Is the Bench Press Good for Building Muscle?

Is the Bench Press Good for Building Muscle?

There is no more popular exercise in the gym than the bench press. But is the bench press good for building muscle? This article is here to help you answer that question.

The bench press is an excellent exercise for building muscle, provided it is performed correctly. You want a full range of motion, good tempo, and a weight that is challenging yet possible to perform without cheating. Added to a well-designed training and nutrition program, the bench press will help you build larger pectorals, deltoids, and triceps.

As you can see, I am a big fan of the bench press and all of its variations (incline, dumbbell, close-grip). But too often, the bench press is performed incorrectly by people trying to max out their personal best and playing to their ego. Performed poorly, the bench press will fail to build muscle properly and could even lead to injury.

Is the Bench Press Good for Building Muscle?

When performed correctly, there are few upper body exercises that are better for building muscle than the bench press. The bench press will target your pectoral muscles, while also working your deltoids and triceps.

Sadly, for a variety of reasons many lifters fail to perform the bench press correctly. The most common reason? Ego. The desire to out-bench everyone else. For some reason, people still think that lifting a very heavy weight with bad technique is somehow more impressive than lifting a lighter weight with perfect technique. The bench press is so good that even badly performed reps will build muscle, but not as well (or as safely) as you would get from perfect form.

There are many types of bench press that you can learn, and while they each offer unique advantages and disadvantages, all of them will mainly target the pectoral muscles with more or less focus on deltoids and triceps depending on your grip width or the angle of the press.

Different Types of Bench Press

There are many different types of bench press out there, and it would be pointless trying to name all of the minute variations out there. So, here are some of the most common and (in my opinion) most effective variations:

Flat Dumbbell Bench Press

How to Perform: Sit on an exercise bench with a dumbbell in each hand, resting each dumbbell on your knees. Raise one knee up at a time, pushing the dumbbells up to shoulder height. Then lower yourself back so that you are lying flat on the exercise bench.

Flare your elbows out so that they are 45 degrees from your body and then drive the dumbbells up into the air so that the dumbbells are touching and directly above your chest. Your elbows should be very slightly bent rather than fully locked out.

Take a deep breath and then slowly lower the dumbbells down and wide until they touch the outside of your chest, then breathe out and drive the dumbbells back up in the air in an arc so that they finish in the starting position above your chest and together. That is one rep.

Muscles Worked: Pectorals (primary), triceps (secondary), deltoids (secondary)

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

How to Perform: The incline dumbbell bench press is performed very similarly to the flat dumbbell bench press. The main difference is that you need to set your exercise bench to a 45-degree incline. The higher the incline, the more this exercise targets the shoulders. But as this is primarily a chest exercise, I would advise sticking to 45-degrees.

Place a dumbbell on each knee as you sit on the exercise bench. Then raise them up to shoulder height and lie back onto the incline bench. Raise the dumbbells so that they are above your upper chest and close together, keep your elbows very slightly bent rather than locked out.

Take a deep breath and then lower the dumbbells down and wide until they are touching the outside of your pectorals. Pause, and then breathe out while driving the dumbbells upwards in an arc so that the dumbbells finish together above your chest. That is one rep.

Muscles Worked: Pectorals (primary), deltoids (secondary), triceps (tertiary)

Flat Close-Grip Dumbbell Bench Press

How to Perform: This is a decent tricep/chest exercise that is not as popular as the barbell version (see below), yet is still very effective. The close-grip dumbbell bench press is performed identically to the flat dumbbell bench press, but with two key changes.

Firstly, you hold the dumbbells using a neutral grip, meaning that when raised above your chest your palms should be facing each other. Secondly, instead of bringing your elbows out 45-degrees from your sides, you are going to keep your elbows nice and close to your sides. They should brush your sides as the dumbbells travel up and down.

Muscles Worked: Pectorals (primary), triceps (secondary), deltoids (tertiary)

Flat Barbell Bench Press

How to Perform: Lie on a barbell bench press with your eyes directly beneath the barbell. Push your chest out and pull your shoulder blades backwards to raise your chest off the bench. Grab hold of the barbell using an overhand grip, with your hands shoulder-width apart.

Place your feet flat on the ground, then pull your heels back towards you so that they are off the ground and there is tension in your quads. Push the balls of your feet down into the ground.

Raise the barbell off the stand and bring it forward so that it is directly above your chest. Take a deep breath and then lower the barbell down until it gently touches your chest. Your elbows should be 45 degrees from your sides. Pause, and then breathe out and drive the barbell back up in the air, stopping just before your arms are fully locked out. That is one rep.

Muscles Worked: Pectorals (primary), triceps (secondary), deltoids (secondary)

Incline Barbell Bench Press

How to Perform: For this exercise, you will need either a specific incline bench press or a squat rack with an incline bench. Lie on a bench with your head underneath the barbell. Push your chest out and pull your shoulder blades together. Your feet should either be flat on the floor, or they should be on the footpads (many incline bench presses have these).

Grab the barbell in an overhand grip with hands placed shoulder-width apart. Take a deep breath and then raise the barbell off the stands and bring it forward until it is directly over your upper chest. Slowly lower the barbell down until it touches your upper chest. Pause, and then breathing out, drive the barbell back up to the starting position. This is one rep.

