This may come as a surprise, but you don’t have to barbell bench press. Now, before you write angry letters and launch a protest campaign, listen to the full story. Unless you’re a powerlifter training specifically for competition, there are plenty of exercises that build upper body muscle and strength as effectively as the bench press.
For many, machines offer the right mix of stability, accessibility, comfort, novelty, and training stimulus. Sure, some machines have design flaws and problems, but many are an absolute pleasure to use. Better yet, machine-based training has been shown to stimulate equivalent muscular adaptations to free weight training. (1)
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The chest press is a staple machine-based exercise. But there’s more to the quintessential chest press machine than the info contained on its instruction placard. Learn proper setup and technique, common pitfalls, unique benefits, programming strategies, and more.
Chest Press Machine
Chest Press Machine Video Guide
See the instructional chest press machine video from the article’s author, Dr. Merrick Lincoln, then check out the step-by-step breakdown with additional form tips.
To get the most out of the chest press machine, follow these steps for correct setup and effective execution.
Step 1 — Set Up Your Machine
Credit: Merrick Lincoln, DPT, CSCS / YouTube
The first, and arguably most important, step is to properly set up the machine — it must be adjusted to fit the user. Although machine designs vary considerably, most have two adjustments: Seat height and the fore-aft position of the backrest.
Adjusting the height of the seat determines the location of the handles relative to the user. Lowering the seat creates a higher starting position for the handles and raising the seat results in a lower starting position of the handles. The handles should be at the level of your lower chest, at approximately nipple-height to be anatomically specific.
On most machines, front-and-back adjustment of the backrest determines the “depth” of the starting position. Move the seat forward to create more stretch at the bottom position or move the seat backward to limit the range of motion in the bottom position.
Your personal preference, injury history, and individual anatomy interact to inform your own acceptable range of motion. In general, identify a seat position that maximizes a comfortable range of motion.
Form Tip: Take the time to actually examine the specific machine’s design, particularly the movement arms — the metal levers that you push away from your body. Movement arms that pivot from above the seat tend to promote pressing at a slightly upward angle relative to your body, similar to a slight incline press. Therefore, to execute “flat bench” technique and elicit balanced chest development, the handles should be slightly lower than normal. On machines with movement arms that pivot from below the user, the pressing motion may follow a slight decline. On this style machine, it’s prudent to set up with handles slightly higher than usual.
Step 2 — Set a Stable Starting Position
Credit: Merrick Lincoln, DPT, CSCS / YouTube
Get your body into a stable and strong position by establishing points of contact with a slight arch in your spine. Points of contact include: your head against the headrest, both shoulder blades against the backrest, your glutes on the seat, both feet on the floor, and both hands fully gripped around the handles.
Arch your middle and upper back as you squeeze your shoulder blades together without shrugging upward. Maintain this position throughout the exercise.
Form Tip: Although many who cannot reach the floor when seated on the chest press machine intuitively cross their ankles for stability, this strategy is not optimal. If you’re unable to reach the floor, place your feet on a stable foothold — a step, a short plyometric box, a weight plate, or the machine’s foot pegs if available.
Step 3 — Drive the Movement Arms Away
Credit: Merrick Lincoln, DPT, CSCS / YouTube
Keep your forearms and wrists aligned with the natural path of the movement arm and push both handles away. Continue to push until your elbows are straight or nearly straight.
Form Tip: “Press to your eye-line” is a coaching cue used by Tyler Hobson, one of the great designers and builders of gym equipment. This cue is brilliant, because it exploits the benefits of an external focus of attention. Essentially, your focus shifts to whatever object or environmental landmark is in your line of gaze. This may result in more efficient, more forceful movement, and potentially greater strength gains. (2)
Step 4 — Lower With Control
Credit: Merrick Lincoln, DPT, CSCS / YouTube
Lower the movement arms back toward the starting position. Control is essential. Lower until you feel a profound stretch across your chest muscles or until the movement arms gently contact the machine. Do not bounce off the machine’s stops at the bottom.
Form Tip: Instead of “lowering the weight,” think about “rowing” or actively pulling the movement arms back toward your chest. This technique reinforces a strong position of your shoulder blades.
Sidestep these common errors to build more muscle with the chest press machine.
