How to Bench Press: Muscles Worked & Proper Form

Bench Press Exercise

Muscles Worked in the Bench Press

Bench press muscles worked

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Bench Press with Proper Form

  1. Lie on the bench, pull your shoulder blades together and down, and slightly arch your back.
  2. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Inhale, hold your breath, and unrack the bar.
  4. Lower the bar with control, until it touches your chest somewhere close to your sternum.
  5. Push the bar up to the starting position while exhaling.
  6. Take another breath while in the top position, and repeat for reps.

Text and graphics from the StrengthLog app.

Bench Press Guide: Table of Content

  1. Bench Press 1RM Calculator
  2. Bench Press Strength Standards
  3. How to Increase Your Bench Press Max
  4. Bench Press Form: Detailed Instructions
  5. Bench Press Variations

Bench Press 1RM Calculator

Use our bench press calculator to estimate how much you can lift in a one-rep max.

Enter the number of reps you can do with a given weight and hit enter, and we will calculate your one-rep max and your 1–10RM.

Estimated 1RM (Dold tills uträknad)

Estimated Rep Maxes

100% of 1RM
94% of 1RM
91% of 1RM
88% of 1RM
86% of 1RM
83% of 1RM
81% of 1RM
79% of 1RM
77% of 1RM
75% of 1RM

Estimated 1RM

100% of 1RM
94% of 1RM
91% of 1RM
88% of 1RM
86% of 1RM
83% of 1RM
81% of 1RM
79% of 1RM
77% of 1RM
75% of 1RM

The results are calculated using Epley’s equation. It is one of the most accurate formulas for calculating 1RM in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.1

Bench Press Strength Standards

How much can the average man and woman bench press?

Strength LevelMenWomen
Beginner54 kg (119 lb)25 kg (55 lb)
Novice80 kg (176 lb)37 kg (82 lb)
Intermediate100 kg (220 lb)47 kg (104 lb)
Advanced120 kg (265 lb)58 kg (128 lb)
Elite168 kg (370 lb)90 kg (198 lb)

These are average bench press standards based on the users of our workout tracker StrengthLog.

Click below to see our complete bench press standards at different bodyweights:

How to Increase Your Bench Press Max

We have several training programs for increasing your bench press.

Here are three programs for different training levels:

  • Beginner Bench Press Program. 2x/week. A super simple yet effective beginner bench press program that will give you quick gains and a great start to your bench press career.
  • Intermediate Bench Press Program. 2–3x/week. A bench press program for the intermediate lifter who has left the beginner phase behind, but is not yet ready for advanced bench press training.
  • Advanced Bench Press Program. 3 x/week. A bench press program for the advanced lifter, who needs to do a lot of training in order to progress. Nine weeks long, and ends in a short peaking phase and a max attempt.

You can view all our bench press programs here.

How To Know if You Are a Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced Bench Presser

There are many ways to classify experience level, but I like the clarity of these definitions from Practical Programming:

  • Beginner: Gets significantly stronger from workout to workout.
  • Intermediate: Gets significantly stronger from week to week, or bi-weekly.
  • Advanced: Gets significantly stronger from month to month, or longer.

By “significantly stronger”, I mean that you can add 2.5 kg (or 5 lb) and do the same number of reps, or use the same weight but do more reps.

For example: If you could lift 100 kg for five reps last week, and can lift 102.5 kg for five reps this week, then you’ve gotten significantly stronger.

How to Increase Your Bench Press at the Beginner Level

Increasing your bench press at the beginner level all comes down to practice. You should focus on learning the movement correctly and building your confidence in lifting heavy weights.

You accomplish this by:

  • Practicing the bench press regularly. About twice a week is a good mark for quick gains in strength and technique, while still keeping the risk of overuse injury low.
  • Starting light. I know you’re eager, but things will get heavy really fast. Temper yourself for the first few weeks of light training, and you will have a much easier time getting the technique right.
  • Progressing. Here’s the fun part. Every workout, you will take a step forward in either weights or reps.

>> Beginner Bench Press Program, 2 Days/Week

How to Increase Your Bench Press at the Intermediate Level

When you’re a beginner, getting stronger is easy.

