For some, the barbell bench press is considered a core exercise. It is held in the high regard of the ‘Big Two’, the squat and the deadlift for adding size to the body. Some people consider it the ‘King of Mass Builders’ for the upper body. While I wouldn’t go that far, it is a great exercise for building most of your upper body.
Let’s look at it more closely.
The barbell bench press is primarily used to build the chest muscles. Based on the normal range of motion utilized, the front deltoid and triceps are also heavily involved. There is a moderate use of your forearm muscles to stabilize the bar and your abdominal muscles to help hold your core steady. The side deltoids, lats, and traps get very minor work as stabilizers for the body and when the weight is lowered.
As this is a compound exercise, it is one of the core lifts many people use when trying to gain muscle size and strength because it can accomplish this in many muscle groups at once. Much like the shoulder press, barbell row, front row, and pull-up (or pull-down) are used as a primary lift when working the shoulders and back, the barbell bench press is almost always a staple in basic lifting programs.
Why the Barbell?
The bench press itself has a few variations. You can do a decline press (at a downward angle of 30-45 degrees typically) or an incline press (at an upward angle of 30-45 degrees). Also instead of using a bar, dumbbells can be employed in any of the inclines. But overall the barbell bench press is still the most productive option.
On a flat bench your body has the most mechanical advantage and strength to press with. The majority of the pectoral muscle can be engaged in the flat position while the incline and decline place more emphasis on the upper and lower section of the muscle.
Dumbbells are a great way to press because they involve each arm individually. They are an excellent way to work on unilateral strength. But, using a bar will allow you to press more weight because balance is not as much of a concern and your weaker side (everyone has a weaker side) is assisted by the stronger side. Lifting heavier weight typically engages more muscle fibers to promote an increase in strength and muscle size.
Barbell Bench Press Basics
Most people include a bench press exercise in their routine but you need to make sure you are doing it right. Quite a few people do it incorrectly or in an inefficient manner which limits their gains and can cause injury to the shoulders.
- Always start light to learn proper form. Sloppy form might add weight when you start training but it will catch up to you quickly.
- Your grip should be about a hands-width wider than your shoulders. When the bar is touching your chest during the motion your forearms should be perpendicular to the floor.
- Your shoulder blades should be tight together before you lift the bar off the rack. The chest should be kept up high with a slight arch (very slight) in the lower back. The hips and feet should be on the bench and floor respectively.
- Start by grabbing the bar and twisting it into place for a proper grip that feels comfortable. Unrack the bar with straight arms and hold it straight at arm’s length. A proper grip means the bar is on the palm closer to your wrists.
- Lower the bar to mid chest (nipple area) slowly and in control. Touch lightly at mid chest and then use your chest and arms to push the bar away from you as hard as you can.
- Don’t watch the bar with your eyes; pick a spot on the ceiling.
- Keep your elbows under the bar and at a comfortable angle out from your body. They should be between perpendicular and a 45 degree angle away from the ribs.
If you do it right this exercise will build a tremendous amount of size and strength in your chest, shoulders, and triceps. That is why if you had to chose only one chest exercise to perform, it would be the barbell bench press.