Chest Press vs Bench Press: The Differences Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
May 12, 2022

In terms of chest building compound exercises, there are few as effective and widespread as the chest press and the bench press - both of which are considered to be excellent exercises that fulfill much the same general training purposes.

However, due to the similarity in their apparent form and muscle group activation pattern, some confusion may be found in which exercise to use for the purposes of achieving the exerciser’s training goals.

The particular answer to this question will depend on a multitude of factors such as available equipment, the exerciser’s athletic experience, their goals, as well as what sort of training stimulus they wish to induce.

Fortunately, both the chest press and the bench press are nonetheless suitable exercises in their own rights - making either one a fitting choice, so long as it is in the correct circumstance.

What is the Chest Press?

The chest press is a compound exercise that makes use of a resistance machine wherein the exerciser sits upright and pushes a pair of handles away from their torso via shoulder and arm extension, recruiting such muscle groups as the pectorals, triceps brachii, serratus and deltoids to a significant extent.

chest press machine

The machine of the chest press is often dubbed a variety of names that, roughly, all equate to the same exercise; be it the chest press machine, machine press, seated chest press or horizontal press machine.

Generally, the chest press allows for a constant time under tension and high level of customization due to its usage of a specially purposed exercise machine - two factors that are difficult or to achieve with the usage of free weight exercises that activate the same muscle groups as the chest press itself.

What is the Bench Press?

The bench press is also a compound exercise, though one that makes use of free weight resistance equipment in order to induce an impressive level of muscle hypertrophy and other forms of training stimulus to the chest and nearby muscle groups.

barbell bench press

The bench press is among one of the most common exercises performed, and is generally seen as a particularly special upper body exercise in regards to its muscle building and strength developing capacities.

It is noted for best excelling in building upper body push strength in much the same muscle groups as one would find in the chest press, making them quite comparable if simple muscle group activation is all that one is looking for.

Is the Chest Press as Good as the Bench Press?

Though the chest press serves its own purpose as a machine based upper body compound exercise, many exercisers find themselves comparing it to the bench press in terms of training results and efficiency - citing such matters like reduced stabilizer muscle group usage as one of the reasons why the chest press is generally an inferior exercise.

However, this is the wrong frame from which to look at it, as the bench press and the chest press are in fact two different exercises that may only substitute the other in rather specific circumstances.

Knowing this, one may surmise that the chest press is as good as the bench press within the context of matching its muscle group activation pattern, and perhaps even superior in certain other aspects of training, such as equipment modularity and protection against injury.

All this adds up to it being entirely up to the exerciser’s own discretion in order to decide which exercise is superior for reaching their goals.

Muscle Group Activation of the Chest Press and Bench Press

The specific muscle groups activated by the chest press and the bench press are in fact nearly identical - save for the fact that the chest press will generally utilize stabilizer muscle groups to a far less significant extent due to its nature as a machine based exercise.

Despite this, they both share the same primary mover muscles; namely those of the pectoralis major and minor, the triceps brachii, and the deltoids with a particular focus on the anterior or front-facing head of said deltoid muscles.

Depending on the hand positioning, grip type and angle of resistance involved in the chest press exercise and how its corresponding machine is set up, other muscle groups may also be recruited, such as in the case of the biceps, trapezius and latissimus dorsi muscles also being recruited during specific modulations of the exercise.

Range of Motion of the Chest Press and Bench Press

Range of motion is a vital mechanic of practically any exercise concerning induced muscular hypertrophy, with larger ranges of motion noted for inducing a longer time under tension that targets the slow twitch muscle fibers in a manner similar to high repetition volume training stimulus.

The range of motion of an exercise and how limited it may be can also affect the relative risk of injury involved in said exercise, as movements with a very limited range of motion - either due to equipment or simple biomechanics - are less likely to result in sudden injuries caused by overextension or excessive tension.

This is noticeable when comparing the range of motion between the chest press and the bench press, wherein the chest press machine itself acts as a limiter on the range of motion the exerciser will be able to utilize - preventing them from injuring themselves to an extent, but also somewhat reducing the training stimulus due to the more narrow angle of resistance possible.

Angle of Resistance of the Chest Press and Bench Press

The bench press is generally performed with the exerciser lowering the barbell to their chest, usually along the sternum so as to retain the best possible stability and reduce the risk of shoulder injuries during the exercise.

This produces an angle of resistance that causes the elbows to flare out and the scapula to depress, requiring the exerciser to exert force so as to retain proper form and prevent injury.

These risks are otherwise not present at all during the chest press, as the exercise is performed with the exerciser sitting in an upright position, with the majority of the resistance held in suspension by the machine itself - thereby allowing the exerciser to maintain proper exercise mechanics without undue stress.

However, this also presents the drawback of significantly reducing the development of certain muscle groups that would normally receive a moderate level of training stimulus during the performance of the bench press, such as in the case of the posterior deltoid head.

Which Exercise is Safer to Perform?

Though both exercises are considered to be quite safe when performed with proper form, an appropriate amount of weight and experienced supervision by a coach - statistically, it is the bench press that is considered less safe when compared to the chest press.

