Article Key Points on Best Bench Press Width for Chest Growth
- Muscle activity of the upper, middle, and lower chest and the anterior deltoid was similar, with a wide grip bench press, a seated bench press with a prone grip, and a seated bench press with a neutral grip.
- A wide-grip bench press showed greater chest activation than a close-grip bench press.
- When athletes are designing their strength training program, they should not choose exercises based exclusively on muscle activation but rather on the amount of weight lifted, the level of technique of the participant, and the transference to the specific sporting activity.
The barbell bench press is an iconic exercise that has long been a staple in lifters, powerlifters, and fitness enthusiasts’ training routines. It is a compound movement that primarily targets the pectoral muscles and engages various other muscle groups in the upper body. In this article, we will explore width and bench press variations and its effects on muscle recruitment, injury prevention, and optimizing performance.
The Fundamentals of Bench Press Technique:
The bench press involves lying flat on a bench and pushing a barbell upward, primarily focusing on the pectoral muscles. Proper technique is crucial for maximizing strength gains and minimizing the risk of injury. Beginners should focus on mastering the standard bench press before exploring variations.
a) Establishing a Solid Starting Position: Ensure a stable starting position before executing the lift. This includes positioning your body on the bench with your feet flat on the ground, creating a slight arch in your lower back, and retracting your shoulder blades (scapula) to provide a solid base of support.
b) Grip Width and Its Impact on Chest Activation: Grip width plays a significant role in the bench press, influencing the recruitment of different muscle groups and optimizing performance. Let’s delve into three distinct grip variations:
The Fundamentals of Bench Press Variations:
i) Wide Grip Bench Press:
With a grip wider than shoulder-width, the wide grip bench press primarily targets the pectoral muscles while also engaging the shoulders and triceps. A wide grip for the bench press is typically wider than shoulder width. Start by placing your hands on the barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width apart to find your grip width.
ii) Shoulder-Width Grip Bench Press:
A grip that aligns with the width of the shoulders, known as the shoulder-width grip bench press, provides a balanced distribution of force across the chest, triceps, and shoulders. This grip offers a strong foundation for lifters of various skill levels. Your hands should be positioned directly under your shoulders for a shoulder-width bench press. Place your hands on the barbell with your palms facing away, aligning them with your shoulders.
iii) Narrow Grip Bench Press:
A grip narrower than shoulder-width, also referred to as the narrow grip bench press or close-grip bench press, places more emphasis on the triceps and shoulders, engaging them more intensely. It can help lifters overcome sticking regions and develop lockout strength. For a narrow grip bench press, your hands should be positioned closer together than shoulder-width. Place your hands on the barbell with your palms facing away, bringing them inside your shoulders.
The Influence of Grip Width on Chest Muscular Activation:
Understanding how grip width affects muscle activation is crucial for customizing your training program to target specific muscle groups and achieve desired outcomes. Research suggests that altering grip width can influence muscle activation patterns in the bench press.(Calatayud et al., 2018)
a) Bench Grip and Pectoral Muscle Activation: A wider grip on the bench press, such as the wide grip bench press, places greater emphasis on the pectoral muscles, specifically the pectoralis major (pec), helping develop a wider chest and a more pronounced “pec” appearance. (Larsen et al., 2021) A study by Saeterbakken et al. recommended using a wide grip bench press if using a heavy weight to increase muscle hypertrophy of the pecs. (Saeterbakken et al., 2017) Proper benching technique involves lowering the barbell to the sternum, just above the chest, and pressing it back up in a controlled manner.
b) Bench Grip and Triceps and Shoulder Activation: Narrowing the grip on the bench press, as in the narrow grip bench press or close-grip bench press, shifts the focus towards the triceps and shoulders, aiding in developing upper body strength and size.(Clemons & Aaron, 1997; Lehman, 2005) The close grip bench press involves gripping the bar with a grip width closer than shoulder width, usually around 14-16 inches.
The Seated Bench Press Width vs. the Barbell Bench Press Width
The seated bench press is often thought of as an inferior chest movement compared to the bench press. Researchers compared the seated and bench press with different grip widths. The study found that muscle activity in all analyzed muscles was similar between the lying bench press exercise with a grip at 150% of the biacromial width (i.e., wide grip bench press) and the seated chest press exercise, regardless of the grip type (prone or neutral).
The seated bench press showed slightly greater muscle activation of the upper chest than the lying bench press. However, the bench press exercise with a grip at 50% of the biacromial width (i.e., closed grip bench press) showed greater muscle activity in the triceps compared to the same exercise with a broader grip width. Grip width did not make that much of a difference in muscle activation.
