The barbell bench press is perhaps the most popular exercise in the gym. At least for the upper body. But which muscles do you train with it exactly – and to what extent?
With the barbell bench press you first target your chest muscles. Yet it is not a pure chest exercise, as you will see in this article, but a compound exercise. So several muscle groups are put to work at the same time.
Is the barbell bench press therefore less good than exercises that target the chest a little more specifically, such as the dumbbell chest press and cable flyes? Certainly not. The barbell bench press is a very efficient exercise to target all the ‘push’ muscles in your upper body once. Heavily performed compound exercises appear to work best for muscle growth anyway, probably mainly because they disrupt homeostasis the most.
Does your chest remain relatively behind compared to, for example, your shoulders? Then there is a good reason to exchange the barbell bench press for the dumbbell chest press, or to do both exercises and/or to do more isolation exercises for the chest.
Yes, with the bench press you train your shoulders, but only one of the three shoulder heads, namely the front (the anterior delt). The role of this shoulder head increases as you press more vertically (so incline). Pressing all the way vertically will train the anterior division the most. After all, you do a shoulder press.
In addition, the more your shoulders are forward during the bench press, the more the anterior delts do the work. If you’re not careful, they almost literally crawl in front of the pectoral muscle, leaving it largely untouched. For that reason alone, it’s important that you squeeze and pull your shoulder blades down, and maintain this position throughout the exercise. In addition, this position makes you much more stable and stronger, and it reduces the risk of shoulder pain due to the bench press.
If you do both chest and shoulder presses, your anterior delts will normally get plenty of stimulus. You don’t have to do that with front raises or anything.
Your middle shoulders, on the other hand, will have to be trained separately, because they aren’t really trained well in any compound exercise (okay, barring the controversial behind-the-neck press maybe and also to some extend in upright rows). That’s why your schedule should also include a good dose of side raises.
You train the back of your shoulders (rear delts) with many back exercises, if desired supplemented with more isolating exercises such as rear delt flyes.
The bench press also trains your triceps, especially the lateral and medial heads.
The long head of your triceps is by no means fully stretched and tensed – and therefore not optimally trained – during the bench press. The latter is good to know with a view to isolation exercises for your triceps.
In order not to neglect the long triceps head in your training, you should always do at least one overhead (isolation) exercise for your triceps. Like overhead triceps extensions. Also dumbbell incline triceps kickbacks are a great exercise for the long triceps head.
And you will probably also have to do some isolation work for the other triceps heads, especially if you are more advanced and therefore need larger training volumes to grow. Because although the bench press is certainly not a pure chest exercise, the chest muscles are still stimulated a lot more than the triceps: a number of Japanese studies noted an average of 29% versus 13% muscle growth in the chest and triceps respectively.
Interesting detail: research suggests that bench presses with heavy weights (e.g. 80%1RM) cause more muscle growth in the triceps than bench presses with relatively light weights (e.g. 60%1RM). This is because the triceps contain relatively many type II muscle fibers (~67%), the type that is best stimulated by heavy weights.
Nevertheless, the triceps are most stimulated if you use a narrower grip when doing the bench press. This is somewhat at the expense of the chest muscles.
BICEPS AND LATS
Finally, your biceps stabilize the weight on the way down, as does your lats, albeit to a lesser extent. Experienced (power) lifters already know how to use this muscle better in the exercise.