The bench press is the best lift for building a powerful chest. It’s also great for bulking up your triceps and the fronts of your shoulders, making it a great overall lift for improving your aesthetics.
The bench press is one of our Big 5 bulking lifts, and in this article, we’re going to go over the best strategies for integrating it into your bulking routine. This article has nothing to do with powerlifting or even powerbuilding, just with using the bench press to build muscle and gain general strength.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- How to bulk up your chest with the bench press.
- Whether you should bench with a wide or narrow grip.
- How big should your arch be while benching?
- Bench press accessories, such as the push-up and feet-up.
- Bench press assistance lifts, such as flyes, skull-crushers, and dips.
This article is still skinny: But we’re going to bulk it up. Stay tuned. In the meantime, check out our article on the best exercises for building a lagging chest.
The bench press is the most popular lift, and with good reason. It’s a sturdy compound exercise that works your chest, shoulders, and triceps through a large range of motion. It also allows you to load up the barbell fairly heavy, which is great for stimulating muscle growth.
Your chest is the biggest and strongest muscle in the bench press, which means that it should be doing most of the work. However, it’s pretty common for our shoulders to shoulder the load instead. (Perhaps that’s even where that expression came from.)
The bench press is also the most frustrating lift. Chances are that if one of your lifts is lagging behind, it’s the bench press. And if a muscle group is lagging behind, it’s your chest.
Sometimes that’s simply because someone is spending twice as much time squatting as they do benching—as in Starting Strength and StrongLifts—but it’s also notoriously hard for people to use their chests while bench pressing. And I think I can help you fix that.
We’ve written an entire article about the best lifts for growing a lagging chest, but the very first place to look is at your bench press technique. And I don’t just mean how good your technique is, I also mean which technique you use.
Different styles of the bench press naturally emphasize different muscle groups. It’s up to you whether you want to bring up your weaknesses or double down on your strengths.
Of the Big 5 lifts, the bench press is the most famous but the least prolific. You’re lying on your back, making the lift sturdy and easy to stabilize, and you’re only pressing the barbell up a few inches. It’s a relatively small lift, and it’s really only good at bulking up a couple of muscles: your chest, the fronts of your shoulders, and the smaller heads of your triceps.
Even when it comes to your triceps, it’s not a great exercise. Most people aren’t going to see good triceps growth just from benching, especially if they favour dumbbells instead of the barbell. Furthermore, the bench press won’t stimulate the long head of the triceps—the biggest head—enough to provoke much growth.
On the other hand, the muscles that you can build with the bench press are glorious. Who doesn’t want a fuller chest and rounder shoulders? And for that, it’s great.
The bench press is the biggest and heaviest lift for your chest, and it’s no secret that it’s the best exercise for developing the beefy muscles in our lower and mid-chests.
The bench press is also awesome for your upper chest. Now, that’s a bit of a contentious claim. There are a lot of people who think that the bench press is subpar for upper-chest development. That’s simply not true.
If we look at EMG research on the upper chest, we see that the bench press stimulates the upper chest near-identically to the upper chest. As I said, though, we may as well include some incline bench pressing as an assistance exercise. That’s going to help strengthen our bench press and overhead press, and it’ll add in a bit of welcome redundancy for our upper chests.
The bench press is also okay for your side delts. There was one study comparing Smith-Machine bench pressing against free-weight bench pressing. It found that if you’re benching with barbells or dumbbells, your side delts need to stabilize the weight. Does that make the bench press a great exercise for your side delts? Nope. You’re not going to fail on your side delts. But it’s a bit of extra shoulder volume, and we’ll take it.
So although the bench press doesn’t stimulate as much overall muscle growth as the other Big 5 lifts, what it does do is valuable. It earned its spot.
Is that a pun? I don’t know.
Optimizing Your Technique
Range of Motion
As a general rule of thumb, lifting with a larger range of motion is better. This is especially true with the bench press. A recent study had the participants doing either full range-of-motion reps or partial reps for ten weeks. At the end of those ten weeks, they tested their strength in all ranges of motion.
