The chest press, or to use the traditional term, “bench press,” has been a staple in strength programs for as long as anyone can remember. The primary muscles involved are the pectoralis major, deltoids, and triceps in addition to a host of stabilizers and helpers including your rotator cuff, upper trapezius, pectoris minor and rhomboids. This is all good and well until you plateau. That’s where exercise variations come in.
Based on what you want to accomplish with your overall fitness plan, goals, needs and current abilities, here are 8 variations of the popular, multi-faceted resistance training movement, provided by Robert Reames, CSCS, National Spokesperson for Pear Training Intelligence/Coaching System and Gold's Gym.
Reames recommends having at least one session with a qualified professional trainer to learn the basics of the exercise and proper form first-hand. But you can consider this your road map for diversifying your repertoire of chest press exercises.
Just as a refresher, let's go over the proper technique of a traditional chest press.
Traditional Supine Bench Press W/ Olympic Bar
Muscles worked: Pectoralis major, anterior and lateral deltoids, and triceps. “This exercise is used in athletic testing like the NFL combine,” Reames says. “If you’ve ever been asked, ‘How much do you bench?’, this is the variation most guys are referring to,” he adds.
How to do it: Lie down with your back flat on an Olympic-style bench press so your eyes are directly under the bar. Grasp the bar slightly outside shoulder-width apart. Arch your back so the lower portion is off the bench and your shoulder blades are pulled together. Inhale and lift the bar off the rack. Keeping your arms straight (but making sure not to lock your elbows), lower the bar to your sternum. When the bar touches your body, drive your feet into the floor and press the bar back up. Reames recommends using a spotter on this exercise if you’re beginning or using heavy weight. Make note to keep your core, glutes, and legs tight throughout the exercise. Don’t let your feet move off the floor or the arch in your back collapse.
Muscles worked: Pectoralis major, anterior and lateral deltoids, and triceps. Essentially, this is the chest press machine in your gym or rec center. “This exercise variation is great for strength building and requires little athletic skill,” Reames says.
How to do it: Start by adjusting the seat height. When you’re grasping the handles (palms facing down or out, depending on the machine), your hands should be in line with your chest and your feet flat on the floor. Sit up tall and engage your abs. Keeping your wrists straight (you don’t want any excess flexing or extension), push the handles forward until your arms are extended straight, making sure not to lock your elbows. Slowly return your arms back toward your chest. Keep the movement controlled (i.e. don’t slam the weight stack on the return motion).
Muscles worked: Pectoralis major, anterior and lateral deltoids, and triceps. “This exercise allows for more horizontal abduction—or the ability to bring your upper arms across your upper body—as well as added work and development of the pectoralis major,” Reames says. If you’re trying to bulk up your chest, this variation is an excellent muscle-builder.
How to do it: Begin seated at the front end of a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand resting just above your knees. Lie down on the bench and position the dumbbells so your palms are facing each other. Next, bring the dumbbells up—one at a time—so you’re holding them in front of you shoulder-width apart. “I advise people to keep their feet up on the bench for stability and to minimize hyper-extension of the low back,” Reames says. Now, rotate your wrists forward so your palms are facing away from you and lower the dumbbells so they’re at the sides of your chest, creating 90-degree angles. Exhale and use your chest muscles to push the dumbbells up. Lock you arms at the top of the lift and squeeze your pecs, holding for a few beats, before slowly lowering back down.
Muscles worked: Pectoralis major, anterior and lateral deltoids, and triceps. "The main difference between the incline bench press and the flat bench press is the incline promotes more upper pectoralis major and shoulder development,” Reames says. This is because you’re putting more stress on your upper pec and anterior deltoids. Plus, it’s easier to get in and out of position than when you’re doing the flat bench version.
How to do it: You’re going to follow the same set of instructions as you did for the Dumbbell Flat Bench Press. Begin seated on the incline bench with a dumbbell in each hand resting just above your knees. Lie down on the bench and position the dumbbells so your palms are facing each other. Next, bring the dumbbells up—one at a time—so you’re holding them in front of you shoulder-width apart. Now, rotate your wrists forward so your palms are facing away from you and lower the dumbbells so they’re at the sides of your chest, creating 90-degree angles. Exhale and use your chest to push the dumbbells up. Lock you arms at the top of the lift and squeeze your pecs, holding for a few beats, before slowly lowering back down.
