In the past, we’ve written about the benefits of free weights over using a Smith Machine, as well as how to get optimal depth on your squat. We’ve covered topics about how beneficial it is to train abs, and why no matter how hard you work in the gym, it’s the time in the kitchen that counts. Now let’s take a look at a very pressing issue and evaluate why the bench press is one of the best exercises you need to master.
No matter if you’re new to training and exploring programs like Starting Strength, or you’re exploring ways to add more functional fitness into your life, the bench press is a cornerstone of all lifts.
Let’s take a look at the benefits of a bench press, different form, and variation as well as common mistakes. We’ll give you a step by step guide on how to perform the perfect press and a few sample routines that are easy enough to incorporate into any programming.
Anatomy of the Chest
There are dozens of exercises you can do to get bigger pecs, but benching trumps them all. Your chest is made up of two muscle groups – the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor.
The primary movement of your pec major is to adduct the arm and internally rotate your shoulder horizontally. Mastery of this movement is needed for simple things like push-ups but also for more complex movements like snatches.
The pec is separated into two different sections – the sternal head and the clavicular head.
Your sternal head is responsible for movements that help you lift your arm over your head. This muscle is activated any time you move your arm in a horizontal movement, or when you internally rotate or try to extend your shoulder.
The pec minor is so underrated but the key to getting big numbers on bench. Why? Because it’s responsible for your anterior scapular tilt. The pec minor helps pull your scapular up and forward onto your ribcage – essential to maintain proper bench form. Time and again, athletes injure themselves because they have stiff or weak pec minor muscles. To overcome these deficiencies, your training should be focusing on lower trap work, along with scapular push-ups, hollow holds, and rhombus activation.
Chest day is the Best Day
Okay, that might be an overstatement, but the truth is there are tons of varieties for training your chest that go beyond the basic flat bench. There are three main options – flat, decline, and incline, and each target either the pec major, pec minor, or a combination of the two.
Flat and decline bench decreases the amount of flexion available to your shoulder, which means that there’s a lot of stress on your sternal heads.
When you train your chest, you have three options – flat, decline, and incline — each target either the pec major, pec minor, or a combination.
Flat and decline bench press decreases the amount of flexion available to your shoulder. This results in more stress on your sternal heads. Limited mobility on the sternal head means you’re going to have to develop muscle to push the bar.
Incline benching targets your pec minor and puts a lot of stress on the anterior delts – super important if you’re chasing a particular aesthetic or you’re considering a competition.
The biggest takeaway is this – when you’re training chest, you should choose exercises that help maximise your development and work on strengthening stabiliser muscles as well. Otherwise, you run the risk of injury. Let’s take a look at the benefits of chest day and then how you can maintain proper form.
What are the Benefits?
No matter what your goals are in the gym, a big bench means a strong upper body. Even if you’re not super interested in building big pecs, hitting solid numbers on your bench press means your body is better prepped for other pressing movements like strict press and jerks and can help you execute more complex movements like proper kettlebell swings and handstand push-ups.
Everyone wants bigger muscles – it’s one of the main reasons we all spend so much time in the gym. With bigger muscles comes an increase in strength, which is a major benefit for overall fitness levels. Obviously, the more you concentrate on benching, the more your pec major and pec minor will develop.
Visible Chest Muscles
The pec major is the glamour muscle of the chest and one of the major driving forces when people incorporate bench into their wellness routines. Equally important is the pec minor, which will help if you’re considering doing any sort of weighted overhead movements like jerks, snatches, or overhead squats.
Solid Serratus Anterior and Strong Scaps
An often overlooked major benefit of benching is achieving a very visible (and shredded) serratus anterior. The serratus anterior wraps around your rib cage under the upper arm. When it’s very visible, it looks like there are fingers in between your ribs. You might not think there’s a benefit to having a strong serratus anterior, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
This fan-shaped muscle actually runs from the thorax to the scapula, and its action is directly connected to the scaps. Both the SA and scapular are often undertrained, even though they’re responsible for many pressing movements including:
- Lifting the arms above the shoulder
- Moving arms in multi-directions
- Pulling and pushing movements
- Keeping the shoulder blades in place while benching or snatching
If you suspect that your SA and scaps need attention, you might experience frequent shoulder, neck, and upper back pain – especially when benching. Or, you might feel like your rotator cuff is always inflamed, and that bench leaves your arms a little numb. If any of this sounds familiar, push-ups should be part of your training as often as possible. Shoulder blade protractions are essential for warm-up as part of your benching day, as well as rhomboid pulls, and plank holds. All of these accessory exercises will help your bench improve over time.
Just like the SA and scaps are so often undertrained, it’s possible that your current programming is completely ignoring your rear delts. Your rear delts are the round muscles that sit on your shoulders and help your shoulders rotate externally. Rear delts act as stabilisers when your elbows are parallel to your body, making them incredibly important when you’re pressing. Strong delts also help you have better posture since you’re able to counteract the forward slouch that many of us experience from sitting in front of a screen a day.
Strong delts lead to big bench numbers. After all, you’re able to handle heavier loads because you can control the descent of the bar and then press it back up with more force.
