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:
- They never learned how to use the pecs while benching.
- 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:
- Extending at the elbow
- 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.
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.
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.
- Bench Press Variations
- A Guide to Bench Press Technique
- Categories of Weight Training: Part 5
- Lat Pulldown Technique
- Cable Row Technique