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Benching with the Pecs

There are a lot of problems people have in the gym but one of the more common is the complaint of “I can’t feel my pecs when I bench”. In the majority of cases, this is simply because the person was never taught to bench press and actually use their pecs.    But it’s actually quite easy to do.   So let me show you how I always got my trainees benching with the pecs.

The Bench Press for Chest

The bench press is often considered one of the main training movements that everyone must do.   It’s usually considered to be one of The Big Three movements along with squats and deadlifts (or rows).   And make no mistake, it is or at least can be a good movement.  It allows heavy weights to be used and, for some people, can be a good chest exercise.

Mind you, for others it’s a terrible choice of exercise.  This is usually a mechanics issue.  Trainees with very long arms tend to not get very far with the bench press as their arms invariably give out long before their pecs get a good training stimulus.  For those people, the bench press may very well suck no matter how it’s done.

But let’s assume that someone is built to do bench presses well.  This usually means a thick torso and not excessively long arms.   Even here it’s common for the trainee not to use the pecs very much.  It all just depends on how they were taught.

Often you will see people dismiss the bench press out of hand for chest development, even for people who are built well for it.

In my experience this usually means that:

  1. They never learned how to use the pecs while benching.
  2. They never figured out how to teach anybody to use the pecs while benching.

Both of which are fairly poor reasons to completely discount an exercise.

In fact, I suspect one of the reasons bodybuilders became so enamored of cable crossovers following benching is because they weren’t using their pecs to bench in the first place. So they would throw around a bunch of weight to impress their buddies and then go get some actual pec stimulation on the crossover cables.

In any case, in two simple steps I’m going to teach you how to bench with your pecs

There are a number of different ways to bench press with the choice of one over another being determined by the trainee’s goal.    For the purposes of this article I am assuming that the trainee in question is using the bench for either muscle growth in the pecs or just general strength and fitness.  Certainly some of it applies to a competitive powerlifter but there are different issues involved there.  So, please no nasty comments about how “That advice sucks when you’re benching 700 lbs in an open backed denim shirt.”

What the Pecs Do

To understand what I’m going to describe, you need to understand what the pecs actually do. While they have several other minor functions, their primary function is to pull the upper arm (the humerus) across the body towards the midline.   Technically this is called horizontal humeral ADDuction.

It’s just the movement you perform when you do cable crossovers, flyes or a pec deck machine.

Now when you bench press and watch the upper arm, it is making the same movement as the above, just with the elbow bent.  So it starts out to the side at the bottom and then pulls across as the bar is pressed to lockout.  The difference is what’s going on at the elbow which is bending and unbending throughout the movement.  This is where people tend to get screwed up.

What I usually see happening is that people are focusing more on “pushing the bar” away from them which makes them focus on the bar and the forearm.  Invariably they feel a lot of stress on their front delt and in their triceps.  But they don’t feel much in their pecs.  I had experienced this teaching people to do even a machine chest press.  When I cued them to “Push the handles straight forwards” it was all delt and triceps.

So I had to figure out how to get them to use their pecs instead.  And I never took me more than two sessions tops to do it.

Benching with the Pecs

The key to benching with the pecs is to think about pulling the upper arm across the body during bench press movements, just like you’d do in a pec dec or crossover or flye.  The difficulty comes in because you have to do this while:

  1. Extending at the elbow
  2. Keeping you shoulder blades pinned back. This is important because, as soon as your upper back rounds, you will have little success using your pecs.

So here’s the teaching process I would use, and that you can use to.  You should do these drills immediately prior to benching .  And you’ll probably need to strip some weight off the bar for the first few workouts to do it right.  Don’t worry that your muscles will fall off.  Even though there is less weight on the bar, the pecs will be experiencing more tension than they were before.  You’ll probably get more growth out of the pecs with less weight when you learn to do it this way.

Although the pictures below show the trainee standing up, you can do this lying on a bench if you prefer.

Step 1: Figure Out What the Pecs Do During Adduction

For this part, I want you to put one of your hands on the opposite pec (i.e. left hand on right pec as shown below). Now perform a dumbbell flye/pec deck movement as shown below.  The goal is to feel the pec pulling the upper arm across the body just like you do when you do flyes or a pec deck.  This step is simply about feeling what the pec is doing.


Benching with the Pecs: Step 1

Benching with the Pecs: Step 1a


Note in the second picture how you can see the pec activating as the upper arm is pulled across the body.  That is, you can see it contract underneath the trainee’s hand.  Do this 5 or 10 times until you can really feel the pec workout.

