The Bench Press Guide for Women

Shane wrote a deep bench press guide over on Outlift, but I wanted to write a bench press guide specifically for women. After all, men and women tend to approach this lift quite differently. Many women don’t do it at all, sticking to pushing exercises like push-ups.

The bench press is a powerful lift. If you’re a woman who wants to gain more upper-body strength and size, the bench press can be a great exercise to include in your workout routine, especially if you’ve already mastered push-ups.

After going over the basics of the bench press, there are some good progressions and assistance exercises you can take advantage of. Let’s take a closer look.

Benefits of Bench Pressing for Women

Although benching isn’t always seen as a feminine lift, it probably should be. It’s a compound movement that engages all of your pushing muscles, making it a great foundational exercise in any good muscle-building routine.

The bench press mostly hits the:

  • Pectorals (the chest)
  • The triceps (back of arms)
  • The anterior and medial delts (front and sides of the shoulders)

More Upper-Body Strength

The bench press is very similar to the push-up. Both exercises train your pushing muscles. However, it’s hard to make push-ups gradually heavier. Unless you’re wearing a weighted backpack, you can’t exactly add 2.5–5 pounds every workout.

That’s where the bench press shines. It’s very easy to progressively overload. You can lift 50 pounds one workout, 55 pounds the next, and 60 pounds the workout after that.

The strength you gain is incredibly useful. These are the muscles you need to get up off the ground, lift things overhead, and throw things.

The bench press is also great for improving bone density. This can be important for women as they age, especially if they’re concerned about osteoporosis.

More Upper Body Size From Muscle Mass

The bench press is great for gaining muscle size. It’s among the top exercises for building bigger pecs, shoulders, and triceps. It will fill out your chest, making it thicker and firmer. It’s also good for developing the top half of an hourglass physique.

Proper Bench Press Form

As a beginner, the first thing is to choose a weight that you can handle. That’s harder than it looks. So you’ll need to guess, and we want to err on the side of being too light. After doing a few reps, if you find it’s way too light, that’s totally fine. Just count it as a warm-up set, put more weight on it, and try again. So your first day of benching probably won’t be super challenging, but more about discovering what is the right weight for the amount of sets and reps you’re aiming for.

Your form will naturally improve over time. As long as the benching is pain-free, you should be okay—it won’t look textbook perfect on day one. 

Sometimes you can’t force proper form technique. You need to practice and go to sleep, the brain will rewire, and you’ll magically be doing it better the next time. It’s not unlike learning how to dance or learning an instrument. You might feel a bit clumsy for a few sessions, and you go to bed, and all of a sudden, you can do it. Here’s the breakdown.

  1. Set up the bench equipment properly. Set up safeties to the right height (unless you have a spotter), which is right above your ribs. If you can’t lift the weight anymore and you have to dump the weight on the safeties, the weight shouldn’t compress your body, and you should be able to slide out.
  2. Make sure to put clips on the end of the barbell, and use an appropriate weight for your strength.
  3. Lie on the bench with your feet flat on the ground and your eyes directly under the bar.
  4. Grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and your palms facing downwards. Keep your wrists straight, and don’t let them fall back.
  5. Unrack the barbell by straightening your arms and lifting it out of the rack.
  6. Take a deep breath, lower the bar down to your chest, under control, bending your elbows and keeping your elbows directly under your hands.
  7. Once you’ve hit your chest, explode as fast as you can as you push the bar back up to the starting position. Breathe out as you straighten your arms.

Video Demonstration Of The Barbell Bench Press

For proper bench press technique, you can watch this video of Marco coaching Marielle:

Grip Width & How It Changes The Lift

For more pec-emphasis, you can grip the barbell wider and flare your elbows. Just keep in mind that with a heavy weight and/or touchy shoulders, this can cause shoulder pain. 

The more narrow your grip on the barbell, the more you’ll naturally need to tuck your elbows in as you lower the bar, and it will hit more of your triceps. (Sometimes called a close-grip bench press.)

