When choosing which bench press variation to include in your program it’s important to have a sense of why certain ones will feel harder than a traditional bench press in order to appropriately address your weaknesses.
So, which type of bench press is harder and why?
- Dumbbell, incline, close grip, neutral grip, reverse grip, Spoto, and floor press can all be considered harder than a traditional bench press.
- The difficulty of a variation will depend on several factors including whether it challenges your personal mechanics, is technically more challenging, it moves in a weaker range of motion, results in greater time under tension, or whether it requires greater mobility.
- The bench press variations that exist all have a role to play and while some may help you progress toward your goals, it may not do the same for another person.
In this article, I will go through what makes a bench press harder so you can keep them in mind as you make exercise selections.
In addition, I will go through 9 types of bench press and answer whether they are easier or harder than a traditional bench press based on these variables.
Learn about what bench press mistakes you’re making here: Top 19 Bench Press Mistakes (How To Avoid & Correct)
What Makes A Bench Press Harder?
The 6 reasons that make a bench press variation harder than a traditional bench press are:
- It challenges a weak range of motion
- It challenges a weaker muscle group
- It’s harder based on our individual mechanics (limb lengths)
- It’s technically more challenging (greater coordination, balance, proprioception)
- It has a greater time under tension
- It requires a greater level of mobility
1. It Challenges a Weak Range of Motion
Bench press variations where a certain segment of the lift is removed, emphasized, or altered can be either easier or harder depending on your personal strengths, weaknesses, or just the overall nature of the lift.
An example of this is a dead press or a pin press where the bar comes to a complete stop on pins as close to chest level as possible.
If you are normally weak off your chest this will challenge you to recruit enough power to push the weight off from a dead stop which will feel harder than a regular bench press.
Getting stuck off the chest? Check out the following articles:
Is Your Bench Press Weak Off The Chest? Try These 6 Things
2. It Challenges a Weaker Muscle Group
Certain bench press variations, typically those with changes in bench position or grip position, are meant to challenge a weaker muscle group.
As a result, those lifts will likely feel harder since the bigger and stronger muscles can no longer take the load off of the smaller weaker muscles.
In the case of the bench press, this usually means the pecs are less engaged and the triceps, shoulders or biceps are more engaged.
An example of this is close grip bench press where your triceps are the focus and have to work to push the weight of your chest with less activation from the pecs.
What muscles are used in the bench press? Read about it here: Muscles Used In Bench Press (A Complete Guide)
3. It’s Harder Based on Our Individual Mechanics (Limb Lengths)
Whether you have long arms, short arms, wide shoulders, or narrow shoulders, you may find certain types of bench press to feel more comfortable or less comfortable than others.
Someone with a wide-set frame may find a narrow grip bench to feel strange and difficult, while someone with a smaller frame may have trouble recruiting the pecs in a wide grip position.
In general, those with longer arms have the added difficulty of having more time under tension when compared to their shorter limbed counterparts, and as a result, variations that increase time under tension or challenge specific ranges of motion may be that much more difficult for them.
Want tips for benching with long arms? Check out:
5 Tricks For Bench Pressing With Long Arms (Technique for Tall People)
4. It’s Technically More Challenging (Greater Coordination, Balance, Proprioception)
Bench press variations can get tricky when there is an added layer of coordination. Sometimes it’s not that we are weak, but rather uncoordinated or don’t have enough control to manage the weight in the most efficient way possible.
An example of a style of bench that challenges this element is the dumbbell bench press and all of its variations. This is because both of your arms are free to move independently of each other and, if not controlled, the weights can swing in multiple directions, making for a very difficult lift.
5. It Has a Greater Time under Tension
The longer our muscles have to hold up or move a weight, the more difficult it will feel, therefore bench press variations that have an increased time under tension will feel more difficult than those that do not.
A simple example of this would be a paused bench press where you pause on your chest for 2-3 seconds before pressing the weight up.
Additionally, powerlifters who normally have large arches during a competition bench press will find flat or minimal arch bench presses to feel harder due to a longer bar path and subsequent increased time under tension.
