option if you don’t have someone to spot you, as you can easily drop them to the floor if you find you’re unable to perform the lift. Without a spot, being unable to perform your bench press can result in being pinned to the bench - something you definitely want to avoid!
Take the time to focus on your technique by closely following the exercise demonstration videos in the Sweat app. Don’t worry if it takes some time to nail your form or if you need to reduce your weight as it’s essential you’re performing movements correctly — both for your safety and your ability to progress.
If you’re starting your lifting journey with Sweat’s BUILD program, you’ll begin by completing your One Rep Max (1RM) assessment in the app to ensure you’re lifting the right weights for your body and goals.
How to increase your bench press
Feeling your strength increase over time is one of the most exciting and empowering things about being consistent with strength training, and there are a couple of ways you can make progress and increase your bench press weights.
Tip 1: Prepare to produce more power by grabbing an empty barbell and pressing it against the pins in a power rack as hard as possible for 2–5 seconds. Take a short rest for 1–3 minutes before performing your lifts. This will help prime your central nervous system and muscles for a powerful lift.
Tip 2: Switch it up by slowing your lifts down to increase the time your muscles spend under tension. Changing up the tempo, such as taking three seconds on the lowering phase, pausing at the bottom of the movement and then one second to push the bar up can build your power.
Tip 3: Try bench press variations to stay challenged and motivated while you work slightly different muscles. There are plenty of ways to spice up the traditional bench press, such as the paused bench press, close-grip, or spoto barbell bench press. Incline and dumbbell bench presses are also great if you’re looking for a way to add variation to your workouts.
Bench press variations
Close-grip barbell bench press
- Looking for a targeted tricep workout? The close-grip bench press is for you. This exercise can be tough on your triceps, so make sure you start light and focus on your form.
- In a regular bench press, your hands are placed slightly wider than your shoulders, but in a close-grip bench press your hands should be shoulder-width apart. By moving your hands closer together, you’re shifting the emphasis from your chest to your triceps.
Dumbbell chest press with neutral grip
- If you want to take the pressure off your shoulders and elbows and give your chest and arms a solid workout, try a neutral-grip bench press using dumbbells.
- Ensure your palms are facing inwards as you grip the dumbbells. This will help work your triceps.
Paused bench press
- The paused barbell bench press can take your workout up a notch if you’re looking to increase muscle strength or have hit a plateau.
- It’s performed in the same way as a regular bench press, but when the barbell is lowered to your chest, you pause for two to three seconds with the bar hovering at chest level before pushing it back up.
Spoto barbell bench press
- This is an advanced exercise that’ll take your upper-body workout to the next level. Think of it as an intensified version of the paused bench press.
- In a spoto bench press, rather than pausing when the barbell is almost your chest, you pause when it is a few inches ABOVE your chest for even more of a challenge!
Incline bench press
- The incline bench press works your upper chest muscles, as well as your anterior deltoids (the front of your shoulders) and your triceps.
- This exercise can be done with either dumbbells or a barbell. Make sure the bench is set to a 30-degree incline for the exercises in the BUILD program.
Pump your way to a strong upper body!
Incorporating the bench press into your workout routine is an incredibly effective way to build holistic upper-body strength in your chest, shoulders and triceps — and a great way to increase your confidence.
* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.