If you're looking to build a bigger chest, there's really only one exercise that should be at the top your list: the barbell bench press.
Often used as the mark of raw strength and power, this classic chest-building exercise is ideal for increasing muscle size, strength, and endurance.
And while it might not be included in many Fitness Tests, it will certainly help you improve your physical performance levels to be able pass it.
In this blog post, we'll cover the muscles that are worked with this move, how to bench press, and some of the best tips for getting the most out of this exercise.
We'll also cover some of the bench press variations and alternative exercises that you can try for a well-rounded chest workout.
What Muscles Does the Bench Press Work?
Just like with any exercise, there are primary movers, or the main target of the exercise, and supporting muscles that help either directly or indirectly.
This is the muscle that you associate with your chest, and this is going to the be the primary muscle that you're targeting.
The pectorals run from the side of your torso to the middle of your sternum. When doing this move, you'll feel your chest working hard as you push the weight away from your body.
The anterior or front deltoids are also worked with this exercise, as they help to lift and stabilize the weight.
With that said, improper form can lead to the front delts taking away from the activation of the chest. This is the last thing you want because overactive deltoids can lead to muscle overcompensation and injury.
This is why it's so important to master your form on each and every rep, which we’ll talk more about below.
The triceps are the muscles on the back of your upper arm, and they work to extend your elbow.
The triceps act as stabilizers during the bench press. You'll especially feel them light up when you reach the top of the movement and hold it at the isometric pause for a moment.
While the abs aren't directly involved in the barbell bench press, they do offer support and stability.
During the bench press, the abdominals are engaged to stabilize your torso as you press the weight.
The Benefits of the Bench Press Exercise
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the bench press, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about with this exercise. Here are the most notable benefits of the barbell bench press.
Every guy wants to have a bigger chest, and the bench press is one of the most effective exercises for developing your pecs.
The bench press is a compound movement, which means it engages several muscle growths at the same time. This level of muscle of activation is essential for triggering muscle hypertrophy.
Studies show that the bench press is one of the top exercise for promoting muscle growth in both the chest and triceps, although the triceps take longer to see size gains from it. You can easily remedy this by incorporating a triceps exercise at the end of your chest days. 
As we mentioned above, the bench press is often used as a test of your strength. In fact, in most personal training assessments of those who are apparently healthy, some variation of a bench press test is used.
When you use a different set of acute variables – low reps, more sets, heavier weight – the bench press can be effective at increasing your strength.
It’s also great for building strength in your shoulders and triceps, which can help you perform push-ups with better form.
Continuing with the point above, there’s a muscle endurance test called the YMCA Bench Press Test. The name says it all, this test will let the trainer know how much endurance your upper body has.
High reps and fewer sets are an excellent way to increase muscle endurance in your chest, shoulders and triceps.
When you alternate between different sets of acute variables, you support strength and endurance simultaneously, which is ideal for muscle growth.
Athletes can benefit from the bench press because it helps improve upper body strength, which is essential for many sports.
Supports You as a Soldier
As we mentioned above, unlike the deadlift, the bench press isn’t featured on the ACFT.
Now, with that said, it’s still great for soldiers because it helps prepare them for that same test by improving strength, power, and endurance – all things you must have for the armed forces.
What’s more, when performed as a part of your normal workout routine while deployed, the bench press can help you maintain your upper body strength and power.
Low Risk of Injury
The bench press is also a relatively safe exercise to perform, as long as you use proper form.
How to Bench Press with Proper Form
Let’s breakdown exactly how to perform a bench press. We’ll be referring to the barbell version of the exercise, but you can use this exact form breakdown with dumbbells, kettlebells, and resistance bands.
The first thing we would recommend is to warm-up the chest, shoulders, and triceps, especially if you intend on using heavy weight.
After 10 to 15 minutes of a light cardio activity like jogging or cycling, perform 25 kettlebell swings followed by 10 to 20 knee push-ups.
From here, stretch out the chest with a door stretch.
Now that you’re all warmed up, here’s how to get set up for the barbell bench press.
Bench: Make sure the bench is flat and secure.
Barbell: We recommend using an Olympic barbell as this is a guaranteed 45 pounds. Place the barbell on the rack that is ideal for your reach and grip.
Body Position: Lie on your back with your feet flat on the ground and knees bent at a right angle. You should move your body so that your eyes are looking directly up at the barbell.
Grip Type: Use a double overhand grip to minimize the risk of injury.
Grip Width: As far as placement, grab the barbell so that your hands are just outside of shoulder width. This does not mean that you should take a wide grip. Rather, extend your hands straight up and out then move them slightly outside of that.
