What Muscles Does The Bench Press Work? (Science-Based)

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Published by James Cunningham, BSc, CPT | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: March 22, 2024
FACT CHECKED by Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
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As a fitness trainer, I include bench presses in workouts, addressing clients' concerns about overemphasizing chest muscles.

That can’t be further from the truth. While a bench press won’t give you a full-body workout,  it will work several different muscles.

While I know this from experience, I’ve also spent dozens of hours researching whether studies confirm this. Here are my findings.

Quick Summary

  • he bench press primarily works upper body muscles, focusing on the chest and arms, and is a fundamental exercise in strength training routines.
  • Various bench press variations, including traditional, incline, decline, close grip, and wide grip, target different muscle groups for comprehensive upper body development.
  • Bench pressing not only enhances muscular endurance but also significantly improves bone density, with studies showing an increase in bone mineral density by up to 7.9% in individuals engaging in weight-bearing exercises like bench pressing.
  • In my view, the bench press is an incredibly versatile and effective exercise for developing upper body strength and should be a staple in any fitness regimen.

What Muscles Does A Bench Press Really Work?

shirtless man with abs at the gym

A classic bench press works your upper body muscles, mainly your chest and arms [1].

But different bench press variations can target other muscle groups, too. I’ll go over them in the following sections.

For now, keep in mind that these variations differ in:

  • The angle of the bench: Whether you’re pressing on a decline, flat or incline bench.
  • Your grip width: Whether you’re gripping a barbell with a wide or close grip.

Choose a specific bench press variation to target certain muscles or alternate variations for overall upper body strength.

And if you want to enhance your workout experience and enjoy additional advantages, try incorporating our expert-approved whey protein powders into your routine.

Related Article: Best Bench Press Alternatives

Traditional Bench Press

The traditional or regular bench press will work [2]: 

  • Pectoral muscles
  • Shoulders
  • Arms
  1. To perform a traditional bench press, lie down on a flat bench.
  2. Press a barbell up and down while holding it with an overhand grip.

Incline Bench Press

man doing bench presses

The incline bench press puts more pressure on your upper pecs than the classic bench press. It works [3]:

  • Muscles of the upper chest (pectoralis minor and pectoralis major)
  • Shoulders
  1. For this variation, you’ll need to raise the front of the bench to a 45- to 60-degree angle.
  2. You should slightly lean back while exercising.

Decline Bench Press

The decline bench press will help you engage your lower pecs more than other variations.  It works [4]:

  • The lower chest muscles
  • Upper arm muscles
  • Shoulder muscles

To perform decline bench presses, you’ll need to set your bench to 15 to 30 degrees on the decline.

Close Grip Bench Press

man in a close grip bench press position

A close or narrow grip bench press works [5]:

  • Triceps
  • Front of the shoulders

The close-grip bench press shifts focus from chest to triceps, though it may reduce the weight you can lift compared to a wider grip.

  1. To perform this variation, lie down on a flat bench and keep your feet firmly on the ground.
  2. Grip a barbell with your hands shoulder-width apart.

Wide Grip Bench Press

Wide grip bench presses work [6]: 

  • Pecs (especially the pectoralis major)
  • Anterior deltoids (front of the shoulders)
  • Triceps
  1. For this variation, lie down on a flat bench.
  2. Grip the barbell with your hands more than shoulder-width apart.

Many gym-goers perform this variation as a floor press, which means they lie on the floor instead of a bench.

If you want to do the same, watch this video for instructions:

youtube

Other Benefits Of The Bench Press

Bench presses have other benefits besides building your muscles.

If you perform bench presses for a higher number of reps, you’ll also increase your muscular endurance [7].

Additionally, one study found that this exercise can also strengthen your bones.

In a study, participants doing weightlifting with bench presses showed significant bone density improvements over a non-lifting control group [8].

For even more variety, try adding these 10 killer chest and triceps exercises to your upper body workout routine.

Tips For Safe And Effective Bench Press

man working out with a spotter

While the barbell bench press is popular, beginners may benefit more from dumbbells for a balanced workout [9]:

“The dumbbell press is the best way to learn to press. If you start on the barbell, you can easily develop bad habits or let the bar dictate your arm position. Dumbbells force you to figure out how to get stabilizing muscles working, and find your proper forearm slot.”

- Ebenezer Samuel,  Fitness Trainer, C.S.C.S.

In my experience, beginning with dumbbell presses and gradually progressing to barbell bench presses is effective. This approach helped me build strength steadily while maintaining proper form, which is crucial for minimizing injury risk and avoiding shoulder pain.

Maintaining proper form is crucial to minimizing injury risk and avoiding shoulder pain:

  • Your elbows are at a 45- to 75-degree angle: Keeping your elbows too wide will put additional strain on your shoulder joint and rotator cuff. On the other hand, keeping them too close to your body will activate your triceps more than other muscles you may want to build [10].
  • Your shoulder blades are retracted: If you roll your shoulders forward while pressing, you’ll be working your shoulders and your arms instead of your chest [11]. That’s why you need to keep your shoulders retracted and your chest high throughout the range of motion.
  • You’re constantly breathing: Inhale slowly while lowering the bar to your chest. Exhale as you raise it [12].

Also, try to overcome sticking points with speed.

The sticking point in bench presses, often when lowering the barbell halfway, is where most struggle with the weight.

To get past it, move the weight quickly while you lift [13] but ensure your movements are controlled.

Additionally, consider using a chest press machine instead of a bench if you find the bench uncomfortable. Comfort always comes first.

The chest press machine offers ergonomic support, isolates pectoral muscles, and reduces shoulder and back strain, enhancing exercise safety and comfort.

FAQs

Can You Build Muscle with Just a Bench Press?

Yes, you can build muscle with just a bench press. However, if you do the same exercise every day, you might hit a plateau soon [14]. That’s when it’s better to perform other arm and chest exercises, too.

How long does it take to see results from bench pressing?

It usually takes 4-8 weeks to see results from bench pressing if you’re disciplined with your diet and your workout routine [15].

Is It Ok to Bench Press Every Day?

Yes, it’s OK to bench press every day. However, you should avoid it if you’re prone to injuries [16]. Also, it’s preferable that you work your entire body instead of just one group of muscles.


References:

  1. https://www.byrdie.com/light-weights-vs-heavy-weights-5118972 
  2. https://outlift.com/bench-press-for-muscle/ 
  3. https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/incline-vs-flat-bench 
  4. https://www.healthline.com/health/decline-bench
  5. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/close-grip-bench-press-guide
  6. https://www.livestrong.com/article/429567-what-does-the-wide-grip-bench-press-work/ 
  7. https://powerliftingtechnique.com/bench-press-every-day/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4214007/ 
  9. https://www.menshealth.com/fitness/a25126689/how-to-bench-press/ 
  10. https://aaptiv.com/magazine/incorrect-bench-press-form/ 
  11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MAABwVKxok 
  12. https://totalshape.com/training/close-grip-bench-press/ 
  13. https://www.rdlfitness.com/blog/sticking-points 
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About The Author

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
James Cunningham, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Sport & Exercise Science from University of Hertfordshire. He's a Health & Performance Coach from London that brings a unique blend of academic knowledge of health supplements and practical exercise experience to the table for his readers.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC is an ex-National Soccer player turned MMA and Kickboxing champion, with ACE CPT and PN1-NC certifications. His advice is rooted in education and experience, ensuring that readers receive scientific and battle-tested insights. His mission is to empower his clients and readers to realize their potential and become the best versions of themselves.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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