The law of diminishing returns dictates that your gains will come the fastest and easiest in the beginning, and the more advanced you get, the more you will have to work for every extra plate on the bar.

This pattern is the same for any sport. And just like athletes in other sports, you need to make the same adjustments as you get more advanced, according to the fundamental principles of training.

Generally, all of the following three increases:

  • The necessary training volume. The more accustomed you become to your training, the higher the threshold you must overcome to stimulate continued gains.
  • The need for specialization. The higher the degree of performance you want in your given sport or lift, the more you need to specialize your training for that goal.
  • The need for individualization. A beginner program will work for everyone, more or less. As you increase your training volume and degree of specialization, it will become increasingly important to fit the training to your capabilities and needs. One lifter might thrive on bench pressing four times per week, while another will just hurt their elbows. Some will thrive on a high volume program while others gain better on something more moderate. You will have to try different training programs to find what suits you.

>> Intermediate Bench Press Program, 2–3 Days/Week

How to Increase Your Bench Press at the Advanced Level

When you were a beginner, you could slap on an additional, small weight plate on the barbell pretty much every workout. Every workout was “heavy” in the sense that you were always progressing and taking one step forward.

When you entered the intermediate stage, you could no longer progress every workout. You started to utilize some manner of periodization, like the wave progression heavy–light–medium that we use in our intermediate bench program.

Wave progression

At the advanced stage, this model still applies but on a larger scale: You still have heavy, light, and medium workouts. But now, you also start having heavy, light, and medium weeks.

Besides this, all the principles mentioned for getting stronger in the intermediate stage still apply. You will need to increase your:

  • Training volume
  • Specialization
  • Individualization

And you need to do this in a structured manner to avoid injuries or burning out, but still train hard enough to make progress.

>> Advanced Bench Press Program, 3 Days/Week

Bench Press Form: Detailed Instructions

Let’s get into the nitty-gritty details of how to properly perform the barbell bench press.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

Position on the Bench

In most bench press federations, the back of your head, your upper back, and your glutes must remain in contact with the bench at all times, and your feet must touch the floor.

You should place yourself close enough to the bar so that you can easily unrack it.

  • If you are too close to the foot end of the bench, unracking the bar will be excessively heavy.
  • If you are too close to the head end, you will hit the rack with the bar when you’re lifting.

A good rule of thumb is to lie down so that your eyes or nose are directly below the racked bar. This will be close enough for you to unrack it easily, but not close enough to hit the rack while you’re benching.

If you’re tall, you can probably slide even closer to the head end without hitting the rack, and if you’re short, you might have to be a little bit closer to the foot end.

Bench press setup
I’m fairly tall and can lie down so that the bar is racked roughly over my mouth, without slamming into the rack when I lift.
Bench press starting position
Unracked.

How Wide Should You Grip the Bar?

Your correct grip width will depend on your anatomy, and also your goal with the exercise. Typically, people are stronger (can lift more weight) with a wider grip than with a narrower grip.

  • Twelve bench press athletes competing at national and international levels were found to be 5–10% stronger with a wide grip of 81 cm (about 2x shoulder-width) compared to narrow (1x shoulder-width) or medium (1.5x shoulder-width) grip.

The wider you grip the bar, the greater is the contribution of your chest and front delts. Conversely, the narrower you grip the bar, the greater is the contribution of your triceps.

  • In a wide-grip bench press, your chest and front delts contribute 78% of the force necessary to lift the bar, while your triceps contribute 22%.
  • In a close-grip bench press, the same numbers are 63% vs. 37%.
Wide grip bench press 1rm triceps vs chest and shoulder contribution
Close grip bench press 1rm triceps vs chest and shoulder contribution

The maximum grip width allowed in powerlifting is 81 cm between your hands. A powerlifting bar has rings marking this distance, and so your maximum grip width is when your index fingers cover these rings.

Read more: Bench Press Grip Width: Wide vs Close-Grip

Hand Position

There are two major points to consider regarding how you grip the bar:

1. Your thumb must be on the opposing side of your other fingers. Meaning that you grip around the bar. I strongly recommend that you avoid using a thumbless grip. Firstly, it is not allowed in powerlifting. Secondly, it is also known as the suicide grip. This is because you can easily slip and drop the bar with a high risk of injury. Don’t use it.

