The bench press is one of the most popular exercises you can do in the gym. It’s used by both powerlifters and bodybuilders to build strength and mass. But whether you choose powerlifting or bodybuilding, the bench press technique and how you design your training program is a lot different.
The main differences between the powerlifting and bodybuilding bench press are:
- Type of Goal
- Training Split
- Load Selection
- Grip Width
- Body Position & Arch
- Bench Press Rules
- Pausing on Your Chest
- Bench Press Angle
- Obsession Over The Details
Let’s dive into the differences so that you understand how powerlifters and bodybuilders view the bench press.
1. Type of Goal
- The goal for powerlifters is to increase their bench press 1 rep max
- The goal for bodybuilders is to use the bench press to increase the size and mass of their chest
It’s important to understand these two goals because it’s the primary reason for all of the other differences you’ll see between a powerlifting and bodybuilding-style bench press.
Powerlifters use the bench press to build max strength.
In powerlifting, the bench press is one of the three competition movements, the other two being squat and deadlift. Their entire training program is focused on these movements.
Since powerlifters compete in the bench press, and are tested by how much weight they can lift for 1 rep, they need to build as much strength as possible in that movement.
Bodybuilders use the bench press to build muscle mass, primarily for the pecs muscles.
In bodybuilding, the goal is to develop a full chest that is proportional to other body parts. Since they aren’t judged on how much weight they can lift in the bench press, increasing max strength is less of a focus.
A bodybuilder’s training program will incorporate several upper body exercises to assist with building mass for the pecs. The bench press is merely one of many exercises they are using.
2. Training Splits
- Powerlifters have ‘bench press specific’ days in their training split
- Bodybuilders have ‘chest’ or ‘push days’ in their training split
For powerlifters, their entire training program is designed around the competition movements. They will have ‘bench press days’ where the workout is focused around building the bench press. They might do 2-3 different bench press variations, and any accessory movements are used to support some aspect of their bench press.
For example, if they struggle with the lock-out of the bench press, they might do extra tricep work, as the triceps are responsible for extending the arm in the top range. But they aren’t doing triceps for anything other than helping their bench press improve.
For bodybuilders, their training split is not centered around one movement (like the bench press), but rather a group of muscles. Bodybuilders will have a ‘chest day’ where bench press will be one of the many exercises they use to build their chest.
Bodybuilders might also have what’s called ‘push days’, which are workouts that are focused on any exercise that is aimed at pushing loads away from their body. This might include a combination of chest, shoulder, and tricep exercises.
- Powerlifters will have a moderate to high frequency of bench press in their training program
- Bodybuilders will have a low to moderate frequency of bench press in their training program
The average powerlifter will bench press 2-3 days per week.
Some elite-level powerlifters are known to bench press with even higher frequencies – up to 4-5 days per week. Powerlifters can bench press with a high frequency because they don’t need to prioritize many exercises outside of the competition movements.
As well, powerlifters implement a high frequency to practice the technique of the bench press. The more they practice, the more efficient they become in the bench press.
The average bodybuilder will bench press 1-2 days per week.
They generally will wait until their chest is fully recovered before training that muscle group again. Bodybuilders don’t need to practice the bench press as frequently as powerlifters because they aren’t trying to optimize the technique for maximum efficiency.
As well, bodybuilders simply have more exercises they need to work throughout the week, which limits their capacity for specializing in the bench press.
Even if a bodybuilder wanted to implement a high-frequency training approach for their chest, they would incorporate a variety of chest exercises, not just bench press.
- Powerlifters will train bench press with majority low reps ranges
- Bodybuilders will train bench press with majority high reps
Powerlifters will prioritize a low rep scheme for most of their bench press workouts. Most of the reps will be between 1-6. This is not to say that powerlifters don’t do higher reps, but if you look at their bench press workouts over a longer period of time, you’ll notice that there’s a larger ratio of lower reps vs higher reps. This is because a lower rep range builds max strength with a heavier load.
Bodybuilders will prioritize a high rep scheme for most of their bench press workouts. Most of the reps will be between 6-12. Bodybuilders certainly do lower reps, but throughout the year they will have a higher percentage of their bench press training with reps over 6. This is because a higher rep range will drive hypertrophy adaptations for maximum muscle growth.
5. Load Selection
- Powerlifters will use relatively heavier loads on the bench press
- Bodybuilders will use relatively lighter loads on the bench press
Powerlifters will frequently use loads between 80-95% of their 1 rep max bench press in training. As powerlifters build toward a competition, they will spend the 6-12 weeks beforehand pushing their own individual capacities, trying to do more weight than they’ve done previously, especially in the lower rep ranges.
Bodybuilders will use relatively lower weights, mostly between 65-85% of their 1 rep max bench press. Bodybuilders will still push themselves to lift as heavy as they can, but because most of their training use higher rep ranges, it’s not as heavy as what a powerlifter could use for lower reps.
