How Much Variance Does It Take to Build Your Chest?
The question of whether or not bench press is enough for chest development has plagued lifters for generations. While I’d like to give a simple, definitive answer on the matter, the best I can honestly do is say “maybe?”
Fact is, there’s no magic combination of workouts that’s going to give you the “missing piece” and unlock unlimited growth potential. That’s because your chest isn’t growing because you’re benching, it’s growing because you’re putting load on the muscle.
So instead of asking if standard, flat bench press is enough for chest, let’s ask it a different way. Does Bench Press put enough load on your pectorals to get them to grow?
What’s Your Focus? Strength or Size?
The real question is not simply if the movement itself is enough, but rather if the pecs are getting in enough stimulus to promote muscle growth. To answer that, we’ll drill down into the two main factors that determine stimulus: Intensity and Volume. How do these influence the way you build muscle?
We touched on intensity and volume in our last post about Floor Press vs Bench Press. Check it out.
In its simplest form, intensity refers to the amount of weight used. And you can’t talk about intensity without talking about the two main types of muscle fibers.
Like every other muscle in your body, pectoralis major consists of Type I and Type II muscle fibers. For building your chest, we’re mostly concerned with your Type II’s.
While Type I (endurance fibers) are excellent at making strength gains, they don't really yield much of a difference in size. That’s where Type II fibers come in. Whereas Type I fibers get stronger in response to stress, Type II fibers get larger.
If all you care about is a bigger chest (not necessarily a stronger one), you’re focusing on recruiting your Type II fibers.
The thing is, your Type II fibers only come into play when your Type I fibers can’t handle the load by themselves. That’s why the rep range for hypertrophy is typically between 8 and 12. You need to subject the muscle to enough volume to exhaust the Type I fibers and force your Type II fibers to join the game.
In this category, the barbell bench press excels as it generally allows a lifter to use significantly more weight than any other free weight chest exercise. This is not without its caveats however, as where the load is carried during the bench press can vary greatly from lifter to lifter.
For some, the leg drive generates a ton of force development. Others rely more on their triceps or front delts. All of these factors will take away from the recruitment of the pecs. They’re all elements of proper form, too, so trying to eliminate one won’t do you any favors.
This should not be seen as a reason not to bench, but rather a reason to include more chest-specific exercises in addition to the barbell bench press.
Volume simply refers to the amount of work done by a muscle group. Some calculate this as total poundage (sets x reps x pounds) while others simply calculate this as the total amount of reps performed.
But volume takes other factors into consideration too. For example, Range of Motion (ROM) and time under tension (TUT) are both big factors in determining volume.
This relates to the bench press in that lifters with a bigger arch have a smaller ROM, and thus less TUT. This lesser volume provides less stimulus for chest growth. This can be accounted for however by performing more sets and/or reps.
First thing we need to know, though, is how much you’re benching! Without knowing the volume of bench press in your program, we just can’t say for sure. If you’re performing an incredibly high number of really difficult sets, it’s hard to say you need more intensity and volume.
However, the heavy loads associated with the bench press likely make it difficult to recover from these incredible volumes. Therefore instead of taking a yes or no approach, I suggest asking “what is optimal for chest growth?”
Don’t get me wrong, the answer to this question depends extremely on your specific body, recoverability, and experience as a lifter. Still, it always comes back to the same balancing act every strength program has to achieve: balancing MRV (maximal recoverable volume) and MEV (minimum effective volume).
If you’re doing too many sets of bench, you’re going to exceed your MRV more quickly than you would with more accessories added in. The heavy loads from Bench Press induce more fatigue at a faster rate than less intense accessories like chest press or dumbbell flyes.
Combining bench press with other assistance exercises still allows you to push the pecs past their MEV without going beyond the MRV. The result is better chest development and proper recovery. Common upper body accessories include:
- Incline Bench Press (for more emphasis on upper pecs)
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- Chest Press
The inclusion of assistance exercises will also allow for lifters lacking chest development to isolate the chest by itself, instead of letting the triceps or shoulders take over. So while yes, bench press can be made to be “enough” for chest development, bench press alone is likely far from optimal.