Recommended grip with thumb around the bar to the left. Non-recommended thumbless “suicide” grip to the right.

2. The bar should rest in a comfortable place. As you’re lifting heavier and heavier weights, this might become tricky. For most people, the most comfortable and stable position is to hold the bar as close to the base of your palm as possible, i.e. close to or directly above your wrist. This minimizes the leverage the bar works on your wrist and makes it easier to hold.

Combining the two points (keeping your thumb around the bar, while still keeping it low in your hand) above might be tricky, and one solution is to slightly rotate your hands inwards so that the barbell rests in a diagonal line in your palm.

Barbell bench press lying in diagonal line in palm
I have rotated my hand slightly inwards so that the barbell is resting in a diagonal line across my palm. Notice how low the barbell is placed in my hand; as close to the wrist as possible.

Don’t keep a completely straight wrist. This puts you at risk of losing balance, tilting your wrist forward, and dropping the barbell. Instead, tilt your wrist back slightly, to better rest the barbell in your hand.

Avoid keeping a straight wrist like to the left. Instead, slightly tilt your wrist backward like on the right.

Elbow Position

Where should your elbows be during the lift: close to your body or out to the sides?

It depends on your grip width, your anatomy, and also your purpose with bench pressing.

  • Grip width generally determines elbow position, with a wide grip typically leading to your elbows pointing out, and a close grip leading to your elbows being closer to your sides.
  • If you bench press in order to grow your chest muscles, a rather wide elbow position and a wide grip is effective.
  • If you bench press in order to train your triceps, a close grip with your elbows close to your sides is effective.
  • If you want to lift as much weight as possible, something in between (around 45° to your sides) is probably best. You will, however, have to experiment for yourself and see what feels the best and suits your body.

Shoulder Blades

Your shoulders are mobile joints. But when you’re bench pressing, you want to trade some of that mobility for stability.

Therefore, you will want to pull your shoulder blades down and back before you unrack the bar, and keep them in this position throughout the lift. Visualize that you’re putting them in your back pockets, but on the opposing side, i.e. your right shoulder blade into your left back pocket, and vice versa.

Shoulder blades forward in the bench press
In this pic, my shoulder blades are slouched forward. Don’t bench like this.
Shoulder blades down and back in the bench press
Here, I’ve pulled my shoulder blades back and down. Bench like this.

Note that you will have to “set” your shoulder blades in this manner before you even unrack the bar, because when you’ve got a heavy bar in your hands, it’s too late. Then, your shoulder blades stay in this position until you re-rack the barbell again. That means you will keep your shoulder blades retracted and pulled down even as you’re pressing the bar up, which might require some practice.

Pulling your shoulder blades down and back and keeping them in this position during your entire set will protect your shoulder joints and provide you with a solid base, enabling you to lift more.

Foot Position

The goal of your foot position is to keep you stable and support you throughout the lift. You will want to place your feet firmly on the floor and keep them still throughout the lift. Don’t fidget with your feet, as that will rob you of any stability.

In IPF powerlifting, you are required to keep your whole feet planted on the floor. In other federations, or if you’re just bench pressing in the gym, this is not required. For some people, being able to go up on their toes enables them to create a higher arch, which in turn allows them to lift more weight, despite the relative loss of stability from only keeping part of your foot on the floor.

In general, I recommend that you place your feet somewhere where you feel comfortable, stable, where you are able to produce some manner of leg drive. If you don’t know where to start, try placing your feet about hip-width apart, with your legs bent at a 90-degree angle or slightly more.

Don’t move your feet around after you’ve unracked the bar. Plant them, unrack, and then keep your feet still until you’ve racked the bar again. An exception is if you go up on your toes when you’re unracking, but in that case, plant your feet on the floor again as soon as you’re in position.

Leg Drive

Perhaps no more concept has been more misunderstood or over-complicated in the bench press than that of the leg drive.

