The barbell bench press is arguably one of the most popular exercises in the fitness industry and for a good reason. It’s one of the most effective exercises for developing strength in the chest, triceps, and anterior delts.
A barbell bench press is one of the three major compound exercises used to assess upper body strength in various sports. Most notably: powerlifting. So it’s no surprise that a common question among workout fanatics is “how much do you bench?”
Of course, the barbell bench press is not the only exercise for building a strong chest. Machines are also a viable option, including the aptly named chest press machine. The bench press and chest press have similar names and target the chest, triceps, and anterior delts.
But many fitness enthusiasts wonder…
Should I do both?
Is one better for strength?
What about aesthetics?
What if I don’t have a bench press? Is the seated chest press machine a suitable alternative?
The answers to all of these questions will be addressed in this article! We will cover the key differences between the two, their pros and cons, when to perform each exercise, and how to do the movement properly to avoid injury and maximize gains.
After reading this article, you’ll be able to decide which exercise will suit your goals best.
Bench Press vs Chest Press
A key difference between a bench press and a chest press is that the bench press is a free weight exercise, whereas a chest press is a machine exercise. This makes the chest press relatively less difficult than the bench press and allows the user to lift more weight with the chest press. The chest press is also easier to train until failure, which offers some hypertrophy advantages.
Here are some other differences between the chest press and the bench press.
The 6 Main Differences Between the Bench Press and Chest Press
- The bench press is a free-weight exercise, while the chest press is a machine exercise that moves along a fixed path.
- The chest press is performed while seated and the bench press is performed while laying down horizontally.
- The chest press is usually performed with a lighter weight than a bench press.
- The bench press is better for building strength because it allows the athlete to lift heavier weights.
- The chest press is safer to perform alone than the bench press.
- The chest press is better for training to failure, which makes it better for muscular hypertrophy.
For most people, the barbell bench press is a superior exercise for building strength, whereas a machine chest press may be better for those that simply want to grow the size of their chest.
The biggest advantage of free-weight exercises is that your path of motion is not restricted to a machine. Free weight exercises can easily be modified to hit the target muscle and limit injury risk no matter who you are. Machines, on the other hand, aren’t built to fit everyone, so they may not be optimal for some.
Another major difference between the barbell bench press and machine chest press is that the bench press is performed in a lying position. However, a machine chest press is performed in a seated position.
What’s more, since you’re lying down during a bench press, it engages more muscles to help keep proper positioning, including the core and lower body. This may make the chest press easier for some people to learn and perform, as it requires less coordination.
This doesn’t mean that the bench press is necessarily “better” than the chest press and vice versa. There are some pros and cons for each movement, which we’ll describe below. These can help you determine which exercise is best for your goals.
Pros and Cons
Chest Press Benefits
Here are some benefits of the chest press:
- Since the chest press is a machine, it’s much easier to learn because it’s not as complex of a movement and doesn’t require hardly any balance or stability.
- The chest press isolates the pecs to a greater extent which is ideal for those focused on building their chest. During a barbell bench press, your triceps may fatigue faster than your chest, which can limit chest stimulus.
- The chest press is a safer movement because the weight isn’t being held over your body and there is less room for error with machines than free weights.
- You don’t need a spotter, so training to failure using a chest press is a lot smarter than a barbell bench press. What’s more, it’s easy to use advanced techniques on a chest press, such as drop-sets or rest-pause sets, especially if it’s a pin-loaded machine.
- Depending on the machine, you can work one arm at a time, also known as unilateral training, which is great for fixing or preventing muscular and strength imbalances.
- Most gyms have a chest press available and many even have pictures and instructions demonstrating how to do the movement properly, which is great for beginners.
- Unlike a barbell bench press, a machine chest press delivers constant tension to the working muscle throughout the entire movement. Most free weight exercises have several points where there is little to no tension on the muscles.
Chest Press Cons
Here are some disadvantages of the chest press:
- The chest press is a machine that can be adjusted, however, it still may not fit your body properly.
- A machine chest press is not as functional as a barbell bench press and doesn’t provide as much carry-over to other lifts or activities of daily living.
- Your range of motion may be restricted depending on the machine.
- It’s not as good as the barbell bench press for building strength, plus it’s never used in any competitions. So if your goal is to be a powerlifter or cross-fitter, then the barbell bench press is a must.
