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

Connor Sellers
Published by Connor Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: March 16, 2022

As a fitness trainer, I often add bench presses to my clients’ workouts. Some of them are hesitant because they think they’ll only grow their 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

  • In general, the bench press works upper body muscles.
  • Different variations target slightly different muscles.
  • A bench press builds muscles, increases endurance, and strengthens the bones.
  • Always maintain proper form while pressing.

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.

You can choose to perform only one bench press variation that works the specific muscles you want to target. But you can also alternate between different variations for maximum upper body strength.

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

A close-grip bench press is great for transferring the focus from your chest to your triceps. But keep in mind that you may not be able to lift as much weight as you could if you kept 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.

The researchers put one group of participants on a weightlifting program which included bench presses. The participants’ bone density improved significantly compared to the control group that didn’t engage in weightlifting [8].

Tips For Safe And Effective Bench Press

man working out with a spotter

A barbell bench press is a gold standard for many weightlifters.

But you might benefit more from using dumbbells instead of a barbell, especially if you’re new to the gym [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.

So, you might want to start pressing with dumbbells and work your way towards barbell bench presses from there.

Either way, you should maintain proper form while exercising to minimize the risk of injury and avoid shoulder pain. Here’s what a correct form looks like:

  • 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 the shoulders retracted and your chest high up 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.

A sticking point is a point at which you struggle the most to handle the weight. When it comes to bench presses, this point usually occurs when you lower the barbell halfway through.

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.

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.

Ready To Press And Grow Your Muscle Mass?

A classic bench press is an excellent exercise. But it only targets one muscle group.

So, I suggest you try its variations to keep your body challenged.

If you don’t feel a strain in your muscles, add more weight or engage specific muscles more. Consult a certified personal trainer if you don’t know how to do that yourself.

Also, consider using a chest press machine or lying on the floor while pressing to keep strength training fun.

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


References:

  1. https://www.byrdie.com/bench-press-guide-5112654 
  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/sticking-points 
  14. https://www.coachmag.co.uk/chest-exercises/5997/5-chest-exercises-that-are-better-than-the-bench-press/page/0/1
  15. https://trackstarusa.com/strength-results/
  16. https://powerliftingtechnique.com/bench-press-every-day/

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