How to Isolate the Chest With Bench Press

Monday's are the worst. For some reason, everyone has decided that Monday is the optimal day for training their chest muscles. And if you're planning on bench pressing to start your week, you should plan to get to the gym early on Monday so you can be the first in line.

Isolating your chest in the bench press is important for building strength and size. (Image: Ibrakovic/iStock/Getty Images)

The bench press is the best way to increase upper body strength and is one of the best ways to build a larger, more prominent set of chest muscles. But, for many lifters, it’s not uncommon for the bench press to feel like it’s working their triceps and shoulders, instead of their chest.

When it comes to building a bigger set of pectoral muscles, you need to be able to feel every contraction of your chest muscles during the bench press. Isolating your pecs during the bench press can be done with a few simple tweaks.

Increase Your Grip Width

Your pectoral muscles are responsible for horizontal shoulder adduction, which is what happens when you push the weight off your chest with your shoulder joint. The standard grip for a barbell bench press is a shoulder-width grip, but this only slightly stretches the pec muscles. When you use a wider grip, this stretches your chest muscles further and recruits more muscle fibers in your chest than a shoulder-width grip.

Go for a grip that's wider than 12 inches to achieve this greater range of motion and reap more chest activation from the exercise.

Feel the Squeeze

If you’re performing the bench press correctly, you should feel your chest muscles squeezing together at the top of the exercise. It’s the same squeeze you’ll feel in your chest when you perform chest flyes.

To do this, decrease the amount of weight on your bar significantly. Or, start with only the bar until you’ve perfected the feeling of the squeeze. Practice a few reps of light bench presses and as you slowly push the weight up, focus on squeezing your chest muscles together.

Spend a couple of weeks practicing the squeeze during your bench press before you start working back up to your usual heavy weight.

Cable flyes are an excellent way to feel the squeeze in your chest (Image: Ozimician/iStock/Getty Images)

Feel How Your Pec Moves

Lyle MacDonald, a kinesiologist from UCLA, and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, notes on his website that the best way to understand how to isolate and feel your pecs move during the bench press is to place your hands on your pec muscle and feel it move as your arm crosses your body.

Start by extending one arm out to your side and placing the opposite hand on your pec, just before it becomes your arm pit. With your hand on the pec of your outstretched arm, bring your arm back in towards your body as if you were performing a chest fly.

You should feel your pec initiate the internal rotation of your arm back toward the middle of your body. Repeat this a couple of times until you know what it feels like to engage your pec.

Once you know how it feels to engage your pec in this position, move your arm in front of your body and practice the same pressing motion you'd make with a barbell. Focusing again on feeling your pecs engage. Perform two sets of eight to 10 reps on each side. You can practice this drill standing or laying on the bench.

Svend Press Between Sets

If you haven’t been able to feel the squeeze between your pecs, this exercise is guaranteed to make you feel every fiber of your chest.

Perform this simple exercise, known as the Svend Press, between each set of your bench press.

While in a standing position, grab two 2.5- to 5-pound weight plates and push them together with your hands; the weights will be right in the center of your chest in front of the sternum. Then, push the weights away from your body, still squeezing them tightly together. Slowly return the weights back to the center of your chest and repeat for eight to 10 reps in between each set of your bench press.

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