What Muscles Does Bench Press Work – Diagrams, Guides & Variations

Here, we cover the muscles worked during bench press and variations of bench presses. Understanding which muscles are working and how they function during the lift, can help you plan your training, train more efficiently and result in better outcomes targeting strength, power or muscle growth. 

What muscles do bench press work? 

The main muscles worked during bench press include the chest, shoulder and arm muscles, more specifically: 

  • Pectoralis major and minor (chest muscles)
  • Anterior deltoids (shoulder muscle) 
  • Triceps brachii (arm muscle)

The bench press also works the serratus anterior and latissimus dorsi, but to a lesser extent than the muscles above. 

Labelled diagram of the muscles worked during bench press
Labelled diagram of the main muscles worked during bench press

Check out this article on what muscles push ups work if you want to know how this compares to other chest exercise

In-depth analysis: how each muscle works during bench press

Pectoralis major and minor

The “pecs,” otherwise known as your chest muscles, are the primary muscles worked during the bench press. They are responsible for the horizontal adduction of the shoulder joint, effectively bringing the arm across the body.

These muscles work concentrically (your muscles are getting shorter and working hard) when you push the weight up and eccentrically (the muscles are getting longer as they relax) as you lower the barbell back down to the chest.

Anterior deltoid

The anterior deltoids, which are the muscles in the front part of your shoulders, work during shoulder flexion, meaning, they bring the arms straight overhead from the front and team up with the pecs to help push the barbell away from the chest. 

Triceps brachii

Your triceps bracii, the muscles on the back of your upper arm, play a role in extending or straightening your elbow. They help to push the barbell away from your body during the bench press, especially when you’re locking your elbows out towards the top half of the press.  

Variations of the bench press & muscles worked

Different variations of the bench press target muscles in slightly different ways, each offering unique benefits. Understanding these subtleties can enhance the effectiveness of your workout programming when aiming to target specific muscles.

Incline bench press 

In an incline bench press, the bench is set at an angle – usually between 30 and 45 degrees – forcing you to push the barbell upwards at an incline. 

The incline bench press places greater emphasis on the upper chest (or pecs), making it an excellent choice for developing the chest muscles.

Decline bench press

The decline bench press is performed with the bench set at a negative angle, typically around 15 to 30 degrees. This variation targets the lower pec muscle more intensely.

Close-grip bench press

In this variation, your hands are positioned closer together on the barbell – usually shoulder-width or closer. 

This hand positioning shifts the emphasis from the pecs to the triceps and is a great way to focus on triceps development. The pecs and anterior deltoids are still involved, but play a secondary role. 

Wide-grip bench press

With a wider-than-shoulder-width grip, the wide-grip bench press targets the pecs more than the triceps. This shift in your grip can place more stress on the shoulder joint, so it’s best to avoid it if you have shoulder issues. 

Dumbbell bench press

Using dumbbells instead of a barbell can provide a greater range of motion and allow for more natural movement patterns. It also demands more stabilisation from secondary muscles like the serratus anterior and the latissimus dorsi. The primary muscles – pecs, triceps and anterior deltoids – are still heavily involved. 

Smith machine bench press

Performed on a smith machine, this variation allows for a more controlled motion. While it still engages the primary muscle groups, it demands less stabilisation, as the bar travels along fixed vertical tracks. This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on your training goals. 

How to perform the bench press: a step-by-step guide

Performing the bench press correctly is essential for maximising muscle engagement and minimising the risk of injury. Below are detailed steps to guide you through the process: 

1. Set up the bench and barbell: Ensure the bench is flat and stable. Load the barbell with the appropriate weight and secure the plates with collars.

2. Position your body: Lie flat on the bench with your feet flat on the floor. Your eyes should be directly under the barbell.

3. Hand placement: Reach up and grasp the barbell with a grip slightly wider than shoulder-width. Your palms should be facing away from you.

4. Prepare to lift: Plant your feet firmly on the ground, engage your core, and retract your shoulder blades to create a stable base.

5. Unrack the bar: With a controlled motion, lift the barbell off the rack and bring it to a position above your chest, arms fully extended. This is your starting position.

6. Lower the bar: Slowly lower the bar towards your chest. Your elbows should form about a 90-degree angle at the bottom of the lift. This is where the pectorals work eccentrically.

7. Pause: Briefly pause at the bottom, allowing the bar to almost touch your chest.

8. Push up: Explosively push the barbell back to the starting position, fully extending your arms. During this phase, your pectorals and triceps work concentrically.

9. Complete the reps: Perform the desired number of repetitions while maintaining good form.

10. Rack the bar: Safely rack the barbell back into the bench press rack.

11. Rest and repeat: Take adequate rest between sets and repeat as needed.

Bench press alternatives – body weight at home

If you can’t get to the gym or don’t have access to a bench press set-up, here are some bodyweight alternatives:

Deficit push ups

Deficit push-ups are a variation of the traditional push-up that involves elevating your hands on a platform or object by 2-4 inches, creating a greater range of motion for your chest (pecs), shoulders (anterior delts) and tricep muscles to work through, which create greater muscle growth and strength development in those areas.