Leg drive simply means that you apply a slight push with your legs. This will contract and tense your leg muscles, which in turn makes your whole body a little harder and more stable. And as the bench press is a lift that thrives on stability, you will likely be able to lift a little more weight because of this.

That’s all it is.

The leg drive is not a magical way of using force applied with your legs into the floor to lift the bar. That is simply not how mechanics work.

Once again, an exception: if you by “leg drive” mean that you are heaving your entire body upwards by pushing against the floor, then yes: you will have actually used your legs to lift the bar. But seeing as this is not allowed in powerlifting competitions and is not a bench press technique I recommend for anyone, I think we can ignore this concept.

To reiterate: the point of the leg drive is to stabilize your legs and torso, and thereby improve performance in the lift.

But how do you do this? How do you use leg drive in the bench press?

  • What you should not do is to push your feet down into the floor. This will only lead to you lifting your butt off the bench, which is, once again, not allowed in competition and not a technique I recommend for anyone.
  • What you should do instead, is to push with your legs like if you tried to slide yourself over the head end of the bench. Meaning, you should apply force horizontally with your feet, away from the foot end of the bench.

Not that you should only apply just enough force so that your feet don’t move. Your feet should still be completely still throughout the entire lift. You’re only pushing just enough to stay within the limits of friction, in order to tense your legs and stabilize your body.

Bench Press Arch

The bench press arch is the topic of many heated discussions. I’ll avoid going into the politics of it, and instead focus on what it is and what it does.

Arching in the bench press refers to the practice of bending your upper body and spine backward; you’re creating an arch with your upper body.

This has several effects on the lift, of which the most significant is that you shorten your range of motion.

More specifically, you remove the weakest part of the bench press range of motion, namely the bottom part of the lift. This fact alone enables most people to lift significantly more weight when they are in an arched position, contrary to when they are lying completely flat on the bench.

In a lift which everyone wants to lift more weight in, or even competes in, it is easy to see how those who can arch are naturally inclined to do so.

But cutting the range of motion short isn’t the only thing that happens when you arch.

  • It stabilizes your shoulder blades. By tilting your body in an arch, you shift more of your weight onto your shoulder blades which helps to keep them in place during the lift. Many lifters experience greater shoulder stability when lifting because of this.
  • Less shoulder mobility required. Not everyone has the shoulder mobility required to lower a barbell down to their chest when they are lying flat on a bench. By elevating their torso with an arch they don’t have to lower the bar as far, which decreases the required range of motion of the shoulder joints.
  • More effective use of your pecs (maybe). Your pectoralis major are large, fan-shaped muscles, whose muscle fibers to a large extent are downward (towards your abdomen) oriented. It is possible that when you are pressing at a slight decline, which is essentially what happens when you arch, your pecs are working in a stronger position.

So should you use an arch in the bench press?

It depends.

I think that most lifters benefit from a small arch in the bench press. It places the shoulders in a little more stable position and generally seems to make the shoulder feel better for a lot of people.

If you are competing in powerlifting and want to lift as much weight as possible within the rules, then you should definitely explore arching and see how it affects your performance. Not everyone will lift more with an arch, but many do.

Should You Pause With the Bar on Your Chest, or “Touch and Go”?

In most powerlifting federations, you must pause the bar on your chest when you are competing. When the referee gives the “Press!” command, you press the bar up to straight arms. Therefore, if you are training for powerlifting, it is a good idea to incorporate at least some amount of training with a pause on your chest, especially in the time leading up to competitions.

If you don’t train for powerlifting, pausing in the bottom position is optional. It probably doesn’t have any additional benefits for building muscle compared to a controlled reversal. It might, however, help you improve your technique because you slow things down and get more practice in one of the hardest parts of the lift. Similarly, pausing can improve your strength off your chest.

Bench pressing without a pause on your chest is called touch and go. You lower the bar down and touch your chest, without neither pausing nor bouncing, and then press the bar up again.

Avoid bouncing the bar on your chest. It puts you at risk of injuring your ribs or your sternum, which can put a stop to your training for a long time.

Bar Path

The barbell does not move in a straight line in the bench press, but rather in a slope towards your feet.

