How to Bench Press

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on April 06, 2023
7 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 also 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, shoulder, and arms. With proper guidance, bench press can be done by people with any level of fitness experience. 

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 from the sternum (breastbone), ribs, and clavicle (collar bone) 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 collar bone) of the muscle is more involved.

Anterior deltoid. The deltoid muscle originates from 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. 

Triceps. This muscle lies on the back of your arm and provides most of the bulk of the arm. It starts at he 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.

Biceps. This is the muscle in the top of your upper  arm. It originates from 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. 

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.

Follow these steps to get the benefits of bench press safely:

  1. Always have a spotter.
  2. Lie down on the bench or floor with feet flat on the floor. Your head, shoulder blades, glutes, and feet should all be on the bench or floor. 
  3. Grasp the barbell with thumbs wrapped around the bar. Your hands should be as far apart as your shoulder width.
  4. Draw in your abdomen to stabilize your spine. Bring your shoulder blades closer together. Your wrists should be directly under the bar to avoid hyperextending them.
  5. Lower the barbell towards your chest, keeping your back straight and your head on the bench. Stopwhen you feel a stretch in your pectoral muscles.
  6. Now raise the barbell by extending your elbows and contracting the chest muscles.
  7. Inhale when lowering the barbell, and let your breath out (exhale) when lifting the barbell.
  8. Aim for two or three sets of 8 to 12 repetitions (reps). If you can easily do 12 reps, increase the weight slightly.

Some points to remember when bench pressing:

  • Pull shoulders down and back.
  • Pull elbows in.
  • Drive feet into the ground.
  • Don't try to lift more than you can do safely.

You can adapt the bench press in various ways to make it harder or work different muscles. These adaptations include:

  • Incline bench press
  • Decline bench press
  • Close grip bench press
  • Wide grip bench press
  • Dumbbell chest press
  • Reverse grip bench press
  • Bench press with resistance bands

The inclined bench activates your biceps more than the flat and declined bench. Using a narrow or close grip on the barbell won't activate the biceps as much as if you use a wide or medium grip.

If your feet don't reach the floor when lying on the bench, place stable weight rings on the floor and put your feet on them. You can also lift your feet onto the bench so that your hips are flexed at 45 degrees and knees at 90 degrees.

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. 
  • Burn more calories. Bench press is a strenuous exercise and uses calories. 
  • Better mood and sleep. Regular physical exercise improves 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 8 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.

Difference: 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 a lower degree of muscle activity.