Minor changes to how you lift can make a difference in the benefits you get from an exercise, so never let your workouts become stagnant. Simple changes, like altering hand position, work the muscles from fresh angles and that helps you avoid plateaus. Fitness professionals point out that you should change your training at least every 6 weeks to change the stimulus on your muscles.
How you place your hands on the bar when you do certain exercises might not seem as important as how much weight you work with, the tempo you use, how many reps you complete and how many sets. However, even a change, like where you place your hands, can enhance the results you get. That’s true of the bench press, one of the best upper body exercises, too.
You might start out doing only standard bench presses, but once you’ve mastered the basics, consider varying your hand placement. You can do this by changing how far apart your hands are on the bar or by switching the grip you use. Let’s look at how hand placement and grip changes the bench press exercise.
The Standard Bench Press Hand Placement
A standard bench press grip is where you place your hands on the bar about shoulder-width apart. This is the grip most people use when they do the exercise and is the one that feels natural and comfortable. One advantage of the standard grip is it allows you to manage the most weight and still use a good range-of-motion. It’s also a hand position that’s safest for the health of your shoulders, as it doesn’t place excessive strain on your deltoids or rotator cuff muscles, but master standard hand placement first before trying a wide or narrow placement.
Wide Hand Placement
Another variation is to place your hands wider than shoulder-width. If you place your hands further than shoulder-width, you don’t have to push the bar as far to complete a full bench press repetition. With this hand placement, you can also work with more weight than when you use a standard hand placement or a narrow grip placement as you don’t have as far to lift the weight as far. One study found that participants can lift 5% more weight using a wide grip versus a narrow grip. So, if you’re trying to show off how much you can lift, a wide placement is your best bet! A wide grip also recruits your pectorals to a greater degree than a narrow grip.
Since placing your hands wide also decreases the range-of-motion of the exercise, it makes it harder to use a fast tempo when you bench press. So, you might have a tougher time using a quick tempo to build explosive strength and power with a wide hand stance.
Another concern about using a wide hand placement is it places more stress on the deltoid muscles in your shoulders. Therefore, this may not be a suitable variation if you have a history of a shoulder injury. On the plus side, a wide hand placement works the outer chest better than a standard or narrow placement.
Narrow Hand Placement
If you place your hands closer than shoulder-width, you shift more of the focus of the exercise to your inner chest and the triceps. In fact, a narrow hand placement is best for activating the triceps relative to a standard or wide grip. Using a narrow hand placement is also easier on your shoulders. With this hand positioning, you’ll also get the greatest range-of-motion but will be able to handle less weight. Maximizing range-of-motion means you stretch the muscles more and this can improve flexibility. It can also boost muscle hypertrophy since using full range-of-motion recruits more motor units and more muscle fibers for maximal strength and hypertrophy gains.
On the downside, if you place your hands too close on the bar, it places stress on your wrists and your form can break down. It’s harder to keep your elbows in close to your body, as you should when you use a narrow grip.
To do a standard bench press, your hands grip the bar in an overhand manner. You can also switch your grip, a grip that feels less natural. Reversing your grip targets the muscle fibers in your triceps, much like using a narrow placement does, however, reversing your grip is less stressful on your shoulders. If you’re predisposed to shoulder pain, a reverse grip with a wide hand placement is safer than an overhand grip with narrow placement.
The disadvantages of using a reverse group are this variation doesn’t target your pectoral muscles as well as using an overhand grip. It can also be uncomfortable for your wrists and forearms, as it places them in an unnatural position. If you have healthy wrists, use this grip occasionally but don’t overdo it.
Other Tips for Safer Bench Pressing
Whichever hand position you use, start with a warm-up to raise your core body temperature. Include dynamic arm movements to warm up your arms and shoulders. On your first set, use a light bar at about 50% of ten-rep max. Focus on form rather than the amount of weight you lift.
The Bottom Line
The hand placement and grip you use depends on your goals and whether you have orthopedic issues such as shoulder problems. If a standard bench press makes your shoulders uncomfortable, switch to a narrow grip since it’s easier and safer on your shoulders. If you’re trying to build stronger triceps, a narrow hand placement or reverse grip will emphasize the triceps. When you’re trying to maximize the amount of weight you can lift, a wide grip is best since the weight doesn’t have to travel as far. You can also alternate the hand placement and grip you use to vary the stimulus on your muscles. Whichever grip you use, keep doing bench presses! It’s an excellent compound exercise for developing upper body strength.
- American Council on Exercise blog. “Bench Press Grips: Choosing Your Grip for Success”
- J Hum Kinet. 2017 Jun; 57: 61–71. Published online 2017 Jun 22. doi: 10.1515/hukin-2017-0047.
- net. “Bench Press Analyses”
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