Many lifters hop on the chest press machine and grip the handles in the center of their palms without consideration to their specific hand position. This results in an extended wrist position — bending hands back toward the top of your forearms.
Credit: Ajan Alen / Shutterstock
Ultimately, excessive wrist extension is a relatively weaker position for pressing and could result in an excessively “tucked” arm path during the press.
Avoid it: Ensure the handles lie across the heels of your hands. When pressing, aim your knuckles along the path movement. Viewed from the side, your forearm and hand should form a straight line throughout the press.
Sloppy Transition Between Reps
“Ego lifters” and uninitiated trainees often exploit Newton’s law of action-reaction at the bottom of each repetition by bouncing the movement arms off the machine to make the following repetition easier to perform.
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Uncontrolled impact returns energy into the next repetition, robbing the target muscles of all-important tension. Exerting control throughout the entire repetition is more challenging, but also more rewarding.
Avoid it: While lifters tend to be intentional about the lockout position at the top of the press, most would be better served shifting their attention to a smooth and slow transition between repetitions at the bottom position. Slow down as you approach the bottom position. Gently “kiss” the movement arms against the machine. Listen to keep yourself honest — light contact with the machine should make very little sound.
Excessive or Insufficient Range of Motion
While there’s no universal “correct” range of motion (ROM) for every lifter on the chest press machine, the ROM you use should check a few key boxes: ROM should be well-tolerated by your shoulders; ROM should, if possible, produce a profound stretch across your chest and front of your shoulders; ROM should not produce compensatory movements or movements not intrinsic to the exercise. Pressing with technique that fails to satisfy these criteria is suboptimal, at best.
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The second criteria (“big stretch”) is straightforward. Mounting evidence suggests the stretched position of the repetition is the most important for gains. (3) Don’t cut it short by using insufficient ROM.
Finally, if the ROM is pushed too far, the lifter will begin to demonstrate undesirable compensations including dropping your chest, allowing your shoulder blades to tilt forward, and/or flaring your elbows. If you’re unable to keep your shoulder blades retracted and maintain a consistent arm path through the bottom position, there’s a good chance you’re trying to use excessive ROM. In all cases, errors can be corrected by re-adjusting the machine.
Avoid it: Lifters with shoulder injuries or instability might not tolerate as much shoulder extension at the bottom of the repetition, so feel it out on your “work up” sets and adjust the machine accordingly.
When it’s time to ramp up your workload, traditional progression strategies such as adding weight or increasing repetitions and sets can work well with the chest press machine. In addition, machine designs are conducive to advanced training techniques such as drop sets and lengthened partials.
Increase Relative Effort
A straightforward progression strategy for resistance training involves increasing the level of effort — or proximity to failure — of each set. This strategy may involve adding weight and/or adding repetitions.
For example, consider a lifter who typically performs a set using 220 pounds (100 kilograms) for 10 repetitions. This set brings the lifter somewhat close to failure — Subjectively, they may report having three more reps left in the tank, or “repetitions in reserve.”
To increase relative effort, the lifter may simply add weight or perform one or more additional repetitions. Because a good chest press machine has “built-in” safety features, the lifter may feel more comfortable pushing their level effort closer to or even to failure compared to a barbell or dumbbell bench press.
While pristine repetitions through full range of motion may be considered the pinnacle of lifting skill, it isn’t the only effective way to build muscle and strength. Legendary bodybuilding coach John Meadows commonly ended his high-intensity sets with partial range of motion reps. And science is beginning to recognize the potential value of partials.
A recent systematic review comparing full ROM training and partial ROM training reported trivial differences between strength and hypertrophy. (3) However, partial range of motion training was found to have slight advantage for hypertrophy when emphasizing the lengthened (stretched) position. (3) Lengthened partials appear to enhance tension and promote muscle hypoxia, which are mechanical- and chemical stimuli conducive to growth. (4)(5)
The chest press machine offers a great opportunity to progress your training by adding lengthened partials to the end of your traditional full range of motion set.
The target muscles are lengthened in the bottom position of the chest press, so perform your partials in the bottom one-third to two-thirds of the repetition. Partials are great to tack onto the end of traditional sets. Shoot for three to six lengthened partial repetitions immediately after your full range of motion repetitions. Be warned: you’re in for a painful burn. By avoiding lockout, you’ll keep tension on your chest, bathing the muscle in metabolites and starving it of oxygen. (5)
When it comes to intense training for your chest, few exercises can compare to the chest press machine performed with drop sets. Drop sets entail taking an exercise to, or close to, failure, reducing the weight, then immediately performing an additional set.
