“How much do you bench, bro?” Along with “Do you even lift?” this is one of the most popular questions among lifters. Anyone with any amount of gym experience has heard (and probably asked) that question more than once. Like it or not, it’s how many dudes gauge your worthiness as a gym bro.
Personally—as someone dedicated to helping guys build muscle in the most direct and efficient way possible—I hate this question. Although there’s absolutely nothing wrong with valuing strength (especially since stronger muscles typically have more potential for growth), a lot of guys prioritize simply moving the heaviest possible weights without any regard for how they’re moving them.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to run a little honesty study where you asked guys in the gym, “Hey, how much do you bench?” And when they reply, “Oh, 325 on a good day,” you say “Great, that sounds impressive! I’d love to see that—when are you benching next?”
While I’m sure that many guys are honest about their bench press prowess, some are definitely exaggerating. And others are just fooling themselves (sorry, that rep doesn’t count when your spotter deadlifted it through half of the range).
Rather than continue to criticize the way the masses lift (which, admittedly, is way too easy), let’s assume—since you’re reading this—that you’re a guy who trains smart. You understand that strength is important, but you’re not in the gym just slinging weights around at the expense of proper mechanics.
Instead of hoping to impress others with wild exaggerations, you’re going to let your results do the talking. And to that end, let’s discuss what you came to learn: the best way to bench press so your CHEST actually grows!
We’ll begin with a brief anatomy lesson. The pectoralis major makes up the bulk of the chest muscles and is comprised of two heads—clavicular and sternocostal. The clavicular head is commonly referred to as the “upper chest,” and the sternocostal head makes up the remainder (and majority) of the pectoralis major.
As with any muscle, we can’t isolate the individual heads in our training, but we can certainly emphasize which head is more active. In simple terms, some movements work better for the clavicular head, while others work better for the sternocostal head.
Now, let’s look at the scientific research on bench press variations—with a particular emphasis on grip width and bench angle—to determine the best bang-for-your-buck variations for each head. (Note: all of the studies included here used electromyography (EMG) to measure muscle activity.)
The Best Variation For The Lower Chest
Lehman (2005) compared a narrow (hands spaced one hand-width apart), mid (shoulder width), and wide grip (twice shoulder width) for pectoralis major sternocostal head activity. The mid and wide grips displayed greater activity than the narrow grip, and the wide grip displayed slightly more activity than the mid grip.
However, when Barnett (1995) compared mid and wide grips (using the same definitions as Lehman) there was no difference between the two.
In a nutshell: a wide grip might beat a mid grip for sternocostal activity (and, if so, only slightly), but the research is inconclusive.
(What we do know, however, is that grips wider than 1.5 times shoulder width may increase the risk of shoulder injuries (Green, 2007), a fact that outweighs the minor—if any—boost to muscle activity of wider grips.)
Trebs (2010) compared bench angles of 0 (flat bench), 28, 44 and 56 degrees above horizontal and found the greatest pectoralis major sternocostal head activity at 0 degrees. Muscle activity diminished with each increase in angle. I’m not sure why they didn’t include a decline bench here as it would have been interesting to see if that same trend (less incline, more activity) continued.
Luckily, Barnett (1995) and Lauver (2015) conducted similar studies examining the effect of bench angle and sternocostal head activity and included a decline bench (approximately 15 degrees below horizontal). Interestingly, the decline bench press did not result in greater sternocostal head activity than the flat bench—in fact, activity between the two was almost identical. Both studies found that the flat bench resulted in significantly more muscle activation than any of the incline angles tested.
In a nutshell: either a flat or slightly declined (approximately 15 degrees below horizontal) bench press using a grip between shoulder width and 1.5 times shoulder width is the best way to maximize sternocostal head (lower chest) activity.
While there may not be a difference between the two in terms of activation, individual differences may make one variation superior to the other. For example, I know some guys who get shoulder pain from flat bench press yet feel great on the decline.
The Best Variation For The Upper Chest
Lehman (2005), using the narrow, mid and wide grips described above, failed to find any difference in pectoralis major clavicular head activity between grip widths. Barnett (1995) reported that a mid grip was superior to a wide grip for clavicular head activity.
In a nutshell: results are mixed. However, from these data (combined with the potentially unsafe nature of wide grips discussed previously) we can safely eliminate the wide grip as a contender for optimal clavicular head activity.
Barnett (1995) compared bench angles of -18, 0, 40 and 90 degrees. The bench at 40 degrees above horizontal provided the most clavicular head activity.
Trebs (2010) compared bench angles of 0, 28, 44 and 56 degrees and reported superior muscle activity for 44 and 56 degrees relative to the other angles.
