Powerlifters who excel in the bench press are known for having more muscular arms. So how effectively does the bench press work to grow the arm muscles? How much are the biceps actually involved in the bench press?
Does the bench press work biceps? Research shows the bicep being activated in the bench press at a rate of 22% of their maximal voluntary contraction. The biceps work primarily as stabilizing muscles by maintaining the position of the humerus (upper arm bone) in the shoulder girdle.
While the biceps play a role in the bench press, how important are they to the success of the lift? Are they getting enough stimulus to be able to grow with bench pressing alone? In this article, we’ll dive into exactly how the biceps are recruited, and discuss if bench pressing is effective for bicep growth.
If you have one arm bigger than the other, check out my article How To Even Out Your Bicep.
Bench Press: Role Of The Biceps
The biceps brachii work to stabilize the head of the humerus in the glenoid cavity (it helps keep the upper arm bone in the shoulder socket), and may also function as a secondary flexor of the shoulder joint (“shoulder flexion” allows you to press the bar “up and back” off the chest).
Research states that the role of the long head of the biceps brachii is to stabilize the head of the humerus particularly when we are engaged in powerful elbow flexion and forearm supination, as we would be in the bench press. These motions would specifically occur when bringing the bar down to the chest (elbow flexion) and “locking in” the elbows to create tension (supination).
The supination motion is one that describes the arms going from palms facing away to palms facing towards us (a trick for this is to think about the position of the forearms when holding a bowl of soup in your hand, that’s supination).
The reason these muscles are active in the bench press is because, when we are gripping the bar in the bench press we can actively externally rotate to increase tension in the upper body, and create more stability throughout the movement.
When we externally rotate the arms, we naturally apply force against the barbell in the motion of supination, and this motion engages the biceps. Others may refer to this motion of engaging in supination with the cue of “breaking the bar”.
As we’ve discussed, the biceps work primarily as dynamic stabilizers and therefore we can conclude that the biceps may be more involved when a dumbbell bench press is performed. The reason for this is because of the increased stability demands required for controlling the dumbbells compared to a barbell.
Wondering if it’s better to do bicep curls one at a time or together, check out my article Is It Better To Do Bicep Curls One At A Time?
Want to improve your bench press technique?
How Important Are The Biceps In The Bench Press?
The role of the biceps in the bench press is minimal, but are active in the bench press – a study by Clemons (1997) measured the activity of the biceps to be 22% of their maximal voluntary contraction (a measure of the force a muscle exerts), which is relatively low output meaning they are minimally contributing to the lift.
The biceps are less involved because they primarily function as a stabilizer in the bench press, and are not considered prime movers. The prime movers for the bench press would be the pectoralis major, deltoid, and triceps brachii which are responsible for controlling the eccentric, maintaining tension, pressing, and locking the weight out.
That being said, the biceps are more involved in the reverse grip bench press but it is recommended that those who wish to compete in powerlifting do not perform this variation as part of their training plan. This is because it is less specific to the sport, and has little carryover to the competition bench press.
For those that do not plan to compete anytime soon and have the goal of growing the biceps, the reverse grip bench press could be another opportunity to increase the training volume for the biceps along with other more isolating movements.
To learn more about the muscle involved in the bench press, check out our Ultimate Guide for The Muscles Used In The Bench Press.
Will The Biceps Limit How Much You Can Bench Press?
While the strength of the biceps is unlikely to limit the bench press because of the small role they play during the movement, it is possible that they may limit the movement due to pain or irritation of the bicep tendon.
During the eccentric portion of the bench press (when the bar is being lowered to the chest), the tendons of the bicep will be lengthened. If a lifter’s tendons have been aggravated due to overuse or are tighter than they should be, this lengthening may cause pain while bench pressing.
In this case, the biceps would be a limiting factor for how much we could bench press because it is best not to push through the pain and instead, let these tissues recover.
To learn more about correcting bicep tendon pain, check out these 5 Tips To Reduce Bicep Tendon Pain
Can The Bench Press Grow Your Biceps?
While the bench press does involve the biceps, they are not a prime mover for the lift and therefore, would most likely not get enough stimulus to actually encourage growth.
Curious how powerlifters train arms? Read my definitive guide on Powerlifting Arm Workouts.
If a lifter is new to training and has had limited training experience, then perhaps growth could occur. However for any lifter who has trained previously, it is unlikely that the biceps will grow with bench press alone because its role is as a dynamic stabilizer instead of a prime mover.
Instead, it would be more worth our time to perform movements where the biceps are a prime mover. These exercises could be any form of a bicep curl, or any type of pulling movement – which would use the biceps more directly than the bench press. These movements could then be progressively loaded for a continued growth stimulus.
While the bench press will not likely grow your biceps, it can give us bigger arms by growing the triceps. The triceps play a big role in the bench press as they are more active in the lockout portion of the lift because they function to extend the elbow. They are also more active in the closer grip bench press.
Their role as a prime mover in the bench press is more likely to cause growth of the muscle over time with proper progressive overload. This would also make the arm appear larger because the triceps has 3 different heads of the muscle which will give the appearance of more muscular arms through training.
While the biceps do play a role in the bench press, they are far from the most important muscle involved in the competition lift. Although, the biceps may cause issues in the bench press if the tendons are overused or overly tight. If our ultimate goal is to grow the biceps then our time is better spent performing movements of which the biceps are the prime movers.
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.