Push ups Vs bench press

Both exercises are pushing movement patterns that can be used to develop strength in the chest, shoulders and triceps.

In the bench press, you’re supported by a bench, which provides stability as you lift, enabling you to place greater emphasis on your chest muscles (pecs) and allowing you to lift more weight to develop maximum strength. 

Conversely, the push-up demands more active engagement for stabilisation to maintain a plank-like position throughout the exercise. Push ups are excellent for developing “robustness,” also known as muscular endurance, and they are also effective for building strength during a controlled descent of 3-5 seconds when using a weighted vest, backpack or plate placed on the back.

Programming for bench press

The bench press is best suited for athletes who already have some experience with strength and conditioning. You can use it as a tool to develop strength, size (hypertrophy) and power of the upper body, specifically for pushing movements. Below, you’ll find sets and reps to target these training goals: 

Strength for bench press

The bench press can be completed using 3-5 sets with 1-60 reps at above 80% of your one repetition max to develop strength in athletes, progressing from week to week to create adaptation. 

Hypertrophy for bench press

Completing 3-6 sets of 6-12 reps at around 60-80% of your one repetition max is effective for improving muscle growth. Training to failure or eccentrically focused repetitions (where the downward phase of the movement is completed slower) are also effective for hypertrophy, but make sure to have a spotter and perform them with excellent technique when going close to failure. 

Power for bench press 

Completing 3-5 sets of 1-5 repetitions at around 65-85% of 1RM with the intent of moving as quickly as possible on the upwards phase, or only pushing the bar upwards off the pins, will stimulate the development of power on the bench press. 

What muscles does bench press work: frequently asked questions

Does bench press work triceps? 

Yes, the bench press does work the triceps, primarily during the pushing phase of the lift. The triceps are responsible for elbow extension, which is a crucial part of the bench press movement. They work concentrically as you push the bar away from your chest and eccentrically as you lower it back down. If you want to focus even more on the triceps, consider variations like the close-grip bench press.

Does bench press work shoulders?

Yes, the anterior deltoids are engaged during the bench press. They assist in the shoulder flexion aspect of the movement, helping you lift the weight off your chest. These muscles work both concentrically and eccentrically throughout the exercise. However, it’s important to note the bench press doesn’t engage your side or rear delt shoulder muscles as much. 

Does bench press work biceps?

Contrary to popular belief, the bench press is not a significant bicep exercise. The primary muscles worked are the pectorals, triceps, and anterior deltoids. The biceps act more as stabilizers during this exercise but are not actively engaged in lifting the weight. If you are looking to target your biceps, there are other exercises more suited for that, such as bicep curls.

Does bench press work back?

While the bench press is primarily a chest and triceps exercise, it does require a stable and engaged upper back for proper execution. Your rhomboids, traps, and lats are isometrically engaged to provide stability during the lift. However, they are not the main focus of this exercise and are considered secondary or stabilizing muscles.

How wide should you grip the bar?

The grip width can vary based on your body structure and lifting goals. However, a grip slightly outside your shoulder-width is generally recommended for a standard bench press. This grip allows for a good range of motion and effective muscle engagement. Too wide a grip can put excessive strain on your shoulders, while a too-narrow grip will shift more of the work to your triceps.

Muscles used at the bottom of the bench?

At the bottom of the bench press, your pec muscles are heavily engaged. This is the portion of the exercise where these muscles are stretched the most, preparing to contract and lift the weight. The pectorals work concentrically as you push the bar back up.

Is bench pressing bad for your shoulders?

If performed incorrectly, the bench press can put strain on your shoulders, particularly the rotator cuff muscles. Make sure to keep your elbows at a 45- to 60-degree angle to your body, rather than flared out to the sides, to minimize shoulder strain. Always prioritize form over lifting heavier weights.

Should your elbows be close to your body or out to the sides?

Keeping your elbows too flared out can put unnecessary strain on your shoulder joints and rotator cuff muscles. Conversely, tucking your elbows too close to your body may shift more of the load to your triceps. A balanced approach is to keep your elbows at about a 45- to 60-degree angle from your torso.

Summary

The bench press stands out as an excellent choice for athletes that have some strength and conditioning experience and are seeking to enhance their strength, size or power in the chest (pec), shoulder (anterior deltoid) and arm (tricep), particularly for pushing movements. 

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Emily, co-founder of Sport Science Insider, graduated from the University of Leeds in 2020 and went on to become an accredited S&C coach with the UKSCA in 2022. A former athlete herself, Emily has since gone on to deliver S&C coaching for the Southern Academy of Sport, GB Rowing, GB Taekwondo and works currently as a full-time S&C coach at the University of Leeds.

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Will is a sport scientist and golf professional who specialises in motor control and motor learning. Will lecturers part-time in motor control and biomechanics, runs Golf Insider UK and consults elite athletes who are interested in optimising their training and performance.