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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
December 13, 2021
The allure of a big chest, boulder shoulders, and bugling triceps is likely what drives you towards the barbell bench press. It doesn’t matter if you're a powerlifter, athlete, or just want to look good, the barbell bench press is the go-to exercise to slap on upper body size and strength. But, not a lot of people utilize the various grips when doing barbell bench press...
The barbell bench press is often performed with a shoulder width overhand grip. It's the standard grip, and with it, you’ll probably lift the most weight. However, with the chest being a big fan-shaped muscle with fibers running in multiple directions, it pays to vary the grip and angle of your press. This allows for better muscle development and avoiding overuse injuries.
The four main grips for barbell bench press are the standard shoulder-width overhand grip, wide grip, close grip, and the somewhat elusive reverse grip.
Here will go into how to do the barbell bench press correctly, the muscles worked and benefits, and finally, the four main bench press grip variations, which includes the benefits of each and how they alter the muscles emphasized.
The barbell bench press is a horizontal pushing exercise that involves pressing a barbell upward while laying on a bench. it is a staple in gyms around the world.
Because you’re lying down on a bench, using a barbell combined with a relatively straight pressing path, the bench press should be your strongest pressing exercise.
This awesome barbell exercise trains the chest, shoulders and triceps and builds pushing strength that helps better performance in and out of the gym.
Some people knock the bench press, saying that it doesn’t replicate anything we do in activities of daily living. But, what the barbell bench press does is build strength that transfers over to things we do outside of the gym. Getting stronger is always better, and this exercise builds strength by the bucket load.
There are four ways to grip a barbell when performing the barbell bench press:
Switching the grip doesn’t change the muscles trained but it does alter the emphasis on the way these muscles are trained. This only affects the upper body and in no way does it change the way you use your lower body or core.
Here we’ll explore how changing the grip affects the dynamics of the movement.
Note: We will also provide links to Youtube videos so you can watch a demo of each movement being done correctly.
This bench press grip is the classic version and the one most performed in gyms around the world. You'll have your hands at shoulder-width, or just a little wider. Powerlifters use it during competitions and the rest of us use it to build and strengthen the chest. This variation works all three of the chest region equally (upper, middle, and lower). The grip works more chest than anterior deltoid and triceps which makes it your go-to for more overall chest size and strength. Generally speaking, it is the variation where you’ll be able to lift the most weight.
Although grip strength is not an issue with most pressing exercises the standard overhand grip makes it easier on your wrists to grip because your elbows will be in line with them.
BENEFITS OF THE SHOULDER-WIDTH OVERHAND GRIP BENCH PRESS:
Because you’ll use the most weight and perform this often you need to be careful with your joints, as they can take a beating from the heavy barbell (regardless of which grip you use). This is why you need to vary your grip occasionally.
The wide (overhand) grip barbell bench press is a grip that’s 1.5-2X the width of your shoulders. This variation maximally recruits the upper chest muscles and reduces the range of motion which decreases the amount of work it takes to lockout. Wide grip recruits twice as much chest as it does triceps compared to the standard shoulder-width overhand variation (study). This is due to the elbows being more in line with the barbell throughout the ROM.
This grip allows you to retract and depress the shoulder blades better allowing for easier setup and unracking the bar. A lot of powerlifters use the wide grip because of the easier setup and less ROM.
BENEFITS OF THE WIDE OVERHAND GRIP BENCH PRESS:
Whenever the shoulders are abducted and externally rotated, this puts the shoulder joint in a vulnerable position. Although you’ll use more weight and less ROM, you need excellent shoulder mobility to pull this lift-off. Don’t attempt if you have any shoulder issues.
The close grip barbell bench press variation is where you set up with your hands just inside shoulder-width, but some people go even more narrow. You can play around with it to see how you feel.
The close grip bench press shifts the load more to your triceps and less to your chest and anterior deltoids. This is amplified the closer you bring your hands too.
Activating less chest and putting the load on the triceps means you’ll lift less weight. But if you’re looking to build triceps and improve your lockout strength then this is perfect. Plus, because the shoulder is more internally rotated and less externally rotated, you’ll take the onus off your shoulder joint. And the close grip press has great carry over to the lockout portion of the overhead and standard bench press.
