Use the barbell bench press to build a big, strong and defined chest
The barbell bench press is most guy’s favourite exercise because there’s few better lifts for packing on serious chest size and strength. Use our complete guide to the bench press to start sculpting a bigger, stronger and more defined chest. Then you’ll achieve the lean, athletic and impressive physique you want, says New Body Plan creator and Men’s Fitness cover model Jon Lipsey
Barbell Bench Press FAQs
Expert Bench Press Form Guide
Increase Your Bench Press 1-Rep Max
Common Bench Press Mistakes
Barbell Bench Press Variations
Smith Machine Bench Press Variations
Dumbbell Bench Press Variations
Complete Guide to the Bench Press – Introduction
Go in to any commercial gym, anywhere in the world, on a Monday evening and there’ll be a line of guys queuing to use the bench press.
There’s no doubt it’s the most popular of the “Big Four” barbell lifts – seeing off the competition from the barbell back squat, the barbell deadlift, and the overhead shoulder press. And it battles with the dumbbell biceps curl for title of the world’s favourite exercise.
And the barbell bench press deserves all the accolades. Why? Because it’s one of the best builders of muscular size and strength not only of the chest, but for the shoulders and triceps too.
Read on to discover everything you need to know about the bench press, including our expert form-guide tips and our bonus big-lifting advice. We’ll also show you how to avoid the common benching training errors so you can pack on serious size and strength faster. And we’ll detail the key bench press variations so you can build the big and broader chest you want!
What is a bench press?
It’s arguable the most popular weight-lifting exercise in the world. You lie back on a flat bench, holding a barbell in both hands, then lower it down and press it back up. That’s one rep. How much weight you put on the bar, how many reps you do per set, and how many total sets you do in a session depends on you whether you’re training for fat loss, for muscle size, muscle strength or muscle endurance. But there’s no doubt the bench press is one of the most important exercise for building a better physique.
What muscles does the barbell bench press work?
It primarily works the pectoralis major, which is the bigger of the two main chest muscles. The pec major is shaped like a fan and sits on top of the second and smaller chest muscle, the pectoralis minor. It also works both parts of the triceps brachii muscle – the medial head and the long head – and the anterior deltoids, which is the technical name for the front third of your shoulder muscles. Many other small but important stabilising muscles are also involved in the lift, including the delicate rotator cuff muscles that manoeuvre the shoulder joint.
How much should I be able to bench press?
“What d’ya bench, bro?”. That’s a question you’ll hear asked wherever men congregate to lift and lower heavy bits of metal. Maybe you’ve even been asked it yourself when on the gym floor. That’s because the barbell bench press is the favourite metric to determine upper-body strength. That’s both as a relative term in relation to the lifter’s body weight, and in absolute terms when comparing total strength to others.
How much you can bench press only really matters to you and your goals. But there is an accepted model for ranking your one-rep max effort into several performance-level categories. And it’s based on your one-rep max (the maximum weight you can successfully lift for one repetition) in relation to your body weight. We use the ratios devised by exrx.net.
What’s a good bench press one-rep max?
To work out your one-rep max performance, take your best-ever single-rep bench press effort and divide it by how much you weigh. The weight you lift as a percentage of your body weight will then fall into one of these categories:
Untrained <0.7 x bodyweight
Novice 0.7-0.9 x bodyweight
Intermediate 0.9-1.1 x bodyweight
Advanced 1.1-1.5 x bodyweight
Elite >1.5 x bodyweight
For example, a man weighing 82kg who can press 60kg (bodyweight x 0.7) for one rep would rank as “untrained”, while a 75kg (bodyweight x 0.9) max-effort ranks as “novice”.
A 90kg (bodyweight x 1.1) one-rep max is “intermediate”; a 125kg (bodyweight x 1.5) effort is “advanced”; while a 157.5kg (bodyweight x 2) lift or higher ranks as “elite”.
Don’t worry if you’re not best pleased with your current category. There’s plenty of expert tips and advice below on how you can boost your bench press!
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How to do the perfect barbell bench press
• Set up on a flat bench with your feet (both heels and toes) planted firmly on the floor (and never up on the bench).
• Grasp the bar tightly with an overhand grip – with your thumbs wrapped over your index fingers – with your arms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
• Keeping your chest up and abs and glutes fully engaged, drive your feet into the floor and squeeze the bar hard to create tension throughout your body. A tight and engaged body can lift a heavier weight more easily and with less risk of injury.
