Last updated on February 8th, 2023 at 03:46 pm
The bench press is probably the most popular upper body exercise.
We know that benching should build a strong, muscular, and powerful chest.
Yes, there is secondary muscle activation in the shoulders and arms (primarily the triceps), so you will always “feel” these muscles working in some way.
But many of us tend to feel the bench press in the arms with very little chest stimulation.
So, what’s going on here?
The main reason that you feel bench press in your arms is due to incorrect technique. Possibly the most common error with the bench press is having the shoulders rounded forward. You should pull the shoulders back and towards each other, which will automatically expand the rib cage and push the chest out.
1. Incorrect Shoulder Placement
You would think that “bench press technique” would be fairly easy.
I mean, all you have to do is lie down, put your arms straight up, grab a bar off the rack, lower, push up, repeat.
And yet, it is still one of the most decimated exercises going.
One of the most common flaws I see with the bench press is shoulder placement.
There is a tendency to round the shoulders forward, which in turn takes the focus away from the chest, and places far more stress on the shoulders and the arms.
The shoulders should always be retracted and then pulled towards each other prior to benching.
You can actually just practice correct shoulder placement right now while sitting in your seat.
Place both arms out in front of you and make a fist with each hand.
Now pull your arms towards you by about 6 inches and stop.
You will notice that your shoulder blades have pulled backwards and moved further towards each other in the middle of your back.
This is the perfect shoulder position when benching, and should be maintained throughout the entire movement.
This simple movement with the shoulders will expand the rib cage and actually push the chest out.
2. You’re Not Contracting The Chest
I have spoken many times about the mind-muscle connection.
I honestly think that we should “set up” the muscles prior to performing any exercise.
So, in terms of the bench press this will involve contracting the pecs prior to lifting.
Once you’ve retracted the shoulders as above, it’s time to really squeeze your chest muscles.
You will want to maintain this “squeeze” throughout the entire set.
This forces you to focus on the chest muscles while you bench, and you’ll find that you hit the pecs far more by doing this.
Admittedly, you may find that if this is the first time that you have ever properly contracted the chest you won’t be able to lift as heavy a weight, or perform as many reps.
But, I don’t see this as a bad thing.
If you are contracting the chest you can rest-assured that you are working the muscles correctly.
And this is perfect for both muscle and strength gains.
3. Try Squeezing Your Hands Towards Each Other
This ties in really well with contracting the chest.
Plus, I honestly think this is one of the greatest tips there is for really “feeling” the chest when you bench press.
When you grab the bar, squeeze tight, and then imagine trying to force your hands towards each other.
You’ll notice this simple movement automatically causes the chest to contract.
Maintain this “squeeze” throughout your set and you’ll find that the pecs get a really good going over.
Admittedly, overly squeezing the bar does bring the forearms into play a lot more.
So, you may actually feel a pump in the forearms following a few sets using this technique.
However, I’m guessing when you speak of “feeling the bench press in your arms”, this is more geared towards the triceps than anything else.
4. Too Narrow a Grip
One of the more obvious reasons why you may feel the bench press in your arms is that your grip is too narrow.
In fact, the close-grip bench press is probably the best tricep builder there is.
The further apart your hands are, the more of a stretch you get in the chest.
Whereas, the closer your hands are together, the more the triceps are activated.
I would even consider having your hands 12 inches apart as a “narrow-grip” bench press, thus working the triceps harder than usual.
So, in reality you want your hands to be further apart than shoulder-width.
You will always have some tricep activation and stimulation with the bench press, but you can simply lessen this by placing the hands further apart.
5. Your Arms Are Weak in Relative Comparison to Chest
This is something that I have definitely experienced myself.
I actually spent many years concentrating solely on compound exercises and did very little arm work.
Don’t get me wrong, I regularly performed exercises like push ups, dips, pull ups, and chin ups.
But, I very rarely did any direct arm work.
I know, I know, I’m a guy, and I haven’t spent years and years doing biceps curls and tricep pushdowns.
Now, for many people this mix of compound exercises will actually develop their arms really well.
However, I am obviously not genetically gifted, and I have now worked out that I need a fair amount of direct arm work to really pump up my bis and tris.
Unfortunately, if you find that your arms, especially your triceps, are “relatively” weak when compared to your pecs, you’re going to feel bench presses a lot more in the arms.
So, it could be a case of needing to do some more direct arm work so your lagging body parts can catch up.
6. Try Dumbbell Chest Presses
Okay, I know you want to concentrate on feeling the bench press more in your chest than your arms, but there is an alternative.
I know I’m definitely not the only one, but I much prefer dumbbell chest presses to the bench press.
In fact, I feel they target the chest more, use a greater range of motion, give a greater pump, and provide far more definition.
I will even go as far to say that my main chest exercises with weights will revolve around variations of dumbbell chest presses.
I do like the bench press, as a mass builder, but in truth I don’t use it anywhere as much as most people do.
In fact, it’s not unheard for me to go many, many months without bench pressing at all.
I guess this is down to personal preference.
However, if you really want to pack on some muscle and give your pecs a serious pump then dump the bench and grab the dumbbells.
7. Start With The Incline Bench Press
The standard bench press is the exercise that most people seem to start a chest or push day with.
Basically, the bench press is viewed as the best mass-builder push exercise (I would argue the case for the overhead press, but I’ll save that for another day).
However, if you’re struggling to feel your chest with the standard bench press, I urge you to start your workouts on the incline bench instead.
Once again, much like dumbbell presses, I definitely feel my chest working much more with the incline bench press.
Now, I’m not saying not to do the standard bench press, but try 2-3 sets (even with a light weight) of the incline bench first.
I find that this creates a nice pump in the chest, which means that I am far more likely to use the mind-muscle connection when performing the flat bench.
Key Learning Points
- Always pull your shoulder blades back and down when you bench press. This will expand the rib cage and push the chest out, thus meaning that your chest will be better activated.
- Contract and squeeze your pecs when you bench press to increase the mind-muscle connection.
- Squeezing your hands towards each other once you’ve gripped the barbell will increase chest contraction.
- Your grip should be slightly outside shoulder-width to work the chest more effectively. If your grip is 12 inches or less you’ll activate the triceps much more, i.e. close-grip bench press.
- Your arms may be weak in relative comparison to your chest. This means you’ll feel bench press in your arms a lot more. Work on increasing strength in your biceps and triceps.
- Try dumbbell chest presses, as they provide a greater range of motion and better pump for the pecs.
- Perform incline presses first in your workout, as once more this gives greater range of motion and pump in the pecs.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.