Bench Press – the Best Upper Body Exercise

Gabe Kapler

The bench press is the most essential upper body move for overall strength, power and muscular development. It has also inspired the world’s most ridiculous question: Man, how much can you bench?

This query is both embarrassing and meaningful. The amount of weight an athlete can move off of his or her chest translates directly to sport. For non-athletes concerned mostly about aesthetics, the move often correlates equally to chest size and definition.

Tim Henriques, NPTI sums it up nicely.

For the goals of improved strength, increased muscle size, improved athletic function and improved general fitness, the bench press is the best exercise for the upper body.

Ponder how the move translates to the field or court.

If I’m a defensive back and want to knock a wide receiver off of his pattern, I may thrust my arms and hands into his chest or face with as much force as I can muster. This action requires the muscles of the chest, shoulders and triceps to fire, the groups targeted by the bench press. As a baseball or softball player, if I dive into the gap to catch a ball and need to pop up quickly to make a throw, I recruit the same muscles to thrust myself back to my feet. A hockey player stick checks with a near identical pattern, and Olajuwon most certainly used his strength accumulated beneath the bar to keep Shaquille O’Neal out of the paint.

Supporting larger quantities of weight than the push-up or cable crossover provides helps create a defined look up and down the torso. The muscles can only grow by training to support heavier loads. While there are alternatives, the bench press is a chesty King Kong.

To perform the bench press properly, follow these steps:

  1. Lie down on a flat bench. Maintain contact with the bench with your back, avoid any arching.
  2. Grab the bar with your hands (palms should face your feet) roughly shoulder width apart. The perfect spot isn’t necessary; comfort is the key, and you’ll experiment over time to find the appropriate distance.
  3. Press the barbell straight up from your chest to an extended position. Lower the weight in a controlled manner. Drive the weight back towards the ceiling.

As with all weight training exercises, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Start with the weight of the bar alone. If you’re new to weight training, you can use a broomstick. Slow progression is essential to avoiding injury, learning proper technique and ultimately achieving your strength and body composition goals.

Go hard, strong mind,


  • Jon

    Great post as always Kap. I got an email yesterday that talked about how benching isn’t good for baseball players. It made some sense but I was wondering what your take would be. The article is here

  • Jason

    Can you recommend how many reps; how many rounds; and how many days per week–for general health and wellness, not for an elite performer?

    • Eric

      There’s an ealrier entry on this blog about the 5×5 method. I just started it this week and love it!

      • Steve

        But that article didn’t cover the types of chest exercises you should incorporate with the 5×5 workout (if I remember correctly). Do you think it was only flat bench, or 5×5 for flat, incline, decline? Thanks!

        • colt

          Eric- I have been training this style for years and it works. If you are not doing standing presses on day 2 I would do incline bench 5×5 which works the shoulders more plus you would not be able to go as heavy on the incline as you would on the flat bench. (the decline is a waste don’t bother with that) this is how I do it taken fro Bill Starr who created the 5×5 in the seventies

          m flat bench 5×5 to 5 ep max
          w Incline or standing press 5×5
          F flat bench to 90% of 5 rep max

          for squats I do Front squats on W because the load is lighter

  • Jimmy Nicolosi

    Hey Gabe, what are your thoughts on any back arching during a bench press? I’ve heard many different things and I wanted your opinion on it. Thanks!

  • Professor Twain (@PrTwain)

    Thanks for another great column. What do you think about the relative merits of using dumbbells versus a barbell for presses?

  • Brian

    Gabe, I have to disagree. I much rather do ring push-ups or even hand release push-ups. It allows you to strengthen the entire upper body. Bench press doesn’t strengthen the entire upper body. It’s too much of an isolation exercise.

    • colt

      great exercises I have done both but from my experience the bench builds more muscle & strength. Then again Herscheal Walker only does pushups never touched a weight and I remember as a kid watching the Jeep Superstars competition and he threw up 350 on a incline bench like it was a bag of feathers.

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  • Jamie C

    I know you are about readers’ overall well-being and you’ve clearly spent a lot of time in the gym.

    The following is anecdotal but I’d recommend looking up the science that backs this up:

    Ever notice the disproportionate number of trainers who hurt themselves on the flat bench? Is it ego? Probably some of it, but there’s a lot more. The shoulder is put in a really tough spot, especially when racking and un-racking the bar.

    The incline bench has proven to be far, far safer and I REALLY think a proper spot getting the bar on and off the rack will help lead to a sustainable, healthy life in the gym.

    To the extent Hakeen could keep Shaq out of the paint, I’m pretty sure he could do it just as well with a 405lb incline as he could with a 405lb flat. And in his retirement, he might even be able to learn how to play tennis without constant shoulder pain from serving as a result of too much flat benching.

    Keep up the good work, but PLEASE look up the kinesiology of the flat- versus incline-bench press.

    Safety first but, don’t worry, the ego guys can still hurt themselves as badly as they want on the incline!