Bench Press for Hypertrophy: Check Your Ego and Grow Your Pecs

By Matt Walter
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Learn how to bench press for hypertrophy

I’ve waited a long time to write this article. There’s so much to benching! It’s an amazing movement, no matter your goal. And I wanted to make sure I was ready to cover everything.

No matter your goal…whether you’re training to get stronger, bigger, or just better at life, the bench press should make a regular appearance in your routine.

For this article, I am going to focus on how to perform the bench press to maximize chest growth. Mastering the technique I show you here can significantly enhance the mass-building benefits of the bench press, and reduce your risk of injury.

So, consider today Monday…Let’s get benching!

Key Takeaways

  • The technique for building muscle is different than the technique for maximizing strength gains and is crucial for making the bench press a mass-building movement.
  • Learn how to adjust your grip, setup, and tempo specifically for building muscle.
  • Consistent practice with the right technique can lead to improvements in both strength and hypertrophy.

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The 2 Barbell Bench Press Styles

Before you begin benching, you need to clearly define your goal. Are you trying to lift as much weight as possible, or are you trying to get your chest as big as you can?

Are you a powerlifter or a bodybuilder?

If you choose the powerlifting route, you’re still likely to get bigger. But, there are plenty of guys out there who don’t look like much but can benchpress a house!

On the other hand, if you choose the bodybuilding route, you’re going to have to get stronger to continually challenge your muscles and force them to grow.

But knowing your goal is going to help you choose which style of bench you want to perform. As a powerlifter, your goal is to lift as much weight as possible. How big you are doesn’t really matter. As a bodybuilder, all that matters is how you look.

I’d bench 10 pounds if it was going to make me look like Arnold.

Let’s take a quick look at how the execution of these styles differ from each other.

The Powerlifting Style Bench

The goal of the powerlifting bench press is to create mechanical advantages to lift as much weight as possible.

The goal of the powerlifting bench press is to create mechanical advantages to lift as much weight as possible.

When you perform the powerlifting style bench press, your grip on the barbell will be wider, typically beyond shoulder width. This shortens the range of motion and maximizes leverage.

Your elbows will drop down toward your hips on the descent to maximize the role your lats can play in helping get the weight off your chest.

You want to have as large an arch in your lower back as possible, creating a sort of decline bench press. Again, this creates a leverage advantage and further shortens the bar path.

For more detailed insights, researchers have explored the EMG activity of shoulder muscles during this style of bench press.

Every aspect of your form is designed to create leverage advantages so that you can move as much weight as possible.

The Bodybuilding Style Bench

The bodybuilding-style bench press is focused on muscle hypertrophy (growth).

In this style, you’d typically use a grip that’s roughly shoulder-width apart.

The emphasis here is on controlled movements with a full range of motion to maximize tension and time under load for the targeted muscle groups.

You’ll focus on both the eccentric (lowering) and concentric (lifting) phases, incorporating a slight pause at the bottom to eliminate momentum and increase muscle activation. The loaded stretch position is incredibly hypertrophic!

Bodybuilders often follow a specific routine that might vary the bench press angles and grips to target muscles differently as shown in a critical analysis of bench press types.

As opposed to powerlifting, with a bodybuilding bench, we’re trying to make the movement as hard as possible. We want a long range of motion, accentuated stretch position, and slow, controlled movements to reap the hypertrophic benefits of the eccentric phase of the movement and to maximize the muscle’s time under tension.

How to Bench Press Perfectly for Hypertrophy

When aiming for hypertrophy your bench press technique is crucial to ensure you’re working your muscles effectively. Here’s what you need to focus on:

  • Grip Width: Start with a grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width to maximally engage your chest muscles.
  • Positioning:
    • Lie down on the bench with your eyes under the barbell.
    • Pull your feet underneath your butt, causing a small arch in your back and bringing your shoulders down and back toward your feet.
      • Alternatively, you can simply plant your feet firmly on the floor.
    • Rock your shoulder blades down and back if still necessary, opening up your chest.
    • Keep your butt, upper back, and head on the bench throughout the lift.
  • Execution:
    1. Unrack the bar (you’ll likely set the bar supports lower than normal with the above setup), bringing it straight above your chest.
    2. Lower the bar in a controlled manner, pausing briefly at your chest. Keep your shoulders down and back and really open up your chest as you lower the bar. You should feel a massive stretch in your pecs!
    3. Push the bar back up powerfully, keeping your shoulder blades down and back, focusing on contracting your chest.
  • Breathing: Inhale on the way down; exhale forcefully as you push up.
  • Volume and Load: To maximize hypertrophy, aim for a moderate load where you can perform 2-5 sets of 6-12 repetitions with good form.

