Written by Ben Bunting: BA(Hons), PGCert. Sport & Exercise Nutrition. L2 Strength & Conditioning Coach.
When you first enter a gym or start training for the first time, the bench press is probably your first port of call.
It is an effective way to increase strength, fitness and size.
In this article we look at differences between the bench press and the floor press.
Chest Exercises for Men and Women
The bench press is one of the big compound exercises. It features in the three exercises for powerlifting competitions alongside the deadlift and the squat.
All three exercises incorporate multiple muscle groups and joints, when performed correctly and under a progressive resistance regime they have the potential to develop high levels of strength and mass.
However, of the three exercises, arguably the bench press is the golden boy, and possibly the most coveted by many.
Take a trip to any gym, and you will typically see people on the bench press, with potentially fewer in the squat rack.
The bench press has even earned its own day of the week and numerous social media hashtags, Monday’s are for chest, as such it is known as international chest day amongst many gym goers.
Now, we could speculate that chest exercises are so popular because it’s the quickest way to look big and strong.
Plus, it’s a real marker of strength. The chest is a big muscle group, so hitting 200lbs on the bench is an impressive feat, and being one of the three powerlifting exercises, it is common for people to ask others ‘what they can bench’.
A big chest stands out and we would speculate that everyone wants that shirt splitting look which is much more obvious than bigger legs.
However, having a strong and big chest is not just about looking good, there’s real benefit to hitting those pecs in the gym.
Benefits of Weight Training
It is no secret that weight training is beneficial to our overall health. It is safe and anyone can start weight training into their older age.
Strength training is not just about being big and lifting huge amounts of weight, strength training at any level can help.
In fact, the Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University state that it can reduce the symptoms for a variety of chronic conditions such as:
- Heart Disease
- Back Pain
Furthermore, even light resistance training has been proven to increase daily calorie burn and help people lose fat according to findings published in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise journal.
And, general sport related physical activity has been reported to improve bone density and strength.
So, while there may be a lot of preconceptions about weightlifting, the reality is, we should all be including it in our schedules.
Importance of Chest Exercises
So, we know that overall, weightlifting is great for our health.
But what is stopping us from just doing lots of bicep curls or squats? Is there any reason why we need to exercise our pectoral muscles?
Firstly, it is good to exercise all the muscle groups, this way it prevents muscular atrophy (muscle loss) of certain areas of the body.
Secondly, as the muscles are exercised, they grow. So, you may at least want to have some element of equal proportion.
However, if you don’t care about proportions and just want huge legs or arms, let’s explain why you should not overlook exercising your chest.
It’s a Multi-Joint Exercise
Yes, being a multi-joint exercise means that it places demands on numerous muscle groups, therefore, it’s not just your pectoral muscles that benefit.
How do we know this?
If you are using a barbell it is apparent from at least one study that both the pectorals, triceps and deltoids are activated whilst performing the bench press along with your biceps and the latissimus dorsi as the weight becomes progressively heavier.
This means, more of your body benefits from tissue growth and increases in strength. Particularly your trunk area.
It’s Functional Fitness
If you play sport, having a strong chest can help, particularly for rugby, or playing baseball, tennis, football, and even rowing.
Are you in the military? If so, being able to push yourself unaided up from the floor, potentially laden with kit and equipment requires chest strength.
Likewise pushing boxes and equipment along a floor or on the back of trucks also requires an element of chest strength.
Therefore, having a strong chest isn’t just for show, there’s real functionality to be gained.
Your Hormones Benefit
Yes, resistance exercise has been proven in various studies to have a positive effect on testosterone levels in men. This can be helpful for men suffering from age related andropause.
For instance, this study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology saw that men respond very well to resistance training and their testosterone levels increased significantly after weightlifting.
This is important because a healthy level of testosterone can help reduce the risk of developing health conditions such as obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes among other physiological benefits.
Favorable Chest Exercises
Ask almost anyone how to exercise their chest and you can almost be certain they will point to the bench press.
And, why not?
We can count at least three variations, they are:
- Flat bench – the bench is level and you press upwards.
- Incline bench – the bench is set at a 45-degree angle upwards
- Decline bench – this is where the back rest of the bench slops downwards away from the hips
Then there are the variations in equipment. The most obvious being the barbell, with the Olympic standard barbell being seven feet in length (2.1m) and weighing in a 20kg (44lbs).
Dumbbells can be used, as such much more stability is required of the shoulders to control the pushing motion and the result is that a person can generally push less weight using dumbbells rather than a barbell.
Then there is the cambered bar to consider. This is a slightly curved barbell with the hights point of the curve being in the center.
The curvature allows a greater range of motion whereby the hands can go a bit deeper at the bottom of the press and the results of a study demonstrated that a cambered bar allowed for increased power and bar velocity when compared to a standard barbell.
Potentially a less popular option is the Swiss bar. Predominantly found in the more dedicated of the gyms to heavy lifting and strength.
This piece of equipment has a variety of holding positions that may allow a more natural grip. As such it can be used also for arm curls and extensions to great effect.
Then there’s the option of using kettlebells in a similar vein as dumbbell presses.
Apart from the ‘free weight’ chest exercises, there are also those that we can perform using machine equipment.
A machine may be able to add more stability and really focus on one plane of movement to isolate the muscles by having more control. These are generally seen as safer because proper form is encouraged more by the position and control.
Machines come in varying shapes and sizes, let alone positions for the user.
You can have seated bench press equipment, or machines that require you to load with weight plates, whereas some have an adjustable stack of weights.
Then there are cable fly machines available and so forth.
However, in its most basic form, a push-up can also be effective.
A push-up activates the upper body as well by using your body weight as the form of resistance and is incredibly safe.
