Guide To Bench Pressing For Women
There are tonnes of different exercises to target and tone your upper body. And anyone who has stepped foot in a gym before will know that the bench press is one of them. It's effective, challenging, and extremely popular.
Bench press is one of the three fundamental exercises in BUILD. (Squats and deadlifts are the other two.) So I thought I’d deep dive into what they are, how to perform them correctly and why they’re a must for women who want to build serious strength.
What is a bench press?
A bench press is an upper-body exercise where you lie down on a bench with your head beneath the barbell, place your hands on the barbell and “press” away from your body so the barbell is lifted directly above your chest. You can also bench press with dumbbells. But I’ll cover variations of this exercise later.
Walk into the weights section at the gym and you’re bound to see at least one person bench pressing. They’re a standard exercise in any powerlifting program, and an effective way to build strength in your chest, shoulders and triceps.
Bench press can be tough, especially if you don’t have a lot of upper body strength, but you can certainly build up to it with the right program.
Why women should bench press
Because it targets the pec major muscles, which are big muscles in your upper chest, the bench press is highly popular with men (I’m sure you’ve all seen jacked guys in the gym benching before). But they’re extremely beneficial for women, too. Stay with me.
I’ve found a lot of women generally favour a good lower body workout, but it’s also important to give your upper body attention. I know many women struggle with upper body exercises like benching, but with a solid foundation of strength, you can absolutely make this exercise part of your weekly workouts.
I’ve heard the myth a million times: lifting heavy weights isn’t feminine. But it’s simply not true. Strength and femininity are not mutually exclusive. Gaining strength in my upper body has given me a lot of confidence, and it’s helped improve my ability in other upper body exercises, too.
Like squats and deadlifts, the bench press is a compound exercise meaning they target multiple muscles and joints in one movement. Basically, they enable you to get more work done in less time — and they’re a sure-fire way to get the blood pumping.
Bench press primarily targets your pec majors, but it also targets your anterior deltoid (which is the front of your shoulders), your triceps, and they engage your core. So, by bench pressing, you’re giving all four of these body parts a workout. And who doesn’t want more bang for their buck?
But where do you start?
How to perform a bench press
Upper body workouts can be particularly challenging for beginners to heavy lifting. If you’re just getting started, make sure you start light and focus on form.
Before you hit the bench, make sure you’ve got someone to spot you — especially when lifting heavy. While in squats and deadlifts if the barbell or free weights drop they’ll land on the floor, but with a bench press you may struggle to lift the barbell back into the rack effectively pinning you down on the bench. And that’s definitely not something you want to happen!
Here’s how to perform a basic barbell bench press:
- Place a barbell on the rack and add any additional weight in the form of weight plates. (Once you’ve completed your One-Rep Max (1RM) in the app, you’ll be provided with recommendations for weights.)
- Lie down on the bench so that your head is beneath the barbell.
- Plant your feet on the floor on either side of the bench, or on the bench itself.
- Place both hands on the barbell in an overhand grip (palms facing away from you), slightly wider than your shoulders. Push the bar away from you to unrack the barbell and extend your elbows to hold the barbell directly in front of your chest. This is your starting position.
- Inhale. Bend your elbows to lower the barbell towards you until the bar touches your chest.
- Exhale. Extend your elbows and push the barbell away from your chest to return to the starting position. Repeat for the specified number of repetitions before returning the barbell to a secure position on the rack.
Bench press variations
Close-grip barbell bench press
- Looking for a targeted tricep workout? The close-grip bench press is for you. This exercise can be challenging, so make sure you start light and focus on your form.
- In a regular bench press, your hands are placed slightly wider than your shoulders, but in a close-grip bench press your hands should be shoulder-width apart. By moving your hands closer together, you’re shifting the emphasis from your chest to your triceps.
Dumbbell chest press with neutral grip
- If you want to take the pressure off your shoulders and elbows and give your chest and arms a solid workout, try a neutral-grip bench press.
- Ensure your palms are facing inwards as you grip the dumbbells. This will help work your triceps.
Paused bench press
- Paused barbell bench press takes your workout up a notch and boost muscle strength. This variation is especially good if you’ve reached a plateau and want to make your bench press more challenging.
- Paused bench press is performed in the same way as a regular bench press, but as you lower the barbell towards your chest, you pause for two to three seconds.
Spoto barbell bench press
- A spoto bench press is an advanced exercise that’ll take your upper-body workout to the next level. Think of it as an intensified version of the paused bench press.
- In a spoto bench press, you bend your elbows to lower the barbell towards you until the bar almost touches your chest and pause for one second.
Barbell incline bench press
- Incline bench press works your upper chest muscles, as well as your anterior deltoids (the front of your shoulders) and your triceps.
- This exercise can be done with either dumbbells or a barbell. Make sure the bench is set to a 30-degree incline for the exercises in my BUILD workout.
How to boost your bench press
Seeing your bench press increase as you gain strength over time is one of the best things about sticking with this exercise. There's a couple of ways you can improve your bench press depending on whether you're a beginner or you've been training for a while.
If you’re just getting started with lifting heavy and are new to bench pressing, firstly complete the 1 Rep Max (1RM) assessment in the BUILD app to ensure you’re lifting the right weights for your body and goals.
Alternatively, start by bench pressing without adding any weight to the barbell. This is a great way to focus on your form and get your technique right before you progress to heavier, more advanced lifts.
Make warm-ups an essential part of your pre-workout routine. The bench press is a difficult exercise and heading straight to the bar without warming up your muscles will not only limit your ability to lift heavy, it’s also unsafe. This is essential for all heavy lifters — not just beginners.
Take the time to focus on your technique by closely following my form in the app. Don’t worry if it takes some time to nail your form, it’s essential you’re performing movements correctly — both for your safety and your ability to grow.
Whether you’ve made your way through the BUILD programs or are an experienced heavy lifter, there’ll come a point in time when you want to take your benching to the next level.
Produce more power on your next heavy set by grabbing an empty barbell and pressing it against the pins in a power rack as hard as possible for 2–5 seconds. Take a short rest for 1–3 minutes once done, and you’ll be ready to complete your heavy lift. This will help prime your central nervous system so you can maximise your lift.
Switch it up by slowing your lifts right down. Slowing down key movements will increase the time your muscles spend under tension and boost your existing lifts without deviating from your workout plan.
Make use of exercise variations to stay motivated. There are tonnes of twists on the classic bench press, so mix it up by opting for more challenging movements, such as the paused bench press or spoto barbell bench press. Incline and dumbbell bench presses are also great for adding variation to your workouts.
Pump your way to a strong upper body!
Ignore the myths you’ve heard about upper-body training for women (along with all of the other lifting myths). You can and should bench press. It’s an incredibly effective way to build strength in your chest, shoulders and triceps — and a great way to increase your confidence.
What else would you like to know about bench pressing? Which variations do you enjoy most? Let me know in the comments.
* Results from BUILD may vary. Strict adherence to the program is required for best results.