Remember, control is more important than the weight on the bar. Keep your movements smooth and controlled to target the muscles effectively and reduce the risk of injury.

Add in variations like the incline bench press to hit the muscle from different angles.

Consistency and progressive overload are key in your training journey. Keep challenging your muscles by gradually increasing the weight or volume as you get stronger.

The Rules of Bench Press Hypertrophy Technique

Proper technique is crucial when performing the bench press to maximize muscle engagement and reduce the risk of injury. By tailoring your grip width and paying attention to your body’s position, you can optimize your bench press performance.

Grip Width

First and foremost, your grip width should allow you to bench without causing strain or pain in your shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints.

A great starting width is where your wrists stack directly above your elbows when the bar is at your chest. Lie down on your bench and bring the barbell to your chest. Adjust your hands in or out until your wrists and elbows are stacked.

For most people, this will accomplish our primary goal, of benching without pain.

Take note of exactly where your hands are on the bar so that you can replicate this grip every time you bench (at least for the duration of your current mesocycle). Use landmarks on the barbell and note your hand position to them in your training journal.

Great barbell landmarks are the smooth and rough (knurled) sections of the bar. Note how far away your hands are from knurl lines or the smooth, center section of the bar you’re using.

Stick with this grip width until you plateau. Then, you can either abandon the barbell bench press for another variation or change your grip width and start over.

Narrow Grip Bench Press

Grip the bar narrower to involve more of your triceps.

This variation emphasizes the triceps muscle.

When performing the close grip bench press, place your hands just inside shoulder width. I set my index fingers right where the smooth, center section of the bar transitions to the knurling.

You want your hands to land just outside your chest when the barbell touches your chest. Any closer than that and you sacrifice range of motion, preventing you from fully stretching your triceps and pecs.

Medium Grip Bench Press

A medium grip aligns your forearms vertically when the bar is at chest level, targeting your chest and triceps evenly.

Wide Grip Bench Press

Choose a much wider grip to get a good stretch on your pecs and potentially involve more of your deltoids.

A wide grip bench press requires placing your hands wider than shoulder width.

Powerlifters use this width, along with bringing their elbows toward their sides to create mechanical advantages and lift more weight.

Because your goal is to build a bigger chest, try a wide grip but keep your elbows directly beneath the bar as you lower it, and bring it to your mid-chest. This will give you a wicked stretch in your pecs!

Elbow Path

Anyone who tells you there’s only one way to position your elbows doesn’t know what they’re talking about. People are far too different for everyone to press in the exact same way.

However, you do need to find the ideal elbow path for you.

Remember, we’re focused on two things: benching pain-free and creating a huge stretch in your chest.

After you’ve found a grip width that doesn’t strain your elbows, wrists, or shoulders, simply unrack the bar and bring it toward your chest. Touch down where you feel a massive stretch in your pecs.

Return to the starting position and lower to the same exact place. Still getting a huge stretch? Were you pain-free? If so, you’ve found the ideal elbow path for you!

Your elbows may be wide. They may be closer to your sides. Doesn’t matter! You’ve now found a grip width and elbow flare that meet hypertrophy benching criteria for your specific bone structure and musculature.

Shoulders Down and Back

Retract your shoulder blades and keep your shoulders down and back throughout the lift.

This opens up your chest, stretching and widening it. This is important for helping you get a strong stretch in your chest at the bottom of the movement.

As you lift, focus on keeping your shoulders down and back and your chest high. Don’t let your shoulders rotate forward. This will move the emphasis of the movement to your shoulders and away from your pecs.

Bench Press Bar Path

Often, you will see people benching with a slight arc, bringing to bar back toward the rack on the way up.

I recommend pressing the bar straight up toward the ceiling. This causes less rotation at the shoulder joint and a more efficient movement by creating a straight bar path.