Benching allows the deltoids to develop and grow. Big delts mean that you’re on your way to big shoulder press numbers.
You might have heard that you should train back and biceps together, so it makes sense that chest day should include triceps work. When you bench, you’re developing all three parts of the triceps head – the long, lateral, and medial. This activation helps increase your capacity for pressing movements, and large triceps make your arms look massive and strong.
Increased Pushing Capacity + Improved Bone Health
Of course, the more you focus on pressing movements, the more you’re going to be able to push. That’s a given. But did you know that along with the other core compound movements, benching can help support strong bones? Several studies have repeatedly shown that compound exercises can help prevent osteoporosis and other degenerative osteo-related conditions.
If you want to improve your bench then take
Different Bench Press Exercises
With all the muscles that are impacted when you bench, you might be wondering which press variation is the best? There are three main options – flat, incline, or decline. Each variation gives you slightly different benefits.
Flat Bench – Full Chest Focus
Remember when we were talking about the benefits of benching and discussed the differences between the pec major and the pec minor? Well, flat benching is the fundamental compound movement to help you grow a chest. The entire pec region is activated when you add in a classic bench press movement. But, it’s also one of the most challenging.
Flat bench also helps to develop the triceps and delts. Using proper form, the lower back, lats, and glutes are all tensed, which can help develop core strength and overall muscle stabilisation.
Incline Bench – Upper Chest
Let’s get one thing straight: flat bench does just as good a job of working to activate the upper chest as incline benching. The only difference is that incline bench has less focus on the middle and lower chest – so you’re likely to feel it more after your lift. Incline bench helps you isolate the upper chest without activating (or fatiguing) the mid and lower chest. Hypertrophy of the upper pec major and the outer pec major both help you build a strong chest.
Decline Bench – Lower Chest
It might seel like the decline bench is always empty. That’s because it’s one of the most under-utilized presses, even though it has amazing benefits. Flat is great for overall chest, and incline helps develop the visible chest muscles, so what’s the benefit of adding in decline?
Well, decline gives you more benefit for less strain. In addition to activating the lower pec major (and helping to strengthen the serratus anterior) decline bench is very gentle on your shoulders and helps you add variation to your routine. Your tris might not get as much activation with decline pressing, but it’s a great way to add volume or round out chest day.
Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes
Proper form is key in benching because you’re relying on several different muscle groups and stabilisers to perform the movement.
Flat bench – one of the biggest indicators that you’re doing something wrong is if your arms tire before your chest.
To properly flat bench with a barbell:
- Arms need to be parallel to the barbell.
- Retract your shoulders back to engage the scapulae.
- Engage your core and keep your feet rooted on the ground.
- Place hands just a smidge wider than the width of your shoulders.
- As the bar descends, focus on squeezing your pecs together.
- The bar should touch just below your nipples.**
- On the press up, think about keeping your elbows contracted and less about the pressing movement.
NOTE: Bodybuilders and powerlifters tend to differ on the exact placement of a bar. Some bodybuilders will aim for the bar to be slightly lower than the nipple line to help keep the pec major under more tension for a longer period. Powerlifters tend to keep the bar directly at the midline of the nipple because they’re more focused on movement and less on aesthetics. Remember that the bodybuilder approach is going to put a lot of pressure on your anterior delts and elbows (not to mention your wrists and hand ligaments), so be mindful of this style of training.
To properly incline bench with a barbell, begin exactly as for flat bench. The difference here is to keep the bar between your collarbone and nipple. This helps keep the upper chest activated.
For proper form on a decline press, set up exactly like a flat bench. Keep your core engaged and your feet firmly rooted on the ground. The bar should touch beneath the nipple line, somewhere near the xiphoid process.
Like other compound movements, it’s easy to make mistakes if you’re not clearly focusing on your form. One of the most common mistakes is not having your core engaged before you put your hands on the bar. The reason is that a stable core makes for a stable movement. If your core isn’t engaged, you’re not going to have the power to push the bar.
Secondly, having a grip that’s either too wide or too narrow is going to directly impact how much you can press. As we covered earlier, grip width will directly impact how much you lift over time. One of the best things you can do to help offset this challenge is add in grip strength training to your current routine.
Finally, just as it’s important to have your core engaged if your scaps aren’t retracted, your lats aren’t engaged. Most people wrongly think about the bench press as a chest movement – the truth is that when you’re pushing heavy weight, you’re actually activating a lot of back strength, namely your lats. Pushing with your lats allows you to focus on activating and engaging your pecs. The size difference between your lats and your pecs is significant. So, when you engage your lats for this movement, you’re better equipped to be able to push a lot more.
Grip Variations and Why They Matter
Just like there are three main bench variations, there are three grip choices. Each has its place in your programming.
Wide grip helps to target the outer chest and gives you the greatest stretch. It also over-emphasizes the shoulders, making you at higher risk for injury.
Having a close grip shifts the accessory muscle work from a shoulder-heavy focus to your triceps. This is a good grip to work on triceps development.
