The bench press is a fantastic way to build upper body size and strength, in this guide we dive into detail about all things bench press. We’re going to cover:
- Bench Press Muscles Used Diagram
- Bench Press Muscles Worked Explained
- How to Bench Press Correctly
- Best Bench Press Variations
- Bench Press Programme
- Looking for a Reliable Bodybuilding Programme?
- Bench Press Alternatives – Bodyweight at Home
- What Muscle Does Bench Press Work: Frequently Asked Questions
- Next Steps
Let’s jump right into it…
Bench Press Muscles Used Diagram
Bench Press Muscles Worked Explained
The bench press mainly works three muscles, your pecs, your front delts and your triceps.
Your pec major and pec minor (chest muscles): Are your prime movers for the bench press, this means that they are responsible for doing the most work. If you’re training for size/hypertrophy, then this should be the muscle group that feel the biggest pump in.
Your front delts: Are an assistance muscle group that helps with bench pressing. Many people find that the front delts get enough work from bench pressing that they don’t require any additional isolation work in order to grow.
Lastly, your triceps: Are an assistance muscle group that helps with bench pressing, especially towards the top half of the movement, in which you’re extending at your elbows at locking out the bar.
How to Bench Press Correctly
Of course, getting maximal muscle growth and strength development from an exercise also requires good execution of the movement. Here’s how to bench press correctly.
1) Set up with the barbell above your eyes in the rack. This will give you the easiest unrack and rerack (without risking hitting the pins on the way up, which is annoying as hell)
2) Unrack the bar, brace your abs and get tight, then lower the bar under control until it reaches your chest.
3) Either briefly pause at your chest, or simply gently tap your chest, before reversing direction and pushing up against the bar.
4) Keep pushing until the bar is back where it started, with your arms locked out.
Best Bench Press Variations
Incline Bench Press
The incline bench press is a great pressing variation that provides a slightly different training stimulus whilst still allowing for a decent weight on the bar.
Incline bench press muscles worked
The incline bench press still works your chest, front delts and triceps, only it places slightly more emphasis on your upper chest.
Tempo Bench Press
The tempo bench press has you perform the eccentric (lowering) phase of the lift much more slowly, typically for a count of 3 to 5 seconds, followed by a regular speed concentric (lifting) phase.
It can be a great variation for really feeling a connection to the pec muscles, as well as a good variation for early in a training cycle where you want to lift less weight but still get a good pump.
Close Grip Bench Press
The close grip bench press, as its name would suggest, is a bench press in which you have your hands closer together than you normally would.
A lot of people mess this movement up by going too close with their hands. The proper way to perform this movement is to take your normal grip width, and then move both of your hands in by 1-2 inches. That’s it. Enough to provide a new stimulus without wrecking your wrists.
Close Grip Bench Press Muscles Worked
The close grip bench press still works your pecs, front delts and chest, but places slightly more emphasis on your triceps.
Bench Press Programme
Looking for a simple programme to increase your bench press strength and build size in your chest, front delts and triceps. Here’s a bench press programme I’ve put together for you to try…
Progression on the bench press programme
Progressive overload comes each week through the addition of extra sets, allowing you to keep getting great pumps even as you become more adapted to the training volume.
You can add small amounts of weight across the 4 weeks as well, just keep the increases small enough that you can still achieve all your sets and reps. I recommend increasing by no more than 2.5kg (5lb) per week.
Looking for a Reliable Bodybuilding Programme?
I’ve put together a 17-week hypertrophy programme.
The programme is evidence-based and is designed with 3 distinct blocks of training that use different set and rep schemes, as well as different exercises, to maximise your muscle building.
It’s also designed with specific guidance so that you can adjust your amount of training to suit your recovery.
You can find out more about the programme here.
Bench Press Alternatives – Bodyweight at Home
This all sounds great, but what if you don’t have access to a bench press set-up or your gym is shut and you need to get a solid chest, front delt and tricep workout at home? Here’s my favourite bench press alternative:
These are push-ups in which you raise your hands by 2-4 inches to allow for a larger range of motion. When done properly you get a deep stretch in the chest and a crazy pump.
Push-Ups VS Bench Press
You can still get a great chest, shoulder and tricep workout from push-ups, especially if you use deficits and control the tempo.
Let’s put it this way, I coach plenty of guys who can comfortably bench press 135kg (300lb) and above. But a good set of 10-15 reps with a controlled descent can still get them close to failure with a great pump.
Add in a weighted vest or backpack and you’ve got a serious workout on your hands.
What Muscle Does Bench Press Work: Frequently Asked Questions
Does bench press work triceps?
Absolutely, EMG muscle activation studies plus long term research has shown that tricep thickness can increase by almost 15% after 12 weeks of quality bench press training.
Does bench press work shoulders?
Yes, bench press provides a great workout for your front (anterior) delts. However, it’s not so good at working your side or rear delt muscles, so you’ll want to do some extra exercises if you’re looking for complete delt development.
Does bench press work biceps?
Honestly, not really, most studies show minimal activation, and very little bicep growth even after weeks of bench pressing. If you want bigger biceps, I would go with various types of curls instead.
Does bench press work back?
Not really, just like with biceps, most studies show minimal activation during bench press, so most people won’t see much (if any) back growth from bench pressing. Instead, focus on row variations and pull-up variations to build a big back.
How Wide Should You Grip the Bar?
For most people, slightly outside of shoulder width is a good place to start. From there you can experiment with different grip widths to find what works best for you. Typically you’ll find that a closer grip hits your tricep muscles a bit more, whilst a wider grip bench press hits your chest a bit more.
Muscles used at bottom of bench press?
Your pecs (chest muscles) are most active at the bottom of the bench press, and are put in a position where they are stretched under load. This is great for hypertrophy. This is also why many people fail heavy bench presses at the bottom; their chest isn’t strong enough.
Is Bench Pressing Bad for Your Shoulders?
For most people, bench pressing is only bad for your shoulders when performed with bad technique, or when performed too heavy or too often. If you use good technique and follow a sensible progressive programme then you should be fine.
Should Your Elbows Be Close to Your Body or out to the Sides?
For most people, somewhere between those two positions is about right (i.e. arms at about a 45-degree angle from your body) You might choose to keep your arms a little closer to your body with variations like close grip bench press though, as this can help with tricep activation.
Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time for action…
1) Get in the gym and start training your bench press, maybe even run through my 4-week bench press programme. Get stronger, add some size. Enjoy the pumps.
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching, you can find more information about my services here.
‘Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex’s experience includes 7+ years within strength & conditioning, including supporting 2 major universities, 2 national talent pathways and a selection of international level athletes.
He is also a tutor and educator for British Weightlifting