One to three “drops” are commonly performed, transforming a challenging set into a training bout that flirts with failure multiple times. Drop set protocols with one and three “drops” have been shown to be as effective for improving bench press strength as four traditional sets. (6) Moreover, the three-drop drop set protocol was superior to traditional sets for improving repetitions to failure (i.e. muscle endurance). (6)
To perform a three-drop drop set protocol, ideally use a cable stack (“selectorized”) chest press machine to minimize the time needed to change the weight. Perform the first set to or close to failure using a moderate weight (one which allows roughly 10 to 12 repetitions).
Reduce the weight 20 to 30% and immediately perform another set to or close to failure. Repeat this process of decreasing the weight by 20 to 30% for each drop until you have performed a total of four sets.
Sure, you can press with a barbell or dumbbells, but a well-designed chest press machine offers several advantages — enhanced safety, a stable movement path, and a smooth resistance curve.
High Intensity Chest Training
Whether you train with heavy loads and grind through just a handful of reps or use light loads for marathon sets, safety is paramount. In case this claim isn’t self-evident, here’s the rationale: an injured lifter cannot train, and a lifter who cannot train loses gains.
All forms of free-weight pressing, including the barbell and dumbbell bench press, require a trained spotter for safe execution. However, the designs of machines have “self-spotting” mechanisms built in. Meaning, if you fail on a repetition on a chest press machine, you’re unlikely to get choked out under a bar or displace your teeth with a dumbbell. Built-in safety features should instill confidence, allowing you to push your sets ever closer to failure and maximize gains.
Consistency For Mind-Muscle Connection
The levers and pivot points of typical chest machines constrain movement to a predictable path. While no two lifters press using the exact same technique due to differences in movement strategy, machine setup, and body dimensions, the constrained movement path promotes consistency for each individual user.
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This consistency may allow you to develop a technique characterized by intentional and intense contraction of the target muscles. This conscious connection to the target muscle is known as the mind-muscle connection. Developing a strong mind-muscle connection has been suggested as a superior strategy for lifters who want to increase recruitment of a target muscle. (7)
To develop a stronger mind-muscle connection, use lighter “work up sets” to consciously explore subtle variations in movement technique. For example, try slightly tucking or flaring your elbows, try holding your sternum a bit higher, or try applying a subtle rotational force to the handles. Machines provide more efficient and safer environments for cultivating a strong mind-muscle connection.
Superior Resistance Curve
Resistance training exercises are limited by the amount of load our muscles can overcome during the sticking point, or the most challenging portion of the movement. The sticking point for the barbell bench press occurs toward the beginning of the upward movement phase when the bar is just above the chest. (8) During the remainder of the movement, your muscles are not maximally challenged.
While the bands or chains may be used to overcome this potential limitation, these modifications require additional equipment, may be cumbersome to set up, and will likely never achieve the feel of a well-designed chest press machine.
A well-designed machine varies the resistance applied to the lifter throughout the range of motion using levers and/or cams. While meta-analyses have shown no difference in training adaptations between variable resistance and traditional resistance training, these analyses include band- and chain-based variable resistance. (9)(10)
Studies specifically comparing variable resistance machines to free weight versions of the exercises have reported superior adaptations for the variable resistance groups including increased muscle torque and increased resistance to fatigue. (11)(12) While other evidence-based lifters wait for more research, hedge your bets by incorporating machine-based chest pressing.
Check out the placards or instruction cards on the chest press machines at your local gym. On each anatomy diagram, the entire upper front of the torso will be highlighted as “target muscles.” The chest press machine will undoubtedly light up your chest, as expected, along with parts of your shoulders and arms.
As the name suggests, the chest press machine primarily targets your chest. Your pectoralis major is the largest and most visually prominent muscle of the chest by a longshot. Typical chest press machines resist an arm path that toes the line between flexion, or raising your arms directly in front of your body, and horizontal adduction, or moving your arms together in front of your body.