Furthermore, as bodybuilders prepare for a competition, they are usually lifting lower weights because they are training in a caloric deficit, which makes them feel depleted and weak.
- Powerlifters will use a faster tempo for their bench press
- Bodybuilders will use a slower tempo for their bench press
There are two ranges of motion that are affected by tempo: the eccentric phase (the down phase) and the concentric phase (the up phase). While the concentric phase of the bench press is similar between powerlifters and bodybuilders, it’s the eccentric phase that differs.
Powerlifters aim to bring the bench press down to their chest as fast as possible (around 1-second). This is because the slower they bring the bar down, the more time under tension their muscles must work to lower the weight. If they can increase the tempo of the bar eccentrically, then they’ll have more potential to drive the bar up to completion.
Bodybuilders tend to have a more controlled eccentric range of motion compared with powerlifters because more time under tension can lead to greater muscle growth. This has been demonstrated in several studies looking at the relationship between eccentric tempo and hypertrophy adaptations.
The average bench press eccentric tempo for bodybuilders is between 2-4 seconds. While this will ultimately limit the amount of weight a bodybuilder can lift on bench press for 1 rep, max strength is not the primary goal.
- Powerlifters will use longer rest times between sets on bench press
- Bodybuilders will use shorter rest times between sets on bench press
Powerlifters bench press using a lower rep range and heavier weights. Therefore, they will need longer rest times in between sets to recover (3-5 minutes).
This is because it takes the nervous system longer to recover from a max effort for the powerlifter to have enough energy to perform similarly in subsequent sets.
Furthermore, powerlifters require more mental preparation before a big lift, i.e. more ‘psych up time’, to put their best effort into their training sets.
Bodybuilders keep their rest times between bench press sets short (1-2 minutes). This is because bodybuilders are trying to push their muscles to fatigue, and one of the best ways to do that is to perform a lot of volume in a shorter timeframe.
In addition, bodybuilders will typically have more exercises they need to complete over a single workout compared with powerlifters. Therefore, shorter rest times will allow them to incorporate several movements.
8. Grip width
- Powerlifters will bench press using a wide grip
- Bodybuilders will bench press using a variety of grip widths, but often narrower than powerlifters
One of the primary goals for powerlifters is to reduce the range of motion on the bench press as much as possible. This is because the shorter the distance the bar needs to travel, the less work that the lifter needs to do.
The easiest way to accomplish a shorter range of motion is to take a wider grip on the barbell.
There’s also a rule in powerlifting that says you cannot grip the barbell greater than 81cm apart in competition. So keeping the hands 81cm apart (or slightly narrower) is the most common grip for bench press among powerlifters.
Check out our full guide to the WIDE GRIP BENCH PRESS
Bodybuilders don’t care so much about reducing the range of motion on the bench press, since a longer range of motion will challenge the musculature at difference joint angles.
A longer range of motion can lead to greater ‘stretch’ of the muscles. A greater stretch, especially under resistance, creates greater ‘muscular damage’, which is one of the primary mechanisms for hypertrophy.
So while bodybuilders will often grip the barbell narrower than powerlifters to increase the range of motion, they will also vary their grip more often in order to target different areas of the pecs, shoulders, and triceps.
9. Body Position & Arch
- Powerlifters set up their body on the bench press to minimize the range of motion as much as possible
- Bodybuilders set up their body on the bench press to maximally recruit their chest muscles
Powerlifters aim to get their chest as high as possible on the bench press. This is referred to as a ‘bench press arch’, where the low and mid-back are purposely raised from the bench in order to prioritize a high chest position.
In order to set up the bench press arch, powerlifters try to position their upper traps on the top of the bench, at the same time as retracting and depressing their shoulder blades and pushing through their legs on the floor. This position allows powerlifters to reduce the range of motion that the bar needs to travel by several inches.
Furthermore, powerlifters will have an elbow position that is slightly in front of the barbell when the weight is on their chest. This will help engage both the pecs and triceps to complete the movement.
Check out our full guide to the BENCH PRESS ARCH
As mentioned previously, bodybuilders don’t care so much about optimizing for a reduced range of motion. What bodybuilders care most about is maximally recruiting the muscle they are targeting. For the bench press, they want to position their body in such a way that targets the chest muscles optimally. This includes lifting with a flatter back where the low and midback are contacting the bench.
In addition, bodybuilders generally have an elbow position that is directly in line with the barbell when the weight is on their chest. This will recruit more of the pec muscles, which turns the bench press more into a chest-dominant movement.