Step 2: Do the Same Thing While Performing a Bench Press Movement

After you’ve done your repetitions of Step 1, do the exact thing while mimicking a bench press movement. So rather than moving the arm across your body with it straight, bring the arm back and bend the elbow so that you’re in your bottom bench press position.

Now perform a bench pressing movement, extending at the elbow while you focus on “pulling the arm across the body”.  If you do it right you should feel the pec do the exact same thing as you felt in Step 1.   The pec will contract and fill up in your hand.


Benching with the Pecs: Step 2

Benching with the Pecs: Step 2a

Again in the pictures you can see the trainee’s pec firing even at the halfway point of the movement.  This is what you want to have happen and feel happening.  You should feel it too but go ahead and finish the bench press movement.  So the arm should be straight in front of you now.  Lower and repeat.

Do as many repetitions as you need to really feel the pec firing underneath your hand and do it on both sides.  Once you’re really feeling it.

Step 3: Do It While Bench Pressing

Now do the same thing while bench pressing.  So lay on the bench, bring the bar out, get your shoulder blades behind you and try to mimic Step 2.  Bring the bar down to your chest and then focusing on using your pecs to “pull your arm across your body” as you “press” the weight up.  This is the trick, see.

Do perhaps 8-10 repetitions with a relatively comfortable weight and really try to feel your pecs “pulling the arm across” on ever rep.  If you lose the movement, hop up and repeat Step 1 and 2 quickly and then get back to it.  If you can get it really working with 8-10 reps, put a little more weight on the bar and do it again.  In a few workouts it should become more or less automatic and you won’t need to do Steps 1 and 2 anymore.

As well you should use this technique on any compound chest movement.  DB bench?  Think about pulling the upper arm across the body.  Machine chest or incline press?  Pull the upper arm across the body.  The function of the pecs doesn’t change depending on the movement you’re doing.  If you’re training chest, you use the pecs by pulling the arm across your body to midline.

And that should get you benching with the pecs.

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40 thoughts on “Benching with the Pecs

  1. Yes.. been a keen observer of bench press for a while now, you pretty much nailed it. People who dont get pec stimulation are very often pushing through with their whole shoulder cassette rather that focasing of the squeenze as atested to above

  2. 1. Does working on the machine (or perhaps db’s) make a difference?

    2. As a beginner, does it matter?

    3. Would I be better off going to some other pec movement (an isolation) and not worrying about this technical aspect? Right now, I do machine tricep press and machine bench.

    4. How about dips? Do they target the pecs and if so how since there doesn’t seem to be an abduction motion going on?

  3. 1. No. What the pecs do is irrespective of how you apply resistance.
    2. Yes, as a beginner is the time to learn how to do this properly. I taught this to all clients at workout #2.
    3. Depends.
    4. Depends on how you do them. Leaning forwards with elbows flared introduces adduction. Torso upright with elbows by side far less so.

  4. lyle,

    thanks so much for posting this. i was struggling to activate my chest during bench press and this article explained it in a way that finally made sense for me. i tried it out at the gym today and my form has substantially improved. thanks a lot.

  5. should i still keep my elbows tucked while benching, or flair them and extending at elbows?

  6. Does the same concept/technique also apply for incline press as well?

  7. More on chest activation druing bench press and pec training in general.

  8. This was an incredibly helpful article! Having recently started a “Starting Strength”esque program (I’m waiting for the 3rd edition to come out on Kindle, so I don’t have it to read yet), I was worried that my triceps/delts were most sore after benching as opposed to my pecs. This article has greatly clarified it, thank you very much! Lots of good information on this site even if you (sarcasm) advocate the leg press over the squat!!1! (/sarcasm)

  9. Thanks man! Right after i saw this i grabed a barbell and try’d it out and for the first time i feeled bench press in my chest 😀

  10. Yeah I’m not going to lie, after reading this, I’ve been doing this all wrong for about 8 months now. I’m so glad I found this site. For me its my triceps and front delts getting bigger while my chest is seriously lacking and for the longest time, I had no idea why.
    I totally get it now and im looking foward to my chest day tommorow.

    Thanks Lyle.

  11. Thank you for the article Lyle. I noticed my anterior delts were outpacing my pecs. I started searching for how to isolate my pecs (assuming it would be something other than bench). Glad I found this!

  12. I read this article yesterday, before my workout and it made a huge difference. I was one of those guys that had to go to cable crossovers to really get a burn in my chest because I wasn’t doing the press properly.

    I followed your advice last night and this morning my pecs still feel like they’re on fire. Not in an injured way, but they feel like they’re still working – thanks for this great article. This has made me realize that most of my form is probably horrible and I’m looking at getting a few sessions with a trainer to make sure I’m not wasting my limited time at the gym.

