Depending on your goals and circumstances, both exercises can be viable choices, and in this article, I will try to help you decide which tool is better for you.
What is The Difference Between The Chest Press and The Bench Press?
The chest press and the bench press are both compound exercises, meaning that they work multiple muscles at the same time. Both are horizontal pressing exercises, and will therefore work similar muscles.
So is the chest press the same as the bench press?
No, with the main difference being that they are performed with different tools:
- The chest press is a machine exercise
- The bench press is a free weight exercise
The chest press is typically performed with lighter weights and in a fixed movement path. The bench press, on the other hand, is typically performed with heavier weights and is done in a free range of motion.
Machine Chest Press: Pros and Cons
How to perform the chest press:
- Adjust the seat so that the handles are resting at your chest level.
- Press the handles forward until your arms are straight.
- With control, lower the handles back into the starting position.
Chest press machines come in many shapes and sizes. Some are loaded with regular weight plates, like the one used by Philip in the image above, and others have a weight stack on which you select how much weight you want to use by moving a pin. Some machines allow you to set the incline of the bench so that you can target your upper chest with incline chest presses, or your lower chest with decline presses.
The one thing they all have in common is that your movement path and range of motion are fixed.
But what are the benefits and drawbacks of the machine press?
- Easy to learn. Apart from adjusting the seat and weight, there isn’t very much to learn about the machine chest press besides pushing the handles forward. The learning curve is short, and you can get started with training and get a solid workout in the very first time you try it. This is beneficial for beginners who are just getting started with strength training.
- Focus on the muscles worked. Since the chest press takes care of the technique and stabilization, you are free to focus on your worked muscles. This is beneficial for muscle growth, as you can push yourself harder when balance isn’t an issue.
- Safer. Besides doing too much training volume too soon, there aren’t really a lot of things that can go wrong in the chest press.
- No spotter needed. Safe bench pressing means having a spotter and/or safety racks to catch the bar if you fail to complete a rep or if an accident happens. If your gym doesn’t have safety racks and you can’t get someone to spot you, the chest press machine is a safe alternative.
- Lower starting weight. In many gyms, the lightest barbell weighs 20 kg / 45 lb, and far from everyone is able to begin their bench press training with that kind of weight on day one. Chest press machines, on the other hand, often allow you to increase the weight in smaller increments, commonly going all the way down to only a few kilos or pounds at the lightest setting.
- More control. Some situations call for extra movement control. For example when you are rehabilitating an injury in your pectoral muscles or shoulder joint. In this case, the stability of the chest press can help you stay in the desired movement path and avoid getting into risky or sensitive positions.
- Simple dropsets. Finally, the machine chest press makes doing dropsets a breeze. You don’t have to take off weight plates from the bar’s ends; you probably won’t even need to get up from your seat. This makes things a lot easier those times when you really want to exhaust your muscles completely in a short amount of time.
- One size fits some. Most chest press machines offer the possibility of adjusting things like seat height and the horizontal position, but if your body still doesn’t fit properly in the machine, there isn’t much you can do. Using an ill-fitting machine can increase your risk of injury because you will be unable to use good form, and your joints and muscles won’t be loaded in the proper way.
- No stabilization training. The stability of the chest press is a double-edged sword: while it enables you to focus more on your primarily working muscles, all the secondary, supportive, and stabilizing musculature (for example, your rotator cuffs) gets less of a challenge. Depending on your goals this might not matter very much to you, but it will take away some of the practice of lifting or applying force to unstable or free objects.
The Barbell Bench Press
How to perform the bench press:
- Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width, and lift it out from the rack.
- Lower it down to your chest with control.
- Press it back up to straight arms.
The bench press is a classic upper-body lift that has been used by athletes and bodybuilders for close to a century. The traditional bench press is performed on a flat bench, but you can use an incline bench press in order to target your upper pecs a little bit more. Other common bench press variations are the dumbbell bench press, floor press, and smith-machine bench press.
How does the regular bench press stack up against the chest press?
- Free range of motion. Contrary to the machine chest press, the barbell is a free weight with unrestricted movement. This means that you can adapt the movement path to your own body, and almost everyone can find a technique that suits them.
- Stabilization training. It is up to you to stabilize the bar, which means that you will get extra work for all the stabilizing musculature of your arms, shoulders, and core.
- Proven track record. You can’t go wrong with the classics, and when it comes to building upper body muscle and strength, the bench press is as classic as it gets. The bench press has a proven record and you won’t have to second-guess its effectiveness for bodybuilding or strength gains.
- Standardized. In contrast to the machine chest press, the bench press looks the same in any gym: you use a barbell, weight plates, a bench, and that’s it. Sure, the design of the rack and the bench itself may vary, but a 100 kg / 220 lb bench press is the same anywhere in the world. Because of this, you can maintain your training routine anywhere you go, as long as the standard equipment is available.
- Comparable. According to data from our workout tracker, the bench press is the most popular strength training exercise in the world. This means that if you want to compare your strength with others, the bench press is a great exercise for doing so. There are also many bench press competitions, from local meets, up to world championships.
- Still pretty stable. If an exercise is too unstable, it loses effectiveness for strength and muscle building purposes. An example would be squatting on top of a bosu ball – it is simply too unstable to challenge your leg muscles. While the bench press isn’t as stable as the chest press, it is still stable enough to challenge your chest muscles, anterior deltoids, and triceps and get a good training effect in these.
- Not as beginner friendly. The bench press is more complex than the chest press which means that it has a higher barrier to entry. Also, the thought of getting pinned under the bar can intimidate beginners. In the hands of an experienced personal trainer, however, most people can learn how to bench press with proper form within their first training session.
- More dangerous. There are no two ways about it: the bench press is one of the most dangerous lifts in the gym, and leads to several deaths every year. To mitigate the risks, use safety racks which you can put the bar down on if you fail, or have a spotter to take the bar. Avoid bench pressing heavy weight alone without safety racks set at the proper height.
Which Should You Choose: Chest Press or Bench Press?
Let’s try and summarize the pros and cons above with some examples of when you could use each exercise.
The chest press is great for:
- Focusing on the muscles worked
- Elders or otherwise physically challenged
- Quick workouts with minimal set-up
The bench press is great for:
- Getting very strong
- A combo of strength and coordination
- Training in a free, full range of motion
- Doing “the real thing” with an old school classic
At the end of the day, I think you should stick with the exercise that you enjoy and that you feel like you can do some productive training with. Your muscles don’t know if you’re grasping a barbell, dumbbell, or machine handle – what matters to your muscles is that you work them hard, and continuously try to lift more weight or do more reps than last time.
Thank you for reading, and good luck with your training!
- 5 Differences Between Incline Bench Press vs Flat Bench Press
- Chest and Tricep Workout for Strength & Mass