Normally, you’d expect lifters to be best at what they’d trained for. You’d expect the group who had been training partials to be best at doing partials. Their muscles would be less versatile, yes, but they’d still be stronger at the specific range of motion they were training in. That wasn’t the case.
The group who was using a full range of motion not only had the most versatile strength, they also had the most specialized strength. They were stronger at doing partial reps than the groups who had been training partial reps.
There may be a simple explanation for this. Using a full range of motion is known to build more muscle, so the group who was using a larger range of motion built more muscle mass, and thus gained the most overall strength.
Where this gets interesting is how you define a full range of motion on the bench press. Touching your chest is one definition of a full range of motion, sure, but what about using an arch? The bigger your arch, the smaller the range of motion. Or what about using a wider grip? That, too, would limit the range of motion.
This is where our proportions come into play. Ideally, we want a deep range of motion and a nice stretch on our pecs at the bottom of the bench press. Using a wide grip won’t interfere with that, but using a big arch certainly can.
On the other hand, if our arch is too small, we might put our shoulders in a compromising position. That isn’t a problem for everyone, but if you have a shallow ribcage and long arms, it certainly may be.
For those with a barrel chest or stubby arms, benching without an arch can be a good option. For most everyone else, we’ll want to use at least a modest arch. Not so extreme that it stops our upper arms from going below parallel, but not so shallow that our shoulders fall out of a strong position.
Furthermore, if we’re not just trying to optimize chest growth, but also shoulder and triceps growth, that might call for a narrower grip, which will bring your shoulders and triceps through a significantly longer range of motion. But more on that in a second.
Ideal Grip Width
A standard bench press is done with your grip about 1.5x your shoulder width and your elbows flared to about 45 degrees. This grip width puts your chest, shoulders, and triceps into great positions to press the weight up, allowing for balanced muscle growth.
If you’re looking to gain overall strength and muscle mass, this is a great default choice. However, there are some good reasons to experiment with wider and narrower grips as well.
The Wide-Grip Bench Press
The wide-grip bench press is typically done with your index finger on the grip rings (81cm apart) and your elbows flared out as wide as you can safely go (around 80°). Feel free to use a narrower grip than that if it’s more comfortable, but avoid going even wider. If you flare your elbows all the way out to 90° (a guillotine bench press) it can get rough on your shoulders.
Using a wider grip is best for your chest. Using a wider grip will bring your elbows out more to the side, creating a longer moment arm for your pecs, and thus making it the best variation for bulking up your chest.
This variation also tends to have the best leverage, given that it takes full advantage of our chest muscles (which can grow quite large). As a result, most powerlifters bench with a wide grip.
Thinner and taller lifters tend to prefer the wide-grip bench press because it shortens the range of motion, cancelling out our lanky arms and thinner ribcages.
However, using a wider grip will also bring the barbell higher up on your chest, creating a smaller moment arm for your delts, and thus making it a poor variation for bulking up your shoulders.
If you have a stubborn or lagging chest, I think the wide-grip bench press is a perfectly good choice. That way you have a true chest exercise in your program. Just be warned that if your chest is lagging behind, you’re going to be weaker with a wider grip. After all, it relies on your chest strength. You’ll need to be patient with it.
The Close-Grip Bench Press
The close-grip bench press is done with your grip only slightly outside shoulder width and your elbows tucked in close to your sides. This narrower grip shifts emphasis away from your chest and onto your shoulders. It also uses the largest range of motion and keeps tension on your triceps for the greatest amount of time, making it great for bulking up your arms.
Close-grip bench presses are great for guys with weak chests who are trying to bench heavy, as well as for guys who are trying to bulk up their arms and shoulders.
So, How Wide Should You Grip the Barbell?
Using a narrow grip is better for bulking up your upper chest, shoulders, and triceps. However, it’s not very good at stimulating your chest.
Using a standard grip will use your entire chest, shoulders, and triceps in a fairly balanced way, making it a good default.
Using a wide grip will emphasize your chest at the expense of your shoulders and triceps. This makes it great for guys whose chests are lagging behind. This variation will probably allow you to bench press the most weight, especially if you give your chest time to grow into it. (It’s also my personal favourite.)