Many lifters often start their presses with a very wide grip. While this might be beneficial at the start – since you can lift more with a wider grip – it will ultimately lead to injury. And, since heavier weights don’t always mean more strength, you might be inadvertently injuring your shoulders and ligaments.
The most perfect grip is probably a little more narrow than you’re used to, and that usually takes some adjustment. Remember, we want the shoulders and chest to be in a neutral position to distribute the force it takes to press the bar. If you have more emphasis placed on the triceps, there’s less stress on your chest and anterior delts – which will ultimately help you lift more over time.
Whether or not you wrap your thumbs around the barbell or leave them flat is largely a personal choice. However, there are some benefits to each training approach.
Wrapping your thumbs around the barbell can help if you’re concerned about your grip. It gives you a solid connection between you and the bar. It also helps keep your thumb and forearm aligned, which is essential for proper form.
Called a “false grip,” not wrapping your thumb around the bar is useful for lifters who have been lifting for a while. A false grip is generally cited as being unsafe since it doesn’t allow for a catch in case you miss your lift. That’s a big concern, especially if you haven’t spent a lot of time under a bar. While personal choice is going to be a deciding factor in whether or not you use a false grip or a thumb grip, keep in mind that the grip you choose should be one that feels safest for you.
A Note on Leg Placement
It’s not uncommon to see a novice lifter who thinks that in addition to a super pronounced arch, they need to keep their legs lifted. Debates rage across gyms worldwide about whether or not this is a good idea. Some trainers will even teach their athletes that benching with legs up is the only way to bench. But is that true?
The entire concept started because powerlifters were often shown benching with extra pronounced arches in their bags and their toes on the ground. The tiny range of motion might be useful for powerlifters whose main goal is to push as much weight as possible, but for the rest of the athletes around the world, it’s not that useful.
Putting legs on the bench takes care of any excess stress that your cervical spine might be under when you over-arch. It helps to flatten your back to a small degree and takes the need for leg drive out of the equation. So, some trainers will argue that it’s “safer” to bench with legs on the bench. Unless you’re a powerlifter, that’s just not true.
Lifting with legs up means that you’re going to be putting a lot of undue strain on your shoulders, which can lead to form deterioration and rotator cuff injury. Instead of worrying about your legs, focus on keeps your scaps retracted, which in turn keeps your elbows closer to your body.
The very last thing you want is to be floundering around with loose legs while you’re trying to press heavy weight. Do yourself a favour a bench with your feet on the ground every single time.
To Arch or Not to Arch?
Watch a few powerlifting videos of pros and novices alike, and you’re likely to see a lot of different arching variations. Some pros have a huge arch in their back and claim that it helps them push more weight. Conversely, the wide and over-pronounced arch will make it a lot harder to maintain good form.
Just like with leg placement, the only time that a very pronounced arch will be useful is if you’re powerlifting. A small arch is good for all lifters since it helps to retract the scaps, engage the lats, and cue you to keep your core tight. But you don’t need to arch to extremes to achieve decent bench numbers.
What are the Best Routines?
The best benching routines are ones that incorporate all three variations along with accessory exercises. As with all compound lifts, accessories should play a big part in your programming.
That’s because compound movements like the bench press are good for developing the pec major and pec minor, but you need to add in additional movements to continue to get strong.
Accessory movements can be tailored to be specific to each benching variation. Here are some of the most common movements that you can include.
- Flyes – All variations of flyes are useful in developing both the major and minor pec muscles.
- Push-ups – Weighted or unweighted, both will help you develop more pressing power
- Rows – Pendalay rows, lateral rows, and to some degree, upright rows, will all help increase your bench since all rowing variation helps to increase pecs, back muscles, and the small stabiliser groups necessary for strong presses.
The bench press is a compound movement that involves several different muscle groups. To safely bench, you should always use a spotter. If you’re lifting alone and attempting a PR but miss, you’re going to have to be comfortable rolling the bar off of your body.
To avoid injury, it’s imperative that you keep your scaps retracted and your elbows close to your body. When your elbows splay out, you run the risk of tendon damage over time.
Keep your feet firmly planted on the ground. Engage your core and your glutes to help create a stable center. Breathe in as you grip the bar and it descends then breathe out as you drive it up.
Focusing on upper body strength means that you should include a lot of benching. Pressing movements like incline and decline bench can help you strengthen your pec minor and pec major.
Flat barbell bench will continue to be the paramount of strength, both because it’s a major indicator of overall fitness and because it has innumerable benefits. In addition to helping you build boulder shoulders, pressing once or twice a week can help you develop a strong core and a lean physique.
Remember that the key to good benching is to have the right form. Whether or not you arch your back is going to largely depend on your own T-spine mobility (along with several other factors), but one thing is for sure – your feet need to be firmly rooted on the ground at all times. Doing anything else is just going to open you up to injury.
Benching a great marker for overall fitness and the only way to improve is to keep working at it. Adding in variations and switching up your accessories will help prevent fatigue and boredom and move you one press closer to achieving the PRs you want.
Take a look at our article, How to Bench Press 140kg (308lbs), guaranteed: ‘The Secret’! if you want to improve and bench more.