The bench press is the world’s most best-known chest exercise. Every Monday, all over the world, eager lifters line up for their shot on this coveted piece of gym-real estate. It’s the first question people (okay, usually just other dudes) want to know: How much you bench? The bench is a staple lift, and it’s not going anywhere. To even question it is practically gym-heresy.
What about results? If we can be objective, there are many lifters with great bench presses but surprisingly average physiques. Most of these lifters will never powerlift competitively, and most aren’t chasing pure strength for strength’s sake – they’re adding weight to their bench in the hope of adding muscle to their chests. And while bench press numbers keep going up, the muscle part may not be following suit.
Meanwhile, you may have noticed some of the most muscular people in the weight room rarely stopping at the bench press.
Now, if you’re solely interested in building raw strength in the bench press and could care less about looks, our hats are off to you. You’re a pure lifter in the truest sense of the word, and you have our respect -- But this article is not for you.
The info that follows is for the overwhelming majority who are trying to increase strength, improve their athleticism, and maybe, just maybe, build an awesome physique in the process.
So, what’s the deal with the bench press?
New research has found that the more weight is added to the bench press, the less the chest works.
Worse, if bench press is on the menu, your “Chest Day” might really be “Arm Day”. Confused? Read on.
The study in question, published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, measured muscle activity during the bench press in the chest (pectoralis major), front delts (anterior deltoids), triceps (triceps brachii) and even the lats (technically a back muscle, the latissimus dorsi, better known as the “wings”).
The study is unique in how accurately it was able to measure muscle use as well as in it's ability to capture data from each muscle in real-time, through the entire bench press range of motion. In short, it's not just "another study". This is worth getting excited about.
The influence of each muscle was examined using 70% and 100% of the athletes’ One Rep Max (1RM, or the heaviest weight they could lift for one, unassisted rep), representing the "rep weight" manner of benching used by bodybuilders, as well as the all out, max effort style of pressing used by powerlifters.
So, now that we can clearly see what’s going on in there during the bench press: What’s the verdict?
Despite the Barbell Bench Press’s reputation as the king of chest exercises, the data tells a different story. The researchers found that the force produced by the chest was never as great as that of the triceps.
For all the hype it gets, the bench press is first and foremost a triceps exercise.
When the athletes really stacked on the plates and moved on from 70% to 100% of their 1RM, the picture became even clearer. And weirder.
When the athletes bench pressed the greater weight, the triceps again took center stage. However, the additional weight (going from 70% of 1RM up to 100% of 1RM) was lifted due to increased activation of the front delts and lats.
Meanwhile, chest activity dropped – even lower than when the lighter weight was used.
It’s theorized that the lats (back) and the chest are neurologically wired as opposing muscle groups, and the body prefers to reduce the use of one as it activates the other. This accounts for the chest contracting less as the lats work to stabilize and lift the heavier, 1 Rep Max weight.
The final blow to the bench press’s reputation as a chest exercise? When lifting max weight, the chest is the least active of all the major muscle groups firing.
The bench press didn’t just get outworked by the triceps. It pretty much got outworked by everything. Even at the chest-touching bottom of the rep, activation of the front delts was responsible for moving more of the weight than the pecs.
The problem isn’t with pressing; it’s the barbell itself. Because the hands are positioned at a fixed distance from one another on the bar, the pecs are not able to generate anywhere near their force potential.
Based on the biomechanics and directionality of the muscle fibers of the pectorals, the pecs are better suited to pressing movements that involve bringing the hands closer together at the top (as is possible with dumbbells or cables).
The barbell also decreases the range of motion possible at the bottom (when the bar hits the chest) and eliminates rotation while pressing, which can greatly increase growth in the upper pecs.
It’s important to recognize that not everyone is equally (or solely) interested in building a bigger chest. Benching isn’t bad, or dangerous, and it’s an incredible lift for upper body strength. It also works a variety of different muscles all at the same time.
If you’re interested in competitive lifting, no amateur or professional organization in the world cares how much you Dumbbell Bench, Flye, or can move on the cables or other machine. Bench is the only lift that matters. They’re not concerned with pec development or which muscles are pushing the weight – simply the total amount of weight you can move.
Some sports, particularly football, use the bench press as a specific measurement of upper body strength. Dream of crushing the Combine and making it into the NFL? You damn sure better bench and bench often.
And finally, even from a bodybuilding/physique perspective, the bench press will absolutely add mass to the chest and upper body. Consider the deadlift, which works damn near every muscle, and has helped build some of the best backs in bodybuilding history. Most wouldn’t abandon the deadlift simply because it doesn’t activate the lats as much as pull ups do.
The point is, the chest is still working during the bench press – just not the way (or nearly as much) as most people think it does.
Variations such as the dumbbell bench press (flat bench press performed using individual dumbbells, see pic above), guillotine presses (ultra-wide barbell bench presses with the bar lowered to the collar bone area, see pic above), and machine flyes and/or cable crossovers (okay, not pictured, but they feel like that though, right?) are all better at building the chest than the traditional barbell bench press.
Also, after spilling a lot of digital ink on lifting the weight, it’s only fair we mention lowering it. Chest activation was higher during the lowering phase, as the chest worked to slow the bar’s descent.
The bench press is still the gold standard for pressing strength. While it may not be the cure-all chest movement many believe it is, don’t swear off the barbell bench press. It has its uses. Just don’t make it your go-to chest movement if pec development is a priority.