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 becoming bigger, stronger, and better looking.
- Benching for Size, Strength, and Aesthetics
- Bench Press Alternatives
- Assistance Lifts
- Accessory Lifts
- Key Takeaways
Benching for Size, Strength, and Aesthetics
Muscles Worked in the Bench Press
The bench press is the most popular bodybuilding lift. And with good reason. It’s a great exercise for building muscle:
- Compoundedness: The bench press does a good job of stimulating our chests, shoulders, and triceps.
- Range of motion: It works our chests and anterior delts through a large range of motion.
- Heaviness: Having our backs pinned up against a bench puts us in a good position to load up the barbell with a ton of weight.
- Progressive overload: The barbell bench press allows us to gradually increase the load by small increments (unlike push-ups). Plus, given that we can generally bench press quite a bit of weight, adding small plates increases the load by a very small percentage of what we can lift (unlike pec flyes).
However, if you look at the sheer amount of muscle being stimulated, the bench press becomes less impressive:
Fortunately, the muscles that we can build with the bench press are totally rad. Ever since bigger chests started to come into vogue in the 50s, they’ve become an essential part of an aesthetic physique.
And for building a big chest, the bench press is fantastic.
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 incline bench press and the flat bench press stimulate the upper chest almost identically. 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.
When it comes to your triceps, the bench press isn’t a great exercise. Most people aren’t going to see good triceps growth just from benching. Furthermore, the bench press won’t stimulate the long head of the triceps—the biggest head—enough to provoke much growth.
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.
The Lagging Chest Problem
However, despite its popularity, the bench press can be an incredibly 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 our chests lag behind simply because we don’t bench enough. If we look at Starting Strength and StrongLifts, they squat twice as often as they bench. They also program the squats ahead of the bench press, meaning that our best energy is going toward the squat, not the bench press. Not surprisingly, that results in much more quad growth than chest growth.
However, it’s also notoriously hard for people to fully engage their chests while bench pressing.
Now, the chest is the biggest and strongest muscle in the bench press, which means that getting strong at the bench press should be a reliable way to increase our chest size. And it is. You won’t see a small chest on someone who can bench 300 pounds.
Unfortunately, as we try to build a bigger bench press, it’s common for our shoulders to be our limiting factor. And if our shoulders are shouldering the load, that prevents our chest from getting a proper growth stimulus, which prevents us from building a big bench press.
I think I can help you fix that.
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.
Min-Maxing Your 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, like so:
This grip width puts your chest, shoulders, and triceps into great positions to press the weight up, and it uses a larger range of motion, allowing for good overall muscle growth. As a result, this is the technique you’ll see in programs like Starting Strength.
Now let’s compare this against a wide-grip bench press, which 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°), like so:
The elbow flare is kept well under 90 degrees, keeping the lift safe for the shoulders. The elbows are also kept underneath the hands, which keeps our triceps at least somewhat involved in the lift. (If we use an even wider grip, it’s called an “ultra-wide” bench press.)
This is the technique that you’ll see a lot of bodybuilders and powerlifters using. Their rationale is that it gives their chests better leverage, allowing bodybuilders to build bigger chests and allowing powerlifters to lift more weight. Is that true? Let’s see.
First, let’s look at which muscles are best able to contribute to the lift.
What we’re seeing here is that in the standard bench press, the diagonal muscle fibres of our upper chests and shoulders are in a better position to lift. Then, with the wide-grip bench press, the horizontal muscle fibres in our mid and lower chests are better able to contribute.
The next thing we can do is compare the moment arms.
What we see here is that the standard bench press creates longer moment arms between our collarbones and the barbell, making the lift harder on our shoulders and upper chests. Then, with the wide-grip bench press, we see that the moment arms between our sternum and arms are a little bit longer, making the lift a bit harder on our mid and lower chests.
What this means is that with a standard grip width, the lift is quite hard on our shoulders and upper chest, and so we’re much more likely to be limited by those muscles, and so they’re more likely to get the bulk of the growth stimulus. With the wide-grip bench press, on the other hand, we’re much more likely to be limited by our mid and lower pec strength, sending more of the growth stimulus to our pecs.
Finally, we need to consider where most of our muscle mass will come from. In this case, it’s the mid and lower parts of our chests that are the beefiest:
We have far more muscle fibres that connect to our sternums (our mid and lower chest) than to our collarbones (upper chest). Our mid and lower chests are far larger and have a far greater potential for growth. When people are struggling to gain mass in their chests, it’s because they’re having trouble activating their mid and lower chests.