Barbell Bench Press Alternatives
The push-up is the best bench press variation for as long as you can use it. In fact, I would argue that until you can do a good twenty reps, they’re even better than the bench press.
With push-ups, you get all the benefits of pressing, but you also have your shoulder blades flying free (instead of pinned into the bench). That larger range of motion is better for your chest and shoulders, and it also brings in your serratus muscles (which are the muscles underneath your armpits).
Of course, as you get stronger, push-ups are going to stop being challenging enough. At that point, you can elevate your hands with handles or weight plates to increase the range of motion. That will stretch out your chest even more, making it even better for building bigger pecs. But eventually, you’ll grow too strong for that, too.
At that point, you can switch to weighted push-ups. But those won’t last forever either. There are only so many plates you can stack on your back before push-ups are more like playing Jenga than lifting weights.
From there, you can switch to using resistance bands. But, again, eventually, those resistance bands are going to become more trouble than they’re worth.
At that point, as any good judge would say, it’s time to approach the bench.
The Dumbbell Bench Press
The dumbbell bench press is the best variation for guys with stubborn chests. While pressing the dumbbells up, your chest will need to fight to keep the dumbbells from falling away to the sides, making it a combination of a bench press and a chest fly.
Overall, it has a few advantages over the barbell bench press:
- It’s the best bench press variation for growing a stubborn chest.
- You don’t need safety bars or a spotter.
- You can lift with a large range of motion.
- It builds fantastic stabilizer muscle strength, allowing near-perfect strength transference to the barbell bench press.
There’s no major downside to the dumbbell bench press, except that it doesn’t tend to be as good for working the triceps, and you probably won’t be able to move as much overall weight. Your chest won’t care, though.
Another minor disadvantage is that it’s hard to get heavier weights into the starting position, making it harder to lift in lower rep ranges. But so long as you stick to sets of 8+ reps, no problem.
The Pause Bench Press
Paused bench presses are exactly like regular ones, just with a 1-second pause with the barbell on your chest. In fact, if you have a history of powerlifting, then this is the standard way of benching.
Paused bench presses are used in powerlifting to stop guys from bouncing the barbell off their chests, which is considered cheating. We don’t really care if you’re cheating on your lifts, we just care about helping you gain more muscle and strength. But in this case, the pause does offer some muscle-building advantages.
The bottom portion of the bench press is the part that’s the hardest on your pecs, especially if you’re using a wider grip. Then, as you press the barbell up, your triceps start to contribute more. By bouncing the bar off your chest, you may be making the lift substantially easier on your pecs, perhaps by bouncing through your sticking point, or perhaps just by reducing the range of motion that they need to work through.
If you pause on your chest, then, you can make the bench press harder on your chest. That’s not great for everyone. Some people already fail the bench press due to their chest strength. But if you’re having a hard time building your chest with the bench press, this could be a great assistance lift.
The Spoto Bench Press
The Spoto bench press (named after the powerlifter Eric Spoto) is similar to the pause bench press, except instead of pausing with the barbell on your chest, you pause with the barbell held at your sticking point (which is usually at about the point where your arms are parallel to the floor).
The idea here is that you’re spending more time at the very hardest part of the lift, which is going to bulk up the specific muscle fibres that are limiting your bench press performance. This does such a good job of improving bench press strength that it’s become one of the most popular bench press assistance lifts among powerlifters.
Dips are one of the best assistance exercises for the bench press because it trains all the relevant muscles through a large range of motion while allowing your shoulder blades to fly free. This will not only bulk up your prime movers, but it will also strengthen your serratus anterior muscles, which is going to help keep your shoulders healthy as you get stronger.
This makes dips good for a few things:
- Bulking up your pecs, shoulders, and triceps.
- Strengthening your serratus anterior muscles.
- Helping to keep your shoulders healthy and pain-free.
- Improving your shoulder mobility and chest flexibility.