Check out our guide on where your ELBOWS SHOULD BE POSITIONED IN THE BENCH PRESS
10. Bench Press Rules
- Powerlifters must follow several bench press rules associated with the movement standards of the sport
- Bodybuilders aren’t required to follow any specific bench press rules
For powerlifters, the bench press is a competitive movement that has specific rules that must be followed. The most common rules are:
- The head and butt must keep contact with the bench
- The feet must be flat on the floor
- The barbell must be paused motionless on the chest and can only be pressed after a referee says ‘press’
- The barbell must not have any downward movement after pausing on the chest
These rules exist so that there is a level of standardization between lifters. So just because you lock the weight out, if you haven’t followed the technical rules then you won’t be successful in competition.
For example, a lot of powerlifters lock the weight out, but if their butt comes off the bench as they’re driving to the top of the lift, then the lift won’t count.
Check out our full guide to BENCH PRESS RULES
Bodybuilders don’t have stringent rules around the bench press.
In addition, they don’t have referees judging their bench press movement standards. Therefore, you’ll often see a wide variance of technique that is employed by bodybuilders.
Some have their heels off the floor while benching, some like to bounce the weight off their chest, and some like to lift their hips when they drive the bar up.
However, all these movements would not be permissible in the sport of powerlifting.
11. Pausing on Your Chest
- Powerlifters are required to pause the bench press on their chest
- Bodybuilders are not required to pause the bench press on their chest
For powerlifters, having to pause the bar on their chest fundamentally changes how they train the movement.
Powerlifters are required to learn how to pause the bar on command in the same place every rep. Any deviations from their ideal touch-point will make the movement much harder than necessary. As such, pausing bench press reps in training are the default, and touch-and-go reps are used rarely.
In addition, pausing on the chest requires a greater ability to decelerate the bar on the way down. This places greater loading demand on the pecs and shoulder stabilization muscles. Therefore, you’ll see powerlifters performing several bench press drills to enhance their pec and shoulder stabilization strength to facilitate a more effective pause.
Check out our full guide to HOW TO WARM UP FOR BENCH PRESS
For bodybuilders, they have a bit more flexibility in how they touch the barbell on their chest.
Some bodybuilders prefer to pause the bar on their chest, but most implement a slight ‘touch-and-go’ method where they lightly tap the bar on the chest before driving to lock-out. You’ll also see some bodybuilders ‘bounce the bar’ off their chest, which can lead to more weight being lifted overall, but it’s actually a sign of poor techniqueand control.
12. Bench Press Angle
- Powerlifters primarily use the flat bench press
- Bodybuilders will use a combination of flat, incline, and decline bench press
Since powerlifters compete in the flat bench press, they will primarily choose to bench press using the flat variation. They will sometimes use the incline bench in training to target more of the shoulder muscles if they believe their shoulder strength is lagging. However, it’s extremely rare to see a powerlifter use a decline bench press variation.
Powerlifters simply want to get as much practice as possible in the variation that they will be competing.
Bodybuilders will program a combination of flat, incline, and decline bench press in order to target different fibers of the pec muscles.
For example, bodybuilders will use the incline bench to target the upper pec muscles and anterior delts, and the decline bench to target the lower pec fibers. Isolating the chest in these ways for bodybuilders is important based on their goal of building a full chest.
However, this is much less of a priority for powerlifters.
Check out our guide on the MUSCLES USED IN THE BENCH PRESS where we break down what muscles are used based on grip width and bench angle
13. Obsession Over The Details
- Powerlifters will obsess over the finer details of the bench press
- Bodybuilders aren’t as concerned about optimizing every minor detail of the bench press
Powerlifters are continuously refining their movement patterns in order to gain every pound possible.
It’s common to hear powerlifters talking about things like pointing their toes a few degrees inward, moving their grip-width in or out a half-finger length, reducing the travel of the barbell from the rack to the start position, or working on some thoracic mobility drill to try and arch a bit higher.
They like to obsess over the finer details. For powerlifters, these finer details matter a lot because once you’ve achieved a certain level of base strength, what separates you from the competition is a more efficient movement pattern.
For bodybuilders, they aren’t obsessing over the finer details because their main goal is not to lift as much weight as possible on the bench press. Of course, bodybuilders still want to be strong and make sure they’re lifting safely, but their focus needs to be broader than strictly specializing in one movement.
The details they are most concerned with are how to get a better pump, or isolate a specific muscle group more in whatever movement they’re targeting.
Powerlifters and bodybuilders both use the bench press to achieve their goals.
For powerlifters, they use the bench press as a competitive movement, with the goal to lift as much weight as possible for 1 rep.
For bodybuilders, they use the bench press to maximize chest hypertrophy and ensure they have a full chest.
Based on these different goals, the way they structure their technique and training program differs. Neither bench press is ‘wrong’, it’s simply facilitating the end goal of each activity better than the other.
Douglas, J., Pearson, S., Ross, A., McGuigan, M. 2016. Chronic Adaptations To Eccentric Training: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine, 47: 917-941.