Evidence-Based Fitness: The Bench Press

The bench press is a popular exercise selected by personal trainers to develop pressing strength and hypertrophy of the pectorals (chest).  Evidence-based fitness provides insight into how the bench press can be varied to maximise development of this muscle group.





The bench press is widely prescribed by personal trainers to develop muscular strength or hypertrophy in the pectorals.  Developing an understanding of the anatomy and function of the pectorals is a pre-requisite for identifying exercises that prove effective for muscle activation.  Furthermore, evidence-based exercise can assist personal trainers in expanding their knowledge of the bench press and variations (grip width, bench angles, technique, implement) that can influence muscle activation, movement pattern, and power and force.




Pectoralis Major

The pectoral muscles include the pectoralis major and minor.  The pectoralis major is then divided into two parts:


  1. The clavicular head situated on the collar bone
  2. The strenocostal head situated on the sternum and upper six ribs.



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Pectoralis Major



Collectively, the pectoralis major functions to adduct (move toward the body) and medially rotate (rotating toward the body) the upper arm (humerus).  Independently, the clavicular head flexes the upper arm and the sternocostal head extends the upper arm.



Pectoralis Minor

The pectoralis minor sits beneath the pectoralis major and functions to protract (extend forward) the upper arm.



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Pectoralis Minor



Influence of Bench Press Angle



A number of studies have examined the effect of altering bench press angle on muscle activation of the pectoralis major clavicular and sterncostal head.


Sternocostal Head



Research investigating pectorals major muscle activity in varied bench press angles show that the strenocostal head of the pectorals major is activated to a greater extent at lower inclinations (0° to -18°) [7, 3].  Lauver and colleagues (2015) used surface electromyography to examine muscle activity of pectoralis major and showed that bench press angles of 0° and -15° (decline) were more effective for activating the sternocostal head of the pectorals major (100.1 ± 5.2% and 100.4 ± 5.7%) when compared with the clavicular head [3].  In support, Trebs and colleagues (2010) tested bench press angles of at 0° (flat bench), 28°, 44°, and 56° using 70% of 1-repetition maximum for each angle and found that sternocostal head of the pectorals major showed significantly more activation at 0° compared to greater inclinations [7].



Clavicular Head



The literature demonstrates a clear advantage to using greater inclinations (30°- 56°) for increased activation of the clavicular head of the pectorals major.  Trebs and colleagues (2010) showed that the bench press performed at inclinations of 44° and 56° activated the clavicular head of the pectoralis major to a greater extent than lower inclinations (0° and 28°) [7].  Likewise, Lauver and colleagues (2015) found that greater clavicular head activation were achieved at bench press angles of 30° (122.5 ± 10.1%) and 45° (124 ± 9.1%) compared to lower angles of 0° (98.2 ± 5.4%) and –15 (96.1 ± 5.5%) [3].



Influence of Bench Press Grip Width



In determining grip widths to maximise muscle recruitment of the pectoralis major, there is evidence demonstrating that a mid grip, defined by 100% shoulder width, and wider grip, defined by 200% shoulder width increases activation of the clavicular head [4].  Lehman (2005) showed greater sternocostal head activation in moving from a narrow grip, defined by a hands width apart, to a mid or wide grip in the flat bench press [4].  Also, there is evidence indicating that bringing the hands closer together in the bench press increases muscle activity of the clavicular head of the pectorals major [1].  Barnett and colleagues (1995) found increased clavicular head activity using a narrow grip, defined by 100% shoulder width, compared to using a wide grip, defined by 200% shoulder width [1].  Also, there is convincing evidence indicating that narrowing the grip in the bench press further increases triceps brachii activity [1, 4].



Influence of Equipment 



It is common for personal trainers to utilise the Smith-machine for client performance of the bench press. However, the literature indicates there may be benefit to using free weights (barbell and dumbbells) may enhance pectoralis major muscle activity compared to a Smith-machine for the bench press.  Saeterbakken and colleagues (2011), found pectoralis major activity was greater during the eccentric phase of a barbell and dumbbell bench press compared to a Smith-machine bench press [5].  Stability requirements are much lower in the Smith-Machine, which creates a one-dimensional movement pattern, therefore increased muscle activity during the eccentric phase of a barbell or dumbbell bench press is likely due to an increased requirement for stabilisation [5].  Furthermore, Schick and colleagues (2010) showed greater muscle activation of the medial deltoid using the free weight bench press compared to Smith-machine [6].



Bench Press Technique [2]







Set up:


  • Set shoulders in a stable position with the shoulder blades retracted and depressed
  • Plant feet in a stable position while driving them into the floor during the press creating full body tension
  • For increased pectoralis major activation place hands 100% or 200% shoulder width. Use close grip (12 inches apart) to target triceps
  • Take a braced breath before the lift, if lifting maximally or near maximally
  •  Un-rack the barbell by pulling the bar out with the lats, rather than pushing the bar up



Pressing and Lowering:


  • Start the movement by breaking at the elbows and tucking them at a ~45° angle relative to the body
  • At the bottom position, the bar should touch around the upper abdomen and lower chest
  • Explode off the chest by pressing the body back into the bench, flattening the back and think about “pressing away from the back
  • Lockout the movement by extending the triceps


Common Errors:


  • Allowing excessive elbow flare
  • Not maintaining a braced bench press position
  • Allowing shoulders to come out of a stable position
  • Not utilising leg drive
  • Bouncing the bar off the chest
  • Not maintaining neutral wrist position



Practical Applications



Personal trainers commonly prescribe the bench press to develop pressing strength and target the pectoralis major.  The application of evidence-based fitness helps personal trainers to manipulate bench press variations (grip width, bench angles, technique, implement) according to the desired goal and more importantly provide reasoning behind exercise prescription.  Varying bench angle is a simple, yet highly effective, strategy for targeting the different heads of the pectoralis major.  Similarly, personal trainers should place strong emphasis on instilling proper bench press technique with their clients, providing demonstrations for instruction and making them aware of common errors within the exercise.







[1] Barnett, C. et al. 1995. Effects of variations of the bench press exercise on the EMG activity of five shoulder muscles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. November. Vol. 9, No. 4, pp. 222-227.


[2] Contreras, B. 2014. 2 x 4: The Most Effective Training Program for Maximum Strength and Muscle. Bret Contreras Training Systems.


[3] Lauver, J. D. et al. 2015. Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise. European Journal of Sports Science. April. Vol. 16, No. 3, pp. 309-316.


[4] Lehman, G. J. 2005. The influence of grip width and forearm pronation/supination on upper body myoelectric activity during the flat bench press.  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. August. Vol. 19, No. 3, pp. 587-591.


[5] Saeterbakken et al. 2011. A comparison of muscle activity and 1-RM strength of three chest-press exercises with different stability requirements. Journal of Sports Science. March. Vol. 29, No. 5, pp. 533-538.


[6] Schick et al. 2010. A comparison of muscle activation between a Smith machine and free weight bench press. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. March. Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 779-784.


[7] Trebs, A. A. et al. 2010. An electromyography analysis of 3 muscles surrounding the shoulder joint during the performance of a chest press exercise at several angles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. July, Vol. 24, No. 7, pp. 1925-1930.




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