Note: Many people say that the close grip is good for the inner chest, but there is no clear evidence of this. It activates the chest as a whole. That said, many old school lifters use it for inner chest so there is probably some merit to it based purely on the ability to really squeeze the chest at the top.
BENEFITS OF THE CLOSE GRIP BENCH PRESS:
Yes, it’s great for the shoulder joint but puts more stress on the elbow joint and this takes it through a large ROM. If you have any elbow issues, be careful of this variation. It can also be hard on the shoulder joint if you normally feel pain with shoulder flexion.
Then underhand (more commonly called the reverse grip) bench press is a grip position where the knuckles of your hands are facing away from you. This grip is not so common, and will take some getting used to. The reverse grip forces you to tuck your elbows more which makes it more of a horizontal lift.
Reverse grip bench press trains more anterior delts, upper chest and biceps, and less triceps. But be warned the upward phase is difficult and because of this, you’ll use less weight.
This lift requires higher levels of wrist strength and mobility plus biceps and forearm strength. If you lack any of these stay away from this variation. But it’s a great change of pace lift and if you want to strengthen your upper chest, this is for you.
BENEFITS OF THE REVERSE GRIP BENCH PRESS:
Out of all these variations, it’s the most difficult to set up and execute. It’s advisable to have a stopper to un-rack and re-rack the bar. You will experience some writs soreness so lighten to weight build the forearm strength before going heavy.
Really, go light if you are new to the reverse grip barbell bench press. Get used to holding the barbell like this. At first you may feel like it's going to slip out of your hand.
Ideally, you want to mix it up and implement standard, wide, and close grip bench press for overall muscle development of the chest, triceps and delts. However, you may find that some grip widths don't feel right for you when benching, or even cause some pain. If it's a form issue, work on that. Also, be sure to warm up appropriately, don't just jump into your working sets cold.
Now, if your shoulder joint, elbow joint, or wrist hurts during any of these grips, it's important that you work on eliminating this pain with isolation and rehabilitation-type exercises. Typically, the best fix is to strengthen the stabilizer muscles surrounding the joints. Strengthen your delts and rotator cuff for your shoulder joint, your brachialis, biceps and triceps for your elbow joint, and your forearms for your wrists. Isolation exercises, push ups, and dumbbell pressing exercises will serve you well. You can continue with the barbell bench press as well, but use an appropriate weight and build up the strength. Usually the best medicine is movement, so keep moving.
Furthermore, be sure to warm up appropriately before getting to your working sets. More often than not, this will help you to avoid any pain in your joints.
Barbells bench press is great for building upper muscle and strength but it’s tough on the wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints. This makes it doubly important to warm up thoroughly for this lift. Bodyweight movements such as inchworm with push up, wall slides, band pull aparts and front and side planks will have you ready for the barbell.
But if you haven’t got time for that or you want to extend your warm-up, ramp-up sets are your best friend. These sets help grease the groove and help you decide your working weight for the day, and the extra volume is helpful for fat loss and hypertrophy.
Here’s an example for someone who does 200lb+ working sets:
10 reps with an empty barbell
8 reps with 135 pounds
6 reps with 165 pounds
5 reps with 175 pounds
4 reps with 185 pounds
You can alter between standard and wide grip bench press as you see fit. For example, one session you use standard, the next you use wide grip. You could also do a few sets of both during the same session.
As for close grip, we recommend using it as a big compound lift for your triceps. So, when doing tricep work, you can place it as your main tricep exercise.
Reverse grip can be treated like an alternate exercise. So, like you'd do incline or decline bench, you can use the reverse grip in a similar way. Use it to focus on the upper chest, as it is shown to active the upper head of the pec major really well. So, it is not going to be your main chest exercise, but an assistant/accessory lift. This is because you won't really be able to go too heavy. Conversely, if you have trouble benching because of shoulder pain, then you may find the reverse grip is the best way to bench press (i.e. if you can't do standard or wide grip, see if reverse grip works!). In that case, it could be your main chest exercise.
There is no better or worse grip for the barbell bench press, it just depends on your goals. Changing your grip on barbell bench press will allow you to hone in on different muscles and work on weak areas or muscle imbalances. The main benefit of training the chest from different angles is better overall muscle development, avoiding overuse injuries, and giving you more variety in your training. Happy benching.
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