What Does Bench Press Work?

The bench press is one of the most famous gym exercises. You often walk into the gym and see massive men screaming as they try and hit personal bests on the bench press. 

It’s one of those exercises that even if you aren’t familiar with the gym, you’ve probably heard of it. Often in films whenever there is a scene in the gym you can almost guarantee they’ll either be on the bench press or doing bicep curls. The bench press is used primarily to develop a bigger chest.

In this article, we will discuss what exact muscles the bench press works, and what varying techniques can be used to isolate certain muscles and focus on specific areas as well as all-around muscle development. 

Safety

Before we start talking about the bench press and what muscles it uses, it’s important to outline the importance of safety when lifting weights. If you are new to weight lifting you should start with light weights. It’s very easy to injure yourself with too much weight and incorrect form.

You may end up spending months out of the gym if you hurt yourself and then you’ll set back your goals, it’s really important to start slowly and get advice on using the correct form so you can get the most out of your training.

The Basics

Ultimately learning how to bench press means learning how to build muscle on your upper body. The bench press is an incredible compound exercise that focuses mainly on your pectorals and your triceps.

But many other muscles are being used at the same time. The bench can also be performed in a variety of ways which we will discuss here. 

Using Correct Technique

Load up the bar with equal weight on either side, make sure you secure the weights with a spring collar. Lay down on the bench and make sure you are centered on the bench. Ideally, you want your head directly under the bar and your feet resting on the floor.

Place your hand’s equal distance apart on the bar, there are markers on the bar as guidelines for where you should have your hands.

A good gauge is roughly having a 90-degree angle between the upper arm and forearm. Before lifting you want to consciously engage your core and slightly push your chest towards the sky to open your chest. Make sure your feet are firmly planted before lifting.

As you exhale push the bar up off the rack with fully extended arms and move it directly in line with your nipples/lower chest. Inhale as you lower the bar down to your chest, making a conscious effort to tuck your elbows in as much as possible to help engage the chest.

The best way to fully engage the chest is to lower the bar slowly, and then explode upwards with full power. This technique will help increase the ‘muscle under tension time’. Be careful not to let your wrists roll back too much with the bar, make an effort to keep your wrists strong and in line with your forearm.

If you let them bend back you can injure yourself. Always remember that using the correct form and technique is better for muscle building than putting on a lot of weight and lifting with poor technique. 

Standard Bench Press

The standard bench press uses a flat bench and the classic bench technique described in the point above. This style of bench primarily focuses on the upper and lower chest, triceps, and forearm grip. Due to the flat bench, this works the pecs evenly.

This is one of the most common styles of bench press and one you will see being used frequently in the gym. If you are new to lifting this is the first bench press style you should try.

Close Grip Bench Press   

This variation uses a narrower grip on the bar which activates the triceps more than the standard bench press, similar to how the diamond push-up works the triceps more than standard push-ups. It also activates the inner chest a little more due to the narrower grip. 

Incline Bench Press

The incline bench press is when you put the bench in an inclined position, the amount you incline the bench is up to you, but the more inclined the bench means the more upper chest muscle you will activate.

If you go too far you will end up activating primarily the shoulders which are going into a different exercise altogether.

Normally you need to drop down the weight for this exercise in comparison to a standard bench as the shoulder is used a little more. The main aim of the incline bench is to build upper chest muscle.

Decline Bench Press

This is when the bench is declined, so your head is lower than your chest. For this exercise, you ideally need to find a bench where you can hook your feet under to stop you from sliding off the bench!

This exercise is used to focus on the lower pecs, helping strengthen the lower/under part of the pec helping you develop the defined line that we all so desperately want. 

Push-Ups

Push-ups are one of the best bodyweight full-body exercises you can do. Unlike bench press, you have to fully engage your legs, glutes, and core, as well as use your pecs, delts, biceps, triceps, and more.

This exercise is equally as good as building definition in your pecs as the bench press. I recommend always doing some push-ups to warm up before hitting the weighted bench press. 

Hammer Strength Chest Press (Machine)

The chest press machine is a very safe way to start exercising your pecs and is highly recommended for beginners.

The machine prevents you from injuring yourself as the weight is guided in a linear set direction with limitations, so all you have to do is focus on lifting the weight and not balancing and coordinating the bar like you do with free weights.

Overall Muscles Used In Bench Press 

Despite all the variations which help isolate specific areas. All of the bench press exercises are focused around the pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, and triceps brachii.

Many other muscles are working in the background of course, like your latissimus dorsi for example, but the main focus of the bench press is for the chest, shoulders, and triceps. 

Recovery 

You can have the best bench press technique in the world, and smash the weights in the gym, but none of this matters at all if you aren’t getting your nutrition and recovery right. All of the growth, strength, and muscle development happens when you are resting and the body is rebuilding.

If you aren’t feeding your body the right food and the right amount of protein then your muscles simply can’t grow and get stronger, despite going to the gym every day.

If you’re not fueling correctly you will gradually dig yourself into a hole and eventually burn out. We are not machines, we need to look after ourselves and fuel our mind and body accordingly. 

Final Thoughts

To wrap up all the points we’ve spoken about in this article. The bench press is a great exercise, and one of the most popular for developing chest and arm strength. It works your pectorals, shoulders, triceps, and more.

There are lots of different variations of the bench press to focus on certain areas within the main areas we spoke about, for example, the lower chest or upper chest.

It’s very important to focus on correct form when lifting, rather than how much weight you can do. There is no point in being the most macho man in the gym with all the weights if you aren’t lifting with the right form and you end up injuring yourself.

Correct technique comes before anything! On top of all of this, fueling correctly and looking after your recovery is the absolute golden rule for making progress in the gym. Happy lifting!

Kevin Harris
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