Chest Press vs. Bench Press: Which Should You Use? - Old School Labs
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Home » OSL Blog » Chest Press vs. Bench Press: Which Should You Use?

Chest Press vs. Bench Press: Which Should You Use?

December 22, 2019

Key Takeaways

  1. The bench press and chest press are two different upper body exercises that work the chest, shoulders, and arms.
  2. As a part of the Big Three (which also includes the squat and deadlift), the bench press tends to be more well known and popular among bodybuilders.
  3. There are pros and cons to using each type of press, and you can use both in your workout routine if you prefer.
  4. The chest press will allow you to lift more weight as it assists with the exercise. It is also the best out of the two for beginners and for some dealing with certain injuries.
  5. The bench press should be performed with a spotter and you must have perfect form. You’re more likely to injure yourself in the bench press than the chest press.

The barbell bench press is one of the most recognized exercises in any gym. Whether you are a seasoned lifter or just starting out, you can probably spot a barbell bench press.

If you go to the gym, chances are they have weight machines there as well as free weights. If they do, you may have used or seen someone using the chest press machine. 

Arnold Bench Press
Arnold Schwarzenegger Performing an Incline Bench Press

Back in the Golden Era, you would have likely seen most bodybuilders using the barbell bench press. After all, free weights, especially the barbell, was king in those days. Machines were not as prevalent back then, but if a chest machine was available, it was used. 

Now, it is common to see machines in most gyms. When comparing the chest press to bench press, have you wondered if one is better at achieving your goals? 

Today we are discussing the battle of the bench press vs chest press, to see if we can declare a winner.

  • What each exercise is, including variations
  • The muscles worked for each
  • What is best for beginners
  • What works in a time crunch
  • Which can put up more weight
  • Which works better for injuries – and which prevents more
  • How the Smith machine compares to the chest press machine

What is the Bench Press?

The bench press is a popular upper body exercise. It is part of the Big Three, which also includes the squat and deadlift. Powerlifters master these three exercises and compete to see who can lift the heaviest weight in each.

The bench press can be done using a decline, flat or incline bench. It is performed with either a barbell or dumbbells. Most often, the bench press is performed with a barbell. 

Dumbbell Bench Press
Dumbbell Bench Press

There are many alternatives to the bench press, using various machines as well. Here are just a few:

Today, we are going to focus primarily on the barbell bench press due to its popularity in the gym.

Performing the Barbell Bench Press

These are the steps to perform the basic barbell bench press:

  1. Lay flat on the bench with the barbell in the rack above you.
  2. Grasp the barbell in both hands, most often in an overhand grip shoulder-width apart or less.
  3. Lift the barbell off the rack and position it over your chest.
  4. Lower the barbell down until it is right over your chest.
  5. Press the barbell upwards until the arms are straight and elbows are locked.

You can continue reps for as many as needed, as well as sets. We recommend 8 – 12 reps for three sets to get you started. 

Bench Press
Traditional Bench Press

Choose a weight that allows you to complete your sets. If it becomes too easy, you’re ready to increase the weight. If you struggle under the weight, reduce down until you can complete your sets.

According to the American Council on Exercise, the barbell bench press is the best at activating the chest muscles. Out of nine different chest exercises, the seated chest press came in fourth.

Let’s take a closer look at the chest press and how it differs from the bench press. Then, we’ll take a look at the chest muscles activated by each.

What is the Chest Press?

Different from the free weight bench press, the chest press is done most often using a machine. The chest press can be performed by using a:

Chest Press
Incline Chest Press with Machine

The chess press can also be called by other names, including:

  • Seated machine press
  • Seated chest press
  • Machine press

Like the bench press, these exercises can be done on a flat, incline or decline bench. Dumbbells, barbells, various machines, and even body positions can be used. 

Chest presses are versatile and almost anyone can find the exercise variation that is right for them.