Research has shown that novices typically bench press in a different bar path than elite bench pressers do, especially on the ascent.2

  • Novice bench pressers, benching around 220 lb / 100 kg, typically begin by pushing the bar straight up and then towards the head.
  • Elite bench pressers (benching 400 lb or more) typically begin by pushing the bar towards the head and then straight up.

Here’s an example of a typical novice bar path (to the left) compared with the bar path of two elite bench pressers (in the center and to the right).

Bench Press Bar Path

It might be worth experimenting with different bar paths, and especially shifting the weight closer to your shoulders on the way up. Make sure to use safety racks when doing this, though, so that you don’t misgroove too much and land the bar on your face.

Bench Press Variations

In this section, we’ll go over some of the most popular bench press variations.

  1. Close-Grip Bench Press
  2. Feet-Up Bench Press
  3. Close-Grip Feet-Up Bench Press
  4. Incline Bench Press
  5. Decline Bench Press
  6. Floor Press
  7. Smith Machine Bench Press

1. Close-Grip Bench Press

The close-grip bench press might be one of the most popular bench press variations out there. This exercise shifts more of the work toward your triceps muscles: In a wide-grip bench press, your triceps contribute around 22% of the force in the sticking region. In the close-grip bench press, your triceps contribute around 37% (almost double!) of the force.

The close-grip bench press is especially useful for working your triceps and getting stronger in your lockout, but it really is a great general exercise for increasing your upper body strength.

2. Feet-Up Bench Press

The feet-up bench press is a chest exercise that has seemingly gained popularity over the last years, perhaps as a response to the popularization of bench press arches. The feet-up bench greatly inhibits the amount of arch you can create with your lower back, and thus forces you into a more flat bench press technique. This leads to a longer range of motion, which, in turn, might benefit both your strength gains and muscle growth.

Another benefit of the feet-up bench press is that as you cannot rely on your legs for support, you will have to create a stable base using your upper body and torso alone. After you’ve learned how to do this, you can then benefit from this extra stability in your regular bench press.

Because you cannot use as heavy weights as in the traditional bench press, the feet-up bench press acts as a form of autoregulation in your training, suitable for light workouts.

3. Close-Grip Feet-Up Bench Press

The close-grip feet-up bench press is a combination of the two previous exercises: the close-grip bench press and the feet-up bench press. Therefore, it combines the pros and cons of both of these.

Greater triceps emphasis, more training for your lockout, and stability training are some of the pros of this exercise.

4. Incline Bench Press

The incline bench press is a variation that emphasizes your upper chest muscles and anterior deltoids. Typically, a slight decline of about 30° is enough to elicit this effect.3 4

Muscle activation in incline bench press
Muscle activation when bench pressing at different inclines.

A popular variation of the incline bench press is to trade the barbell for a pair of dumbbells and perform incline dumbbell presses instead. Many people feel that the freedom of motion of the dumbbells enable them to lift in a more comfortable movement path.

If you usually train the bench press with a big arch, incline bench presses might be a good way to give your upper pecs some more love.

Read more: 5 Differences Between Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press

5. Decline Bench Press

The decline bench press is a variation that emphasizes your lower chest muscles. This exercise comes with a higher injury risk than the traditional bench press:

  1. Because your head i tilted downward, the blood pressure in your brain will probably reach higher levels than normal. This might or might not be dangerous, but it is something to be aware of and consider depending on your circumstances.
  2. Because of the downward angle, it is extremely important that you always have a spotter or correctly adjusted safety racks to catch the bar. Otherwise, you might end up in a situation where you are pinned under the bar, and cannot roll it down your legs.

Seeing as the traditional flat bench press already works your lower chest well, the increased risk of this exercise might not be worth it. Perhaps try some dips or downward-angled cable chest flyes instead?

Read More: The 10 Best Lower Chest Exercises to Build Your Pecs

6. Floor Press

The floor press is a bench press variation that I don’t see performed very often nowadays, perhaps because of the shift in popularity away from equipped bench pressing towards classic (“raw”) bench pressing.

For an equipped bench presser, the floor press offers a great way to train the lockout with heavy loads. It can also be a good alternative when you want to limit your range of motion in the case of a pec tear or pec pain.

