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Mastering the Basic Fitness Moves - Part Five - Bench Press

In part 5 of my mastering the basics series we will explore my favorite exercise; bench presses. The bench press is an exercise that can be used to sculpt the arms, chest, and shoulders. Another great thing about the bench press is the versatility. The bench press can be performed in an almost infinite number of ways and the proper knowledge of the movement can help you target all of these areas with a varying degree of focus. In this article we will explore the background of the bench press, how to safely and effectively perform it, how to modify it in the case of shoulder injury, and briefly discuss variations in the types of bench presses you can perform to focus on specific parts of the chest and arms in order to get a fully sculpted upper body.


Much like squats are one of the best lower body lifts you can perform, so is the bench press for the upper body.

The bench press works primarily the chest (pectoralis major and minor) muscles, but also the shoulders (deltoids) and triceps. Depending on what version is used, the bench press will also work stabilizing muscles such as the serratus anterior, trapezius, and rotator cuff. The bench press is extremely versatile and can be performed with a barbell, dumbbells, cables, and even on the Smith machine.


To describe the setup and movement of the bench press we will use the most common form, barbell bench presses. It is important to note that individual variations in body morphology can directly influence the safety and effectiveness of the bench press, and while I would love to go in-depth on each one of these variations, it is beyond the scope of what I am looking to accomplish in this article. If you are unsure of how your body type can influence the bench press, I suggest working with a qualified personal trainer to limit the risk of injury to yourself and maximize your training.

In a barbell bench press you will need a rack, a barbell, and a bench. Some gyms will have dedicated bench pressing stations which will include all of these items in one setup. Setting up the bench press properly is important as this will allow you to maximize your safety. Lie down on the bench with the bar roughly lined up with your eyes. There should be 5 points of contact when performing a bench press. The (1) head, (2) shoulders/upper back, (3) lower back/butt, and (4&5) both feet should all be in contact with the bench and floor prior to lifting the weight. Grasp the bar with a width slightly wider than shoulder width. Again there are variations that can influence what areas of the chest and arms you are working. Grasping the bar with a narrow grip will recruit more of the inner chest fibers and triceps, will grabbing with a wider grip will influence more of the lateral pectoralis fibers. Be careful with either one of these variations as they each have their own safety/injury risks. A narrow grip will put more stress on the elbows, and a wider grip will put more stress on the shoulders. For beginners a standard bench setup as described here will suffice. Grasp the bar with an overhand and closed grip. Occasionally I will see people use and open grip, meaning that they do not wrap their thumb around the bar, and I DO NOT recommend this for beginners. An open grip increases the risk of injury as the bar may slip out of your hands and fall on your face and/or neck.

5 Points of Contact

Overhand Grip

Overhand Grip


Once you are properly setup you are ready to start the lift. If you are new to bench pressing allow me again to say, WORK WITH A TRAINER! In addition to counseling you on proper lifting form, a trainer can also be there to spot you and make sure you do not hurt yourself.

To begin the lift, unrack the bar and move it slowly forward until it is over the chest. Slowly allow the elbows to bend and lower the weight to your chest, allowing the bar to hit you around the nipple line. Breathe in slowly as you lower the weight. I always advise clients to keep their elbows tucked in slightly rather than flared all the way out as this will reduce the stress on the shoulder joint. Once the bar has reached the chest begin pressing it back upwards almost until the arms are locked out. Exhale on this movement. To prevent injury to the elbows, make sure the push is slow and controlled and do not allow the elbows to forcefully lock out at the top of the movement. This is one rep. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Top and Bottom Positions


Bench pressing has a notorious reputation for being rough on the shoulders and for good reason. Improperly executing this lift can place a massive amount of stress on the shoulder and can put it in some biomechanically abnormal positions with that large amount of stress applied. These conditions are a sure fire way to cause yourself harm doing the bench press. Having shoulder problems however is not in and of itself a reason to shy away from this beneficial lift. With proper modifications the bench press can still be performed and actually help your shoulder by strengthening surrounding structures.

One of the most common modifications used to decrease the stress on the shoulders are neutral grip bench presses. Most often performed with dumbbells, this type of press will greatly reduce the stress placed on the shoulders. Neutral grip presses can also be performed with a bar, but you will need to have access to a special piece of equipment called a Swiss bar (pictured below). Since many gyms may not carry this specialized bar I will only cover neutral grip dumbbell presses in this article.

Swiss Bar

Swiss Bar

To perform a neutral grip bench press, lie on a flat bench and hold the dumbbells at chest level with palms facing each other. Perform the press straight upwards while exhaling until the elbows are almost locked out. Return to the starting position and repeat the movement.

Neutral Grip Bench Press

Neutral Grip Bench Press


As I said in the introduction, the bench press can be performed in the number of ways to influence different aspects of the ches, triceps, and shoulders. In this section we will briefly identify each variation, the muscles worked, and provide a brief description of each. A detailed description of each will not be provided as the setups do not vary greatly from the previously described barbell version.


The incline bench press is done on a free incline bench (for dumbbells), inside of a rack on a free incline bench, or on a dedicated incline rack. The incline bench press focuses the work mostly on the clavicular portion of the chest muscle or the upper chest and also increases work in the shoulder.


The decline bench press can be performed with dumbbells on a free decline bench, on a decline bench inside of a rack, or on a dedicated decline bench rack. When performing the decline bench make sure that you lower the bar to the lower chest level. The decline bench will work the lower portion of the chest fibers.


The close grip bench press is done with the same setup as a regular flat bench press. The only difference is that the hands will be a narrow grip versus the wider than shoulder grip with you take with the regular bench. The close grip bench press concentrates more on the inner fibers of the chest, recruits more of the triceps, and more of the anterior shoulder.

No matter what version of the bench press is used, it can be a vital exercise and helping to sculpt the upper body as well as improve the strength of the upper body. Remember, this article that this is not meant to be all inclusive. It is merely meant to be a blueprint for how to properly perform the bench press. If you are new to weight lifting I highly reccomend you work with a qualified personal trainer to make sure that your form is safe and to limit injury to yourself. Be sure to stay tuned for our last mastering the basic article covering planks

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