Your pectoralis major contributes to both movements. (13)(14) Moreover, the chest press machine appears to stimulate robust muscle activity in all parts of the broad, fanlike pectoralis major muscle. (15)
Like the bench press, the chest press machine also trains your triceps brachii. Triceps muscle excitation has been shown to be lower during the chest press machine compared to the bench press when both exercises were performed at 80% of their respective 1-repetition maximum. (16) On the other hand, another study showed no difference in triceps brachii muscle excitation when both exercises were performed at 60% of 1-repetition maximum. (17)
Altogether, there is ongoing debate about whether the more stable conditions of the chest press machine are more or less conducive to triceps excitation. (16)(17) The answer may be dependent on individual differences of specific machine designs (e.g., which machine allows the lifter to handle more weight?). Either way, rest assured, your triceps are trained during the chest press.
The anterior deltoid, sometimes called the “front delts,” contribute to shoulder flexion and horizontal abduction, the movements combined during the typical chest press machine. (13)
Using a chest press machine with a neutral grip (palms facing each other) rather than an overhand (“pronated”) grip has been shown to promote more anterior deltoid activation, although the difference fails to reach statistical significance, and the practical relevance of these findings are questionable. (15)(18)
The chest press machine can be programmed into many different types of training splits — as a main exercise on “chest day,” on “push day” in a push/pull/legs split, as one of several compound lifts during a dedicated upper body workout, or as a part of a full-body routine.
As a Heavy Primary Exercise
When structuring workouts to build muscle or increase strength, it is common to frontload the heaviest multi-joint movements toward the beginning of the workout. This strategy makes sense, as high threshold motor units — the groups of muscle fibers with the most strength and greatest training potential — have not been fatigued by accumulating volume.
While a “strength purist” might program the barbell bench press as their primary horizontal pushing movement, the chest press machine can work just as well. To use the chest press machine as your primary heavy pushing exercise, work up to a challenging weight for two to four sets of five to 10 repetitions. Take generous three-to-four-minute rest intervals between sets. This protocol will build strength and size.
As a Moderate-to-Light Secondary Exercise
Not ready to fully embrace the machines? Keep a free weight exercise as your primary pressing movement and use the chest press machine as if it were an accessory exercise, or “pump work.” Use moderate-to-light weight and perform for high repetitions. The chest press machine can take the place of a triceps- or chest isolation exercise, such as pushdowns or pec flyes.
We know a wide range of loads are effective for building size and strength. (19)(20)(21) — So, don’t stress about percentages or 1-repetition maximum testing. Using a weight that you find “light to moderately heavy,” perform two or three sets. Perform enough repetitions to approach failure. Take two to three minute rest between sets.
As Part of a Superset or Alternating Set Routine
If your workout split allows you to pair exercises that hit opposing muscle groups in the same workout, you can save a ton of time. Supersetting is when no rest is taken between the paired exercises. If a traditional rest interval is taken between the opposing exercises, the programming strategy is called “alternating sets.”
For a killer chest and back workout, try pairing the chest press with a back exercise like a barbell bent-over row or a neutral-grip lat pulldown. To decide whether you will use supersets or alternating sets, choose whether you are optimizing for efficiency or fatigue management.
Supersets save more time, but could result in more fatigue. Although supersets typically avoid fatigue in the working muscles (“peripheral fatigue”), they may not provide enough rest to avoid accumulating systemic or central fatigue, which could interfere you’re your next set.
On the other hand, alternating sets provide more overall rest. They may also still save time relative to traditional straight sets, because most lifters will not require as much rest to recover between opposing exercises.
If you’re fortunate to train at a well-equipped gym, the standard chest press machine isn’t your only option. You may want to explore the gym to see if you have access to these variations.
Converging Chest Press Machine
The arms converge, or come together, throughout the upward movement phase when using a converging chest press machine. You’ll know a chest press is converging by inspecting the pivot points of the machine’s movement arms. On converging machines, the movement arms are angled inwards while, on traditional or non-converging chest press machines, the movement arms are directed straight ahead.
The converging chest press facilitates more range of motion toward peak contraction, or shortest muscle length of your pectoralis major. While some find the converging chest press machine feels more “natural,” machine designs vary. Basic technique guidelines apply to the converging machine. Set an appropriate seat height and seatback position, maintain retracted shoulder blades, and press along the path of the movement arms.