Keep Your Chest High

Maintaining a high chest helps in reducing the range of motion and focuses the stress on the chest muscles.

Butt on the Bench

Your butt must remain in contact with the bench throughout the entire movement to ensure proper form and safety.

Small Arch in Your Lower Back

Maintain a slight arch in your lower back. This position is crucial for proper leg drive and overall bench press mechanics.

The Importance of Leg Drive

Leg drive helps generate power from the ground up, contributing to a stronger and more stable lift.

Hypertrophy Bench Press Tips

Incorporating these specific techniques can significantly enhance your bench press performance. Remember, these are not just tips but pivotal elements of a successful bench press routine.

Control the Eccentric!

Lower the barbell to your chest in a controlled manner. This action, called the eccentric phase, increases muscle tension and can lead to greater strength gains.

In fact, the eccentric phase of the lift is more hypertrophic (muscle building) than the concentric phase!

Aim for about 2-3 seconds on the descent to maximize muscle engagement.

Pause on Your Chest

Instead of bouncing the bar off your chest, bring it to a complete stop.

Research indicates that stretching a muscle under load is an independent promoter of muscle growth. This stretched position, under load, has been shown to be more hypertrophic than both the eccentric and concentric phases of the lift!

Like Coach Christian Thibaudea says, the muscle that gets stretched the most, grows the most.

So get the muscle stretched as far as you safely can, and then hold there for a full second!

This paused bench press eliminates the momentum, making the concentric phase more challenging and effective for building raw strength.

Lift the Weight Athletically

Explode the weight up from your chest with force and speed. This type of athletic lifting encourages powerful muscle contractions and can improve your neural drive, translating to more strength over time.

Bench Press Max Chart

% of 1RMReps
100%1
95%2
90%3-4
85%4-6
80%6-8

Use this chart to estimate your one-rep max based on the number of reps you can lift at a certain weight. It’s a valuable tool for setting goals and monitoring progress.

You can also use our free tool for estimating your 1 rep max to estimate your starting weights.

Muscles Worked by a Bench Press

When you perform a bench press, you engage a complex network of muscles that work in concert to execute the lift. Understanding which muscles are activated during the exercise can help you focus your training efficiently.

Pectoralis Major and Minor

Pectoralis Muscle

The pectoralis major is the large fan-shaped muscle covering the chest, and it’s the primary mover during a bench press.

Your pectoralis minor, a smaller muscle beneath the pectoralis major, also assists during the movement, stabilizing your shoulder blades.

Triceps

Triceps Muscles

Your triceps brachii, located at the back of your upper arm, play a crucial role in extending your elbows and pushing the weight up as you bench press. They are heavily involved, particularly during the lockout phase of the press.

Anterior Deltoids

Anterior and Lateral Deltoids

The bench press uses the anterior deltoids, the front portion of your shoulder muscles. They are key contributors to pressing the weight upward from your chest, as well as stabilizing your arms throughout the lift.

Upper Back

Back Musculature Labeled Diagram

Although not a primary mover in the bench press, your upper back muscles, including the trapezius and rhomboids, provide critical support. They help stabilize your shoulder blades, maintaining a safe and effective bench pressing technique.

Serratus Anterior

Serratus Anterior

The serratus anterior (possibly the coolest-looking muscle in the upper body!) may not be as well-known, but it’s essential for a successful bench press.

It fans out from the rib cage and helps keep the shoulders in place, ensuring that the shoulder blades move smoothly against the rib cage as you lift and lower the weight.

Common Bench Press Mistakes

When you hit the gym for a bench press session, mastering proper form is crucial for maximizing your gains and minimizing the risk of injury. Here’s a friendly guide to help you steer clear of the most common bench press mistakes:

  • Feet Up on the Bench: I see this a lot! Especially during warm-ups. Warm up exactly how you plan to perform any exercise when it’s go time. Feet on the floor, creating stability so that you can fully recruit the target muscles.
  • Incorrect Grip Width: Make sure you choose a grip width that doesn’t strain your elbows. wrists, or shoulders.
  • Lifting Your Feet or Squirming: Plant your feet firmly on the ground. Lifting them can cause instability and reduce the power transfer from your lower body.
  • Arching Your Back Excessively: A slight arch is okay, but over-arching can put your lower back at risk. Your glutes should remain in contact with the bench.
  • Neglecting to Use a Full Range of Motion: Bring the bar down to your chest to fully engage your pectoral muscles. Pause at the bottom for a full second. Lift athletically and return to your chest without pausing at the lockout position.