Many people find a moderate grip width, slightly wider than shoulder width, which keeps your elbows at a 45-degree angle from your body when the bar is lowered, is the best option. It’s a:

  • Good mix of pec, shoulder, and tricep work
  • Often it’s people’s most powerful position (can lift the most weight)
  • Easier on the shoulders and can help keep you pain-free.

Common Benching Mistakes to Avoid

Here are some common mistakes people make when benching.

  1. Arching your back excessively. This is a powerlifting technique to lift more weight because you shorten the range of motion, allowing you to lift way heavier than you can handle. If your goal is to build muscle mass or muscle strength for the real world, you will want a full range of motion. Not only will doing the full range translate into the real world better, but the muscles will also be more 3D looking and look better. So arching your back while benching does arching not apply to 99% of women (unless you’re competing in powerlifting), and it can also cause back pain, injuries, etc.
  2. Lifting your butt off the bench as you press. Keep those glutes on the bench. If you find your butt taking off, you’re lifting too heavy. Lighten the weight, be patient, and you’ll get stronger.
  3. Bouncing the barbell off your chest. Some people do this to use momentum to get more reps in. But that’s just another hint that you’re using a weight that is too heavy. Are you training your rib cage bones, or are you training your pecs, shoulders, and triceps? If you’re training your muscles, use them. Lighten the weight, use the correct form, and your muscles will get stronger.
  4. Lifting too much weight. This is already sort of covered with the previous points. Don’t rush the process. Do the correct form, challenge yourself, do enough sets and the right amount of reps, and you’ll get stronger. If you’re not getting stronger with a good workout routine, forcing it by lifting heavier isn’t going to help. You should look at your diet, lifestyle, sleep, etc.

Use a Moderate Rep Range

In general, for muscle growth and muscle size, you want to choose a weight that you can do 4–40 repetitions with. The sweet spot is often the 8-12 rep range. If you find yourself falling under 5 reps, use a lighter weight. If you can do more than 30 repetitions, use a heavier weight. That will guarantee that the workout is helping you gain muscle size and strength, not making endurance adaptations. But your strengths and the weights you have available will vary, so some flexibility will go a long way.

Challenge Yourself But Stop Just Shy of Failure

Ideally, you’ll stop your set when you’re just about to fail. But as a beginner, it’s hard to know exactly how hard you’re pushing yourself. If you aren’t sure if you’re taking your sets close to failure, try doing more. Try pushing yourself all the way until your muscles give out and you have to leave the barbell on the safeties. That way, you’ll know what it feels like. Next time, stop right before that point.

Start With Two Sets, Then Add More

Start with just a couple of sets, then add more sets as you get stronger. We recommend doing two sets in the first week. Practice your form, find the right weights, and take your time.

Next week, if you aren’t too sore at the start of each workout, try adding a set to each exercise. If that goes well and you feel ready for more, add another set next week. You can do around 3–6 sets per exercise. Most people will do best with 3–4 sets. If you ever start to feel worn down, or if you’re coming back after a long break, start the cycle over again, going back to just two sets per exercise.

Rest 1–2 Minutes Between Sets

How long you rest between benching isn’t very important. Whether you rest for 2 or 10 minutes, you’ll still stimulate a similar amount of muscle growth. The important thing is that you rest long enough to catch your breath, ensuring that your cardiovascular system doesn’t limit the performance of your muscles.

We want to challenge your muscles, not just your heart (though your heart will get a good workout, too!).

The main reason to rest for just a couple of minutes is to keep your workouts short and dense. But if you need more rest or get interrupted partway through your workout, no problem. Just pick up where you left off.

If you want to blast through your workout even faster, you can do the lifts in a circuit/superset. Do a set of bench presses, rest a minute, then do a set of goblet squats next to your bench, rest a minute, then do your second set of bench, and then do your second set of Goblet squats. That way, you’re still giving your muscles plenty of time to recover between sets, but you’re doing another exercise during the rest period.

