How to Do a Chest Press

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

man doing chest press with spotter
Colin Hawkins/Cultura/Getty Images

Targets: Pectoral muscles

Equipment Needed: Dumbbells, barbell, or Smith machine

Level: Intermediate

The chest press strength training exercise that works pectoral muscles of the chest. You press a weight directly overhead at chest level. You can use a variety of equipment including dumbbells, barbells, a Smith machine, or even resistance bands. A qualified trainer is recommended to guide you through appropriate execution, particularly when pressing with heavy weights. The chest press can be part of an upper body strength workout or muscle building workout.

Benefits

This exercise targets the main muscle of the chest, the pectorals. It also uses the anterior deltoids of the shoulder and the triceps brachii of the upper arm. Building chest support and definition is desirable for a fit look, but building this muscle is also functional. You need strong pecs for power for sports where you swing a bat, racket, or club. The chest press also helps you with any daily activities that require pushing or carrying. It can help restore muscle balance for athletes that primarily use pulling muscles, such as in wrestling, rock climbing, and swimming.

woman doing chest press with dumbbells
Holger Thalmann/Cultura/Getty Images

Step-by-Step Instructions

While you can do the chest lift with a variety of equipment, these instructions use dumbbells, as may be common for beginners.

  1. Lie on a bench or floor with a dumbbell in each hand. If you use a bench, you may have the feet up on the bench or on the floor, whichever is comfortable for bench height and your body and leg length.
  2. Position the dumbbells at the shoulders with upper arms at about 45 degrees to the body with elbows forward of the shoulder line to avoid stress on the shoulder joint. The palms should face forward and your thumbs should be wrapped around the handle.
  3. Brace the abdominal muscles, tilt the chin slightly toward the chest and ensure you are in a stable and comfortable position. You're ready to lift.
  4. Push the weights upward while exhaling, taking care not to lock out the elbows in an explosive movement. The weights should follow a shallow arc and almost meet over the top of the chest. It's OK to straighten the arms as long as you don’t do it with sudden or explosive force. The head or shoulder blades should not rise off the bench.
  5. Lower the weights, muscles contracted, while inhaling and controlling the return to the starting position.

    To start with, you could try three sets of 10 exercise repetitions of an appropriate weight. You can place the weights down between sets.

    Common Mistakes

    Avoid these errors so you get the most out of this exercise and prevent strain or injury.

    Losing Natural Back Arch

    Maintain the natural arch in the lower back; don’t force the back into the surface. This is called the lordotic curve and is a natural stability mechanism.

    Arms Too Far Apart

    Don't allow the forearms to spread wide so that the weights are outside the line of the elbows. Move in an arc toward the center of the chest but don't crash the weights together at the top of the move.

    Weights Too Heavy

    Don’t contort the upper body and shoulders to thrust the weights upward. If you find yourself doing this, the weights are too heavy. If fatigue occurs during the final repetitions of any set, reduce the repetition numbers or go for lighter weights. Don't risk injury to yourself or others.

    Lifting Too Fast

    Lifting too fast or with explosive force can injure your elbows. Try to move the weights in a controlled, smooth and not-too-fast lift.

    Not Using a Spotter

    It is always recommended to have someone assist you during a chest press exercise, especially if you're advanced and using heavier weights. This person is often called a "spotter" and many people are willing to "spot you" if asked.

    Modifications and Variations

    You can make this exercise more accessible as you build strength, then give yourself more of a challenge as you progress.

    Need a Modification?

    Beginner exercisers may want to start with the seated chest press machine to build strength in the pectoral muscles. It helps reduce errors of form and is adjustable.

    To familiarize yourself with the proper form and motion of the exercise, start with light dumbbells and pay attention to the motion. If you feel any pain, you should not perform the exercise.

    Up for a Challenge?

    Once you are able to do the chest lift with perfect form, you can begin to increase the weight. As you use heavier weights, be sure to use a spotter.

    Varying your elbow position will target your muscles differently. If your elbows are closer to your sides it will work the triceps more. If your elbows are flared out you will work your pectorals more.

    Safety and Precautions

    Talk to your doctor or physical therapist about whether this exercise if appropriate for you if you have had an injury to or recent surgery involving your chest muscles or shoulders. If at any time you feel pain in your arms, shoulders, or chest, end the exercise.

    Try It Out

    Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

    Was this page helpful?