A Note on Full Range of Motion

As far as building muscle is concerned, recent research indicates that partial reps may be better than a full range of motion (ROM).

I still recommend full ROM. From what I’ve read, I think there may be some unknowns, some small part of each muscle, that still gets trained the best by hitting the muscle through the full range.

If research fully determines that there is no benefit to a full range of motion, or that a full ROM is counterproductive, I’ll change my stance.

Now, if you’re going to train with partial reps, you must get to the fully stretched position! Partial rep training at the shortened range of motion (only going part way down and focusing on the top end of the movement) is not where the most muscle-building occurs.

To perform partial reps properly, get all the way to the fully stretched position and then stop short of lockout.

Incorporating Bench Presses Into Your Routine

Learn how to incorporate the bench press into your routine

When you aim to include bench presses in your fitness regimen, it’s vital to focus on set and rep structures targeted for growth, understand the benefits, and practice safe techniques.

Bench Press Sets and Reps for Hypertrophy

To grow your chest, your bench press routine should consist of multiple sets in the 6 to 30-rep range, approaching failure on each set.

That’s a wide range! But research continues to indicate that as long as you’re training close to failure, pretty much any rep range above 5 reps works for hypertrophy.

Find the rep range within there that works best for your chest. If you feel incredible tension in your chest and get a great pump in the 6-8 range, use it! If you train in that range, don’t get a good pump or feeling in your chest, and just feel that it overly stresses your joints, lower the weight, and increase the reps.

If you try a higher rep range but you just feel tired, not pumped, or a screaming feeling in your chest, add weight and try lower reps.

Find what works best for you.

Start your training block (mesocycle) with 2 sets in the rep range you’ve chosen and see how your chest responds. Add sets, reps, or weight each workout as your recovery abilities allow.

  • For Beginners: Start with lighter weights to master the form.
  • For Experienced Lifters: Adjust weights to ensure the last few reps of each set are sufficiently challenging, approaching failure.

Bench Press Benefits

Incorporating bench presses offers several advantages:

  • Building Massive Pecs!
  • Increased Upper Body Strength: Targets chest, shoulders, and triceps.
  • Improved Bone Health: Weight-bearing exercises promote bone density.
  • Enhanced Pushing Power: Beneficial for everyday activities and various sports.

How to Bench Safely

Proper form and technique are essential to prevent injury and maximize the effectiveness of your bench press workouts.

  1. Positioning: Lie flat on the bench with feet planted on the ground. Keep your back slightly arched, shoulders retracted, and eyes under the bar.
  2. Gripping: Grip the barbell just wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Lifting: Unrack the barbell with straight arms, lower it to the mid-chest, and press up to full arm extension.
  4. Use a Spotter: Remember to use a spotter when lifting heavier weights to ensure safety. If you don’t have a spotter, at least set safety arms so that you don’t become the guy trapped under a barbell yelling for help.

Increasing Your Bench Press

Learn how to increase your bench to ensure that you keep growing.

Improve Your Form

Proper bench press form is crucial for maximizing benefits and reducing injury risk.

Follow the recommendations in the video and instructions above to make sure that you are using proper form. Then, use that form for every rep of every set you perform…even your warm-ups!

Rest Longer Between Sets

The rest interval between sets is an important factor in your training.

For strength gains, a rest period of 3-5 minutes may be beneficial, allowing your muscles to recover adequately before the next set.

Adequate rest ensures you can perform each set with maximum effort and proper form, which is essential for increasing your bench press strength.

Progressive Overload

Consistently make small improvements from workout to workout. Most people fall short here either because they aren’t training their bench press consistently enough from week to week, their form changes from one workout to the next, or because they try and make adjustments that are too large.

From one workout to the next you should be able to add either an additional set, one more rep per set, or 2.5 to 5 pounds. As long as you can do one of those, stick with the bench and with the exact setup.

Once you plateau (you can’t increase weight or reps, your pumps aren’t good, or you’re feeling overly tired), deload for a week and either start over or choose a new pressing exercise.