Incline Chest Press Machine
Just as the incline bench press may provide greater upper chest training compared to the flat bench press, the incline chest press machine may bias your upper chest more than the traditional chest press machine. (22)(23)(24)
The primary difference between the incline chest press machine and traditional chest press machine is the movement arm path. On the incline machine, the movement arms travel at an upward angle relative to your torso, while the traditional chest press machine’s movement arms travel roughly horizontal relative to your torso.
Although exercise technique and setup is similar between the two exercises, the initial position of the handles should be higher for the incline chest press machine than the traditional chest press. Adjust the seat height so the handles are midway between your mid-chest and collarbones. Push along the natural path of the movement arms with your wrists straight. Lower with control and transition into the next repetition without bouncing out of the bottom position.
Smith Machine Chest Press
Looking for a hybrid exercise between chest press machine and barbell bench press? Consider the Smith machine chest press. Like the standard chest press machine, the Smith machine chest press constrains the movement path and likely has some built-in safety features, such as adjustable range of motion limiters.
The barbell bench press and Smith machine chest press are both performed from a lying position, both use a pronated (overhand) grip on a straight bar, and neither incorporate the variable resistance patterns of lever- or cam-based chest press machines.
Counterbalanced Smith machines negate the weight of the bar, meaning the unloaded bar feels virtually weightless. Obviously, you’ll need to add slightly more weight to counterbalanced Smith machines than non-counterbalanced.
Smith machines use a hook-like mechanism to safely un-rack and re-rack the barbell on its tracks. Become familiar with the wrist-motion required to operate this mechanism and, in anticipation of this movement, pre-position your wrists slightly in the other direction before your set.
Finally, position yourself appropriately on the bench. In contrast to bench press, which is set up with the bar above your neck, you will need to start with the bar above your mid-chest on the Smith machine as it tracks vertically throughout the exercise.
Maybe, but the constant external resistance of the barbell will not be very forgiving if you attempt to perform repeated partial repetitions through the sticking point. You will likely need to reduce the weight to successfully perform lengthened partials with the traditional bench press.
Using a machine with a well-designed resistance curve avoids this issue, as the machine applies less external resistance through the typical sticking point of the press. This allows for the use of lengthened partials at the end of a high effort set (as demonstrated in the How to Progress section). The machine also has built-in safety features to protect you in the event you take your lengthened partials past the point of failure.
Espresso or pour-over? Single barrel whiskey or aged tequila? Vacation to the beach or to the mountains? These are questions that ultimately come down to personal preference. While each option has its strengths and drawbacks, you should try both options and use the one that feels best.
Stack-loaded machines are quick and easy to use and they’re great for advanced training techniques, such as drop sets. They can be exquisitely engineered with smooth and sensible resistance curves. However, strong lifters may be limited by the maximum resistance offered by the weight stack.
Plate-loaded machines may require hauling plates across the gym and might not allow the precise manipulation of the resistance curve offered by cable machines with variable resistance cams. However, plate-loaded machines with high-quality bearings almost always have a better feel than cable- or belt-driven stack-loaded machines because they have less friction or resistance to movement.
Friction resistance is not a good thing in machines. It makes the concentric phase harder and makes the eccentric phase easier, a pattern misaligned with your muscles’ capacities.
Iso-lateral chest machines allow separate operation of the movement arms, allowing you to train your left and right sides independently almost like a “machine-version of dumbbells.”
When equally loaded, the iso-lateral design theoretically prevents a lifter’s “strong side” from taking the lion’s share of the press. Iso-lateral machines also allow the lifter to load a different amount of weight on the left and right side. This feature may be useful in special circumstances related to injury and rehabilitation.
A recent, particularly bothersome, trend is the use of alternating repetitions on iso-lateral chest machines. The lifter locks out one arm while performing a repetition with the other arm and see-saws back and forth throughout the set.
While this alternating strategy may be useful if a lengthened isometric were held in the bottom position while the other arm performs a repetition, it’s a waste of time to rest one arm in the locked out position. In general, iso-lateral machines are best used using the same technique as a machine chest press with a non-independent movement arm.
Chest Terminator — Rise of the Machine Press
A well-designed chest press machine may feel like it has been sent from the future to improve your gains and protect you from harm. If you accept the help of the machine and apply the programming recommendations above, it will soon be Judgement Day for your lagging chest.
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