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What Really Goes Down at the Bench Press

You go home feeling like your entire chest is sore, so does your heavy bench press result in a bigger chest?

It’s common for someone to ask a person lifting in the gym, how much do you bench? The bench press comes out to be the gold standard for determining how strong a person is. It is also considered one of the best exercises for building upper body strength, working chest, triceps, and anterior deltoids. If you’re a powerlifter, being able to lift heavy on a bench press is essential. However, it’s different for those who are trying to build chest muscles. That brings us to the question, does being able to put up a heavy bench press determine how big your chest will be?

Many of the top bodybuilders in the world who have a built chest are not big benchers. In fact, many top bodybuilders have suffered terrible pectoral tears from benching too heavy. If you look at many powerlifters who have incredibly strong bench presses, they often don’t have a large chest that reflects their heavy bench press. One would expect that those who are able to put up a heavy bench press would have the biggest pectoralis major. According to the latest research in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, benching more weight (> 70 percent of a 1-Repetition Maximum) is not going to activate your pectoralis major (chest) more than it would when benching at a lower weight. Researchers measured the electrical activity of the chest, triceps, and anterior deltoids as subjects benched with a different percentage of their 1- repetition maximum. In the measuring session, the participants performed consecutive sets of a single repetition of bench pressing with an increasing load (about 70, 80, 90, and 100 percent of their 1 repetition maximum, or 1-RM). One would expect that as bench press weight increased, the activation of the pectoralis major would increase as well. However, as the weight increased more than 70 percent of a 1-RM, the muscle activation of the chest changed very little, while muscle activation of other groups actually increased. The supportive muscles in the bench press, such as the anterior deltoid, triceps and latissimus dorsi, went from a supporting role to being the prime movers as the weight increased. This goes to show that as you increase weight on the bench press, your chest muscles eventually become maxed out, and the supporting muscle groups are taking over.

If your goal is strength, you can continue to train with heavier weights than 70 percent of your 1-RM. If your goal is muscle hypertrophy, going heavier than 70 percent of your 1-RM is not warranted. As the study shows, weight heavier than 70 percent does not activate the chest to a greater extent, but activates the surrounding muscle groups. Many bodybuilders have suffered serious pec tears from heavy bench presses, so going heavier than 70 percent is not warranted. Never forget to pair your workouts with a reputable zero carb protein powder to support muscle recuperation and the building of lean muscle mass.

Krol, H, Golas, A. Effect of barbell weight on the structure of the flat bench press. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2017. 31(5): 1321-1337.