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 use the pecs.
Some gurus even go so far as to say that the bench press sucks for chest development, which 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.
I want to make it very clear that what I’m describing primarily applies to individuals benching for either hypertrophy or general fitness. Some of it applies to powerlifting bench pressing but there are different issues involved there and that’s not what I’m talking about. So, please no nasty comments about how “That advice sucks when you’re benching 700 lbs in an open backed denim shirt.”
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. That’s what cable crossovers, flyes or the pec deck train. For the technically minded, this is called adduction (in this case it’s actually called horizontal adduction but I’ll spare you the distinction). Adduction means bringing something towards the midline of the body.
Now, when you bench press, if you actually watch the upper arm, it is pulled across the body. Just like on the pec deck, flyes, etc. The difference is what’s going on at the elbow which is bending and extending. This is most of what screws people up.
As well, people often think of the bench press conceptually as ‘push the bar away’ from the body. Invariably what this does is make it a front delt and triceps exercise, the pecs aren’t involved. I found years ago working with clients that telling them to ‘push the weight away’ made them use delts and triceps. Teaching them the following got their pecs involved. At that point, I worked mainly with beginners and I could get them doing this in two sessions tops.
So, to use the pecs in benching means learning to pull the arms across the body while you’re benching.
This has to occur while you’re doing two things
- Extending at the elbow
- Keeping your shoulder blades pinned back. This is important because, as soon as your upper back rounds, you will have little success using your pecs. I’ll detail this aspect of bench pressing in a future article.
So here’s how to learn to bench with the pecs. You should be doing this immediately prior to bench pressing, you’ll need to strip some weight off the bar if you want to learn how to do it right. Don’t worry about your muscles falling off, your pecs will be getting a better stimulus with the lighter weight. Since we were at home when I decided to write this piece, my lovely model is showing this movement standing up. You’ll be sitting on the flat bench you intend to use.
Step 1: Figure out what the pecs do
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 movement as shown below. Focus on feeling the pec pulling the upper arm across the body. As above, this is what happens when you do flyes or the pec deck. This step is just to get you 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.
Step 2: Do this while performing a bench press movement
After 2-3 repetitions of the exercise in step 1, I want you to perform a bench press movement. So bring the arm back and bend at the elbow until you’re in the position that you’d be in the bottom of the bench. Now perform a bench movement, extending at the elbow but do it while thinking of “pulling” the upper arm across the body. You should feel the exact same thing you felt in step 1. This is what should happen when you have the bar in your hands as well. This is shown below.
Again, as she’s about halfway through the bench in the second picture, you can clearly see the pec firing.
Clearly you’d continue with this action as you completed the full bench pressing movement.
After 2-3 repetitions of Step 2 (more if you need it), immediately lay back and bring out the bar for bench pressing. Pull your shoulders back underneath you, get your chest up, and try to do the exact same thing you did in Step 2: lower the bar to your chest and then focus on pulling your upper arms across your body as you “press” the weight up.
Do 8-10 repetitions (as noted, you should be using a fairly light weight) and make sure you feel your pecs firing. If you need to, repeat step 1 and 2 above between sets of benching until you really have it nailed. You’ll need to work with relatively lighter weights for a few workouts until it really becomes habitual but you’ll be targeting your pecs much better than when you were just “pushing the weight up” and using nothing but front delts and triceps.
Good luck with your muscles.
- Bench Press Variations
- Shirted Benching – A Guest Article by Dan Montague
- Isolation Exercise to Fix a Compound Exercise Stall – Q&A
- Bench Press Technique
- Woodchop and Reverse Woodchop