Choosing the Best Grip for the Bench Press

Many trainees feel the need to loosen up their shoulders after bench pressing. You may watch them shaking and pumping their arms back and forth. You may watch them grimace.

You notice their urge to stretch, especially by placing their wrist behind their back and then drawing their elbow forward to rotate at the shoulder. They are trying to relieve the pinching sensation that lingers from shoulder impingement. Their elbows and wrists may ache along with other areas such as the pec-delt tie-in region.

Yet they continue using the same form. They come to accept the pain and discomfort as a sacrifice for lifting weights. What began as an irritation develops into a lasting issue. This may require surgery or medication, often harming their performance forever. Some will then condemn the barbell bench press, perhaps ironically replacing it with more harmful exercises.

They may think the answer is to use dumbbells, only to end up facing the same obstacles with less weight. Some feel that bodyweight exercises, though just another form of resistance, will solve their problem. Bodyweight training relies on poor angles that harm the joints, inadequate loading, and the use of muscles differently than intended. Some will resort to machines, which restrict you to poor movement patterns.

You can avoid this scenario by performing the bench press with good form. Choose medium positions that deemphasize any specific joint or muscle. Limit the range of motion at the bottom. Stay in control.

Choosing the right grip can get complicated though. You have to consider more than several factors, and these all affect one another. Everything needs to be just right.

Consider these tips in choosing the best grip for the barbell flat bench press.

Tips

While you are experimenting, do not remain content with the surface of things.

– Ivan Pavlov

  • Choose some grip between too wide and too narrow.

Start by imagining that you grab the barbell as widely as you can and then as narrowly as possible. Afterward, adopt a grip about halfway between these two extremes. In the end, your choice will not deviate too far from this position.

Another test can help you too; just the grab the bar without thought. Where do you choose? Your final grip should not be too far from this position as well.

Grip too widely and your wrists will ache. The space within your shoulders will compress, clicking and feeling tight throughout the movement. You may feel a strain at the tendon within the pec-delt tie-in region. A wide grip reduces the range of motion if touching your chest, which may improve your external performance but at a great cost.

With a wide enough grip though, your shoulder blades pinch together better. This makes you more stable. It also tends to improve your mechanics.

Choose too narrow of a grip, and your elbows will hurt as they flare outside of your wrists too greatly. Despite popular belief, your shoulders will aggravate you here as well.

With a narrow grip though, you will feel powerful. The reps will feel smoother. Your shoulders are less likely to bother you.

A medium grip reduces the worst qualities but includes the best ones. It also lets the chest, arm, and shoulder muscles all play their part. You feel balanced and safer.

  • Use mechanics only as a base.

The best mechanics means having the forearms perpendicular to the floor when viewed from both the side and the front or back. The elbows should align close to vertical with wrists. You generally want to achieve this position as it maximizes efficiency and minimizes harmful forces.

This alone is incomplete though. You want to have your arms positioned at about 45° relative to the body too. For shoulder health, this rule ranks just as importantly, if not more so than the others. Many trainees will achieve alignment only by choosing too wide of a grip, so keep this in mind.

Many trainees will place the barbell too low in the palm of their hand. They do this so as to not waste force, yet ignore that the wrist needs to extend for the gripping muscles to work properly. You must strike a balance between the two.

  • Hit the right area on your torso.

Many choose the right grip but then destroy this benefit by lowering the barbell near their collarbone. You should instead approach the lower chest-upper ribcage area as you lower the weight.

Your ideal elbow position is determined in part by going this route. It prevents excessive flaring of the elbows while adhering to the mechanics mentioned. This spot is usually the highest point on your body unless you hyperextend your lower back. Though used in powerlifting, this serves no purpose in proper training.

  • Reduce your range of motion.

Do not misjudge an otherwise good grip because it hurts when you reach your chest. When the elbows travel far below the plane of the shoulders, this threatens you with injury.

While you need some range of motion to establish a groove and have enough room to develop power, you do not need the greatest distance possible. This actually works the muscles less effectively according to the length-tension relationship.

  • Move and position yourself naturally.

Keep good posture even while lying down. To achieve this, stand up. Stand tall while keeping your chest out a bit and your shoulder blades pulled back slightly. Mimic this same feeling throughout your spine when you lie down for the bench press. You want an arch in your lower back but not excessively. It should never feel like a decline bench press.

Allow your shoulder blades to move during the motion. Many retract their scapulae as much as possible. This destroys the rhythm of the shoulder blades working with the glenohumeral joints, creating a tug-of-war effect. You want them pulled back just enough to keep good posture and to feel stable but not to stay fixed.

Try to limit non-self-correcting behavior. This includes steps like consciously tucking your elbows. You may have chosen the wrong grip should you need to worry about this too much. While you do want to avoid extremes like purposely flaring your elbows, you should not have to do something that does not feel right when the reps get tougher.

Have the right bar path. While those focused on performance will suggest that you move in a straight line, a slight J-curve will lead to a better groove for many trainees. This means having the barbell closer to your eyes at the lockout but then moving at a slight diagonal toward the chest as you lower the barbell. You then use this same path as you reverse the motion.

  • Check your form with video.

Self-perception can fail you. For example, many trainees while on the bench will think their wrists went inside their elbows. Video can then reveal instead that their wrists aligned with the elbows correctly.

Pay attention to how all of your joints move.  Do they adhere closely to proper mechanics? Do you feel any pain or discomfort? If so, what happens when this occurs?

Analyze footage in clips so you will better recall how you felt during the motion.

  • Set a standard.

Once you have found what works, keep it. Use the smooth rings on the barbell as markers to stay consistent.

Avoid trying to match this with other exercises, such as your grip for the squat. These exercises have different demands, so having a standard that applies to them all is inappropriate.

Choosing the Best Grip for Your Barbell Flat Bench Press

Ultimately, the bench press has to feel right for you. This trumps all other concerns. Always have this based on how your joints and muscles feel though, never through outward performance.

These tips are meant to have you understand that you may not have found the medium position yet. Experiment with them in mind. Even a difference of millimeters can affect you.

Use them to aid you in choosing the best grip for your bench press.

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