The authors commented, “Considering the small influence that occurs when modifying grip widths or the type of exercise (free weights or machine-assisted), the choice of the grip position or exercise should be determined by the athlete’s position or the type of movement required for their sport.”(Muyor et al., 2023)
Injury Prevention and Shoulder Health:
While the bench press is an effective exercise, improper technique or excessive loading can lead to shoulder issues and injuries. It is crucial to prioritize proper form, gradually increase the amount of weight lifted, and listen to your body. Wider grips tend to decrease the range of motion but increase stress on the shoulder joints. Conversely, narrower grips can increase the range of motion but may shift stress toward the elbow joints.
a) Shoulder Pain and Injury:
Shoulder pain during the bench press can be attributed to various factors, including excessive stress on the shoulder joint, poor benching technique, or pre-existing shoulder issues. One common cause is using a grip width that is too wide or narrow for your individual biomechanics, leading to compromised shoulder positioning and increased risk of injury. (Gross et al., 1993)
b) Avoiding Shoulder Injuries:
To prevent shoulder injuries, it is important to focus on maintaining proper form, including a stable arch and retracting the shoulder blades. It has been suggested that grip width should not exceed 150% of the biacromial distance (i.e., The biacromial distance is the measurement of how far apart those shoulder blades are from each other. It tells us how wide or narrow our shoulders are). Additionally, incorporating exercises that strengthen the rotator cuff muscles and scapular stabilizers can enhance shoulder health and stability.
Incorporating exercises that strengthen the rotator cuff muscles and scapular stabilizers can enhance shoulder health and stability. The rotator cuff muscles are responsible for stabilizing the shoulder joint during movement, and weakness or imbalances in these muscles can lead to shoulder injuries. Scapular stabilizers, such as the serratus anterior and lower trapezius, are crucial in maintaining proper shoulder mechanics during upper-body exercises. Research has shown that incorporating exercises such as external rotation, internal rotation, and scapular retraction can improve rotator cuff and scapular stabilizer strength and reduce the risk of shoulder injuries. (Reinold et al., 2009)
The bench press is a versatile exercise that can be customized to suit individual needs and goals. By understanding the effects of different grip widths, incorporating proper technique, and considering various training and performance factors, you can enhance your bench press performance, prevent injuries, and achieve your desired outcomes. Always prioritize safety, listen to your body, and seek professional guidance if needed.
In conclusion, choosing the right grip is crucial for maximizing muscle activation, strength gains, and injury prevention. Research has shown that a wider grip can activate chest muscles and increase overall muscle growth. Additionally, a wider grip has been shown to improve power output and performance in other upper-body exercises. If you want to build a bigger chest, incorporating a wider grip into your bench press routine may be just what you need. Give it a try and see the results for yourself!
Calatayud, J., Vinstrup, J., Jakobsen, M. D., Sundstrup, E., Carlos Colado, J., & Andersen, L. L. (2018). Attentional Focus and Grip Width Influences on Bench Press Resistance Training. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 125(2), 265-277. https://doi.org/10.1177/0031512517747773
Clemons, J. M., & Aaron, C. (1997). Effect of Grip Width on the Myoelectric Activity of the Prime Movers in the Bench Press. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 11(2), 82-87. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/1997/05000/Effect_of_Grip_Width_on_the_Myoelectric_Activity.5.aspx
Gross, M. L., Brenner, S. L., Esformes, I., & Sonzogni, J. J. (1993). Anterior shoulder instability in weight lifters. Am J Sports Med, 21(4), 599-603. https://doi.org/10.1177/036354659302100419
Larsen, S., Gomo, O., & van den Tillaar, R. (2021). A Biomechanical Analysis of Wide, Medium, and Narrow Grip Width Effects on Kinematics, Horizontal Kinetics, and Muscle Activity on the Sticking Region in Recreationally Trained Males During 1-RM Bench Pressing [Original Research]. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 2. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2020.637066
Lehman, G. J. (2005). The influence of grip width and forearm pronation/supination on upper-body myoelectric activity during the flat bench press. J Strength Cond Res, 19(3), 587-591. https://doi.org/10.1519/r-15024.1
Muyor, J. M., Rodríguez-Ridao, D., & Oliva-Lozano, J. M. (2023). Comparison of Muscle Activity between the Horizontal Bench Press and the Seated Chest Press Exercises Using Several Grips. J Hum Kinet, 87, 23-34. https://doi.org/10.5114/jhk/161468
Reinold, M. M., Escamilla, R., & Wilk, K. E. (2009). Current Concepts in the Scientific and Clinical Rationale Behind Exercises for Glenohumeral and Scapulothoracic Musculature. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 39(2), 105-117. https://doi.org/10.2519/jospt.2009.2835
Saeterbakken, A. H., Mo, D. A., Scott, S., & Andersen, V. (2017). The Effects of Bench Press Variations in Competitive Athletes on Muscle Activity and Performance. J Hum Kinet, 57, 61-71. https://doi.org/10.1515/hukin-2017-0047