The pecs play a large role in the bench press and their strength and size can dramatically impact the amount of weight we are able to press, but oftentimes lifters struggle to feel their pecs while benching.
There are a number of ways we can alter our bench press technique to make sure we’re engaging the pecs as much as we can to encourage strength and muscle gain, and ultimately feel them more throughout the lift.
Here are my top 5 tips to feel your pecs while benching:
- Use A Wider Grip
- Get Full Range Of Motion
- Slow Down The Eccentric
- Keep Elbows Stacked Under The Wrist And The Bar
- Maintain Control Off Of The Chest
To ensure that we’re maximizing the use of the pecs when benching we need to understand the role of the pecs in the bench press, and how to use this knowledge to our advantage to feel them more while benching.
Role Of The Pecs In The Bench Press
The chest muscles are prime movers for the bench press and are heavily involved on the descent (eccentric portion) and the ascent (concentric portion) of the movement.
The chest muscles are divided into the upper pecs and lower pecs based on the fact that there are fibers on the upper portion of the chest that originate from the clavicle (upper pecs) and fibers below this that originate from the sternum (lower pecs). The upper pecs and the lower pecs work together in the bench press to control the barbell down to the chest, and to press the bar back up.
Although the pecs work as a unit to achieve shoulder flexion and horizontal adduction, they do not contribute equally to these motions because the orientation of their fibers will give them each a slight mechanical advantage in some positions, and a slight disadvantage in other positions.
The upper pecs play a larger role in shoulder flexion (elevating the arm in front of the body), while the lower pecs play a larger role in horizontal adduction (bringing the arms back to the midline, as if giving a hug).
These motions are important in the bench press because we are flexing the shoulders to elevate the bar off the chest, and we are generating force towards horizontal adduction to bring the arms back towards the midline as we press.
To learn more about the pecs involvement in the bench press and other contributors, check out our Complete Guide For The Muscles Used In The Bench Press.
How To Feel The Pecs In The Bench Press
Now that we understand the role of the pecs in the bench press, we can manipulate the technique of the movement to recruit the pecs to a larger extent.
Here are my 5 tips to feeling the pecs more while benching:
1. Use A Wider Grip
To feel the pecs more in the bench press we should use a wider grip, as it will put more emphasis on the chest due.
Using a wider grip helps us shift the demand to the chest more so than the regular grip or the close grip bench press, because the wider grip recruits the pecs more to achieve horizontal adduction (bringing the arms back towards the midline) than other variations.
In addition, the wider grip also uses the pecs for shoulder flexion (elevating the arms in front of us) similar to other bench variations.
However, it is important to not take this to an extreme, as a grip that is too wide will place unnecessary strain on the shoulders.
The optimal distance for a wide grip is approximately 2 times shoulder-width (this can vary depending on limb length), although I would suggest simply starting by taking a slightly wider grip than the grip we would normally use.
2. Get Full Range of Motion
To feel the pecs while benching we need to ensure that we are getting full range of motion by touching the chest with every repetition and using a technique with minimal arching of the low and mid back.
While there is nothing wrong with arching in the bench press, if our goal is to target the pecs as much as possible then we are going to want to minimize it to get more range of motion and recruit more pec muscle fibers.
That being said, we should still have a slight arch as we want to get the shoulders retracted and depressed (back and down) to protect them while we bench, which will naturally cause a slight arch.
It is also common for lifters who do not compete in powerlifting to train the bench press without touching the chest at the bottom of the repetition, but to get full activation from the pectoral muscles we need to touch the chest with each repetition and get full range of motion.
Do you struggle with weakness off the chest when benching with a full range of motion? If so, check out our article “Is Your Bench Press Weak Off The Chest?” for 6 tips to try!
3. Slow Down The Eccentric
The pecs are heavily involved in both the descent (the eccentric) of the bench press, therefore if we want to engage the pecs more we can increase the time under tension by slowing down the eccentric.
To challenge the pecs we can increase the time under tension in the eccentric position of the bench press by adding a tempo of 3 to 5 seconds.
This will engage the pecs on the way down (eccentric portion of the lift), and should help us to feel them more because research suggests that they are 2 times more active than on the descent compared to the ascent (concentric portion of the lift).
It is important to note that although slowing down the eccentric will help us activate the pecs to a larger extent and therefore feel them more, if we slow down the eccentric too much we will fatigue the pecs early on and may not have enough force left to press the bar back up.