Using a wider grip is usually better for our chests. It gives our chest muscles the best leverage, and it also stops our shoulders from being a limiting factor. As a result, most bodybuilders use a wide grip to bulk up their chests, and most powerlifters use a wide grip to bench more weight.
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.
On the other hand, 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 will serve you well. That way you have a true chest exercise in your program. Just be warned that if your chest is lagging behind, you’ll be weaker with a wider grip. After all, it relies on your chest strength. You’ll need to be patient with it.
Now, it’s up to you whether you want to bring up your weaknesses or double down on your strengths. Some guys with strong triceps and shoulders want to double down on that by using a narrower grip. That approach won’t help you build a bigger chest, though.
Similarly, some guys with dominant chests like to use an extremely wide grip in order to lift heavier and eke out even more chest growth. As you can imagine, that’s not great for shoulder or triceps development.
For bulking up, the best approach is to favour a style of bench press that reduces the disparity between chest and shoulder stimulation. If your chest is your limiting factor, then consider using a narrower grip and tucking your elbows a bit more. That way you’ll bring your shoulders into the lift. On the other hand, if your chest isn’t even tired at the end of a hard set, then you’ll probably benefit from a wider grip that makes the lift easier on your shoulders.
Min-Maxing Your Arch
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. Not surprising, then, that 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:
If we look at the lifter on the left, we see that having shorter arms and a barrel chest shortens the range of motion and changes the shoulder angle. That specific point in the lift, with the upper arms parallel to the floor, has the longest moment arms and is the most common sticking point in the bench press. If this stubby dude arches his back, he’ll be shortening the moment arms and increasing how much weight he can lift. Great for powerlifting, not so great for building muscle.
If we look at the lifter on the right, we see that having longer arms and a shallower ribcage lengthens the range of motion and drops the arms down past the sticking point. The sticking point, then, will be when the barbell is a few inches above his chest. That’s not a bad thing. Not only does he have an increased range of motion, but he also has the chance to build a bit of momentum before reaching his sticking point.
However, the details matter. It’s possible that this starting position is so deep that his shoulders are shifting out of a strong position. It’s possible that benching this deep is going to either force this guy to use much lighter weights or, worse, cause shoulder pain.
If you’re a naturally lanky guy (as I am), and benching with a flat back angers your shoulders (as it does for me), then you can fix it by using an arch, like so:
Ideally, we still want a nice stretch on our pecs at the bottom of the bench press. It’s that bottom part of the lift, as our pecs are contracting while stretched out under a heavy load, that stimulates the most chest growth.
But if you’re a lanky guy, you’ll probably get a great stretch on your pecs even with a modest arch. And that arch will keep our shoulders in a better position to press more weight more safely, which more than makes up for any lost range of motion.
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, push-ups are 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 (deficit push-ups). That will stretch out your chest at the bottom of the lift, 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 the triceps, and you probably won’t be able to move as much overall weight. Your chest won’t care, though, and the barbell bench press isn’t that great for your triceps anyway. Either way, you’ll still need some accessory lifts to bulk up your triceps.
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. (And if your goal is to gain muscle size, you don’t need to dip into lower rep ranges unless you want to.)
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.
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.
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 awhile 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 skullcrushers 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.)
- Skullcrushers (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).
Now, it’s worth pointing out that neither the bench press nor any of these accessory lifts are any good at bulking up the long heads of your triceps. To address that issue, we could include overhead triceps extensions. But since the long heads of your triceps are irrelevant to your bench press performance, they don’t really fit in this article. They’re better categorized as an accessory lift for the overhead press.
The bench press is a compound lift that will bulk up your chest, shoulders, and triceps. Problem is, you might have trouble getting even development in those three muscle groups.
The first solution is to use a grip width that evens out your limiting factors. If benching pumps up and tired out your chest, but doesn’t do much for your shoulders or triceps, then try a slightly narrower grip. On the other hand, if benching leaves your chest feeling fresh, try going wider.
When it comes to your bench press arch, keep it modest. Your goal isn’t to shorten the range of motion so that you can lift more weight, your goal is merely to keep your shoulder joint feeling strong and safe.
The second solution is to bring in assistance and accessory lifts. Chest flyes are great for boosting chest growth, incline bench pressing is great for boosting upper chest and shoulder growth, and skullcrushers are great for the shorter heads of your triceps.