Free Bench Press With Full Body Workout For Female Beginners

If you don’t have a workout, you might be interested in our full Bony to Bombshell program. A sample beginner’s workout for women, with some bench pressing given priority at the beginning, could look like this:

  1. Bench Press: 2 sets of fighting as hard as you can.
  2. Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift: 2 sets of 10 repetitions.
  3. Goblet Squats: 2 sets of 10 repetitions.
  4. 1-Arm Dumbbell Row: 2 sets of 10 repetitions.
  5. Lateral Raises: 2 sets of as 10 repetitions.
  6. Bonus Glute Work: 2 sets of glute bridges or hip thrusts


Female BEGINNER’S Bench press emphasis with FULL-BODY WORKOUT

Full Body Workout

Get the workout as a Google spreadsheet. You’ll be able to pick from exercise alternatives, and fill out the sheet.

Plus, we’ll make sure you’re on the Bony to Bombshell newsletter, and send you all of our best women's muscle-building content.

How Many Days A Week Should I Workout To Build Muscle As A Female?

So if you want to get good at benching, the more you bench, the better. However, you need to balance that with your recovery.

If you want to include benching in a well-rounded routine, you can bench once a week and do two other upper-body assistance exercises.

Ideally, as a woman, you’ll want to do three full-body workouts per week for optimal muscle gain. Each workout will stimulate muscle growth for the next 2–3 days. After those 2–3 days, your muscles will be (mostly) repaired, and you should be ready for another workout. More importantly, you should be stronger. You should be able to lift more weight or eke out more repetitions than last time.

Because each workout stimulates a couple of days of muscle growth, training every second or third day works very well. Here’s a good default schedule, but feel free to adjust it:

  • Monday: workout #1
  • Tuesday: rest
  • Wednesday: workout #2 (even if sore)
  • Thursday: rest
  • Friday: workout #3 (even if sore)
  • Saturday: rest
  • Sunday: rest (and full recovery)

What Equipment Do You Need To Bench Press

If you’re hitting the gym, they’ll have everything you need. If you’re at home, you’ll need to get a few key pieces of equipment:

  • A cage/rack, squat stand with safety arms, or similar.
  • J-cups to hold the barbell in its starting position
  • An Olympic barbell (compared to a cheap bar, this has bearings in it, so the weight plates can spin as you press)
  • Barbell collars/clips. This keeps the weights from sliding off.
  • A flat bench or an adjustable one that can go flat.
  • Barbell weight plates. Change plates are handy to have, so it’s easy to go up in weight.

Here is Shane’s home gym with the Rogue Squat rack, safety arms, j-cups, barbell, etc.

Bench Press Home Gym Set-up with Rogue Equipment—Barbell, J-cups, collars, flat bench, weights, etc.

How Do I Avoid An Injury When Bench Pressing?

Preventing injuries comes down to common sense:

  • Do the proper form. Forty-five degrees seems to be a good default for most people.
  • Use a spotter or set up safety arms.
  • Always use a weight you can handle.
  • Always work within the range of motion that feels comfortable to you.
  • Never “push through” pain. Stop lifting if you ever feel any pain, and go see a professional (like a sports physiotherapist).
  • Don’t one-rep max test. We’re guessing you’re not a powerlifter but just a regular woman who wants to build some muscle and get stronger. Stick to higher rep ranges, such as 8-12 reps, to avoid joint pain. You do not need to lift so heavy that you’re doing under 5 reps.

Can bench pressing help me lose weight?

Lifting weights, in general, can help you maintain muscle mass while eating in a calorie deficit. This makes lifting a great idea to combine with a fat-loss diet because most people lose a lot of strength while trying to burn fat. But bench pressing on its own won’t make you burn fat. 

Conversely, bench pressing may make you gain weight through lean mass gain. If you challenge your muscles to become stronger, your appetite might ramp up, and after eating, your body rebuilds those muscles larger and fuller, which will weigh more.

Can bench pressing as a woman help me gain weight?

In general, lifting weights is an incredible tool for naturally skinny women to gain weight. Lifting tells the body that it needs to increase lean mass from muscle. That will change your appetite, change your sleep needs, etc. We include some dumbbell benching in our program as part of our upper body exercises, with the option to do barbell benching later on if someone wants to do it.

But gaining weight through muscle mass can be complicated as you’ll need to combine lifting with a muscle-building diet (and a muscle-building lifestyle.) You can get the full breakdown of skinny female muscle growth here.

