How—and Why—to Do a Bench Press

Last updated: 27 January 2021

By Nike Training

There's a reason the question "How much can you bench?" is common gym speak. The barbell bench press, one of the "big three" in powerlifting, builds serious upper-body strength and—you guessed it—power, thanks to the number of muscle fibres it activates with every rep. Ready to give the boss move a go—or polish yours to perfection? Nike Master Trainer Betina Gozo is here to spot you.

Muscles You'll Work

The bench press is basically a loaded push-up on your back, training your chest (the pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, serratus anterior and subclavius muscles), shoulders, triceps and abs to work in unison. The muscles along your spine (erector spinae), as well as your lats and rotator cuffs support the lift whether you're hoisting a barbell or set of dumbbells.

Why You Should Be Doing a Bench Press

  1. You'll improve overall upper-body strength, making all kinds of pushing exercises, including push-ups, shoulder presses and moving furniture, feel easier.
  2. Because the bench press engages so many muscles at once, it can help you build muscle mass and see definition quicker than most upper-body exercises. Volume and load will heavily dictate your results, so fine-tune your routine for your goals (more on that below).
  3. Large, compound resistance moves like this also improve bone health, which declines as you age.

When to Do It

The bench press should be reserved for strength- and mass-focused workouts. Take your time and focus on your form. If you want to build strength or muscle, start with 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps with a weight that feels challenging but doable for the last 3 to 5 reps. After a couple of weeks, increase the weight and drop to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps. Then, in another two to three weeks, increase the weight again and decrease reps to 3 sets of 6 to 10 reps. If you're looking to develop power, try 3 to 5 sets of 1 to 3 reps at a weight that feels very challenging for every rep.

How to Do a Barbell Bench Press

  1. Lie face up on a bench with your legs bent, your feet flat on the floor, and a barbell racked above your face, to start.
  2. Grab the barbell with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder width. Pull your shoulders back and down, brace your core, arch your back so your low back is off the bench, press your glutes into the bench and push through your feet.
  3. Extend your arms to unrack the barbell, then slowly move your straight arms forwards until the barbell is above your chest, to start. Lower the bar, bending your arms with elbows at a 45- to 70-degree angle, until the bar grazes your chest.
  4. Push the barbell back to the starting position. That's 1 rep.
  5. Repeat, then rack the barbell.

Quick PSA: Use a Spotter

When the weight gets heavy, make sure you have a partner to help you unrack the bar, get it into the right position and lend a hand if you struggle to press the weight. Because you're lying down and unable to move quickly, you're at a greater risk of injury.

Make It Easier

Lighten the load by using an empty barbell (meaning don't add weight plates; a typical women's barbell is about 16 kilograms, while a typical men's barbell weighs 20 kilograms—so it's still something. Or you could lift dumbbells instead, but note that heavy DBs may be even more challenging because your stronger side can't compensate to help you heft the weight. If the range of motion is tricky for you, do a floor press by lying face up on the floor and lowering your arms until your triceps hit the floor.

Make It Harder

Try an incline bench press, where you perform the move on a bench raised to a 45-degree angle. This variation is more taxing on your shoulders.

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Proper Bench Press Form and Muscles Worked

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Proper Bench Press Form and Muscles Worked

Join Nike Training Club

Get access to our world-class experts and trainers for help staying active and healthy.

Originally published: 27 January 2021

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