Lauver (2015) compared bench angles of -15, 0, 30 and 45 degrees and found that 30 and 45 degrees were superior to -15 and 0 degrees.
In a nutshell: the bench angle for optimal pectoralis major clavicular head activity seems to be between 30 and 56 degrees and 1.5 times shoulder width.
Are You Making These Two “Tension-Killing” Bench Press Mistakes?
Schick (2010) examined the effect of load on pectoralis major muscle activity and found that heavier loads result in greater pectoralis major muscle activity—up to a point. As the load increased from 60 to 70% and from 70 to 80% of one rep max (1RM), activity increased. However, increasing the load from 80 to 90% of 1RM failed to provide an additional increase in pectoralis major muscle activity, suggesting that eventually the weight becomes too heavy to control and tension gets dumped elsewhere besides the target muscle.
Given that more weight on the bar (as long as it isn’t too heavy to control) provides more muscle activity, we want to do everything we can to ensure our ability to handle relatively larger loads. Most critically, we need to set up in the most stable position possible, as research demonstrates that instability decreases strength (and thus muscle activity). Saeterbakken (2013) found that performing the bench press on a swiss ball or balance cushion compared to a stable bench resulted in an approximately 8% decrease in strength and a 10% (balance cushion) to 20% (swiss ball) decrease in pectoralis major muscle activity.
In a nutshell: as long as you aren’t going so heavy that you can’t control the movement, heavier loads typically provide more muscle activity. As such, set up in the most stable position possible. Avoid using swiss balls or balance cushions and—please—don’t put your feet in the air or on top of the bench; instead, push them into the floor and take all the slack out of your body by shoving your glutes and upper back into the bench as well.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
To maximize overall pectoralis major development, it appears necessary to utilize both the flat or slight decline bench press (to maximize sternocostal head development) and the incline bench press (to maximize clavicular head development). However, avoid excessive declines (more than 15 degrees below horizontal) and inclines (more than 56 degrees above horizontal).
Grips wider than shoulder width may provide a slight boost to sternocostal head muscle activity, but given their potential to harm the shoulder joints I don’t recommend (especially for guys with any preexisting shoulder issues) going any wider than 1.5 times shoulder width. A good rule of thumb here is to simply find the grip width that allows you to move the heaviest load possible, which leads me to my next point.
Don’t be afraid to throw some weight on the bar. As long as you stay under 90% of 1RM, more weight is going to provide greater muscle activity, so use the heaviest load possible (with good form) that allows you to hit your prescribed sets, reps, and tempo.
Set up in the most stable position possible. All of your attention and focus should be directed towards the movement itself—don’t waste precious resources on balancing or maintaining a stable position (i.e., don’t make things harder than they have to be). Instability robs us of strength and interferes with maximal muscle activity.
Finally, if your chest is a lagging body part, you need to do more than just the bench press to build a massive chest. The fastest way to grow your chest is to use a program where the SOLE FOCUS is to build your chest.
If you’d like to see what a program like that looks like, you can learn how to focus your body’s mass-building efforts into a SINGLE MUSCLE GROUP in this article.
So there you have it; powerful insights from the research to put you on the fast-track to a chiseled, full chest. Remember, knowledge is only power when you apply it—so go forth onto the battlefield and, armed with these tools, you’ll be sure to chalk up a victory in the battle for powerful pecs.
Barnett, C., Kippers, V., & Turner, P. (1995). Effects of Variations of the Bench Press Exercise on the EMG Activity of Five Shoulder Muscles. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 9(4), 222-227
Green, C., & Comfort, P. (2007). The affect of grip width on bench press performance and risk of injury. National Strength and Conditioning, 29(5), 10-14.
Lauver, J. D., Cayot, T. E., & Scheuermann, B. W. (2015). Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise. European journal of sport science, 23, 1-8.
Lehman, G. J. (2005). The influence of grip width and forearm pronation/supination on upper-body myoelectric activity during the flat bench press. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 19(3), 587-591
Saeterbakken, A. H., & Fimland, M. S. (2013). Electromyographic activity and 6RM strength in bench press on stable and unstable surfaces. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(4), 1101-1107.
Schick, E. E., Coburn, J. W., Brown, L. E., Judelson, D. A., Khamoui, A. V., Tran, T. T., & Uribe, B. P. (2010). A comparison of muscle activation between a Smith machine and free weight bench press. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(3), 779-784.
Trebs, A. A., Brandenburg, J. P., & Pitney, W. A. (2010). An electromyography analysis of 3 muscles surrounding the shoulder joint during the performance of a chest press exercise at several angles. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(7), 1925-1930.
Like this article? Please rate and share below!