For this reason, eccentric work should be done with a lighter weight than the traditional bench press and used solely for the purpose of feeling the pecs more, and not for trying to gain maximal strength (where the goal is to press as much weight as possible).
4. Keep Elbows Stacked Under The Wrist And Bar
To feel the bench press in the pecs we need to achieve the optimal joint angles that will recruit the pecs the most. These are achieved by keeping the elbows and wrists stacked and lined up directly under the bar, when the bar is on the chest.
To keep the elbows and wrists in a safe position and to ensure that we are able to exert force from the pecs into the bar, we need the joints to remain in a stacked position throughout the movement.
In addition, we need these joints to be in-line with the bar when it is on the chest to keep the emphasis on the pecs. If the elbows are slightly in-front of the bar, then we will be shifting some of the demand onto the triceps, and as a result decrease the load on the chest, which we don’t want to do if our goal is to feel the chest more.
To keep the focus on the pecs when benching, we want to keep the bar, elbows, and wrists stacked to express as much force form the chest as we can when lowering the bar to the chest and pressing it back up.
If your goal is to feel the triceps more in the bench press then there are other recommendations that I would suggest. To check out these suggestions, read my other article 5 Tips To Feel The Triceps While Bench Pressing.
5. Maintain Control Off Of The Chest
To get the most out of our pecs during the bench press, we need to ensure we are using them as much as possible to complete the lift, which involves maintaining control off of the bottom position and minimizing the use of momentum to elevate the bar.
It is common to see lifters who will bench by bouncing the bar off of the chest, or those who let the bar sink into the chest and heave it upwards.
Both of these methods are ineffective for feeling the pecs as much as possible, because they are actually preventing the pecs from doing their job and instead using momentum to lift the weight rather than using muscular exertion from the pecs.
To feel the pecs and to develop size and/or strength in the pecs we need to let them do their job, rather than “cheating” our repetitions by launching the bar off the chest.
A major component of maintaining control off the chest is making sure that we are touching the bar in the right place on the chest consistently. Check out our article “Where Should The Bar Touch Your Chest For Bench Press?” to see if you’re touching in the right place!
Other Variations To Include To Feel The Pecs Working
I’ve mentioned that to feel the pecs more when benching that we can include a wide grip bench press and perhaps slow down the tempo to really increase the time under tension for the pecs, but there are also other bench variations that we can add to our training program to help us feel the pecs more.
The pause bench press is a bench variation that involves bringing the bar to the chest and holding it there as we maintain tension for a predetermined amount of time before pressing the bar back up to the start position.
If you’re wondering whether you can just bench press to work your chest, check out my article on Is Bench Press Good Enough For Chest?
- Set up the pins of a rack at a height that we can easily unrack the bar while laying on the bench
- Lay on the bench and position the body so that the eyes are even with the bar. The feet will be planted on the ground and generate tension into the legs throughout the lift.
- Place hands wider than shoulder-width
- Use the bar to pull the shoulder blades in a retracted and slightly depressed position (this creates a stable base to press from and protects the shoulders)
- Straighten the arms to unrack the bar and pull the bar out from pins while maintaining scapular positioning
- Bring the bar down to the chest with control, ensuring that the elbows are approximately 45 degrees from the body, and stacked directly under the wrist.
- As the bar touches the chest, pause for 3 to 5 seconds while maintaining tension in the legs and arms
- Press up and slightly back, to return to the starting position
The pause bench press is an important bench press variation to include (especially for those competing in powerlifting) because it eliminates any possibility of “cheating” off the chest.
When we pause the bench press we are ensuring that we use the pec muscles to press the bar back up, rather than bouncing the bar off the chest – which would not activate the chest fully.
This variation is ideal for those competing in powerlifting because we need to pause the bar on the chest in competition. It is also beneficial for those who struggle to maintain tension off the chest, or are generally weaker in this portion of the lift.
Dead Bench Press
The dead bench press is a bench variation that involves pressing from the safeties rather than the chest, and is a bottom-up movement (starting with the concentric portion) – rather than a top-down movement like the traditional bench press (which has the eccentric portion first).
- Set the safeties so that the bar rests directly at chest level when laying down (or as close as it gets)
- Position the body so that the bar touches the chest where it would typically make contact with the traditional bench press
- Use the bar to set the scapula in a retracted and depressed position
- The feet should be in full contact with the floor and be creating tension in the legs throughout the movement
- Press the bar up and slightly back towards the rack to lockout the arms
- Bring the bar down with control to reset it on the pins, allowing for a brief pause before starting the next repetition.
