The bench press is a favourite of bodybuilders and CrossFitters alike. It’s an upper body exercise that builds strength in your chest, shoulders and arms.
There are a number of muscles worked when you bench press (also sometimes called a chest press) so if you’ve ever been curious about where you’ll make huge gains in your upper body, then we have you covered.
Furthermore, there are several variations of the typical bench press that put more emphasis on individual muscles; meaning you can target specific areas depending on what kind you decide to train with, making it a very versatile upper body barbell exercise.
Traditional Bench Press Works What Muscles?
The muscles worked while you bench press depend a lot on the kinds of bench presses you perform. There are a number of variations based on the angle of the bench, the position of your hands on the bar, and what equipment you’re using.
A traditional bench press involves a barbell and a bench, which is what we will be focusing on. However you can build mass with dumbbells and kettlebells, providing further variation on a classic.
A typical bench press setup will look like the following:
- Setup. Lie on the flat bench with your eyes under the bar. Lift your chest and squeeze your shoulder-blades. Feet flat on the floor.
- Grab the bar. Place your pinky on the Knurl (ring) marks of your bar. Hold the bar in the base of your palm with straight wrists and a full grip.
- Unrack. Take a big breath and unrack the bar by straightening your arms. Move the bar over your shoulders with your elbows locked.
- Lower the bar. Lower it to your mid-chest while tucking your elbows 75°. Keep your forearms vertical. Hold your breath at the bottom.
- Press. Press the bar from your mid-chest to above your shoulders. Keep your butt on the bench. Lock your elbows at the top. Breathe.
The movement should be performed with an arch in the back. The reason for this is to protect your shoulders and allow your upper back muscles to pull your shoulders down and into a safe, stable position. It also helps you lift bigger weights.
Keep your feet flat on the floor, and your core braced throughout the movement. Push up from your chest and repeat for the desired number of reps.
The main muscles used during a traditional bench press are the pecs, shoulders, and triceps. These are the muscles that exert the most force on the bar and will ultimately feel the benefit of the resistance.
That said, the erector spinae, lats, and rotator cuff are also at work during the bench press, stabilising the movement and decelerating the bar on the way down. They make sure the exercise is controlled.
When you put them together, these muscles work together to create a powerful upward force that builds strength throughout your upper body.
Bench Press Variations (And the Muscles they Work)
There are a few bench press variations that will target more specific muscle groups, as well as others not so present in the regular bench press. What muscles they work can depend on grip-width and bench incline.
Close Grip Bench Press
- Best For: Triceps
For a bench press variation that will give your triceps a real workout, try a close grip bench press. The closer position of your hands on the barbell will specifically help target your triceps, taking some of the effort out of the shoulders, which means they are also beneficial for CrossFitters bouncing back from a shoulder injury or strain.
The effective tricep exercise is also a compound movement, so you won’t be missing out on the overall benefits of the traditional bench press. The only real difference is the placement of the hands, other than that the set-up and method remain the same.
Keep in mind: a wider grip on the bar means your biceps play more of a role in the movement. If your triceps aren’t as strong you might not be able to lift as much weight as you would with a traditional bench press.
Wide Grip Bench Press
- Best For: Pecs
A wide grip bench press is one considered as such when the width between your hands on the bar is 1.5 / 2 times the width measured between your shoulders. The wide grip will engage the pectoral muscles and the anterior deltoid, activating the muscles in your chest.
This variation of the bench press reduces the range of motion, which decreases the amount of work required to push the barbell upwards. The narrower the grip, the more range of motion you’ll have access too, and the more energy you’ll exert lifting the bar up and down overall.
Keep in mind: If you do have a history of shoulder pain or injury, be wary of this movement. According to a study by the Strength and Conditioning Journal, the amount of force in the shoulders is nearly 1.5x greater when performing a wide-grip bench press vs. a narrow-grip, which increases the potential for injury.
Incline Bench Press
- Best For: Shoulders
Another popular variation on the bench press is the incline bench press. This is essentially adapting the bench to a 45 degree angle, putting more emphasis and more of the weight on your shoulders. If we’re getting specific, incline bench press works the clavicular head of the pectoralis major — in other words, the upper portion of your chest.
The form for the incline bench press remains the same; make you continue to push from your chest and not rest the barbell on your stomach. The front of your shoulders will take the brunt of this movement, so that’s where you’ll want to feel it.
Keep in mind: The incline bench press is harder than the traditional, flat bench press. You also won’t have easy access to the rack like you normally would. Because of these reasons, it would be beneficial to perform the exercise with a spotter, or use a lighter weight than your max rep weight for the normal bench press.