This makes dips surprisingly similar to push-ups, except that dips are much easier to load up heavier (by using a dip belt), making them a great exercise for stronger guys.
The Incline Bench Press
If your upper chest is lagging behind, the incline bench press is a good way to give it a bit of extra love. The incline press is also a great shoulder exercise, though, and the steeper the incline is, the more your shoulders will take over. If your goal is to grow your chest, you’ll want to set the bench up at a 15–30° angle.
The Reverse-Grip Bench Press
If your upper chest is really lagging behind, you may want to consider the reverse-grip bench press. If you use a fairly wide grip, the angles will match the line of pull of your upper-chest muscle fibres.
However, using a reverse grip makes it more likely that you’ll drop the barbell, meaning that you should really only do this lift if you’re safely nestled underneath some sturdy safety bars.
The Feet-Up Bench Press
This is a bench press done with your feet resting on the bench. It removes leg drive, forces you to use lighter loads, minimizes back arch, and seems to be a great overall mass-builder for your chest, shoulders, and triceps.
If your bench press is going smoothly but you just need a bit of extra volume, you can mix these into your bench press routine as a slightly lighter assistance lift.
The Floor Press
The floor press is a popular assistance lift for the bench press that works great for stocky guys. However, it doesn’t work nearly as well for guys with longer arms or shallower ribcages given that it limits the range of motion by so much.
Still, if you have sore shoulders from benching, it might be worth a try. Benching from the floor might give your shoulders the stability they’ve been craving.
The bench press is a great lift for bulking up your chest, shoulders, and triceps. However, it won’t bulk up those muscles evenly.
The Chest Problem: most guys will get great chest development from the bench press, but depending on your anatomy and lifting style, it’s possible that your shoulders bear the brunt of the load instead.
The first thing to do is to adjust your technique to emphasize your chest: use a wider grip or switch to dumbbells. However, that isn’t always a full solution, especially if your chest has been lagging behind for a while now. In that case, choose accessory lifts that emphasize your chest, such as flyes.
The Shoulder Problem: some guys are so chest-dominant that their shoulders won’t see much growth from the bench press. In this case, you should switch to a narrower grip, but I would advise against that. After all, we have the overhead press to take care of your shoulders. Don’t worry about this. This is a good problem to have.
The Triceps Problem: by far the biggest problem with the bench press is the fact that it’s so bad at bulking up our triceps. The first issue is that it doesn’t stimulate the long heads—the biggest heads—of our triceps very well. However, as with the shoulder problem, the overhead press is how we’ll solve this issue. That still leaves another issue, though: the bench press doesn’t do a good job of stimulating the short (lateral/medial) heads of the triceps, either:
Based on the studies that measured muscle growth in the triceps and the pecs, it seems that the bench press is 78% more effective for the pecs than the triceps!Menno Henselmans, MSc
The good news is that this issue is very easy to fix with accessory lifts. Pop in some skull-crushers or triceps pushdowns alongside your bench pressing and the issue disappears entirely.
- Dumbbell or Cable Flyes: These are a simple exercise that will help to bulk up your pecs. Get a nice pec stretch at the bottom and a firm pec contraction at the top. That large range of motion will be great for growing your chest.
- Pec Deck Flyes: These are what life is all about. There’s nothing better than a good pec deck machine. They keep constant tension on your chest throughout the entire (huge) range of motion while also providing the stability that you need to load up the machine quite heavy. (I’m seriously tempted to buy one of these for my home gym.)
- Skull-crushers (aka lying triceps extensions): these are similar enough to the bench press that the muscle and strength you develop will transfer over quite well, but they put a tremendous amount of emphasis on the short (lateral and medial) heads of your triceps.
- Landmine Presses: These are a great lift for bulking up your shoulders and upper chest while letting your shoulder blades roam wild. This makes them a great accessory for guys who are looking for more shoulder stability and strength. (You’ll need special equipment for these.)
- Triceps Pushdowns: These are great for thickening up your triceps, which is important if you’re having trouble locking out your bench press or if you notice that your triceps are lagging behind (which is common if you favour the wide-grip or dumbbell bench press).