How much should you bench press as a beginner?

Going heavy on the weights has always been associated with strength and power. And while it is true for the most part, lifting massive weights is not for everyone—at least in the beginning.

Those power lifters you see in the gym? They didn’t bench press 400 lbs straight away when they started. That kind of strength took months, probably even years, of hardcore training to achieve. No normal human being is born with such power to do that in the first attempt—unless you are Superman, but we all know that Superman is neither normal, human, nor real.

So if you are just starting and have never even set foot inside a gym, don’t go straight for the heaviest weights that you find. Leave your ego outside and start with something that you can press as comfortably as you can.

But exactly how much weight should you bench press as a newbie?

Your starting weight answered

Most beginners tend to put weights on the bar way more than what they can handle in the hopes of leveling up fast. But this is not going to achieve any gains—unless you are after injuries, then by all means, bench press 600 lbs on your first time.

You really wanna know what weight you should start with? Just the freakin’ bar!

Always, ALWAYS, start with just the bar. This is because it is more important that you build your strength first, and get your body used to the proper form, grip, and rhythm of the exercise before adding any weights. Using only the bar also allows you to perfect your technique first and your body to be more comfortable before progressing.

The standard barbell weighs 45 pounds, which is already quite hefty enough on its own. Adding even the lightest of the weights will provide an extra challenge that can surprise your body in a not-so-good way, and while it is usually a good idea to make your bench press challenging, perhaps save that for when you are already a few weeks in.

If you tried lifting 45 pounds and you still find it too heavy, you can always opt for a lighter barbell or even a pair of dumbbells. As long as you are developing your strength, you’re on the right track. No one in the gym is going to judge you so don’t worry about starting light. Well, maybe there will be a guy or two, but who cares?

I’ve bench-pressed the bar—now what?

Good for you! Now that your body is already used to the form and movement of the bench press, keep doing 3 sets of 10 repetitions each during your next few sessions. Then gradually add weights and start with at least 2.5 lbs on each side. Keep adding this much weight every week until you can finally go heavy.

Sure you can add more than 5 lbs every week and lift heavier, but increasing your weights gradually allows you to train your body correctly. When you practice perfect form with light weights, your muscles also gradually learn how to carry the load of a weighted bar.

Regardless of how little you add to the bar, you are still getting stronger every week.

Muscles at work during a bench press

The bench press is a compound exercise that targets the pectoralis major, the anterior deltoids, and the triceps brachii. This is because when you press, your chest, shoulders, and arms are at work.

But aside from these major muscle groups the bench press focuses on, other muscles such as the erector spinae, lats, and rotator cuff are also recruited to stabilize your body throughout the exercise.

If you are bench pressing correctly, both the major and stabilizing muscles will work together in harmony to provide maximum force and produce a well-coordinated movement.

But while the chest, shoulders, and arms are all engaged during a bench press, the degree by which they are worked varies depending on the type of bench press you are doing.

Are we saying there is more than one way to bench press? Yes. Yes, we do.

Regular bench press

This traditional and most common way works the pecs, shoulders, and arms by lying down on a flat bench and pressing the barbell up and down at chest height.

  1. Lie on your back on a flat bench. Hold up the barbell with your hands more than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Make sure that both of your feet are planted firmly on the ground and your hips are digging through the bench throughout the exercise.
  3. Slowly lift the bar off the rack then lower the bar to your chest with your elbows bent out to the side.
  4. Make sure to pause when your elbows reach just below the bench and press your feet into the floor as you lift the bar back up.
  5. Do 3 sets of 5-10 reps each depending on how much weight you load the bar.

Narrow grip bench press

This variation has the same steps as the regular bench press; the only difference is the way your arms are positioned. During a narrow grip bench press, your hands are closer together on the barbell to activate the triceps and forearms more.

Incline bench press

In this variation, the bench needs to be adjusted to a 45-60 degree angle. This ensures that you are slightly leaning back so that your upper chest and shoulders are better-targeted.

  1. Begin by placing your feet flat on the ground as you lean backward so that your back is against the bench with a neutral spine.
  2. Hold the barbell at chest height with a firm overhand grip and the thumb wrapped around the bar.
  3. Lift the bar over your eyes, or slightly higher, with your elbows fully extended.
  4. Slowly bring the bar down in a controlled manner until it is slightly in contact with your chest. Make sure that as you do this, you are also breathing in and that your elbows and wrists remain out on the sides.
  5. Do 3 sets of 5-10 reps each depending on how much weight you load the bar.

Decline bench press

In this variation, the bench needs to be adjusted to a -30 degree angle so that the bench is angled upward. This moves your feet to a higher position than your head so that when you lie down, the lower chest and shoulders are worked instead.

  1. Lie down on the decline bench so that your legs are in an elevated position. Make sure that your back is digging through the bench and that your feet are placed firmly on the stirrups.
  2. Slowly lift the bar off the rack, but since you are in a decline position, it will be better if you have a spotter to assist you. Hold up the bar at chest height with your arms more than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Lift the bar until your arms are straight and locked out at the top.
  4. Bring the bar back down to your chest in a controlled manner while maintaining your elbows out to the sides.
  5. Do 3 sets of 5-10 reps each depending on how much weight you load the bar.

Bench press no-no’s you need to avoid

Just like in any exercise, mistakes are also common during a bench press. And for beginners, it can even be inevitable. But of course, you can still try to be perfect and ace that press by avoiding these bench press blunders.

Not engaging the body enough

The moment you lose your tightness, you are likely to perform the press incorrectly. Make it a habit to keep your body tight even during the warm-up using a lighter bar.

Not keeping your butt on the bench

The only place your butt needs to be is on the bench. It is easy to let your butt lift off to compensate for the weight as it gets heavy and you find yourself driving through your heels, so to refrain yourself from doing that, try digging your butt through the bench instead. You can also try putting something heavy on your feet, reposition them, or just lower the weight that is loaded on the bar.

Not doing a full rep

People not doing the full range of motion during a bench press are an all too familiar sight in the gym. Remember that you need to bring the bar back down to your chest! Although avoid bouncing the bar to create momentum for the next rep because that is another mistake. Don’t keep doing half reps because you don’t want half results.

Not maintaining the correct positions

Most people think that moving the bar vertically is the most efficient way to bench press, but while that is not entirely wrong, moving it that way is not exactly the safest either. This is why you need to be conscious that you are pressing the bar at a slight curve. In a bench press, the bar will start and end above your shoulders, but the middle point of the movement should bring the bar below your clavicles. If your middle position is above your shoulders, in a vertical line, your middle position is too high.