Learn more about the bench press arch here: The Bench Press Arch (How To Do It, Benefits, Is It Safe)
6. It Requires a Greater Level of Mobility
Mobility is your ability to move freely at a joint, and therefore, restrictions in a joint will make certain styles of bench press more difficult.
On the bench, it will most likely be the shoulder joint that gives you trouble which can be exacerbated with different bench variations.
One example of a bench with increased mobility needs would be the reverse grip bench press where the hands are flipped so your knuckles face the top of your head. This can be a difficult position for those with limited wrist and shoulder mobility.
Is an Incline Bench Press Harder?
The incline bench press is one of the hardest bench variations because the incline reduces your ability to optimally recruit your pec muscles as a whole and it instead disproportionately places stress on the upper pecs and shoulders, putting your upper body at a disadvantage.
Therefore, the incline press challenges weak muscle groups and also a weak range of motion since it is entirely different than that of a flat bench.
Also, because of the more upright position of your torso, the incline bench may feel technically more challenging since the bar path is much different than that of a flat bench and your shoulders in particular are being relied on more heavily for stabilization and to prevent the bar from tipping forward.
An incline bench press can be performed with either dumbbells or a barbell and the incline typically ranges from 30-50 degrees, with more shoulder activation the higher the incline.
Want to know more about the benefits of the incline bench? Check out: Should Powerlifters Do Incline Bench Press? (It Depends)
Is a Dumbbell Bench Press Harder?
The dumbbell bench press is harder than a traditional barbell press because your arms are free to move independently of each other and, therefore, it requires superior control and mobility of the shoulder joint. In addition, the dumbbell variation moves in a greater range of motion and has increased time under tension.
Knowing that using dumbbells will automatically make a lift more difficult, you can now swap nearly any bench press variation that typically uses a barbell for a set of dumbbells instead.
This swap can help you strengthen and mobilize the shoulder joint over time. In addition, if you have an uneven bench press, using dumbbells can help you even out the strength on both sides of your body.
Want to learn more ways to address an uneven bench press? Check out: How To Fix Your Uneven Bench Press (5 Solutions)
Is a Decline Bench Press Harder?
A decline bench press is not typically harder than a traditional flat bench press and most who try it will find themselves pushing more weight on a decline. This is because it places reduced stress on the shoulders and back and puts a greater emphasis on the chest, especially the lower pecs.
The decline position places your chest in a position relative to the barbell similarly to a powerlifting arch. Therefore, the chest, your strongest muscles, are the most activated, while the weaker muscle groups like the shoulders are under less stress. There is also less mobility required as a result.
The only caveat being that the decline bench press may feel more technically challenging for a beginner who has never tried it before just because of the awkwardness of the positioning. However, after some practice it can be overcome pretty quickly.
For a more in-depth look at the decline bench press, check out: 6 Decline Bench Press Benefits (Plus, 1 Drawback)
Is a Close Grip Bench Press Harder?
The close grip bench press is harder than a standard bench press with a medium to wide grip because it challenges the triceps by de-emphasizing the pec involvement in the press. The narrow grip also increases the range of motion and therefore time under tension as well.
A close grip bench is a somewhat broad term for a bench press where you grip more narrowly than usual. As a general rule, that would be roughly a 5 finger width distance from your usual grip, or alternatively, you can just have your wrists stacked at exactly shoulder-width apart.
There are several reasons why someone would include close grip bench press into their program, anything from improving lockout strength, giving the shoulders a break or building muscle in the triceps and upper pecs.
Interested in learning more about close grip bench? Check out: 8 Close Grip Bench Press Benefits (Plus, 1 Drawback)
Is a Neutral Grip Bench Press Harder?
The neutral grip bench press is harder than a standard bench from a strength perspective because of decreased pec activation and increased tricep activation. However, it may feel easier to maneuver for those working through an injury because of its reduced demands on shoulder and wrist mobility.