After a deload week, go back to 2 sets and either choose a new rep range or use the same rep range as the last time but start it 5 pounds heavier.

Bench Press Variations

Learn other variations of the bench press.

By incorporating different bench press variations into your workout, you target specific muscles in your chest, shoulder, and triceps differently, while also preventing monotony in your training routine.

Incline Bench Press

The Incline Bench Press is a variation that focuses more on the upper chest and shoulders. By setting the bench to a 15-45 degree angle, you’ll shift the emphasis onto your upper pectorals and front deltoids. This variation can help develop the clavicular head of the pectoralis major.

Decline Bench Press

The barbell decline bench press

Conversely, the Decline Bench Press targets the lower part of your chest. By positioning the bench at a decline, usually between 15-30 degrees, you’ll activate the lower pectoral muscles more intensely, providing a balanced chest development.

This can be a great way to change up your routine! Most people jump between the flat and incline bench press variations, but rarely go for the decline version. Throw it in for a mesocycle or two!

Dumbbell Bench Press

Flat dumbbell bench press

With the Dumbbell Bench Press, each arm works independently, helping you to correct any imbalances and enhance muscle recruitment. This variation also allows for a greater range of motion, engaging more stabilizing muscles around your shoulders and chest.

Close-Grip Bench Press

Bench Press Proficiency Levels

Lastly, the Close-Grip Bench Press shifts the focus primarily to the triceps and the inner chest. By gripping the barbell with hands closer than shoulder-width apart, you intensify the workload on your triceps brachii, while still working the pectorals.

Bench Press Proficiency Levels

To effectively boost your bench press strength, it’s crucial to adapt your approach as you progress from beginner to advanced levels.

How to Increase Your Bench Press at the Beginner Level

As a beginner, focus on mastering the proper form and technique. This includes a stable foot positioning, maintaining a natural arch in your back, and gripping the barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width.

Consistent practice with lighter weights will help you develop the motor skills necessary for the bench press. You can also look into strategies for converting your knowledge of the bench press load to strength gains.

How to Increase Your Bench Press at the Intermediate Level

Once past the beginner stage, begin to incorporate more variety into your bench press routine.

This can include different grip widths, increased volume, and gradually adding weight to the bar. Additionally, mixing in other exercises, such as the incline bench press or push-ups, can target a broader range of muscles and contribute to overall bench press strength.

How to Increase Your Bench Press at the Advanced Level

For advanced lifters, it’s important to fine-tune your approach. Tailor your training to focus on weak points in your lift.

Implement advanced techniques like pause reps, board presses, or variable resistance training (using bands or chains) to overcome plateaus.

Prioritize recovery as much as your training; adequate rest and nutritional support are key to continued improvement at this level. Consider the impact of leg drive training on bench press performance for advanced athletes.

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section, you’ll find concise answers to some of the most common questions regarding the bench press, helping to enhance your understanding and improve your practice of this essential exercise.

What muscles does the bench press primarily target?

The bench press primarily works your pectoral muscles, but it also significantly engages your deltoids, triceps, and even your latissimus dorsi to stabilize the movement.

How does the bench press benefit your strength training routine?

Incorporating the bench press into your routine improves upper body strength, contributes to muscle mass development, and can enhance athletic performance in a variety of sports.

How can you calculate the appropriate weight for your bench press sets?

To calculate the appropriate weight, start with a manageable load where you can perform 10-12 repetitions with good form, then adjust based on your strength and training goals.

What kind of weight increments should you use when bench pressing for progress?

For steady progress, increase the weight gradually, using small increments such as 2.5 to 5 pounds, to ensure consistent strength gains without risking injury.

Can bench press workouts help with muscle growth and strength in women?

Yes, bench press workouts are beneficial for muscle growth and strength for women, offering the same benefits of increased upper body strength and improved muscle definition.

What are some world records in bench pressing and how do they inspire lifters?

World records in bench pressing demonstrate the heights that strength training can achieve, such as those set by bench press champions, and serve as a motivational benchmark for lifters at all levels.

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AUTHOR

Matt has been a Certified Personal Trainer for more than 18 years. He is also a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, has a master's degree in teaching, and is a former competitive powerlifter and CrossFit athlete. His passion is helping others get in shape from mid-life and beyond.

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