The Trick to Making Your Bench Press More Effective

Researchers examine how to produce the most muscle activation when performing a bench press

Everyone wants to make the most of their time in the gym, and if it’s your goal to build strength and muscle, then your focus should be placed on the most efficient and effective resistance training and weight lifting techniques.

The bench press has long been one of the most classic exercises for building upper-body strength, specifically within the pectorals (pectoralis major and pectoralis minor), or chest muscles (sometimes simply referred to as “pecs”).

Because of its importance as a measurement for base-level fitness (the bench press is commonly used to determine an individual’s one rep max, or 1RM, when beginning a weight-lifting program) and its popularity among many different types of exercisers, researchers recently sought to determine how performing the exercise at different angles would affect muscular activation, and ultimately, its overall effectiveness.

Results from their study, which were published in the European Journal of Sport Science, found that participants demonstrated the most muscle activation when the bench press was performed at an incline of 30 or 45 degrees.

To determine the effectiveness of performing the exercise at different angles, the researchers examined 14 resistance trained subjects during two separate lifting sessions.

During the first session, the subjects performed one repetition of a horizontal barbell bench press using the greatest amount of weight they could handle—or a one rep max. 

For the second session, the subjects wore electrodes that measured their muscle activation. With a weight equivalent to 65 percent of their one rep max, each subject performed six barbell bench press repetitions four separate times at angles of 0, 30, 45 and -15 degrees.

For each of the four angles, the researchers recorded the duration of muscle contraction as well as the contraction phase of the various upper-body muscles involved including the upper and lower pectoralis major, anterior deltoids (part of the shoulders) and lateral triceps brachii.

The results showed that performing the exercise at an incline of 30 or 45 degrees yielded the greatest amount of muscle activation.

The authors concluded that executing the exercise at a 30-degree incline will likely yield the best results because while the 30 and 45-degree angles resulted in the greatest activation of the upper pectoralis major, the 30-degree angle most activated both the upper and lower pectoralis major.

Ultimately, adding the bench press to your strength training routine can be highly beneficial for building upper-body strength, especially when performed on a 30-degree incline, but make sure to start out with a weight that is comfortable for you (ideally one that allows you to safely complete 8 to 12 reps of the exercise) and to execute the move with proper form.

Marc Perry, a NSCA-CSCS and ACE certified personal trainer and the CEO of Built Lean, agreed that the bench press is a classic exercise, but also said that it’s frequently performed with poor form. “The most common benching mistake is flaring the elbows away from the body, which puts significant pressure on the rotator cuff muscles that help stabilize the shoulder,” he explained. “Keeping your elbows closer to your body as you bench makes the exercise much safer and more fluid.”

Additionally, when lifting weights, it’s a good idea to work with a spotter and most importantly, you should always consult a doctor before starting any new exercise routine. 

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