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What does the bench press target? [Article, Video]

Posted by Pascal Landshoeft

Feb 7, 2017 10:00:00 AM

Bench press target

What does the bench press target?

Once you start training and get into the nitty gritty of strength development it is also good to know which lifts target which areas of your body. Here is a quick overview what you are getting in motion during a bench press. The main parts are your pecs, your triceps and your delts.

 Bench press calculator

The bench press is an iconic exercise in the gym and I have already discussed why it is so popular in other articles on this blog. This is one of the first exercises I ever mastered and, actually, did too much of creating imbalances in my body in my teenage years, which I am still working on in my thirties to remedy. The bench press is a great motivator as it is easy to learn and you can progress to big weights fairly rapidly.

The bench press itself is classified as a chest exercise and works mainly the pectorals, triceps brachii and anterior deltoid in the eccentric part of the movement. The bench press also activates the biceps brachii, the brachialis, and extensor digitorum to a smaller degree as these are part of the concentric part of the bench press motion.

Areas the bench press targets

Pectoralis major skeletal view

The pectoralis major is your main chest muscle which runs across the upper part of the rib cage. It attaches to your breastbone (sternum) in the middle of your chest, runs across the ribs to then attach to the bones of your upper arm. In the picture, you can see where the muscle attaches across to the arms. In this area, you can get nasty stretch marks if you overtrain in your teenage years and your chest develops to quickly compared to the rest of your body which happened to me. The major functions of the pectoralis major are to enable arm movement in several directions and to keep the arms attached to the trunk of the body.


Pectoralis minor skeletal view

The pectoralis minor lies below the pectoralis major and is comparably smaller. It attaches slightly more inward at the ribs and runs from there to the shoulder blade (scapula). The main function of the pectoralis minor is to keep the shoulder blades in by providing tension and connection to the front of your body. Without the pectoralis minor, the shoulder blades would sink into a far inferior position for overall posture. Together the pectoralis major and minor form the pectorals which are also often related to in the bodybuilding and strength world as "pecs". 

Triceps brachii

The triceps brachii is the antagonist to the biceps brachii and brachialis. It attaches at the elbow joint and runs from there to your shoulder blade and along the back of the upper part of your arm. Triceps brachii is latin for "three-headed muscle of the arm" and splits into the long head, lateral head, and medial head. Together with the biceps brachii the main function of the triceps brachii is to provide movement to the arm so you can bend it. The powerlifting style of the bench press is more heavy on the triceps brachii while the bodybuilding style of the bench press usually leads to more response from the pectorals and less from the triceps brachii. 

Anterior deltoid picture

The deltoid muscle forms the rounded contour of the shoulder and attaches to the upper arm and shoulder blade. The deltoid muscle is an antagonist to the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi. An important function of the muscle is to prevent the dislocation of the shoulder when carrying heavy loads. So if you want to train this muscle even further maybe consider some farmer's walks.

Variations of the bench press which target same areas

While the barbell bench press is the most iconic exercise to target your chest there are also other options to work the same area and provide same gains.

Dumbbell bench press is a variation of the flat barbell bench press utilizing dumbbells. The dumbbells provide a wider range of motion and also make it easier for the lifter to adjust the movement by rotating the dumbbells during the movement targeting different parts of the pecs. I personally find that I get more pump out of dumbbell work even when I use smaller weights and would, therefore, deem the dumbbell bench press superior to the barbell bench press for bodybuilding purposes. 

Incline and decline bench presses have the same range of motion as the flat bench press. An incline bench press puts you in a more upward position while a decline bench press puts you downward. This can also help to provide muscle growth by stimulating the area from different angles.

Incline Flies utilize the additional range of motion which dumbbells provide to target the pectoralis major even further. Rather than moving the weight up and down in a straight line you move the weight in a wide arc. To perform incline flies set the bench at a 45-degree angle. With your palms facing in, lift the dumbbell's to arm's length above shoulders so that they barely touch. From there lower the dumbells in a wide arc until they are level with your ears. Bring them back into starting position to complete one full repetition.

Machine bench presses and flies can be an alternative for people who do not have the strength yet to work with free weights or have to go through rehabilitation after a major injury. I personally feel like that machines give you less of a stimulus whilst providing more security to beginners by having a controlled range of motion and less potential for the weight getting out of control.


The main muscles being targeted during the bench press are the pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, triceps brachii and anterior deltoid. While the flat barbell bench press is the most commonly known exercise to target the area there are many other options to stimulate growth and strength development in the chest. Depending on your goals you might want to vary the exercise once you have mastered the basics. 

Further reading



Topics: Lift stronger, Bench Press, Powerlifting, Bench, Bodybuilding