• Maintain this whole-body tension as you lift the bar out of the rack so your arms are fully straight.
• Slowly lower the bar down towards your chest under complete control. Pause briefly at the bottom then press the bar directly back up until your arms are fully locked out. That’s one rep.
• Never let the weight just drop down to your chest under gravity, or let it drop and bounce down off your chest to initiate the lifting part of each rep.
Improve your barbell bench press
Boost your bench press one-rep max with these train smarter tips
Get a good grip
To build a bigger chest you need to bench press using the Goldilocks grip. That’s when you hold the bar with a slightly-wider than shoulder-width grip. It’s the perfect hand position to work the most chest muscle fibres. Too narrow a grip shifts the emphasis away from your chest to your triceps – turning the move into a close-grip bench press – and limiting how heavy you can lift. Too wide a grip places excess strain on your shoulders. And you don’t want to mess around with those delicate joints. Get the right grip then squeeze the bar hard!
Plant your feet
If your body doesn’t feel stable and fully supported on the barbell bench press then your brain is going to limit your power output to prevent injury. This means your chest muscles won’t fire to their full potential. But that’s what it takes if you want to build a big chest. To get total-body stability you need to think about your feet. Make sure they are both firmly planted on the floor – never up on the bench. Then drive your heels down and feel that muscle engagement move upwards through your glutes and torso. Once you’re tight, you’re ready to lift.
Take a deep breath
It can be tempting to hold your breath during a heavy barbell bench press set. Sometimes it happens without us even realising as we try to bench out those crucial final reps. But all that does is send your blood pressure through the roof, which isn’t conducive to a successful session. Instead, consciously match your breathing to your lifting. Take a big inhalation as you lower the bar down to your chest, then exhale strongly through pursed lips as you press it back up. It’s an instant and effortless way to make each rep even more effective and feel easier!
Common bench press mistakes and how to avoid them
Boost your bench press numbers and build a bigger and stronger chest by avoiding these rookie errors
Using the wrong grip
Grasp the bar with an overhand grip with your arms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. A good way to get the perfect grip is to place your little fingers just inside the ring marks on the barbell. This grip allows your forearms to be vertical as you lower the bar down and is the sweetspot grip to lift the maximum weight in the best biomechanical position.
If your arms are too wide you risk placing too much pressure on your shoulder joints, which is the most delicate joint in the body. A slightly narrower grip limits how much you can lift and shifts the workload away from the chest and on to the triceps, turning the move in to the close-grip bench press. But going too narrow places too much strain on the wrist and elbow joints.
Not using your legs
Most people don’t realise that the bench press is a full-body lift. Yes, its focus is the chest, arms and shoulders, but good benching requires other muscle groups to help out so you can lift the maximum weight. That means using your legs, specifically to give you the most stable foundation. Why is this important? The more stable your body the greater your control over the weight and the more force you have to move the bar.
A wider foot stance will provide more stability. So plant your feet at least shoulder-width apart, if not even wider. You can then position your feet so that your heels and behind your knees. Doing, this, then really focusing on stamping your heels into the floor, will offer a huge stability boost to help you bench better.
Not setting your shoulders
Not getting your shoulders into position before starting a set will compromise your stability and make pressing harder and more dangerous. Ahead of each set use the bar to pull your shoulder blades back and down. This will allow you to drive your back down into the bench and keep your chest up. So you have a much more stable connection with the bench from which to press from.
How to do the main bench press variations
There are a number of key variations of the barbell bench press move, using different bits of kit and each with their own advantages. Here are the essential exercises that should appear in all good chest-building training plans
Barbell bench press variations
Incline barbell bench press
Lying on an incline bench shifts emphasis to the upper part of the pectorals and the front of the shoulders. This means it’s good for developing a bigger and more defined upper chest, but you won’t be able to lift as much weight as in the standard bench press. Note that the steeper the incline the greater the focus on the upper chest and shoulders. (Once the bench reaches a 90-degree incline the exercise becomes a seated barbell shoulder press.)
Decline barbell bench press
The decline barbell bench press shifts more of the workload to the lower portion of the pectorals. That makes this it very effective for building a bigger lower chest. On a decline bench, unlike all other bench press variations, your feet aren’t on the floor. So unless the bench has padded barriers to secure your feet, you might lose some stability by losing a key contact point with the ground. Most people can lift heavier on the decline bench than a flat bench. But it’s a move that benefits from having a spotter on-hand to help you get the barbell in and out of position.
