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Exercise 101: Bench Press Using Free Weights

Name of Exercise —Free weight bench press
Type of Exercise —Multi-joint
Muscles Used —Chest and arms

Starting Position

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  • Lie flat on the bench with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the bench. Keep your buttocks, back, shoulders, head, and feet on the bench during the entire exercise. This position is known as 5-point contact.
  • The bar should be on the rack above your head and your eyes should be directly below the bar.
  • Grasp the bar with an overhand grip with hands slightly more than shoulder-width apart.
  • Lift and move the bar over the chest area.
  • Use a spotter for safety.

Downward Movement

  • Slowly lower the bar to touch your chest at the level of the nipples.
  • Remember to inhale while lowering the weight toward your chest.
  • Keep your wrists directly above your elbows.
  • Maintain 5-point contact during the movement.

Upward Movement

  • Push the bar upward until your elbows are fully extended.
  • Remember to exhale while pushing the weight upward.
  • Maintain 5-point contact.

Trainer Tip

During the upward phase of the movement, push your lower back into the bench, while focusing on contracting your chest muscles.

Repetitions, Sets, and Weight:

The number of repetitions (reps) and sets you should do depends on your strength goals. In general, muscle strength works to increase basic function of the muscle and is the typical workout choice. Muscle endurance is important to people who participate in endurance activities such as running or biking, and muscle power is beneficial for athletes who need to use sudden quick movements, such as sprinting, or playing basketball or football. Beginners should begin with a basic routine and gradually move toward a strength, endurance, or power routine.

Beginner: 1 set of 8 to 12 reps 

Muscle Strength: 1 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps

Muscle Endurance: 1 to 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps

Muscle Power: 1 to 3 sets of 3 to 6 reps

Use a weight that is heavy enough to perform the desired number of reps and sets for your skill level using good form. When you are able to perform more reps and sets than is outlined in your category, try to increase the weight you lift by 2% to 10%. Your strength goals may change as you progress.


National Association for Health and Fitness

President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition

Canadian Resources:

Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology

Health Canada


Barbell bench press. American Council on Exercise website. Available at: Accessed May 30, 2017.

Barbell bench press—medium grip. Body Building website. Available at: Accessed May 30, 2017.

Resistance training for health and fitness. American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at: Published 2013. Accessed May 30, 2017.

Last reviewed May 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP  Last Updated: 9/13/2013