What muscles does the bench press work?”

There’s a common question among gymgoers, especially those new to weightlifting.

Why is there this uncertainty?

Two reasons:

First, the bench press trains several major and minor muscle groups simultaneously, so understanding the exact muscles involved in a bench press can be confusing. 

And second, the muscles the bench press works out can change depending on how you perform the exercise. For example, using an incline or decline bench or a narrow or wide grip influences which muscles you emphasize.

In this article, we’ll untangle this Gordian knot.

You’ll learn the muscles that bench press works, how grip width alters things, why the bench press is such an effective exercise, how to perform it correctly, and more. 

What Is the Bench Press?

Before we get into the muscles involved in a bench press, let’s define what a bench press is.

The bench press is an upper body exercise that involves lying on a flat bench while holding a barbell over your chest with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip, lowering the bar to your chest, then pressing it up again. Here’s how it looks:

Flat Barbell Bench Press before after

Making this distinction is important because there are many bench press variations and each emphasizes slightly different muscles.

For example, compared to the flat barbell bench press, the incline bench press (a bench press performed on a bench angled at around 45 degrees) emphasizes the upper pecs, while the close-grip bench press (a bench press performed with a shoulder-width grip) emphasizes the triceps.

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Bench Press: Muscles Worked

The bench press is a compound exercise, which means it trains several major muscle groups simultaneously. While it primarily trains the upper body, the bench press also involves the lower body to a notable degree (which we’ll discuss later).

What muscles does the bench press work specifically, though?

Let’s look at what muscle activation data tells us about the muscles you’re working while benching in the gym.

Primary Bench Press Muscles

The primary muscles worked in the bench press are the pectoralis majors (“pecs”), anterior deltoids (“front delts”), and triceps brachii (“triceps”).

Let’s take a closer look at how each of these muscles contributes:

  • Pectoralis Major: The pectoralis major is the large, fan-shaped muscle on either side of your chest. It has two sections or “heads:” the sternocostal head (“lower pec”) and clavicular head (“upper pec”). Its primary function is horizontal shoulder adduction (moving the upper arms toward the centerline of your body at shoulder height), though it also aids in shoulder flexion (raising your arms in front of you). These are the two main movements involved in the bench press, which explains why research typically shows that the pecs are the main muscles worked in the bench press.
  • Anterior Deltoid: The anterior deltoids are the front sections of your shoulder muscles. Compared to the other deltoid heads (the “side” and “rear delts”), the front delts are the most responsible for shoulder flexion, which is why they’re the most involved in the bench press.
  • Triceps Brachii: The triceps is the muscle group located on the back of your upper arm between the shoulder and elbow. Its main function is elbow extension (straightening the elbows), which is critical to “lock out” during the bench press. 

Here’s how these muscles look on your body:

Primary Bench Press Muscles Worked

Secondary Bench Press Muscles

“Secondary” bench press muscles are those that play a smaller role in the bench press. They typically assist the primary muscles or stabilize the movement, allowing the main movers to handle the bulk of the work. Let’s take a closer look at the secondary muscles that the bench press works:

  • Trapezius: The trapezius muscles, or “traps,” are large muscles that start at the base of the skull and extend down the neck and upper back. They contribute to the bench press by stabilizing your shoulders and helping you maintain upper-body rigidity, which is essential when handling heavy weights. 
  • Latissimus Dorsi: The “lats” are the large muscles that start at the base of the spine, wrap around the sides of the torso, and connect to the upper arm. For most gymgoers, the “lats” play a small role in stabilizing the shoulders during the bench press. For powerlifters who use a pronounced “back arch” while benching, the lats become significantly more involved and may help you lift more weight.
  • Lateral Deltoid: The side delt muscles are involved in the bench press, providing support to the front delts to help press the bar.
  • Serratus Anterior: The serratus anterior muscles are on the sides of the chest and connect the upper ribs to the shoulder blade. They stabilize the shoulders during the bench press.

Here’s how the secondary muscles involved in the bench press look on your body:

Secondary Bench Press Muscles Worked

Other Supporting Muscles

It’s easy to see how the primary and secondary muscles feature in the bench press: most are directly involved in lifting the barbell or support the muscles doing the pressing.

However, the bench press works many more, less-obvious muscles. It doesn’t train these “supporting” muscles enough to spur growth, but they’re essential for maintaining proper form. 

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Does Grip Width Change the Muscles the Bench Press Works?

It’s a longstanding piety among weightlifters that bench pressing with a wide grip (hands wider than 1.5 times shoulder-width apart) primarily trains your pecs and pressing with a narrow grip (hands around shoulder-width apart) emphasizes your triceps.

Research challenges this dogma, however.

While studies typically show that using a narrower grip increases triceps activation, research doesn’t indicate that using a wider-than-normal grip width significantly improves chest muscle activation. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that a wide grip puts more stress on the shoulders. This extra shoulder torque means your rotator cuff muscles and biceps tendons have to work harder to keep your shoulders stable, which may raise your risk of injury.

What Are the Benefits of the Bench Press?

The bench press allows you to train multiple upper body muscle groups simultaneously. It also lets you train with heavy weights safely and progress regularly.

These benefits mean the bench press is ideal for building muscle, gaining strength, and developing power and endurance throughout your upper body. 

Consequently, the bench press is a fantastic exercise for improving athletic performance in sports that involve pushing (basketball, football, rugby, soccer, wrestling, jiu jitsu, etc.), throwing (basketball, football, baseball, etc.) or punching.

It also makes everyday movements easier, including pushing open heavy doors, getting up off the floor, and maneuvering a shopping cart. In other words, it helps you develop “functional” strength that makes day-to-day tasks more straightforward.

How to Bench Press with Proper From

  1. Position yourself on a bench so your eyes are directly under the bar, tuck your shoulder blades back and down, and grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Plant your feet on the floor about shoulder-width apart, slightly arch your back, squeeze the bar as hard as you can, and move it from the hooks directly over your chest.
  3. Keeping your elbows 6-to-10 inches from your sides, lower the bar to your chest.
  4. Press the bar back to the starting position.

Here’s how it should look when you put it all together:

Bench Press gif

What Muscles Does the Bench Press Work?: FAQs

FAQ #1: Does the bench press work your triceps?

Yes, the bench press works your triceps. That said, research shows you probably need to do more than bench press to develop proportional triceps. 

Check out this article to learn more:

Is the Bench Press Enough to Train Your Triceps?

FAQ #2: Does the bench press work your shoulders?

Yes, the bench press works your shoulders, though it trains the front of your shoulders significantly more than the side and rear delts. Thus, to develop “3D” delts, you’ll need to do more than bench. For balanced, symmetrical shoulders, check out the workout in this article:

The Best Full Shoulder Workout Routine, According to Science 

FAQ #3: Does the bench press work your back?

Yes, the bench press works your back, but probably not enough to build back muscle. That is, the lats and traps stabilize your upper body during the bench press, but they don’t get enough stimulation for muscle growth. To develop these muscle, you need to do effective back workouts, like the routines in this article:

The Best Back Workout Routines for Mass & Hypertrophy

+ Scientific References