When most people think of free weights, the first exercise that comes to mind is the barbell bench press. Although inexperienced lifters do the same flat medium-grip barbell press every workout session, more savvy lifters rotate among several different variants of the bench press to maximize muscle development and reduce the risk of injury.
Muscles Used in the Bench Press
Bench presses work the area of your body most guys you meet check out before they pay attention to anything else, namely your chest. The pectoral muscles of the chest consist of a clavicular, or upper, head and a sternocostal, or lower head. You also use the triceps muscles of your lower arms and deltoid muscles of your shoulders to help lift and stabilize the barbell.
A traditional medium-grip flat bench press emphasizes the upper and lower heads of the pectoral muscles, with arm and shoulder muscles in stabilizing and helping roles. Many lifters alternate barbell bench presses with dumbbell presses to ensure equal development of both sides of the body, because with barbell and machine variants of the bench press your stronger side can compensate for your weaker side.
Inclining the bench so that your shoulders are higher than your abdomen increases the amount of work done by your shoulders and the upper head of the pectoral muscles and decreases the amount of work done by the triceps muscles of your arms. Incline presses can be done with either barbells or dumbbells.
Using a decline bench, in which your shoulders are lower than your abdomen, emphasizes the triceps muscles running along the backs of your arms and the lower head of the pectorals. Your shoulder muscles are minimally involved, only serving as stabilizers.
Narrow grip bench presses are usually done with a flat or decline bench. Narrowing your grip makes your triceps work harder and uses your shoulders less than a traditional medium grip. Widening your grip activates the shoulder and chest muscles more than using a narrower grip. Avoid having your hands more than shoulder width apart as a wide grip may lead to shoulder injuries.
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: 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: Effects of Variations of the Bench Press on the EMG Activity of Five Shoulder Muscles
- ExRx.net: Chest
- BodyBuilding.com: Exercise Guides – Chest Exercises
- American Council on Exercise: Barbell Bench Press
- BodyBuilding.com: Exercise Of The Week: Incline Barbell Bench Press
- American Council on Exercise: Decline Barbell Press
- BodyBuilding.com: One Move For A Big Chest: Decline Barbell Bench Press
- ExRx.net: Barbell Close Grip Bench Press
Carol Poster began writing professionally in 1974. Her articles have appeared in "Outdoor Woman," "Paddler," "Ski Magazine," "Women's Sports & Fitness," "Dance News," "Show Business," "The Athenian," "PC Resource" and "Utah Holiday," among other publications. Poster holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from Eastern Washington University, as well as a Ph.D. in English from the University of Missouri.