The dead bench press is a great variation for targeting the chest because we are able to focus on the concentric portion of the lift, while still maintaining full range of motion to recruit the most muscle fibers from the pecs to work to horizontally adduct the arms to help elevate the bar off of the pins.
The dead bench press is ideal for those who struggle with an inconsistent touchpoint because it allows us to readjust on the chest with every repetition. It is also useful for those who have a sticking point on the chest or just off the chest, and for those who need to practice maintaining tension in the bottom position.
The incline bench press is a bench variation that targets the upper pecs and the shoulders and is said to be a hybrid between a bench press and an overhead press, but it is often used to add mass to the pecs.
Check out my article on Should Powerlifters Do Incline Bench Press?
- Place a bench that is able to incline so that it is at approximately a 45 degree angle with the floor
- Set the pins of the rack at a height where we can easily unrack the bar while seated
- Set the shoulders blades into a retracted and slightly depressed position
- Plant the feet on the floor to generate tension in the legs
- Place the hands wider than shoulder-width (can be wide grip or regular grip)
- Unrack the bar by straightening the arms and ust the lats to pull the bar out from the pins
- Bring the bar down to the chest with control, ensuring that the wrists and forearms are stacked
- Pause on the chest momentarily to avoid bouncing the bar off the chest
- Push the bar back up and slightly back towards the rack the return to the start position
The incline bench helps to target the chest more than a traditional bench press because the angle at which we are pressing puts more emphasis on the fibers of the upper pecs, due to their mechanical advantage over the lower pecs when performing shoulder flexion (elevating the arm in front of you).
The incline bench is a popular variation for those who simply want to add muscle mass to their upper body, as it emphasizes the upper chest and shoulders more than the traditional bench.
The incline bench can be used for developing strength in these muscles by using lower reps with heavier weights, or primarily for hypertrophy if we’re using lighter weights and higher reps towards technical failure.
Feet Up Bench Press
The feet up bench press is a bench press variation that involves keeping the feet elevated to prevent them from being used to assist in the bench press, but it also prevents us from achieving a larger arch – which is ideal for building the chest because it increases the range of motion.
- Set the pins of a rack at a height where we can comfortably unrack the bar while laying on the bench
- Position the body underneath the bar so that the eyes are even with the bar
- The feet can either be placed on the bench or elevated throughout the lift
- Place hands wider than shoulder width (can be regular grip or wide grip), and use the bar to set the shoulder blades in a retracted and slightly depressed position
- Straighten the arms to unrack the bar and use the lats to pull the bar out from the pins while maintaining scapular positioning
- Bring the bar down to the chest, ensuring that the elbows and wrist are stacked and in-line with the bar when it is on the chest.
- As the bar touches the chest, pause briefly to eliminate momentum
- Keep tension in the arms and initiate the press up and slightly back, to return to the starting position
The feet up bench press is a bench press variation that eliminates any assistance from the lower body to elevate the bar, and reduces the advantage we would get from an arch – which places the demand purely on the muscles of the chest and shoulders.
The increased range of motion of the feet up bench press and the lack of assistance from other musculature can dramatically improve our ability to feel the pecs while benching.
I would recommend the feet up bench press for those who typically have a larger arch when benching to help build strength in the pecs that they may be lacking due to the decreased range of motion with which they would typically bench.
I would also suggest it for those who lack stability throughout their upper body, which can be identified by an inconsistent touch point, an inability to maintain scapular positioning, or lack of control of the barbell.
For other exercises to include in your training program to increase the size and strength of the chest, check out our other article for How Powerlifters Train Chest (3 Chest Workouts To Try).
To feel the pecs in the bench press we can use these tips to alter our technique to emphasize the pecs, to increase the time under tension, and to work through the range of motion where the chest is most involved. Lastly, it’s important to understand that although our pecs may not be burning or “pumped up” while we’re benching, it does not mean they are not active throughout the lift.
About The Author
Amanda Parker has a passion for competing and coaching in both powerlifting and weightlifting. She uses her knowledge from her Kinesiology Degree, CSCS, and Precision Nutrition certification to coach athletes and lifestyle clients for performance in training and nutrition. Connect with her on Instagram.