This is due to a multitude of factors, though most revolve around the fact that the chest press makes use of exercise machine equipment that is specifically built with a number of safety mechanisms that greatly reduce the risk of the exerciser hurting themselves during its usage.

Such things like a significantly reduced range of motion, the self-stabilizing resistance that is characteristic of machine based exercises and even the upright position of the exerciser relative to the resistance all play a significant role in making the chest press a safer exercise than the bench press.

Knowing this, it is best for novice exercisers or individuals with a history of injuries relating to the bench press to instead forego the free weight chest exercise for its machine based counterpart - so long as appropriate stabilizer muscle accessory exercises are also utilized.

Advantages of the Bench Press

As was previously mentioned in this article, the bench press and the chest press are counterpart exercises that are only superior over the other in the context of certain situations, generally exemplified by the specific characteristics of one exercise that the other lacks.

bench press muscles

In the case of the bench press’ advantages over the chest press, this primarily revolves around its nature as a free weight movement, and the fact that it is capable of inducing certain types of training stimulus that the chest press cannot.

This makes the bench press a more suitable exercise for athletes seeking a more effective substitute for the chest press, exercisers wishing to take their training to the next level, or simply individuals who do not have access to the sort of equipment required to perform a chest press.

Larger Range of Motion

A primary disadvantage of the chest press is in its rather limited range of motion due to the path in which the machine’s handles can move in, making it both awkward to perform if positioned improperly, as well as limiting the muscle groups that may be activated - as well as the intensity of said muscle group activation.

This is not an issue in the bench press, wherein the exerciser’s only range of motion limitation is their own flexibility.

So long as proper form is maintained, the exerciser is free to move the barbell as they see fit - allowing for greater comfort in accordance with their biomechanics, as well as recruiting muscle groups to a greater extent.

Stabilizer Muscle Group Recruitment

A direct consequence of the machine based nature of the chest press is its reduced capacity to recruit smaller muscle groups in a manner known as co-contraction, something otherwise known as muscle group stabilization.

Much like a limited range of motion, the bench press does not present this particular weakness of the chest press - freely and efficiently recruiting stabilizer muscles in order to keep the exerciser’s own body in a safe and secure position as the primary mover muscles work to perform the bench press.

This will eventually result in the stabilizer muscle groups developing in size and strength to a certain extent, something greatly reduced or entirely lost during the performance of the chest press due to the difference in muscle group activation.

Advantages of the Chest Press

Just as the bench press presents certain advantages over the chest press, so too does the chest press in comparison to the bench press; a greatly reduced risk of injury and far safer handling of maximal resistance loading being a hallmark of the chest press exercise.

This makes the chest press a superior choice for exercisers with little experience in free weight movements, athletes undergoing active recovery physical rehabilitation, or individuals seeking a simpler and safer substitute for the bench press exercise.

Safety, Modularity and Comfortability

The chest press is considered significantly safer than the bench press in terms of built-in protection from injury and due to the fact that the limited range of motion of the chest press machine aids the exerciser in utilizing proper form throughout the repetition.

Even in the case of the exerciser completely failing a repetition, the manner in which the weight is suspended by the machine means that the exerciser need not fear injury by dropping the weight itself - something that is a common complaint of the bench press, with overconfident exercisers becoming pinned beneath the barbell.

Though such benefits are a direct result of the fact that the chest press is performed with a machine specifically built to be safe for usage - it is also because of the upright position the exerciser is seated in, providing less direct force against the torso and thus reducing the strain placed on the clavicles, shoulder joints, elbow joints and scapula.

Higher Maximal Load

As a direct extension of the high modularity and excellent safety of the chest press, the exerciser will also find themselves capable of moving amounts of weight far higher than they would be capable of with the traditional bench press.

This can allow the exerciser and their central nervous system to become accustomed to high levels of resistance without the usual ensuing risk of injury - or even allow for a higher intensity of muscle group activation, if specifically targeting the triceps brachii or pectoralis muscle group.

Conclusion

It has been established in this article that the chest press and the bench press each have their place in an exerciser’s training routine, and as such do not necessarily preclude the presence of the other in said training routine.

Keeping this in mind, it is entirely advisable for athletes and other kinds of exercisers to combine the two in order to achieve their training goals in an efficient, safe, and stimulating capacity that is otherwise not possible if choosing only one compound chest movement.

Regardless of whether one chooses to use one over the other (or both), the chest press and the bench press are both excellent exercises that fulfill the purpose of pectoralis muscle group development perfectly - so long as they are performed with proper form and combined with the right diet and adequate rest.

References

1. McCaw, Steven T.; Friday, Jeffrey J. A Comparison of Muscle Activity Between a Free Weight and Machine Bench Press, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: November 1994 - Volume 8 - Issue 4 - p 259-264

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. Saeterbakken AH, Andersen V, van den Tillaar R, Joly F, Stien N, et al. (2020) The effects of ten weeks resistance training on sticking region in chest-press exercises. PLOS ONE 15(7): e0235555. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0235555

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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