- The chest press does not improve stability or balance as much as a free weight exercise would.
- For some individuals, the machine may not provide enough resistance. However, you can purchase some accessories, such as a Gym Pin, to add more weight.
- Machines tend to be higher in cost, break down quicker, and take up more room. Whereas a bench press can be performed in a squat rack that can be used for other exercises. So if you have a home gym and only so much space, a squat rack and a bench are wiser investments.
Bench Press Benefits
Benefits of the bench press include:
- The barbell bench press is a superior movement for increasing your upper body strength compared to a chest press. Plus, no matter how strong you get, you can always add more weight, whereas with a machine you can max out.
- It’s effective at increasing the size of your chest, anterior delts, and triceps.
- Minimal equipment is required to perform a bench press, all you need is a rack, flat bench, barbell, and some plates. You can even bench out of a squat rack, which is ideal for home gyms, or use dumbbells if you don’t have access to a barbell.
- The barbell bench press is a free weight movement, so it engages more stabilizer muscles and you don’t have to worry about a machine fitting you perfectly.
- It’s more advantageous to train in the lower rep range (1-5 reps) with a barbell bench press compared to a machine chest press.
- You can easily change your grip width to target different muscles more or less. For example, a close-grip bench press will engage the triceps more, whereas a wide-grip will target the chest more.
- Arguably, a bench press is a more functional movement than a machine press, so it may have greater carry-over to other exercises, sports, and activities of daily living.
- It’s one of the three main lifts in powerlifting. If you plan to compete in the future, it’s a must!
- The bench press works several muscles at once, so it’s great for those that are short on time.
Bench Press Cons
Disadvantages of the bench press include:
- If you’re training to failure or going for a one-rep max on a bench press, you need a spotter to ensure the barbell doesn’t end up getting stuck on your chest.
- Injury risk may be higher with a barbell bench press compared to a machine press because a greater amount of stabilizer muscles are involved to perform the movement and you’re more likely to go heavy. Also, using too wide of a grip can place excessive strain on the shoulder.
- It’s more difficult to isolate the chest with a barbell bench press, so your triceps may give out before the chest is fully fatigued. Therefore, it may not be ideal for someone that wants to bring up their chest, rather than their anterior delts and triceps.
- A barbell bench press may put more strain on the wrist than other chest exercises, such as flys.
- There are various points during a bench press where there’s little to no tension on the chest. However, this can be overcome by utilizing resistance bands.
- A barbell bench press is a bilateral movement that doesn’t allow you to train one arm at a time, so you may develop strength or muscular imbalances if you only bench press.
When to Perform an Exercise
When to perform a chest press
Anyone that wants to increase the size of their chest and minimize injury risk should consider doing a machine chest press. The machine chest press is usually done once or twice a week and programmed on chest, push, or upper body days.
A machine chest press should be performed at the beginning of the workout since it’s a compound lift. If you are also doing a bench press, it’s a good idea to do a chest press after the bench press because the bench press is a more demanding exercise.
The chest press is ideal for growing the size of your chest rather than increasing the strength, so it lends itself well to a higher rep range (8-15 reps). You can also use various advanced techniques, such as drop-sets, super-sets, rest-pause, on a machine chest press to further promote hypertrophy.
When to perform a bench press
Anyone that wants to increase their upper body strength doesn’t have any shoulder injuries or instabilities, or is looking to compete in a powerlifting competition should consider doing the barbell bench press.
The barbell bench press is a more complex exercise, so performing it multiple times per week will drastically help improve your technique and efficiency. Typically, the barbell bench press is performed on chest, upper body, or push days.
If you’re competing in powerlifting, it’s a good idea to do the squat, bench press, and deadlift on the same day to get used to what that feels like. Similar to the machine chest press, it’s a good idea to perform the barbell bench press earlier on in a workout as the first or second exercise.
Several rep ranges can be utilized with the barbell bench press depending on your goal. 1-5 reps is ideal for building strength, 6-12 reps is optimal for building muscle, and 12-20 reps is better for muscular endurance.
Chest Press Muscles Used
A machine chest press primarily works the chest, also known as the pectoral muscles, and it secondarily engages the triceps, anterior deltoids, and forearms.
- Pectoralis Major
- Pectoralis Minor
- Long Head
- Lateral Head
- Medial Head
- Anterior Deltoids
Bench Press Muscles Used
The barbell bench press primarily targets the chest, triceps brachii, and biceps brachii. Secondarily, the barbell bench press works the forearms, muscles of the rotator cuff, rhomboids, traps, and lats.