Close-grip barbell bench press
Lying on a flat bench with a grip narrow than in the standard lift makes the move a close-grip bench press. Also known as the narrow-grip bench press, grasping the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart (or ever-so slightly narrower), shifts the workload away from the chest and on to the triceps. You won’t be able to lift as much weight as in the standard move, but this variation is an important arms-building move for building bigger and more defined triceps. Don’t take your hands too close together or you’ll place too much strain on your shoulder, elbow and wrist joints. You can do incline and decline versions of this bench press variation.
Smith machine bench press variations
Smith machine bench press
A Smith machine is a popular bit of kit in which to bench press. That’s because the movement pattern of the barbell is fixed: it can only move up and down. So it has more in common with the chest press machine than a barbell or dumbbell bench press. Why? Because when pressing with free weights your stabilising muscles need to be fully engaged to ensure the bar moves straight up and down, and doesn’t deviated forwards or backwards.
While you will miss out on strengthening these important stabiliser muscles, the Smith machine allows you to bench a heavier weight. That makes it a good option for beginners to build strength, bodybuilders wanting to maximise chest muscle size, or for those coming back from injury.
And because the machine has multiple positions to re-rack the bar you don’t need a spotter. You just turn your wrists to hook the bar back into the machine if you get into trouble and can’t complete a rep.
Another difference is that when calculating the weight your barbell bench press you include the 20kg weight of the barbell. But the fixed bars in Smith machines can weigh various amounts, so it’s best to only add up the plates you put on.
Incline Smith bench press
It’s very similar to the barbell variation in that in works the upper portion of the chest and shoulders. But it won’t engage the small but important stabiliser muscles to the same extent as incline free weight benching.
Decline Smith bench press
It works the lower part of your pectorals and allows you to lift heavier more safely than when using a barbell. That’s thanks to the multiple hooks on each side of the machine that allow the quick re-rack of the bar if you start to struggle.
Close-grip Smith bench press
This variation predominately works the triceps because of your narrower hand position on the bar. The main advantage is that you can quickly re-rack of the bar if you reach failure before finishing the set.
Dumbbell bench press variations
Dumbbell bench press
This popular variation is a free-weight move, like the main exercise. But using dumbbells instead of a barbell provides some key advantages or disadvantages, depending on how you look at it.
You can’t lift as much weight with two dumbbells as with one barbell, which is true for all dumbbell and barbell variations of the same exercise. That’s mainly because training each arm independently with dumbbells means you’re only as strong as your non-dominant weaker arm.
However, this ensures you build muscle size and strength equally on each side of your body. That’s not guaranteed with a barbell, because your dominant stronger side will often do more of the heavy lifting even though you’re not aware of it.
Using dumbbells also means you can “dump” the weights safely, if you get into trouble during a set and can’t complete a rep. Yet as you get stronger and the dumbbells get heavier you may want to use a spotter to help you get the weights into the starting position then keep on eye on you as your set progresses.
Incline dumbbell bench press
Using an incline bench shifts more of the workload to the top portion of your pectorals, as well as your front shoulders. Most benches can be fixed into at least 30-degree or 45-degree incline, and the steeper the incline the less weight you can successfully lift.
It’s the easiest dumbbell bench press variation to get into the start position, because your back doesn’t have to lower down as far as when benching on a flat or decline surface. And you can help yourself get heavier weights into position by resting them on your upper thighs then use your legs to drive them up as you lie back down.
Decline dumbbell bench press
You can use a decline bench to specifically target the lower part of your chest muscles. Most gyms will have at lease one decline bench, although they usually only have one decline setting. It’s harder to get into the start position on a decline bench than a flat or incline one, so it’s worth asking a spotter to hand you the dumbbells once you’re declined on the bench. While most people are technically stronger on the decline, losing your foot contact point with the floor can reduce your overall stability and make benching heavy harder.
Neutral-grip dumbbell bench press
This variation is very similar to the flat dumbbell bench, except for how you grasp the dumbbells. You use a neutral-grip, or palms-facing grip, to hold the dumbbells, rather than an overhand grip. This allows you to keep your elbows close to your sides as you press the weights up and down. That shifts the workload away from the chest to the triceps and shoulders. And because your wrists, elbows and shoulders stay in perfect alignment during each rep – unlike in the other dumbbell variations where your elbows will flare out to the sides – it’s the most joint-friendly variation to use if you’ve had elbow or shoulder problems in the past.
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