How to Bench Press

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on April 17, 2024
13 min read

The bench press is a strength training exercise for your upper body. To do it, you'll need free weights or a barbell with weight plates. Although it looks like a simple move,  you'll need to learn proper form to help prevent injury. And you shouldn't do it on your own. 

The bench press is one of the three lifts – along with squats and deadlifts – in the sport of powerlifting.

The bench press is a muscle-strengthening move. Strength training makes it easier to accomplish daily tasks without tiring, helps your bone density, and may help you maintain a healthy weight.

You can do a bench press using a bench or on the floor. It's a multi-joint exercise that works many muscles of the chest, shoulders, and arms. With proper guidance, bench pressing can be done by people with any level of fitness experience.

“The bench press is a cornerstone of most lifting programs,” said Abbi Lane, PhD, an assistant professor of applied exercise science at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology. “It engages pretty much everything in the upper body. And when you get heavier weights, your lower body and midsection get involved, too."

When you do a bench press, you'll mainly work your chest muscles (pectorals), shoulder muscles, and those in your arms.

Pectoralis major

This muscle originates at the sternum (breastbone), ribs, and clavicle (collarbone) and is attached to the upper part of the arm bone (humerus). It is involved in flexing and internally rotating the arm at the shoulder. If you use a flat bench, it mainly involves the sternocostal head of the pectoralis major (the part of the muscle attached to the chest and ribs). If the bench is inclined, the clavicular head (the part attached to the collarbone) of the muscle is more involved.

Anterior deltoid.

The deltoid muscle originates at the clavicle and scapula (shoulder blade) and attaches to the humerus. This muscle moves the arm forward as well as to the side. It also stabilizes the shoulder joint during these actions. 


This muscle lies on the back of your arm and provides most of the bulk of the arm. It starts at the scapula and humerus and attaches to the ulna (one of the two bones of the forearm). It is a strong muscle and straightens and stabilizes the elbow. It also moves your arm backward at the shoulder.


This is the muscle in the top of your upper  arm. It originates at the scapula and attaches to the radius (one of the two bones of the forearm). It flexes the arm at the shoulder and the forearm at the elbow. 

Serratus anterior

This is a muscle in the side of your chest. It originates at the top of your ribs. It pulls your scapula forward and around the rib cage. It's sometimes called "the boxer's muscle," because it's the muscle you use to swing your arm as if throwing a punch. It's also important in overhead lifting.

Some muscles like the abdominals, supraspinatus, teres minor, and others don't play an active role in the bench press. But they help by stabilizing the trunk and shoulder.

There are many ways to bench press. But they are all based on the regular bench press. You should only try variations that you feel comfortable with and know you can handle with the right technique, says Trent Cayot, PhD, an associate professor of kinesiology, health, and sport sciences at the University of Indianapolis. 

Follow these steps to bench press: 

  1. Lie on your back on a flat bench. Your head, shoulders, and hips should be touching the bench at all times. Keep your feet on the ground, shoulder-width apart. 
  2. Place your hands on the barbell. 

     a. Hold the barbell with an overhand hook or power grip. 

     b. Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart: Each should be about 1.5 hand widths away from the shoulder. You can estimate this distance by imagining that you're standing up straight with your arms hanging down. When your hand is outstretched, your thumbs should lightly touch your thighs. You might need to place your hands wider or narrower, depending on your arm length, flexibility, and whether you’ve had any injuries. Ask a personal trainer for help.

     c. Your arms should be outstretched with a slight bend. Your wrists should be rigid and aligned with your elbows.

     d. Look directly overhead. This helps keep your body in alignment. Let your spotter know when you are ready to begin. 

     e. To lift the barbell, fully extend your elbows and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Your spotter should help. Keep your spine and torso still. Hold the barbell above your eyes.

    3. Push the barbell up. This should be an upward and slightly backward motion. Breathe out as you push. Pull your shoulder blades down and back. Keep your feet on the floor and torso still. For a heavy weight, you might drive your feet into the floor. Your head, neck, shoulders, and hips should touch the bench at all times. Don’t arch your back. This step should last 1-2 seconds. 

   4. Slowly lower it. Breathe in. Move the bar downward and slightly forward. The side of your chest, shoulder, and elbow should make a 45-degree angle. Lower the bar until it reaches your nipples. At this point, your forearms should be vertical. This can be the most dangerous part of the exercise, so go slowly and carefully. This step should last 1-3 seconds. 

You can adapt the bench press to make it harder or work different muscles. 

Bench angle changes

One way to vary the exercise is to change the angle of the bench. These exercises include:

Incline bench press. For this exercise, the bench can be raised to as much as a 60-degree angle. According to one study, it can strengthen the triceps brachii muscle (back of the upper arm) and upper pectoralis major muscle (upper chest muscle).