A drawback of the floor press is that setting up can be a challenge. If your power rack doesn’t go down far enough for you to unrack the bar from it (like mine), you will have to place the bar on boxes, have a spotter hand it to you, or simply roll it up your body and heave it up to get into the starting position.

An easier option to set up would be the board press, where you place a board on your chest to limit the range of motion.

Read more: Floor Press vs. Bench Press for Strength: Benefits & Differences

7. Smith Machine Bench Press

The last bench press variation we’ll cover in this section is the smith machine bench press. This exercise certainly comes with its own sets of pros and cons.

On the pro side is the extra stability, which might enable you to work your muscles a little harder than usual because you don’t have to worry about balance.

On the negative side, we have the fact that a normal, free barbell bench press doesn’t move in a vertical bar path (see the section on bar path for more info). The smith machine, however, forces you to work in a straight line, which an experienced bench presser might perceive as uncomfortable.

Bench Press FAQ

Here are answers to some of the most common questions we hear regarding the bench press.

What Muscles Are Worked In the Bench Press?

The bench press will primarily work your chest and front deltoids. Your triceps are worked secondary, typically growing half as much from bench pressing as your chest and front delts do.5

chest and triceps are worked by the bench press

You can read more about this in our article: Does the Bench Press Work Your Triceps?

Your chest muscles, or pectoral muscles, make up one of the largest muscle groups of your upper body, and the bench press is, therefore, a great exercise for adding muscle mass to this area.

Is Bench Pressing Bad for Your Shoulders?

No, that would be a misleading statement. The bench press is an exercise that loads your shoulders. Thus, proper loading can strengthen your shoulder joint and make it more resilient towards injury. If you train with excessive volume or loads, however, you risk doing too much, too soon, which can result in an injury.

The bench press is a tool that strengthens your shoulders if used correctly.

Why Do I Get Shoulder Pain From Bench Pressing?

There can be many reasons why you get shoulder pain from bench pressing, two of the most likely culprits being: incorrect technique, and doing too much too soon.

Do Push-Ups Increase Bench Press?

Yes, push-ups work the same muscles as the bench press (= your chest, front deltoid, and triceps) in a similar movement, and can therefore be used as an accessory exercise to increase your bench press strength.

Personally, doing daily push-ups played a large part when I increased my bench press from 140 to 162.5 kg (308 to 358 lb). At the time, I did a weekly bench press session where I just worked up to a heavy top set and then stopped. Then on a daily basis (about six days a week), I did 10 sets of 10 strict push-ups. This was at a time when I could do about 30 strict, deep push-ups.

A study from Japan had young, recreationally trained men train push-ups for eight weeks to see how it affected their chest and triceps muscle thickness and their bench press 1RM.6 They did push-ups two times per week, with three sets to failure each workout. After eight weeks, they had increased their chest muscle thickness by 18%, triceps thickness by 10%, and their 1RM in the bench press by 5%. Note that this was a group seemingly unused to the bench press. I suspect that if they would have had just a little skill practice in the bench press during these eight weeks, they would have increased their strength far more.

Want to Get Stronger in the Bench Press?

Looking for a training program to build a big bench?

Check out our bench press programs!

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References

  1. The Accuracy of Prediction Equations for Estimating 1-RM Performance in the Bench Press, Squat, and Deadlift, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: November 1997 – Volume 11 – Issue 4 – p 211-213.
  2. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1984 Aug;16(4):376-81. Kinematic factors influencing performance and injury risk in the bench press exercise.
  3. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Oct 8;17(19):7339. Effect of Five Bench Inclinations on the Electromyographic Activity of the Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoid, and Triceps Brachii during the Bench Press Exercise.
  4. Comparative Study Eur J Sport Sci. 2016;16(3):309-16. Epub 2015 Mar 23.
    Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise.
  5. Interv Med Appl Sci. 2012 Dec; 4(4): 217–220. Time course for arm and chest muscle thickness changes following bench press training.
  6. J Exerc Sci Fit. 2017 Jun;15(1):37-42. Low-load bench press and push-up induce similar muscle hypertrophy and strength gain.