Before and after progress photos of a woman building muscle and gaining weight by lifting weights.

Can the Bench Press Make Breasts Bigger?

The bench press works the pectoral muscles under the breasts, pushing them out and filling out the skin. This gives your breasts a more pronounced foundation to sit upon, making them bigger, firmer, and higher.

Should You Use A Spotter When Benching? What Are Safety Spotter Arms?

If you’re at the gym, you can definitely use a spotter. Most people are willing to help and honoured to be asked. That said, not everyone knows how to spot well. Some people will immediately jump in and grab the bar when you’re doing just fine.

Because we train at home, we just use the safety spotter arms attached to our squat rack. Make a good guess as to what height you’ll need. Use the barbell without any weight (so it’s just 45 pounds) and test it out. You want it low enough that you can do the whole range of motion without the barbell bouncing off the safety arms too early but not so low that it would crush your ribs should you actually fail and need to use the safety arms.

If you are concerned about this issue, you do not need to do the barbell bench press. You can always do the dumbbell bench press, which requires no spotter, and in many ways, is a superior lift when it comes to building muscle. This is a good time to transition a bit…

Alternatives To The Bench Press

The Dumbbell Bench Press 

You don’t need to bench press at all. In fact, for most women, we’d recommend the dumbbell bench press over the barbell bench.

  • Doesn’t require a barbell and barbell plates.
  • Doesn’t require a spotter or safety arms.
  • Has a more natural range of motion.
  • In general, less opportunity for shoulder pain due to the natural range of motion because you’re hands are locked into the barbell position.
  • In general, a more athletic lift since it trains more stabilizer muscles (which is why you can’t use as much weight.)
  • It can still be loaded up heavy enough to challenge your upper body to grow.

The Push-Up

If you’re at home and with no equipment, you can do the trusted push-up instead of benching. They work similar muscles. On top of that, because the push-up is a closed-chain exercise, it’s superior to benching in some ways. But the main downside is that it’s hard to progressively overload. What that means is that it’s hard to add a little bit of weight to the exercise to make it harder over time.

The best way to learn push-ups is to start by doing them on an incline, such as on a countertop, and gradually work your way down to the floor. Here’s a tutorial video where Marco teaches how to do and progress the push-up:

Bench Press Assistance & Accessory Exercises

With assistance lifts, we’re trying to choose compound lifts that complement our bench press. If you’re trying to increase your bench press, choose lifts that work on the muscles that are limiting your strength. If you want to balance your muscle growth, choose the lifts that develop the muscles that are lagging behind.

The Best Assistance Exercises

The Close-Grip Bench Press

Anything that’s significantly narrower than your standard grip can be used as a close-grip bench press. You could simply move your grip in by a couple of inches. But it’s typically done with your grip just slightly outside shoulder width and your elbows tucked in close to your sides, like so:

If you’re trying to build a bigger chest and get stronger at the bench press in moderate or high rep ranges (8–20 reps), then the close-grip bench press probably won’t help very much. It’s not a great chest lift, and when benching for 8+ reps, our chest tends to be our limiting factor. But if you’re trying to increase your 1-rep max, your shoulders and triceps are likely to be a limiting factor, so the close-grip bench press can be an incredibly powerful assistance lifts.

The Pause Bench Press

Paused bench presses are exactly like regular ones, just with a 1-second pause with the barbell on your chest. In fact, if you have a knowledge of powerlifting, then this is the standard way of doing the lift.

Paused bench presses are used in powerlifting to stop people from bouncing the barbell off their chests, which is considered cheating. But there are also some potential muscle-building advantages to the pause that you might want to take advantage of. See, the bottom portion of the bench press is when your chest is stretched out under a heavy load, which is great for building muscle. Then, as you press the barbell up, your chest contracts, and your triceps start to contribute more. So by emphasizing the bottom portion, the lift becomes harder on our chests, forcing us to lift lighter weights but doing a better job of ensuring that we’re limited by our chest strength. It works well as a way to emphasize chest growth.

The Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

The incline dumbbell bench press is also a great shoulder exercise, though, and the steeper the incline is, the more your shoulders will take over. If your goal is to grow your chest, you’ll want to set the bench up at a 15–30° angle.

The Feet-Up Bench Press

This is a bench press done with your feet resting on the bench. It removes leg drive, forces you to use lighter loads, minimizes back arch and seems to be a great overall mass-builder for your chest, shoulders, and triceps.

If your bench press is going smoothly, but you just need a bit of extra volume, you can mix these into your workout routine as a slightly lighter assistance lift.

The Floor Press

The floor press is an assistance lift for the bench press that works great for stocky women. However, it doesn’t work nearly as well for women with longer arms or shallower ribcages, given that this lift limits the range of motion by so much.

Still, if you have sore shoulders from benching, it might be worth a try. Benching from the floor might give your shoulders the stability they’ve been craving.

The Best Bench Pressing Accessory Lifts

Of all the big compound lifts, the bench press may be the one that benefits the most from additional accessory lifts. It’s a great lift for bulking up our chests, shoulders, and triceps, but without including some isolation lifts, we’re unlikely to grow those muscles.

The Chest Problem: most women will get great chest development from the bench press, but depending on your anatomy and lifting technique, it’s possible that your shoulders will bear the brunt of the load instead. The best way to solve that is to adjust your technique to emphasize your chest: use a wider grip or switch to dumbbells. However, that isn’t always a full solution, especially if your chest has been lagging behind for a while now. In that case, choose accessory lifts that emphasize your chest, such as dumbbell flyes, cable flyes, machine flyes, or the pec deck machine.

The Shoulder Problem: some women are so chest-dominant that their shoulders don’t see much growth from the bench press. In that case, we can switch to a narrower grip with less elbow flare, making the moment arms shorter for our chests and longer for our shoulders. On the other hand, we have other lifts, such as lateral raises to take care of your shoulders for the upper portion of the hourglass body.

The Triceps Problem: by far, the biggest problem with the bench press is the fact that it’s so bad at stimulating growth in our triceps. The good news is that lagging triceps are easy to fix with accessory lifts. If we pop in some skull crushers or triceps pushdowns alongside our bench pressing, the problem vanishes. Even if we forego the bench press altogether, triceps extensions are nearly twice as effective as the bench press for our triceps.

The bench press is an amazing bulking lift, but it really pays to add in some accessory lifts to bring up the muscles that aren’t being fully stimulated by it. And for most people, the best accessory lifts for the bench press are the triceps isolation exercises.

  • Skullcrushers (aka lying triceps extensions): these are similar enough to the bench press that the muscle and strength you develop will transfer over quite well, but they put a tremendous amount of emphasis on the short (lateral and medial) heads of your triceps.
  • Triceps Pushdowns: These are great for thickening up your triceps, which is important if you’re having trouble locking out your bench press or if you notice that your triceps are lagging behind (which is common if you favour the wide-grip or dumbbell bench press).
  • Landmine Presses: These are a great lift for bulking up your shoulders and upper chest while letting your shoulder blades roam wild. This makes them a great accessory for women who are looking for more shoulder stability and strength.
  • Dumbbell or Cable Flyes: These are simple exercises that will help to bulk up your pecs. Get a nice pec stretch at the bottom and a firm pec contraction at the top. That large range of motion will be great for growing your chest.
  • Pec Deck Flyes: There’s nothing better than a good pec deck machine. They keep constant tension on your chest throughout the entire (huge) range of motion while also providing the stability that you need to load up the machine quite heavily.

What Next?

If you liked this article, you’d love our muscle-building newsletterWe’ll keep you up to date on all the latest muscle-building information for women. Or, if you want us to walk you through the process of building muscle, including teaching you the lifts, giving you a full workout program, a complete diet guide, a recipe book, and online coaching, check out our Bony to Bombshell Program.

Jared Polowick, BDes, CPT, has a degree in design from York University and is a certified personal trainer. He co-founded Bony to Beastly, Bony to Bombshell, and Outlive.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell. He's also a certified trainer (PTS) and nutrition coach (PN) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and performance, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

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