  13. Hi I’m new to this and haven’t the same problem. I don’t know how to describe this but when pushing up in the bench press movement, should I be trying to pull my hands together whilst holding the bar. Sorry if I’m gash at explaining

  14. No, think about bringing your elbows together, like you were squeezing a log sitting on your chest.

  15. Should I be bringing them together whilst going up or down. Sorry again I’m new to this and want to nail it straight away

  16. Lyle,

    You said in a reply above that leaning forward and flaring elbows would be the way to involve the pectoral muscles during the DIP exercise.

    Any input on “how” and “how much” to (SAFELY for the shoulders) flare the elbows when doing dips?



  17. Thank you very much! This is a clear and useful explanation. I always feel that other sources that only show exercises or describe their obvious components are made for people who already know how to use the muscles they are targeting but this is what learners like me need. I would love to read about other exercises explained like that. Thanks again!

  18. Ted: Yeah, eventually I may do some others. Back is usually a big one that gives folks problems.
    JLMA: There is always a balance to be had between more flare and shoulder health. Elbows tucked is safer on shoulders but less pec involvement. Elbows flared is more pec but potentially more problems.

  19. What do you mean by pulling the arm across the body when benching? The only thing I can think of is kinda like stretching my shoulder and tri. Please help me understand

  20. I dont get the instuctions in this. How am I supposed to bring my elbows together?

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘527190640 which is not a hashcash value.

  21. I feel that the article is clear, jsut follow the instructions and ‘think about bringing the elbows across the body’. Clearly they are not going to touch.

  22. Ah, just what I need. Chest is lagging way behind on overall development. After adopting your calf routine and getting outrageous results, I decide to head toward Google and type in “Lyle McDonald Chest”.
    thank you very much

  23. Hey Lyle,
    Thanks for the article! I have always had trouble activating my chest because I have been trying to avoid flaring my elbows out because my powerlifter friend says it puts too much strain on the front delt. Do you know what he’s talking about, and is there a way you’re both right?

  24. Not sure if these comments are still active but I’ve been struggling with my bench press for a very long time now. My biggest issue is that after a bench session, my left pec always super sore (in a great way) the next day but my right is not. I”ve attributed it to a form issue but have never been able to pinpoint exactly what I’m doing wrong. Add to that the issue that what my brain says is symmetrical is clearly not as with other exercises I have to pay really close attention in the mirror to make sure things are symmetrical. Unfortunately, there are no mirrors on the ceiling and even my workout partner has a hard to explaining to me what I’m doing differently on each side when I bench.

    I’m going to try focusing on pulling my elbows across my chest especially on my right side at the gym. Do you have any other suggestions for fixing an extremely uneven chest/bench press form? My left pec is significantly larger than my right and I really need to get this figured out. Thanks!

  25. Hey lyle i have read this before and understand what you are saying and it has helped alot. What i am having trouble with is my right side. I try to do it as evenly as possible but my right delt is stealing the pump from my right pec while my left pec gets an awesome pump. This has led to a bigger left pec and a smaller right pec. I have tried fixing my form so damn much and I’m actually starting to think it could just be the way my body is. Do you know if i could be doing anything wrong? I can take a couple videos if you need me to

  26. Can’t say without seeing it. Could be an injury, could be a lot of things.

  27. This article has helped my benching a ton, I literally made no progress for 3 years and stripping the load back a little and using this advice has brought me forward a lot, lots of rep PRs and I think a new 1RM will be hit next week!

    Just need to work on ‘unevenness’ going forward, some sets one pec works harder than the other, but overall I can actually feel my chest doing some work.

    Can’t thank you enough Lyle.

  28. Lyle, slightly off topic but I searched and couldn’t find a satisfactory answer regarding proper pec deck setup and form.
    At what height should my hands, arms, elbows be when doing pec decks relative to my head or chest?
    And what about elbow flaring? Do they flare away and downward at about a 45 deg angle? Or is it better to flare them totally outwards?

    The goal is to minimize stress on the shoulders/shoulder joints.

    BTW, excellent article once again; you’re like a guy going about throughout the world with a chisel and hammer, chipping and sculpting away at our bodies – all at no charge…
    Seriously, thank you for your sensible and valuable information.

  29. Arms should be parallel with the pecs. Where hands will be depends on the design of the machine. If it’s an old pec deck with the pads where arms rotate up, that’s one position. I far prefer a reverse pec deck type of machine where you can keep the hands neutral. Upper arm goes in line with the pecs horizontally in any case.

  30. Is this also good for strength training?

  31. In that pecs will move more weight in a bench press than delts and triceps, yes.

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