And yet, these two exercises aren't totally interchangeable. Depending on your gym goals and training history, you might see better results focusing more on one or the other.
Below, we explain the differences between the bench press and chest press and share some advice on which one to use in your workouts.
What's the Difference Between a Chest Press Machine and Bench Press?
The most obvious difference between the chest press machine and bench press is that the bench press requires you lie down on your back, while you sit in a chair for the chest press. This makes the chest press machine more accessible for those who struggle to get up and down from a lying position.
Another key difference is the bench press is a free weight exercise, which means you control the position of the weights during your set. Machine exercises like the chest press typically lock your movement into one set path.
This is no big deal if a particular machine is well-suited for your unique body, but it can be a problem if you're trying to use a machine that doesn't fit you well. For example, if you're unable to adjust a chest press machine so that your shoulders are down away from your ears, you'll place unnecessary stress on your neck and trapezius muscles as you press.
Free weight exercises like the bench press are typically better at building strength than machines. One reason why is that your nervous system — which plays a huge role in helping you lift big loads — is highly active to control your body position as you move. You also recruit more smaller muscles, known as stabilizers, which help keep your joints in an efficient alignment so you can lift as heavy as possible.
However, machines can be just as effective at building muscle as free weights. The fact that you don't need to use as many stabilizer muscles can sometimes be a plus because it allows you to place greater tension on the larger muscles you're trying to grow.
The barbell bench press itself is actually not all that great of a chest builder for many people because the range of motion for the pecs is limited. Most people will be able to use a larger range of motion on a chest press machine (although this varies based on the individual and the machine), which can lead to greater pec gains.
How to Use a Chest Press Machine With Proper Form
- Set up the machine so when you sit down on the chair, your shoulders are down away from your ears and your feet are flat on the floor.
- Grab a handle in each hand. Make sure your elbows are behind your wrists. Bring your hands forward so they're in front of your shoulders.
- Push your arms out in front of your chest until your elbows are fully extended. Don't shrug your shoulders.
- Finish the rep by returning your hands to the starting position in a controlled manner.
The Benefits of a Chest Press Machine
1. It's Not a Complex Exercise
Is a chest press harder than a bench press? Unlike the barbell bench press — which is a technically complex move that can take a long time to learn — the chest press machine is relatively straightforward. All you need to do is adjust the chair and grab the handles in the right place, then you're good to start your set.
2. It's More Accessible for Some Gym-Goers
Some people have a hard time comfortably lying on their back. The chest press machine eliminates the need to get up and down from a bench. It's an ideal pressing option for older adults, people in larger bodies or anyone who feels more comfortable in a seated position.
The chest press machine can also be a more shoulder-friendly pressing exercise than the barbell bench press. This is especially true if you have access to a chest press machine with a neutral (palms in) grip. Always talk to your doctor or physical therapist before adding an exercise to your workouts if you're dealing with pain or injuries.
You also don't need a spotter when using a chest press machine. There's no danger of weights falling on you or trapping you if you're unable to complete a rep. So if you often train alone or don't have a reliable spotter, a chest press machine can be a safer choice than the barbell bench press.
3. It's Great for Building a Bigger Chest
The chest press machine can help you build a bigger or more defined chest. Because the machine dictates your pressing path, you don't need to rely so heavily on your smaller stabilizer muscles and can focus more on your larger pressing muscles.
Many chest press machines allow you to use a greater range of motion than the barbell bench press, although you can get a similar effect if you switch to benching with dumbbells. Larger ranges of motion place more stretch and tension on your muscles, which can lead to more gains.
Machines also make it easy to use advanced muscle building techniques such as drop sets (which involves performing an exercise with a specific amount of weight for as many reps as you can with good form). It's a lot faster to simply reach over and lower a pin than to swap out plates on a barbell.
How to Do a Bench Press With Proper Form
- Lie on your back with a barbell over your eyes.
- Grab the bar with your hands just outside your shoulders. Pull your shoulder blades back and down away from your ears on the bench.
- Carefully lift the bar out of the rack and pull it out over your chest. Pause with arms extended and the bar above the middle of your chest.
- Pull the bar down to your sternum in a controlled manner. Keep your elbows beneath the bar as you lower it.
- Pause with the bar touching your sternum, then push it back up away from your chest until your arms are extended. Drive your legs into the ground but don't allow your butt to pop up off the bench.
The Benefits of a Bench Press
1. It Builds Strength
The bench press is a fantastic exercise for building strength. A heavy bench press requires a seriously strong upper body as well as strong legs and a strong core. You'll also strengthen smaller stabilizer muscles that provide support for joints like your shoulders, elbows and wrists.
Unlike the chest press machine, the maximum weight you can use on a bench press is limited only by your own strength. This means you have much greater potential to keep getting stronger and stronger over time.
2. It Builds Upper-Body Muscle
Heavier loads, such as those used when bench pressing, stimulate more muscle growth. The amount of muscle you can build using the barbell bench press depends a lot on your body shape and size.
Most people will be able to increase the size of their triceps and anterior deltoids through barbell bench pressing. If you struggle to build your chest using a barbell, switch to the dumbbell bench press to pack on more muscle.
Chest Press Machine vs. Bench Press: When to Perform Each Exercise
By now, you might have a few lingering questions. Should you do both the bench press and chest press? Is a chest press as good as a bench press? The answer: It depends on your goals. Here's a look at which exercise might work best for your fitness goals.
If You're Competing in Powerlifting: Bench Press
The barbell bench press is one of the "big three" exercises that all powerlifting athletes must perform as part of their sport (the other two moves being the squat and deadlift). So, if you have aspirations to compete, you need lots of practice with the bench press.
If You Want to Get as Strong as Possible: Bench Press
You can build more overall strength using the bench press (or its alternatives) than with a chest press machine. If your primary goal is getting strong, it's best to prioritize free-weight exercises like the barbell or dumbbell bench press as opposed to relying on machines.
If You Want to Build Muscle: Bench Press or Chest Press
Both of these exercises can help you build upper-body muscle. The barbell bench press tends to be a better shoulder and triceps builder, and the chest press machine usually leads to greater chest gains. However, this can vary greatly depending on your body type as well as which chest press machines you have at your gym. You can include both exercises in your workouts and experiment to see what works best for you.
If You Have Cranky Shoulders: Chest Press
The barbell bench press is a not a great option for people dealing with shoulder pain and injuries. If this is you, you're better off using the chest press machine or benching with dumbbells.
If You're a Beginner: Chest Press
If you're a gym newbie who wants to get after it without worrying about learning technical exercises, you can make a lot of great initial progress using machines like the chest press.
That's not to say beginners can't bench press. But there's definitely a greater learning curve, and it takes more time to move heavier loads. You should also save the barbell benching for those days when someone else can spot you.