Barbell Bench Press: Benefits, Muscles Used, and More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
June 2, 2022

The barbell bench press is arguably among one of the most recognizable exercises anywhere in the world, with its highly effective upper body training stimulus and high applicability to many different types of exercisers making it commonplace in practically any resistance-based training program.

Because of the fact that it is present in practically any effective training program, it is important for individuals to understand the mechanics and factors behind what makes the barbell bench press such an effective and commonplace exercise.

In common terms, the barbell bench press is a push-type compound exercise that primarily activates the musculature of the upper body to a significant intensity, where it is usually performed for the purposes of developing muscle mass and strength through the use of resistance induced training stimulus.

What is the Barbell Bench Press?

In more technical terms, the barbell bench press is an open kinetic chain bilateral free weight compound movement meant to be performed at an approximate 7 to 9 RPE on the modified borg scale, squarely placing it in the high intensity category of exercises.

barbell bench press

It primarily utilizes such mechanics as full elbow extension, scapular retraction, and leg-drive assistance in order to ensure that the exerciser not only reduces their risk of injury, but also maximizes the effectiveness of the bench press’s training stimulus.

In terms of equipment requirements, the barbell bench press will (fittingly) require a flat bench, as well as a barbell and set of weight plates - with a barbell rack such as a squat rack or power cage making it far easier to position the barbell over the chest, though it is not a necessity.

What Muscles are Worked by the Barbell Bench Press?

Being a compound exercise, the barbell bench press is capable of activating a large number of muscle groups in a simultaneous manner, though the capacity in which these muscles are recruited differs between each one.

Muscle groups such as the pectorals, triceps brachii, and the anterior head of the deltoids act as the primary source of force throughout the entirety of a barbell bench press repetition, thereby allowing them to be referred to as the primary mover muscles.

At such a level of activation, these primary mover muscles will also be the same muscle groups to receive the largest benefit from the performance of the barbell bench press, marking it as primarily a chest exercise if such a classification is necessary.

Other muscle groups activated in a synergistic or supportive capacity as the serratus anterior, the remaining two heads of the deltoids muscle group and the biceps brachii - all of which are recruited to a certain extent that will result in noticeable muscular hypertrophy, though nowhere near the level of the primary mover muscles.

Benefits of the Barbell Bench Press

The barbell bench press, like many other exercises of its caliber, is capable of producing many positive effects in individuals that choose to perform it repeatedly over the course of many training sessions; with such things like improved upper body pushing strength and a better understanding of certain exercise mechanics coming naturally with the exercise.

barbell bench press

While these benefits are entirely possible with the usage of exercises other than the barbell bench press, they are particularly exemplified both in terms of efficiency and effectiveness with the bench press itself.

Greatly Improved Upper Body Strength

The bench press is one of the “big 3” compound exercises practiced together due to their effectiveness at building total-body strength and muscle mass. The bench press especially is considered among one of the best possible movements for developing upper body pushing strength, surpassing many other exercises performed for the very same purpose.

This is due to the fact that it places significant training stimulus on many of the upper body’s muscle groups that are responsible for upper body strength, such as the pectorals and triceps - as well as the fact that the particular type of training stimulus and range of motion involved in the exercise are both highly conductive to neuromuscular strength adaptation developments if performed correctly.

Significant Chest Hypertrophy

Few exercises are as capable of packing on mass to the pectoral muscle group as the barbell bench press, with its high level of intensity and capacity to recruit the chest muscles in a manner greater than other exercises often resulting in unparalleled amounts of chest muscle group hypertrophy.

As such, exercisers seeking to build their chest while also stimulating the triceps brachii and deltoids will find that the barbell bench press is one of the best possible exercises for meeting their goals.

Athletic Carry Over

The bench press is frequently seen in many professionally supervised athletic training programs for its ability to improve general athletic prowess - as well as certain aspects of sports-specific athleticism, such as the strength of a boxer’s strike, or a swimmer’s breast stroke capabilities, all of which are rarely trained directly by other upper-body exercises.

When utilizing the barbell bench press for the purposes of improving athletic capacity however, a different form of programming and volume of repetitions is utilized, as the sort of training stimulus required for producing functional strength results will differ from that of standard bodybuilding or strength development.

Exercise Mechanics Reinforcement

In addition to the many physiological benefits of the barbell bench press, it is also capable of improving an exerciser’s understanding and muscle memory of various exercise mechanics involved during the form of the barbell bench press.

These can range between varying levels of importance, such as certain form cues vital to preventing injury during many pushing exercises like proper scapular retraction, or some that simply improve the exerciser’s total strength output, such as the usage of leg drive from a prone position.

Regular practice of the barbell bench press with correct form will, over time, result in the exerciser improving in the practice of other exercises as well.

How Much Volume and Resistance Does the Barbell Bench Press Need?

The barbell bench press is in fact quite variable in terms of its volume and level of resistance per set, with different exercisers and different training goals making use of different repetition schemes and levels of intensity.

Individuals seeking more muscular hypertrophy, or novices unused to higher amounts of weight will usually choose more volume over higher levels of resistance, ranging between the 8 to 15 repetitions range per set.

For the purposes of developing upper body push strength or more significant fast-twitch muscle fiber activation, a lower repetition range may instead be used, going as low as 5 repetitions per set with a significantly higher level of resistance, usually within 10-20% of the exerciser’s maximum load capacity.

How is the Barbell Bench Press Performed?