Don't arch your back or push your head forward. Don't round your shoulders or lift your feet off the ground. Keep your elbows under the bar.

Decline bench press. This is when the bench press is set to a -15-degree angle. It works the lower chest muscles a little more. 

Grip changes

Another variation is to modify your grip. 

For most people, the standard grip is just fine, Lane said. But it all depends on what makes you comfortable.

“In general, anything really wide or really narrow could actually put a little bit more strain on the shoulders,” she said. “The most important thing is that you're not feeling shoulder strain.” 

Narrow-grip bench press. This variation strengthens the triceps brachii muscles on the back of your upper arms.

It also puts less stress on your shoulders, so it’s a good option if you’ve had a past shoulder injury. Keep your upper arm at a 45-degree angle from the side of your chest. When you lower the bar, your elbow should be 15 degrees below your torso. 

To lessen the strain on your shoulders even more, you can put a roll of towels on your chest. This way, you don’t lower the bar as deeply.

Wide-grip bench press. This can put more pressure on the joint where your collarbone meets your shoulder blade.

Reverse-grip bench press. In this variation, your palms face inward instead of outward. Lane says that the standard grip should work fine for most people. But one study suggests that the reverse grip could help stabilize the shoulder joint, making it a good option for people with a past shoulder injury. Check with a personal trainer to figure out which grip is right for you.

Other variations

Dumbbell fly. This isn’t actually a type of bench press, but it works similar muscles. However, it puts more stress on your shoulders. For this exercise, you lie on the bench with your arms spread in a T-shape. You have a dumbbell in each hand and raise your arms until they meet in a vertical position.

Bench press with resistance bands . Resistance bands are rubbery strips used for resistance training. The thicker they are, the more resistance they provide. You can use them to intensify a traditional bench press by looping them around the barbell and anchoring them beneath the bench.

You can also use resistance bands to replace the barbell. This is safer than the traditional bench press. You tuck the center of the band beneath the bench, grab each end, and lift the same way you would a barbell. If you don’t have a bench, you can lie on the floor and anchor the band beneath your shoulder blades and upper arms.

The bench press is a great way to work your upper body muscles and make them stronger. As part of a healthy lifestyle, strength training has these benefits:

  • Improved muscle mass and strength. It also enhances your endurance for daily activities
  • Stronger bones. Resistance training is good for your bone density. 
  • Burns more calories. The bench press is a strenuous exercise that uses calories. 
  • Better mood and sleep. Regular physical exercise improves your mood and quality of life. It also improves sleep and reduces anxiety.
  • Helps with body composition. Working out with weights increases muscle mass, reduces fat, and boosts metabolism by as much as 15%. All these effects help in controlling your weight for the long term.

Proper form is essential for bench press safety. Working with heavy weights in a careless way can injure you. Always have someone watching you when you bench press. When you're just learning how to do a bench press, work with a trainer or coach for the first few sessions to learn the correct way of bench pressing. If you have a health condition like high blood pressure, seizures, or heart problems, ask your doctor before starting strength training.

Work with a bar without weights to learn the correct technique. Once you've mastered the movements, add weights gradually. The weights should allow you to do eight to 12 repetitions (reps). Always warm up before bench pressing and do static stretching after finishing. Have a gap of at least a day between two bench press sessions.

Don't overdo it, and don't bench press alone. Even if you are fit and strong, the last rep may be too much for you. Since you are lifting a heavy barbell above your chest, you can't just let it fall. A spotter standing with you can help you lift the barbell safely to its rest.

This exercise puts a lot of stress on your shoulder joint, which isn’t meant to carry this much weight. Because of this, bench pressing can lead to injuries if you don’t do it correctly. 

You’re more likely to get hurt using free weights (like in bench-pressing) than using weightlifting machines or bands. Bench presses cause more injuries than other free weight exercises. Pushups, resistance bands, and other exercises can strengthen the same muscles as bench pressing without the added risk.

You should not bench press if you have neck or upper body pain. If you used to have pain in these areas, talk to a doctor before trying the bench press or other exercises.

Most bench-pressing injuries involve the shoulders. But the elbows, triceps (back upper arms), chest, collarbone, and lower back also can get hurt. You might notice an injury right away, or it might build up over time.

Bench pressing causes tiny tears in muscle. When your body repairs those tears, the muscle comes back stronger. But if you lift too much weight or don’t rest long enough between workouts, the muscle won’t be able to repair itself. This is called an overuse injury. 

Examples of overuse injuries from bench pressing are:

  • Rotator cuff damage
  • Tendinopathy
  • Stress fractures

Injuries aren’t just painful. They also can take a long time to heal, cost a lot in health care bills, and endanger your long-term health.

Here are the most common bench-pressing mistakes and how to avoid them.

Incorrect grip

Hold the barbell with an overhand grip. Your fingers should curl over the top of the bar, palms facing out, with your thumb hooked beneath. As you push the barbell up, keep your wrists rigid and above your elbows.