Muscles Worked: Pectorals (primary), deltoids (secondary), triceps (tertiary)

Flat Close-Grip Barbell Bench Press

How to Perform: This exercise is amazing for working your triceps. Set yourself up exactly the same as you would for a flat barbell bench press (see above). But instead of having your hands shoulder-width apart, bring them in a little closer. Not too close, that’s a common mistake. Just one hand’s width closer for each hand.

The other difference between a close-grip and a regular flat bench press is that instead of allowing your elbows to flare outwards, you want to have them brushing against your side. This puts even more emphasis on the triceps. Which is the main purpose of this exercise.

Muscles Worked: Pectorals (primary), triceps (secondary), deltoids (tertiary)

Common Bench Press Mistakes

Now that you know some of the best bench press variations out there, here are some universal mistakes that people make when performing them. If you are making any of the following mistakes, then your ability to build muscle through the bench press will be limited.

Mistake #1 Feet off the Ground

A large amount of the power you generate in a bench press actually comes from your legs. In the same way that you need to be in a stable position to throw an effective punch. Yet so often, you see people mid-way through a bench press raising their feet off the ground.

What to Do Instead? Rather than raising your feet off the ground, when you begin to struggle you should push your feet further into the ground.

Mistake #2 Bouncing the Weight

This is more of an issue for barbell bench presses than dumbbell ones, but many people tend to bounce the barbell off their chest to create a little extra momentum. This makes the bench press a little easier but really messes up the movement. It can also hurt if you misjudge the bounce!

What to Do Instead? If you find that you are bouncing the weight then you probably don’t have confidence in the weight being used. Reduce it slightly. Then you want to slow everything down. Slowly lower the weight down to your chest, then pause for half a second to one second, before driving the barbell back up again.

Mistake #3 Poor Grip

There are so many grip issues that I could make an entire article about that alone (and may well do so in the future). The most common grip issue is using the hook grip where your thumbs are placed over the bar rather than under it.

Some lifters claim that this allows you to lift more weight, but the truth is that it makes no difference while also increasing the risk of dropping the bar on your throat. Another grip issue is having your wrist pulled backwards.

What to Do Instead? Once you have grabbed the barbell, ensure that your wrist is in a strong overhand position. Wrap your thumbs around the barbell (or dumbbell) to ensure that you have a good grip. You can use chalk (if your gym allows it) to improve your grip further, but this probably won’t be necessary.

Mistake #4 Bad Range of Motion

A full range of motion is crucial if you want to get maximum gains from the bench press. The greater the ROM, the greater the number of muscle fibres that are activated. A 2020 study by Brad Schoenfeld found that greater ROM led to increased hypertrophy in resistance exercises.

People often use a partial range of motion during a bench press because it allows them to lift a heavier weight. It’s basically cheating. While a few lifters purposefully perform half-reps as they believe that this keeps the muscle under constant tension. This isn’t really true, and in any case a full range of motion will provide better (and safer) results.

What to Do Instead? Lower the barbell or dumbbells down until they are grazing your chest. Then drive them back upwards until your arms are almost fully locked out. If you can’t manage this then lower the weight.

Mistake #5 No Spotter

While it’s pretty rare, people have died after getting stuck underneath a heavy barbell during a bench press. Anyone who has had a heavy dumbbell to the face knows that this is not an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

What to Do Instead? If you are attempting a weight that you are not entirely comfortable with, then ask someone to spot you. If there’s nobody around, then perform it in a squat rack with the safety rails on. Or in a Smith machine. With dumbbells, if you can’t get a spotter, then use lighter weights, as it is really easy to injure yourself that way.

Mistake #6 Head Raise

This one is similar to the foot raising issue mentioned earlier. When the lift gets tricky, many people tend to raise their heads off the bench in an attempt to lift the weight higher. This doesn’t work and actually loses you some power. It’s also not great for your neck and a great way to strain it.

What to Do Instead? Push your head back onto the exercise bench as hard as you can. This will help generate slightly more power and could make a difference during your lift.

Do Bodybuilders do Flat Bench?

This is a really common question, and I have absolutely no idea why. Yes, bodybuilders use the flat bench press as part of their training. It is one of the most common bodybuilding exercises. They will usually mix it up with an incline bench press, and perhaps even a decline bench.

They will also perform dips, as this is believed to be a better chest exercise, but I wouldn’t agree with that belief. Bodybuilders also enjoy the chest press machine, which is a decent alternative to the bench press, particularly if the bench is busy (Mondays, am I right?).

How Much Should a Grown Man Be Able to Bench?

This question is one asked by a lot of new lifters, and I think it comes from insecurity. Not being able to bench two plates, or even one plate is seen as some failing as a man. But that’s nonsense. Stephen Hawking was a grown man and he couldn’t bench anything. It didn’t make him any less of a man though.

I’ve trained many male clients in my life, and I would say that the average amount of weight that an untrained man can (barbell) bench is between 40 and 50kg. That’s with good form by the way. After 12-18 weeks of training, being able to lift 70-80kg would be a really good target to aim for.

Is the Bench Press Good for Building Muscle? Final Thoughts

The bench press is probably the best upper body exercise there is. It does a superb job of targeting the pectorals, while also hitting the triceps and deltoids. There are hundreds of variations available, which makes it a very accessible exercise for those with injuries, mobility issues, or for complete beginners.

To build muscle you need to be eating enough protein, managing your stress and sleep (to keep cortisol low), and exercising regularly. You also want to be performing your exercises correctly and avoiding common mistakes. If you enjoyed this article then why not check out my article on bodybuilding and cardio?

About the Author Matt Smith

Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.

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