Maybe you’re no stranger to strength training, or perhaps you’ve never spent quality time in the weights section of your gym. Regardless, bench presses—a classic weight training exercise where you lie belly-up and press weights over your chest—can be an effective upper body exercise to add to your workouts.
Bench pressing can feel intimidating, though, and rightly so—after all, holding a heavy barbell over your vulnerable chest isn’t necessarily relaxing. But when performed correctly, bench presses can strengthen your upper body and build muscle.
Read on to find out what trainers say about bench presses, including whether or not you should try them and how you can work them into your routine.
Meet the Expert
What Are Bench Presses?
If you’re looking to build comprehensive upper body strength in just one exercise, say hello to the bench press. Bench presses look a lot like they sound; it’s an exercise usually performed while lying on a gym bench and pressing a weight up over your shoulders, says personal trainer Cameron Countryman. To do a bench press, start by picking your weights. You can bench press with a barbell, weights, kettlebells, or cables, says William Thompson, a certified personal trainer. If you’re in a pinch while working out from home, use water bottles or canned goods as stand-ins for dumbbells. Once you’ve selected your weights, hit the bench. If a bench isn’t available, you can also do the exercise lying down with your feet planted firmly on the ground.
Once you’re all set to lift, begin with your elbows a few degrees below parallel with your shoulders, coaches Countryman. Then press the weight up until your arms are fully extended above you. Do as many repetitions as feels manageable for you (that could be between three to ten reps per set) for up to three sets total. If you’re using heavy weights or barbells, try doing the exercise only when you have a spotter to make sure you can make the lifts safely and with proper form.
If you’re feeling the burn in your shoulders, chest, and back, that’s because those muscles are working hard during a bench press.
What Muscles Do Bench Presses Work?
Bench presses engage multiple upper body muscles all at once, which is why they’re such a killer move. “The bench press involves virtually every upper body muscle to some extent, making it a great bang for your buck,” says Thompson. You’ll feel the burn in your triceps, deltoid shoulder muscles, pectoral chest muscles, and latissimus dorsi back muscles, according to fitness instructor Jenny Leigh.
Because of this, bench pressing is a science-backed exercise to boost the strength and size of your upper body muscles. Research also shows that strength training exercises, including bench presses, can boost your muscle endurance by training your body to work against resistance for extended periods of time.
You can also specifically target which muscles you’re working based on how you hold your barbell or how your bench is set up, says Thompson. Hold your barbell with a wide grip to work all of the aforementioned muscles, or take a narrower grip to target your triceps and forearms. To work your upper chest and shoulders, try an incline bench press by tilting the portion of the bench that supports your back upwards so that your head is higher than your hips. Adjust your bench the opposite way for a decline bench press to challenge your lower chest muscles.
Added bonus? Perfecting your bench press will help set your body up to perform better in other parts of your workout. “Through mastering the movement, you’ll learn a lot about upper-body pressing that will carry over to other exercises and physical activities,” says Thompson.
Who Should Try Bench Presses?
Bench pressing is a great addition to any strength training routine for beginners and weightlifters alike, says Thompson, given its ability to efficiently target multiple upper-body muscles at once. If you’re new to strength training, he recommends perfecting bench pressing form with lighter weights to make sure you’ve got the movement down pat. Once you’re familiar with the equipment, the movement, and how to brace your joints and muscles, it’s safer to start pressing heavier weights. “Execution always takes priority over the weight,” he says.
If you try a bench press but it feels a bit too challenging, there are exercises you can practice to work your way up to a bench press, says Leigh. Try push-ups, tricep dips, or rows to strengthen the muscles that will one day help you crank out some solid bench presses. Starting with these exercises can prime your muscles and joints to stay steady and strong under the unfamiliar weight of a barbell, Leigh explains. “Bench presses can be a little rough on shoulder stability and mobility,” she says. “If you can’t safely lift the weight while maintaining proper form, it might be a good option to start with other exercises.” And like any fitness program, if you feel instability or pain while you press, put down the weights to try to avoid muscle strain or injury.
If you’re dealing with any wrist or shoulder injuries or weakness, hold off altogether, cautions Countryman. Bench pressing puts some serious stress on your upper body, so trying the exercise might aggravate or further injure damaged joints. Leigh also suggests checking in with your doctor before incorporating the exercise into your sweat sessions, to make sure the movement is safe for you.
How to Get Started
If bench presses sound like the upper-body burner for you, Leigh recommends starting slow as you build them into your workouts. “Build up to the bench press in a safe way,” she says. “When you do that first set of bench presses, pick a light or medium weight and keep your feet on the floor, eyes to the skies, and breathe through it.” You can also alternate bench presses with upper body-focused bodyweight drills to keep your muscles in bench-pressing shape as you adjust to the exercise.
Countryman recommends bench pressing once or twice a week so that you don’t overwork your muscles, leading to poor form or injury. He also suggests doing bench presses earlier in your workout, like right after your warm up, to make sure you have the stamina to perform the exercise safely. It’s a tough movement that engages multiple muscle groups at the same time, he notes, so prepare for your upper body to feel fatigued faster than usual.
Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Krieger J, et al. Resistance training volume enhances muscle hypertrophy but not strength in trained men. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019;51(1):94-103. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000001764