Before the Set

Prior to starting a set of the barbell bench press, the exerciser must ensure that they are “set up” with the correct form cues and exercise mechanics so as to reduce the chance of injury and maximize pectoral muscle group activation.

This is done by retracting the shoulder blades and pinning the scapula beneath the torso, as well as arching the lower back while keeping the hips in contact with the bench. 

It is up to the exerciser’s discretion whether to raise their feet upon the bench or keep them below and in contact with the floor, though the latter will aid in the movement through the use of leg drive, thereby allowing greater amounts of weight to be utilized.

Performing the Set

To begin performing the barbell bench press, the exerciser will first position the barbell sufficiently high enough on the rack above them to allow for it to be unracked without prior extension of the elbow, which may result in injury or fatigue the triceps brachii before the set has even begun.

The exerciser must also place their hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and utilize an overhand grip so as to avoid wrist and elbow injury.

Once unracked, the exerciser will then bend the elbows and draw the bar over their sternum, squeezing the chest muscles throughout the slow and controlled repetition.

bench press muscles

The bar must touch the exerciser’s chest before they can begin to execute the concentric portion of the repetition.

Once the bar has made contact with the sternum, the exerciser may then extend their elbows by squeezing the deltoids and chest - which should have the intended effect of raising the barbell back to its original position over their torso.

This completes a single repetition of the barbell bench press, with subsequent repetitions simply requiring that the exerciser repeat the motion without needing to rerack the barbell.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Barbell Bench Press

Is the Bench Press Safe?

If performed with proper safety precautions and proper form, the bench press is considered to be a very safe exercise - with the primary concern usually being shoulder impingement issues either due to a breakdown in form or the exerciser not properly retracting their scapula during the exercise.

If performing a single repetition of maximum weight or if the exerciser is unsure of their own ability to maintain proper form, the usage of a spotter and athletic coach is advisable so as to avoid any untoward injuries from occurring.

Who Should Bench Press?

The bench press is a perfectly suitable exercise for practically any healthy individual of even novice exercise experience, with the sole exception to this being individuals with a history of wrist, shoulder, pectoral or elbow injuries - as the barbell bench press may aggravate or worsen these.

Can You Bench Press Everyday?

Whether or not an exerciser can bench press on a daily basis will depend on many factors, such as their own training experience, their goals, their diet and the intensity of the exercises in their training program.

For exercisers utilizing a low level of intensity, it is possible to perform the barbell bench press on a daily basis - so long as a proper diet and preparatory work are followed, as anything less will affect the capacity of their joints and musculature to recover.

As a general rule, however, bench pressing everyday is not advisable and may result in jury or overtraining, as the body requires time to recover between workout sessions - which also aids in the development of strength gains and muscle mass, something that may be lost if the muscle is not given sufficient time to recover.

Common Mistakes of the Barbell Bench Press

Though the bench press has relatively simplistic form, certain mistakes are commonplace, even in more advanced weightlifters who otherwise have an excellent understanding of proper exercise mechanics. These mistakes may reduce the training stimulus accrued during the bench press, or even place the exerciser at risk of injury in the worst case.

As such, these common mistakes must be corrected as soon as possible, especially in novice exercisers that may develop improper lifting habits that can affect them in the future.

Wrist Collapsing

Unless utilizing a proper overhand grip with a tight wrist, the exerciser may find that their wrist begins to pronate beneath the weight of the bar - potentially spraining it and may even causing the barbell to slip and strike the exerciser.

For exercisers whose wrists are not sufficiently strong enough to support the full weight of the barbell during the bench press, the usage of additional weightlifting equipment such as wrist wraps may be effective - or a simple modification in their grip technique.

Raising Hips Off Bench

More an issue in high level strength athletes or exercisers attempting a one repetition maximum, raising the hips off the bench reduces the stability of the torso and reduces recruitment of the pectoral muscle group, resulting in less muscular hypertrophy in the chest.

Though the lower back must arch off the bench during the bench press, the hips and buttocks must remain in contact with it instead - an important form cue commonly broken by exercisers wishing to reduce the total range of motion of the exercise.

Bouncing Bar Off Chest

Another common mistake made during the barbell bench press, the exerciser “bouncing” the bar off their chest instead of pausing as it makes contact with the sternum or pectorals can result in not only reduced isometric muscular contraction but also potentially injure the exerciser’s ribcage and elbows.

In order to avoid doing this, the exerciser should hold the barbell against their chest for a full count before beginning the concentric portion of the repetition - thereby improving the quality of their training stimulus and reducing the risk of injury.

References

1. Larsen Stian, Gomo Olav, van den Tillaar Roland "A Biomechanical Analysis of Wide, Medium, and Narrow Grip Width Effects on Kinematics, Horizontal Kinetics, and Muscle Activity on the Sticking Region in Recreationally Trained Males During 1-RM Bench Pressing" Frontiers in Sports and Active Living VOLUME 2 (2021)(https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fspor.2020.637066) DOI: 10.3389/fspor.2020.637066 ISSN=2624-9367

2. Mausehund, Lasse1; Werkhausen, Amelie1; Bartsch, Julia2; Krosshaug, Tron2 Understanding Bench Press Biomechanics—The Necessity of Measuring Lateral Barbell Forces, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: February 04, 2021 - Volume - Issue - doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003948

3. Algra, Bruce An In-Depth Analysis of the Bench Press, National Strength Coaches Association Journal: October 1982 - Volume 4 - Issue 5 - p 6-13

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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