Performing the Machine Chest Press

Here is how you would perform a cable or plate loaded chest press:

  1. Set the desired weight to start and make sure the seat is set for your height.
  2. Sit down and press your back against the backrest of the machine.
  3. Place your feet flat on the ground or use the footrest, then grab the handles.
  4. Begin by pressing the handles forward until your arms are straight.
  5. Hold the position for a second or two and then bend the elbows to bring the bars/cables back to the starting position.

If you’re doing standing chest presses, you will take a different stance depending on the type of equipment used. 

Machine Chest Press
Sitting Lever Chest Press

Now that we know the different forms and equipment used for both press types, let’s see what muscles are used.

Muscles Used for the Bench Press vs Chest Press

One thing that the bench press and chest press have in common are the muscles used. They both target the upper body and focus on the following muscles:

  • Pectoralis Major – both presses target the pectoralis major as the primary chest muscle. The sternal head (lower pec) is the main focus and the clavicular head (upper pec) assists the movement. 
  • Anterior deltoid – the front of the shoulder is also used to assist the pec muscles when performing a press. It rotates the arm when completing a press, and can be injured if proper form is not used.
  • Triceps Brachii – the long head of the triceps in the back of the arm also assists with the press exercise. 
  • Biceps Brachii – the short head of the bicep is located in the front of the muscle. It helps to stabilize the joints and assist with the press, both on the upward and downward motion.
Chest Muscles

Depending on the type of press performed and the body position, other muscles may be called into action.

This includes the:

  • Pectoralis minor
  • Serratus Anterior
  • Obliques
  • Quadriceps
  • Abs
  • Lower back
  • Calves 

Now, in the battle between chest press vs bench press, is there one that might be better than the other?

Chest Press vs Bench Press for Beginners

If you are just starting out in your weightlifting journey, you may be wondering which is better. When it comes to your skill level, you definitely want to start with the chest press first.

There are a few reasons for this, but the most important is the need for a spotter. One of the benefits to the chest press is you can use the machines solo regardless of skill level.

Speaking of skill level, spotters are used not only for your safety but also to help your form. The limited range of motion in the chest press machine makes it hard to mess up and maintains form for you.

However, there is more chance of injury using the cable machine than a press machine.

Bench Press for Beginners
Traditional Bench Press With Spotter

With the bench press, you need a spotter to help ensure you learn perfect form to reduce injury. Plus, they will be there as you increase the barbell weight to help you complete a rep if the weight becomes too much.

You need to put time, effort, and dedication into perfecting the bench press. This will not only give you the maximum muscle gaining benefits but also ensure you avoid injury. The chest press machine only requires you to sit in the right position and push on the bars.

Another advantage to the chest press machine is the single-arm press, which is almost impossible on the bench press. If you have an imbalance on one side that you want to fix, the chest press is best.

Chest Press vs Bench Press When You’re Strapped for Time

Some people struggle with finding the time to make it to the gym for a quality workout. If you have to choose between the bench press and chest press machine, which is better in a time crunch?

Chest Press

To save yourself time, choose the chest press. This is especially true if you do drop sets and need to change out weights between sets. 

With the bench press, you have to break form, remove and/or add bumper plates. Then, get back into position and move on with your reps. With the chest press machine, you stay in position and move the pin to the desired weight.

It’s much easier and more time-efficient to use the chest press machine if you need a quick workout.

Chest Press vs Bench Press: Weight Capacity

When it comes to comparing the chest press vs bench press weight difference, each is a winner for different reasons. 

Bench Press Weight Capacity

It’s no secret that when determining which allows you to put up more weight, the chest press wins out. As we learned in free weights vs machines, the limited range of motion from the machine helps you lift heavier.

However, don’t discount the bench press. Since the chest press is a machine, you can only go up to a certain weight limit. Once you’ve hit the highest limit on the machine, you’ve officially maxed out and can’t lift more.

Much like the chest press machine, you are limited to weight restriction with bench press vs dumbbell press. Dumbbells only go so high in the weight limit, so maxing out with dumbbells leaves you with little alternative.