- Pectoralis Major
- Pectoralis Minor
- Long Head
- Medial Head
- Lateral Head
- Biceps Brachii
- Short Head
- Rotator Cuff
- Teres Minor
How to perform a Chest Press correctly
The instructions below may vary depending on the type of machine chest press your gym has. But overall, they should help you learn how to do the movement properly.
- To do this exercise, you will need some sort of machine chest press, either plate-loaded or pin-loaded.
- Before starting the exercise, adjust the set height so that the handles are set near chest height. Then, pick an appropriate amount of weight to use for the machine. It’s a good idea to use lighter weight at first to get the movement down and warm up.
- Sit on the machine with your feet planted on the floor about shoulder-width apart.
- Grab the handles firmly with your thumb wrapped around the handles and maintain a neutral wrist position. Retract your shoulder blades and stick out your chest to get into the proper position.
- Look straight ahead to keep your head and neck in a neutral position.
- Take a deep breath then exhale before pushing the handles away from your body by contracting your chest and triceps to extend your arms.
- Pause for a brief second at the top portion of the rep, before flexing your arms to slowly bring the handles back to the starting position. If you’re looking to build muscle, focus on going fast on the concentric and slow on the eccentric.
- Remember to keep your butt and upper back planted on the machine with your shoulders pinned back to reduce injury risk and your anterior delts from taking over the movement.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Watch this video from Scott Herman to see how to perform a machine chest press correctly. Keep in mind that the setup may vary depending on the machine, however, the movement should be very similar.
How to perform a Bench Press correctly
- To perform a barbell bench press, you’ll need a bench, rack, barbell, weight clips, plates, and potentially a spotter. You can either use a bench press or just a squat rack and a flat bench.
- Before starting, set up the bench press where the barbell can be placed on and off the rack easily. There should be a slight bend in your arm where the barbell is positioned.
- Lay down on the bench with your upper back and butt firmly planted on the bench. Place your feet on the ground, if you’re too short, you can use plates underneath your feet.
- Grab the barbell using a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Your palms should be in a pronated position throughout the entire movement (palms facing down and knuckles facing up). Avoid excessive bending of the wrist to reduce injury risk.
- Retract your shoulders by contracting your lats and unrack the barbell by straightening your arms and moving the barbell away from the rack until it’s just above your chest.
- Take a deep breath then begin to lower the barbell towards your sternum by flexing your arms until it touches your chest.
- After a slight pause, exhale while pushing the barbell upwards by contracting your chest and triceps to extend your arms.
- Once your arms are fully extended, repeat for the number of desired reps.
- It’s important to keep your upper back and butt planted on the bench at all times. If your butt raises off the bench, the rep will not count in powerlifting or CrossFit competitions.
Check out this video from Jeff Nippard to learn how to maximize your barbell bench press technique!
Chest Press vs Bench Press: Which One is Superior?
A chest press and bench press have several similarities, but it’s quite clear that if you want to maximize your upper body strength and development, the bench press reigns supreme.
However, if you don’t have access to a bench press, are looking to bring up your chest, have no desire to compete in a powerlifting competition any time soon, and a barbell bench press bothers your shoulders, then the machine chest press is a good alternative.
Furthermore, the chest press is a good accessory movement to the barbell bench press since it isolates the chest more, allows you to safely train to failure, and places a different stimulus on the muscles. Not to mention, you can train one arm at a time, so it can help balance out any muscular imbalances.
For the average gym-goer, it’s a good idea to do both exercises if you have access to the right equipment. Doing a variety of exercises, rep ranges, and training splits will keep your routine from getting boring and may lower injury risk.
The chest press places less strain on the shoulders, which can make it advantageous for those recovering from shoulder injuries. The chest press is also easier to train to failure, which can make it superior for growing chest muscles.
The bench press involves more muscles than the chest press, especially the triceps and forearm muscles. Since the bench press is a free weight exercise, it engages smaller stabilizing muscles that the chest press does not engage.
The bench press is the better exercise for powerlifters because it is a required competition movement. Anyone looking to compete in powerlifting should become proficient at the bench press.
Other Exercise Comparison Posts
If you enjoyed this post, check out our comparisons of other popular exercises below.