Moving the bar over your mouth or neck

When you remove the bar from the rack, balance it over your eyes. The lift itself should form an arc: Raise the barbell directly above your nipples and then lean back until it goes above your eyes.

Holding your breath

 “Breathing is important for avoiding big spikes in blood pressure,” says Lane. When you lower the bar, breathe in. When you lift it, breathe out.

Locking elbows

When you lift the bar, make sure you straighten your elbows all the way without locking them. 

“Bouncing” the bar off your chest

It’s tempting to lower the bar quickly and use momentum to “bounce” it off your chest. But take your time so that you draw on strength, not momentum.

Lifting your spine off the bench

Your back should not arch during this exercise. At most, you should be able to fit a face-down hand between the bench and your back. To avoid arching, engage your core as you push the barbell upward. Don’t press your head into the bench.


The barbell should be even the whole time. Being even slightly off-balance can put too much weight on the shoulder joint. 

When you’re first learning, practice with an unloaded barbell. By itself, the barbell weighs 45 pounds. If this is too much for you, another option is to use dumbbells, which are also easier to control. “It's really great to start at a light weight and be patient with yourself. In the first few weeks of doing an exercise, you get a lot stronger,” Lane said. 

“The reason you get stronger is because your nervous system does a better job of communicating with your muscles,” she said. “Your nerves get better at activating certain muscles and possibly better at quieting other ones.” This makes you more stable, helping you to balance the bar. 

Once you’ve perfected your form, you can start adding weights.


The main difference is that you do a chest press on a machine and use a barbell or free weights to do a bench press.

Similarities between the bench press and chest press

Both the bench and chest press are compound exercises. This type of movement uses multiple joints and activates more than one muscle group. Chest presses and bench presses work your arms, shoulders, and chest, targeting the same primary muscle groups:

  • Pectoralis major
  • Anterior deltoids
  • Triceps brachii
  • Biceps brachii

Chest and bench presses also exercise parts of the latissimus dorsi, the large muscle covering your back, and the rotator cuff, four tendons and muscles around the shoulder:

  • Supraspinatus
  • Infraspinatus
  • Teres minor
  • Subscapularis  

What Is a chest press exercise?

Also known as the seated, lever, and machine press, a chest press uses machine equipment that targets upper-body muscles. There are several versions of the chest press machine. Most are adjustable for height. 

A chest press machine controls and limits your range of motion. That helps you control the movement. 

Typically, you start a chest press from a seated or incline position. But it’s also common to see a flat, decline, or standing chest press. You can manually put weighted plates on a machine or use one with cables for weight resistance. You can also do a suspended chest press with certain resistance bands just about anywhere. 

How to do a chest press

  • Adjust the machine so that the handlebars are just below shoulder height
  • Grab the handles with both hands with your feet flat on the floor. 
  • Keep your back straight. 
  • Slowly press forward. 
  • Don’t lock your elbows when you extend them. 
  • Make sure your elbows don’t go behind your back as you return. 
  • Continue for one to three sets of 12 to 15 reps each 
  • Always remember to begin with a low weight and slowly add weight as you become more comfortable.

What are the pros and cons of a chest press?

Pros: The chest press is easier to learn and best for beginners or those recovering from injury. Because the machine controls the range of motion, chest presses help you stay more consistent with your movements, isolating muscle groups more precisely. Chest press machines also allow for single-arm exercises if you’re dealing with an injury in one arm. The benefits of chest press exercise also extend to safety, as you typically don’t need a spotter, and the risk of getting hurt is much lower.

Cons: Chest press machines may need a lot more maintenance to function correctly. They can be expensive and take up more space. Further, you might not find them in smaller gyms or exercise rooms. Seasoned lifters may not appreciate the restricted range of motion a chest press machine offers, as it generally produces less muscle activity.

The bench press is a type of exercise you can do to strengthen your upper body. You can use a bench or lie flat on the floor. You're mostly working your muscles in your chest and upper arms. You can vary the position of the bench or your grip to accommodate your needs or work certain muscles harder. It's important to learn proper form, because you can injure yourself bench pressing. The shoulder joint is most likely to be hurt. Always have a spotter – someone standing by to help you lift safely. 

What is a good weight to bench press?

If you're new to lifting, you should start with a barbell that has no weights added to it. The barbell weighs 45 pounds on its own. Work your way up to a heavier weight. How much you can bench press depends on many things, including your weight, gender, and age. 

What does the chest press do? 

The chest press works the same muscles the bench press does. The main difference is that you use a machine for the chest press. 

Is the chest press just as good as the bench press?

The chest press has some advantages over the bench press, especially if you're just starting out or recovering from injury. The risk of hurting yourself is much lower, and you don't need a spotter. But because the machine limits your range of motion, a chest press generally doesn't work your muscles as hard.