Performing the Bench Press
Ready to go? Let’s get started with jumping into the movement.
Your core will act as stabilizers during the exercise. This will really come in handy if you ever test your one-repetition maximum.
To keep yourself from being thrown off balance, focus on contracting the muscles in your core: your abdominals, obliques, and lower back. You also ensure good posture when you brace.
Take a deep breath in just before you push off. Breathe out as you push the barbell up to the starting position.
Lowering the Barbell
Fight the urge to flail your elbows out as you slowly lower the barbell to your chest.
Do NOT bounce the barbell on your chest. Instead, let it over just above for a moment or two before pushing it back to the starting position.
Racking the Barbell
Once you finish with all of your reps, push the barbell up and guide it backward toward the rack. Let the rack catch it before you take your hands off of the barbell.
Bench Press Variations
There are many ways to bench press, depending on your experience level and which muscles you want to target.
Some variations include the following:
Incline Bench Press:
This variation is done by lying on an incline bench (usually at about a 45-degree angle), which puts more emphasis on the upper chest muscles.
Decline Bench Press:
This variation is done by lying on a decline bench (usually at about a 45-degree angle), which puts more emphasis on the lower chest muscles.
Different Grip Widths:
You can also change how wide your hands are positioned when performing this exercise.
For example, you can bring them closer together to target the triceps more or you can widen them to target the chest muscles more.
Bench Press Alternatives
Here are some bench press alternative exercises that you can perform to hit the same muscle groups.
This bodyweight exercise is a great alternative to the bench press and can be done anywhere.
To do them correctly, make sure your hands are shoulder-width apart and keep your back straight as you lower your body towards the ground.
If you’re struggling with bodyweight push-ups, try kneeling push-ups on a yoga mat.
This exercise hits the chest in a completely different way than the bench press. In fact, we recommend pairing these two exercises together to get a well-rounded chest workout.
This exercise is done by holding dumbbells in each hand and then raising them above your head, keeping elbows slightly bent. Then, bring the weights down towards either side of your body while keeping a slight bend in elbow.
Cable Chest Fly
This exercise is performed standing and uses cables to mimic how dumbbells would move through space.
It targets the pectoralis major muscles on both sides of your chest, as well as some other smaller ones such as serratus anterior (a stabilizing muscle).
One important note, when you’re performing the chest fly, be sure to cross your arms over one another to ensure maximum activation of the chest.
Dumbbell Bench Press
This variation is done with dumbbells, which can be helpful if you have shoulder issues as it takes some of the stress off of these joints.
For the same reason as the cable chest fly, dumbbells also allow you to get a greater activation of the middle chest.
It’s important to note that chest dips are not the same as triceps dips.
In order to do these, you’ll need a dip station. You can get creative with two chairs, but for your safely, we recommend a dip station.
From the top of the movement, you’ll bend your elbow and lower yourself down. To really engage the chest, you want to lean forward slightly.
Resistance Band Presses
This is a great exercise to do if you don't have access to weights or a bench. You can do this exercise standing, sitting, or lying down and it targets the chest muscles as well as the shoulders.
If you have access to a bench, you can simply wrap the band underneath. But if you don’t have a bench, there are a few options:
You can perform a standing underhand press out, which will target the lower section of the chest muscles.
You can sit in a kitchen chair and wrap the band around the chair. From here, press it straight out as you would a normal bench press.
Finally, if you have none of these things, you can loop the band to make the resistance very high, then simply lie on your back on the band. Place your elbows on the ground and push up, struggling against the band. Slowly, lower back to the floor but immediately go into the next repetition.
Bench Press Tips
Here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your bench press:
Do I Need to Warm-Up Before a Bench Press?
Absolutely. Before any type of heavy lifting, you need to warm-up to avoid injury and strain on your joints and muscles.
The warm-up we included above is plenty to get your body prepared for a safe and successful bench press workout.
How Much Weight / How Many Reps to Use?
When starting out, especially if your goal is muscle growth, it's best to use a weight that you can comfortably lift for eight to 12 repetitions.
As you get stronger, you can gradually increase the weight that you're using while decreasing the repetitions.
Eventually, we recommend alternating these acute variables from week to week; this is called periodization training.
Use a Spotter
If you're new to this exercise or if you’re lifting heavier weights, it's always a good idea to have someone there to help you out in case you need it.
- Ogasawara R, Thiebaud RS, Loenneke JP, Loftin M, Abe T. Time course for arm and chest muscle thickness changes following bench press training. Interv Med Appl Sci. 2012;4(4):217-220. doi:10.1556/IMAS.4.2012.4.7.