*Note: Research published in the European Journal of Sport Science discovered an incline bench press raised at a 30-degree angle triggers the most muscle activation throughout the pectoralis major muscle; this contraction helps build optimal muscle strength.
Muscles worked: Pectoralis major, anterior and lateral deltoids, triceps, abdominals, and legs. “This exercise provides an excellent core component and is good for any sport-specific training that involves a pushing off motion,” Reams says, “like a linebacker or lineman in football and rugby, basketball players, too.”
How to do it: Secure the tubing onto a column or stable unit behind you that won’t move or slice the tubing. Face away from the tubing, grasp the handles, and stand with your knees slightly bent. Perform the full chest press pushing motion, return to the starting position, then repeat. "Even though you’re pushing, imagine the motion looking and feeling like you’re giving someone a hug," Reames says.
Muscles worked: Pectoralis major, anterior and lateral deltoids, triceps, abdominals, and legs. This is a phenomenal chest exercise because it stretches your pecs from the start position, activating your outer muscle fibers. “Even though you’re pushing, this motion will feel as if your arms are moving forward to give someone a hug,” Reames says.
Note: When you’re setting up the pulleys, the position is determined by what area of the chest you want to hit. If the pulley’s at the highest position, you’re targeting your lower pecs; the lowest position on the pulley will work your upper pecs; placing the pulley at shoulder height (so your arms are parallel to the floor) will hit your middle pec fibers. This example utilizes the pulley at shoulder height.
How to do it: Using a cable cross over unit, begin with your arms straight in front of you, handles in both hands. Bend forward at the waist so your upper body is almost parallel to the floor and assume a lunge position, keeping your knees soft. With your arms at your sides, bring your hands together in front of your lower abs. Draw your elbows back just past your shoulder and return to the start. Do half your reps in each set lunging on one side, then switch to the other and repeat.
Muscles worked: Pectoralis major, anterior and lateral deltoids, triceps, core, glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors, and abdominals. “This is, in essence, the same dumbbell chest press motion as you would do on the bench, but now you're adding the balance and stability components for both lower body and core benefit,” Reames says. “It's very important you use a resistance level you can control not only during the exercise but moving into and out of the exercise, too,” he adds.
How to do it: Begin sitting tall on a stability ball with dumbbells in each hand. Slowly move your feet forward so your head, neck, shoulders, and upper back are flat against the stability ball. Keep your knees bent at 90-degree angles, and your feet flat on the floor. Hold the dumbbells by your chest, elbows bent, palms facing forward. Then, press the weights toward the ceiling, extending your arms fully. You'll be in a tabletop position. Your lower body should help keep you balanced throughout the movement, giving you stability throughout the exercise. Lower the dumbbells down just past your shoulders and back to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Muscles worked: Pectoralis major, anterior and lateral deltoids, triceps, core, and deep shoulder stabilizers. “Basically one side is performing the press while the other stabilizes and holds the start position,” Reames says. “This one really makes your body think; by completing one side then the other any momentum generated in the chest press movement is minimized, thus making you work harder.”
How to do it: Begin lying flat on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand, even with your shoulders. (Note: Whichever arm is not pressing the weight up is staying in this start position.) Your palms should be facing away from you throughout the exercise. Stabilize one side as your extend the dumbbell in your opposite hand, lifting the weight straight up and across to mid-chest. Lower the weight slowly to your side—your wrist should be stacked over your elbow, and your elbow should be forming a 90-degree angle just like the start position—keeping full control the entire time. Switches sides and continue to alternate.
Muscles worked: Pectoralis major, anterior and lateral deltoids, core, and deep shoulder stabilizers. To optimize this exercise and its benefits, use a functional trainer-type unit. “This motion is great for total body stabilization and balance while executing the pushing motion,” Reames adds. "You can also perform this with tubing."
How to do it: Begin in a solid stance with knees bent in front of the cable station, facing away from the weight stack. With the pulley positioned at chest-height, reach behind you and grab a handle in each hand (your hands should be even with your shoulders); this is the start position. On the motion, extend one arm forward, coming slightly across to mid-chest while stabilizing the start position with your other hand. “You want to keep your lower body stable and focus on just rotating your upper torso,” Reames says. Return to the start and repeat on the opposite side, continuing to alternate.