Pushing Too Hard Dumbbell Press

The bench press, on the other hand, is only limited by your lifting ability. As long as the bar and bench rack (and you) can handle the weight, more plates can be added.

So, you may be able to initially lift heavier using the chest press, but you will eventually max out on the machine. To really be able to reach maximum individual gains, you may have to use the barbell bench press. 

A word of caution: if you transition from the chest press to bench press, change your weight accordingly. There is no conversion you can do from chest press to bench press, so start out lighter than you think.

A good rule is to start out at about 50% of your chest press weight limit, then progress from there.

Chest Press vs Bench Press for the Injured

There is nothing worse than having an injury derail your fitness plans. Whether or not you suffered an injury from lifting, you want to work safely in the gym to avoid reinjury.

Comparing the bench press vs the chest press, you’re more likely to injure yourself from the bench press. It could be bad form, too much weight, or trying to progress too fast. Shoulder and pec injuries are common among powerlifters and bodybuilders if they aren’t careful.

Too much Weight Bench Press

Whether you’re dealing with a torn pec, shoulder impingement or rotator cuff injury, go with the chest press. It is used in rehabilitation to help rebuild from these types of injuries as a safer alternative.

The benefit of the reduced line of movement using the chest press machine makes it a better choice. Not only to reduce the likelihood of injury but to also rebuild strength after an injury. 

Also, you can use one arm in the chest press, which is only an option in a dumbbell bench press.

This doesn’t mean the bench press shouldn’t be used for fear of injury or even during rehabilitation. With the right care for form and lighter weights, it can be effective. But the chest press machine is likely a better option for anyone less than a pro.

Smith Machine Bench Press vs Chest Press Machine: Which is Better?

The Smith machine and chest press machine are similar in a number of ways. They both:

  • Have a fixed plane of motion
  • Use a machine to assist the press exercise
  • Work the same muscles
  • Reduce the likelihood of injury
  • Don’t require a spotter (but nice to have if just starting out)

The Smith machine is a rack attached to a barbell and bench. The barbell moves up and down within the limits of the machine rack, much like a barbell bench press. 

Smith Machine Bench Press
Smith Machine

It has a locking mechanism so that at any point in time during the exercise, you can stop. The weight will be suspended in that position until the lock is disengaged, releasing the bar.

The chest press uses either a pulley or plate loaded machine and the weight is pushed outward. Certain variations of the chest press may have you standing or seating. Others have you use bodyweight, like in suspended chest presses or using a twisting motion while seated.

You’ll likely be able to lift heavier weights with the Smith machine than the chest press. If you are used to the standard barbell bench press, you might find a lighter bar in the Smith machine. Start with a lighter weight and increase as needed.

When it comes to whether or not one is better than the other, it really comes down to personal preference. If you have access to both, try them out to see which one you like better. 

Final Thoughts

In the battle of chest press vs bench press, you have different winners in different categories. Depending on your skill level, goals, and limitations, you might want to perform one over the other.

If you’re a beginner or don’t have the perfect form in the bench press, start with the chest press first. Never start out on the bench press without an experienced spotter who can help with your form. You’re much more likely to injure yourself using the bench press, so proceed with caution and respect.

If maxing out on muscle gains is your goal, then you’ll likely want to focus on the bench press. Add in different variations to work the muscle fibers sufficiently, but don’t go too heavy too fast. 

If time is a factor in your gym day, then stick with the chest press. It’ll get you in and out the door quicker with almost the same results as using the bench press.

Which do you prefer, the chest press or bench press? Is there another press machine or exercise you think is better? Anything else you want to mention? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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Old School Labs™ is the maker of premium supplements that carry on the fitness values of the “Golden Era” of bodybuilding. Old School Labs™ products do not hide behind proprietary blends, contain no artificial sweeteners or artificial flavors, and are manufactured using only high-quality ingredients.

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