It could be argued that before hitting any gym equipment the push up should be utilised to give your body a good grounding of strength, stability and ensure that your joints, ligaments and tendons are robust.
It has to be noted, if you are about to perform any exercise, ensure you follow these basic steps:
- Be hydrated and have water available
- You have eaten approximately 45 minutes prior
- Wear appropriate clothing and footwear
- Fully stretched and warmed up to minimise injury
As we have mentioned, the bench press is possibly the most recognised exercises if someone mentions weightlifting.
We have already covered some of the benefits of this exercise and the variations available.
However, let us look at the bench press in more detail.
For a start, the user would require a flat bench, a strong, sturdy and stable foundation for the back to rest on whilst being able to support the head and buttocks.
This allows for a greater range of movement as your elbows can go lower than your back.
The bench press is known as an open kinetic chain movement, whereby the end point of the limbs for the exercise are the hands and fingers which are free to move, albeit they would be holding a barbell.
An example of a closed kinetic chain would be a push-up. While the exercises are both similar, the hands are supporting the body on the floor and are not able to move freely.
The bench press also involves shoulder horizontal flexion and extension, as does the elbow. Due to the bench press being an open kinetic chain movement it requires a greater need for coordination and stability which engages more muscles. Win, win.
What is interesting is that as you work closer to reaching your 100% 1RM less of the pectoral muscle is involved as the prime mover and it is actually the deltoid that steps in along with a greater involvement of the triceps.
So effectively, as the weight becomes heavier (within the 70-100% 1RM), the involvement of different muscle groups gradually alters as demonstrated by a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
Furthermore, we have already discussed range of movement (ROM), and that the bench press allows for a good ROM due to the elbows being able to dip beneath the line of the back and past the back cushion and support of the bench.
Therefore, one would consider this greater ROM to be beneficial in regard to muscle hypertrophy (growth) due to the muscle being stretched further and additional load placed on the muscle groups.
We would therefore think more muscle fibers would be damaged and then replaced and repaired by new muscle fibers which increases the size.
However, while this has proven to be the case for lower limb exercises, researchers have drawn a bit on an inconclusive blank in regards of upper limb resistance training.
Their meta-analysis of the available literature which was then published in the SAGE Open Medicine journal of 2020 found that the evidence for ROM and muscle development of the upper limbs was “…limited and conflicting…”.
It would be assumed that the floor press came before the bench press. And the floor press does hold its advantages.
Afterall, less equipment is required and as long as the floor area is level, solid and dry, there’s no surface that is as stable, and there’s less risk of being pinned by a barbell that is simply too heavy that you’ve failed to lift.
What else lies in its favor?
Well, from the available studies and research it does seem that the greater range of movement offered by the bench press does not necessarily equal more growth. So why go deeper?
Additionally, there’s also a point raised by a published article from 2014 in the Journal of Athletic Training that discovered the bench press when performed to the point of fatigue, “…increases elbow-joint loading and may further increase the risk of injury…”.
Furthermore, if a person has a rotator cuff injury for example, the reduced ROM can help with rehabilitation and those who have joint limitations.
Once more, the floor press can be a real test of strength.
The bench press can be forgiving for sloppy form and a lack of control. It is not difficult to twist your body or bounce the barbell on your chest.
These actions, particularly the latter aren’t doable. Trying to drop your elbows with enough force to help bounce the barbell back up will result in your elbows hitting the floor with dismal results.
Therefore, being able to engage the involved musculature in a slow and control manner to raise and slowly lower the bar will require strength, balance and coordination.
At all times, keep your elbows tucked in. Maintain muscular control rather than relying on kinetic energy to lift. You simply cannot cheat with the floor press.
This means, you will develop true upper body strength as it is a pure upper body power movement.
Can you push more with the floor press?
This can depend, if you have a cavalier attitude to weightlifting and are ruled by your ego rather than form you can potentially lift more weight by using techniques such as bouncing and overarching your back and not maintaining contact of the buttocks on the bench.
On the flip side, you may be able to add more to your floor press performance due to the reduced range of motion employed. Much like when people half or quarter squat.
With less distance to push, you may not feel as much fatigue through the lift, and it may help reduce elbow injury at the same time.
Additionally, in a study comparing the cambered bar against the standard barbell, it is apparent that the cambered bar activated the deltoid muscles moreso than the barbell which activated the triceps and the pectorals more due to the differing ROM whereby the cambered bar provides a greater ROM.
Therefore, it could be suggested that due to the reduced ROM of the floor press to the bench press that we would see the floor press activating the pectorals and triceps more than the bench press would.
Naturally, you the reader wants a ‘what is best’ answer.
However, the bottom line is that both can compliment each other, and overall, benefit you more.
Thus far it has been established, or rather it hasn’t been established that a greater ROM is necessarily the marker for additional muscle growth.
Although what we can deduce is that a greater ROM on chest exercises activates more shoulder muscle involvement whereas a lesser ROM activates the pecs and triceps to a greater degree.
We have also seen that too much pressure, such as weight and fatigue in the bench press can result in a greater risk of elbow joint injury.
Whereas the floor press may be able to reduce that risk and be more suitable for those already in rehabilitation or who have limited movement.
What about strength?
That reduced ROM with the floor press could translate to a higher weight being lifted as there is less distance to push the weight and a lesser chance of suffering from fatigue during the movement.
And the floor press would arguably enforce a stricter form regime with little margin to ‘cheat’ or use kinetic energy to bounce the weight from your chest.
Therefore it could be the real developer of raw power.
However, to develop your overall upper body a combination of both techniques will triumph over singling one out.
Always remember to keep hydrated when doing exercise.