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Bench press muscles worked: Here's what happens when you lift that barbell

Person doing bench press in gym
(Image credit: Getty)

Trying to figure out which muscles are worked by a bench press? The popular gym move mainly works three areas of the body: chest, shoulders and arms.

It’s a great compound (multiple muscle) exercise that involves lying on a bench as you press a weight up using a barbell, free weights or the best adjustable dumbbells (opens in new tab)

“During a bench press you lower the weight down to chest level, then press it upwards while extending the arms. There are a few variations of this move, including lying flat, at an incline or decline or putting your hands closer together on the barbell,” says Jen Skym, a personal trainer from Jeneration Fitness (opens in new tab)

“If you want to add bench presses to your training, try doing them two-three times a week, aiming for three to four sets of 8-12 reps. Make sure you give yourself at least one day in between to allow your muscles to recover. Choose a weight that is challenging to you, but not so heavy you struggle to lift it, as that could lead to poor form and injury,” says Skym.

Learn your muscle fiber types (opens in new tab)or find out the muscles activated during the bench press move.

Pectoralis major

This is the thick, fan-shaped muscle that spreads across your chest. “It’s one of the ‘prime movers’ for the bench press – which means it’s responsible for doing the most work. It contributes to the pushing movement that presses the weight against gravity from your chest back to start position.

Pectoralis major

(Image credit: Getty)

“If you’re training for muscle mass, also known as hypertrophy, then this will be the muscle group you’ll feel the biggest pump in,” says Skym.

Pectoralis minor

This muscle is triangular and you’ll find it under the pectoralis major, says Skym. “Another prime mover in the bench press, it’s the smaller muscle in the chest, which helps with the push motion.”

Pectoralis minor

(Image credit: Getty)

Anterior (front) deltoids

The front delts are triangular and help the arms move forward. They are the front section of the muscle in the image below. 

"They are responsible for shoulder flexion, helping the muscles to lower and lift the bar,” says Skym. 

Anterior deltoid

(Image credit: Getty)

Triceps brachii

The triceps brachii is a large thick muscle on the back of the upper arm. “They are involved in all pushing exercises, and in this instance, they help power the bench press as you get near the top of the exercise, when you’re extending at the elbows to finish the movement and lock the weight out,” says Skym. 

In the image below, the person is facing away, so we can see the triceps brachii from behind. 

Triceps brachii

(Image credit: Getty)

Serratus anterior

The serratus anterior is a fan-shaped muscle on the sides of your chest and on your ribs. Skym says: “It helps support your shoulder girdle during pressing and pushing exercises like the bench press, and takes some of the strain off the rotator cuff: the muscles and tendons that keep the ball of your upper arm bone in your shoulder socket. This allows you to lift heavier weights.”

Serratus anterior

(Image credit: Getty)

Maddy is a freelance journalist and Level 3 personal trainer specializing in fitness, health and wellbeing content. She has been a writer and editor for 22 years, and has worked for some of the UK's bestselling newspapers and women’s magazines, including Marie Claire, The Sunday Times and Women's Health. Maddy loves HIIT training and can often be found working out while her two young daughters do matching burpees or star jumps. As a massive foodie, she loves cooking and trying out new healthy recipes (especially ones with hidden vegetables so the kids eat them).