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What Muscles Does The Bench Press Work? + 3 Bench Press Variations

The bench press is one of the primary lifts in powerlifting and a great exercise to build mass.

In general, most weightlifters can lift heavier weights with the flat bench press as opposed to the incline bench press due to the inability to perform a spinal arch with the incline press and the differences in the muscles worked by the incline bench press and flat bench press.

So, what muscles does the bench press work? What muscles are worked by incline bench press vs flat bench press?

In this guide, we will explain how to perform the bench press with step-by-step instructions, discuss the benefits of the bench press exercise, and answer your question: what muscles does the bench press work?

We will look at: 

  • How to Perform the Bench Press
  • What Muscles Does The Bench Press Work?
  • What Muscles Does The Incline Bench Press Work vs Flat Bench Press?
  • What Muscles Does the Close Grip Bench Press Work vs Wide Grip Bench Press Work?

Let’s get started!

Bench press.

How to Perform the Bench Press

Before we look at the muscles worked by the bench press, let’s go through the step-by-step instructions for how to perform the bench press.

The most crucial point is that the bench press exercise generally refers to using a barbell of some sort or a Smith machine.

This is in contrast to the term “chest press,” which typically uses dumbbells, resistance bands, or some other type of resistance or free weights for the bench press movement pattern other than a barbell or specialty weightlifting bar.

Bench Press

Here are the steps to perform the standard bench press on a flat bench:

  1. Place a flat bench inside the squat rack or power rack.  
  2. Grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. 
  3. Lift the bar to unrack it, and then press it straight up over your nipple line until your elbows are nearly locked out, being careful to maintain straight and rigid wrists.
  4. Slowly lower the bar back down towards your chest, keeping your elbows tucked into your sides as they drop down below your torso alongside either side of the bench.
  5. Once the bar reaches chest level, press it back up for the next rep.
  6. After all of your reps, carefully re-rack the bar.

Here are the steps for how to do the incline bench press exercise:

Incline Bench Press

  1. Place a bench inside the power cage or squat rack and set it at a 30-degree angle (anywhere from 30-45 degrees may be used).
  2. Lie back on the bench and grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. 
  3. Lift the bar to unrack it and then raise it up as high as possible by pressing it straight up from your nipple line, being mindful not to bend your wrists as you lift.
  4. Slowly lower the bar back down towards your chest, keeping your elbows tucked into your sides (not flared out) and your forearms vertical.
  5. Once the bar reaches chest level, press it back up for the next rep.
The bench press.

What Muscles Does The Bench Press Work?

The bench press is one of the three primary powerlifting exercises and the only one of the group that targets the upper body muscles.

There have been a lot of studies and interest in the EMG signals and muscles worked by bench pressing at different angles and with different hand placement or spacing on the bar.

Indeed, one of the benefits of bench press workouts is that you can vary the restive reliance on the bench press muscles worked by changing the angle of the weight bench.

In other words, the muscles worked by incline bench press are somewhat different than the muscles worked by bench pressing when the weight bench is flat.

Decline bench press muscles are also somewhat different.

Keep in mind that the muscles worked by incline bench vs flat bench press or even incline bench press vs decline bench press muscles aren’t going to be wildly different, as the general movement pattern is similar and thus uses the same push or press muscle groups.

However, the specific portions or muscle fibers within the push/press muscle groups will change based on the angle of the bench, which is where you will see the differences in the muscles targeted by bench pressing on a flat vs incline or decline bench.

The bench press.

While the muscles worked by incline bench press vs flat or decline bench press, close grip bench press muscles, and wide grip bench press muscles will all vary somewhat, in all iterations, the bench press exercise primarily targets the pecs (pec major and pec minor) in the chest, along with the triceps, serratus anterior, and shoulders. 

The bilateral pectoralis major is a fan-shaped muscle that has two heads (attachment points) per side of your chest. 

The clavicular head of the pec major attaches along the clavicle while the sternal head attaches to the sternum, which is the breast bone.

Due to the differing attachment points, the clavicular head of the muscle is often called the “upper pecs,” and the sternal head is the “lower pecs.” 

However, it is important to understand that these are not actually distinct muscle groups; it is all part of the same pectoralis major muscle.

Therefore, when people talk about doing upper chest workouts or lower chest workouts, or working the upper pecs vs lower pecs, they are discussing targeting the portion or fibers of the pectoralis major that is connected up near the clavicles for the upper pecs and the sternal head pec fibers for the lower chest muscle activation.

The good news is that the bench press will hit all fibers of the pecs, but the bench press incline will alter the relative reliance on the muscle fibers.

The bench press.

What Muscles Does The Incline Bench Press Work vs Flat Bench Press?

The primary difference between the flat vs incline bench press in terms of muscles worked is in the activation of the chest muscles.

Research suggests that the pectoralis major and triceps are the muscles that are most active during the flat bench press, with a lesser contribution from the anterior deltoid.

With the flat bench press, you target the pecs in a well-rounded way, making this a great middle chest exercise that also works your upper chest and lower chest to some degree.

With the incline bench press variation, more of the emphasis is placed on the upper chest or upper portion of the pecs.

For the incline bench press, most weightlifters typically use a 30 or 45° angle to the bench. 

However, even within this 15° range, you will activate slightly different portions of your muscles, so it could be helpful to sometimes perform the exercise with a 30° incline bench press angle and a 45° angle during other workouts.

The bench press.

Studies have found that the clavicular head (upper pecs) is most active with incline press vs flat bench press and that anterior deltoid activity also increases as the bench angle increases, while the decline bench press muscle activation shifts more towards the sternal head (lower pecs).

Another study also found that the flat bench press produces the highest EMG signal in the sternocostal head of the pectoralis major, while the incline bench press activated the clavicular head more significantly.

The decline bench press targets the lower portion (sternal head) of the pecs.

What Muscles Does the Close Grip Bench Press Work vs Wide Grip Bench Press?

Another way to slightly change the muscles targeted by bench press sets is to vary your grip or hand placement.

In a close-grip bench press (narrow grip bench press), your hands are positioned closer than shoulder-width apart on the bar.

The bench press.

This will shift more of the bench press muscle activation onto your triceps instead of your pecs, and indeed, EMG studies have found that the clavicular head (upper pecs) is most active with narrow bench grip hand spacing as is the long head of the triceps.

A wide-grip bench press will recruit more of the outer portion of the chest, along with the serratus anterior muscle, while lessening the reliance on the triceps.

In sum, the muscles worked by the bench press include the pectoralis major and minor of the chest and the triceps, with lesser contributions from the anterior deltoids and serratus anterior.

The specific bench press angle and bench press hand spacing that you use will shift the relative reliance on the particular portions or fibers within these bench press muscle groups.

Because you can work different muscles with bench press variations, almost everyone can benefit from including all versions of the exercise in their strength training routine.

For more ideas about how to strengthen your chest, check out our guide with a complete chest workout here.

Dumbbell chest press.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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