A neutral grip bench press is normally performed with a swiss bar and is commonly utilized in the sports world among football players and strength athletes. It is quite similar in its application to a close grip bench press since it can be a great tool for improving lockout strength and building up the triceps.
It’s a good variation to also use with beginners who may have wrist and shoulder sensitivities or injury history, as well as those trying to maintain their strength while currently working through injuries.
To learn more about the neutral grip bench using a swiss bar, check out: Swiss Bar Bench Press: How-To, Benefits, Muscles Used
Is a Floor Bench Press Harder?
The floor press is harder than a regular bench press mostly because of your inability to use leg drive and the increased emphasis on the triceps. This may seem surprising since the lift has a partial range of motion, decreased time under tension, and lower technical and mobility demands.
The floor press is a bench press done with either dumbbells or barbells while lying down on the floor. You hold the weight just as you would when performing the exercise on a bench except that the eccentric portion of the lift ends once your elbows reach the floor.
This is a great tool for those looking to focus on their lockout and tricep strength in particular. It also serves as a great alternative for those with shoulder sensitivities since the bar is not coming all the way to the chest and the shoulders are not taking on as much stress.
For more information on the floor press, check out these articles:
- Floor Press: How-To, Benefits, & Should You Do It?
- Floor Press vs Bench Press: Differences, Pros, Cons
Is a Reverse Grip Bench Press Harder?
The reverse grip bench press is harder than a typical bench press because it demands increased wrist mobility, is more technically challenging due to coordination and requires more wrist, forearm, and bicep strength; muscles that are all recruited to a lower degree in a standard bench press.
The reverse grip bench press is performed by literally holding the bar with your fingers facing the top of your head rather than your legs. It is not a variation that would be good for a powerlifter prepping for a meet since it is technically very different from the standard bench press.
However, it can be used as a muscle-building tool for the biceps, triceps, and forearms or a bench press alternative for anyone working through an injury and who may find the grip more comfortable.
Curious to learn more about the reverse grip bench? Check out: Reverse Grip Bench Press: How-To, Benefits, Muscles Worked
Is a Spoto Press Harder?
The spoto press is harder than a regular bench press because the pause increases time under tension and it has greater demands on shoulder stability as well as a technical challenge that comes from needing to stop the bar before it hits the chest and resisting the urge to let it continue downward.
A spoto press can sometimes look to the untrained eye like someone is benching incorrectly, except that it’s a technique used by many very experienced lifters. The point is to stop the bar 1-2 inches above the chest for a 1-2 second pause.
The position where you pause in a spoto press is a common area that lifters will fail a lift and so exploiting it and strengthening the endurance of your shoulders, chest and tris right at your weakest point will help eventually improve your full range of motion bench.
Looking for more strategies for improving this sticking point? Check out the article: Weak In Middle Of Bench Press? Try These 6 Things
Is a Pin Press Harder?
A pin press is harder than a regular bench press because the weight comes to a dead stop on the pins and therefore requires greater strength and coordination to press the weight up and specifically challenges the bottom portion of the bench which is a weakness for many.
Depending on where you place the pins, a pin press can feel somewhat “easier” because it does have a shortened range of motion. However, the other factors end up superseding this and ultimately making it so you can’t move quite as much weight when the bar is halted by pins.
A pin press is an excellent tool for building strength off the chest and improving overall pec and shoulder coordination to get to the most efficient bar path. Another slight variation of the pin press that can add even more challenge is a dead press that starts right off the pins rather than right off the rack and shares similar benefits to the pin press.
Wondering what the best bench press bar path is? Check out my article: What Is The Best Bench Press Bar Path? (Mistakes To Avoid)
Bench press difficulty is relative and will come down to multiple factors including, but not limited to: time under tension, its technical demands, muscle groups emphasized and the range motion in which it operates.
Overall it can be said most of the examples in this article will feel harder than a traditional, flat bench press and will require you to modify and lower the weight compared to what you normally use for a traditional press. However, they all have their own set of benefits and should not be ignored.
Want to compare other exercises?
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.