How much do you bench? With the bench press being one of the most popular and effective ways to build muscular size and strength, this question will be asked in weightlifting circles forever. Whether motivated by gaining otherworldly strength or sculpting a dream physique, a large bench press is coveted by gym goers around the world.
The bench press is an upper body weight training exercise where an individual lies on a flat bench with their feet on the floor while repeatedly lowering and raising a loaded bar. The bench press is often broken down into two phases: the eccentric phase (lowering bar to touch chest) and concentric phase (pressing the bar off the chest). When building a strong bench press, nothing is more important than a weightlifter’s technique when performing the movement.
While sounding like a relatively simple exercise, the intricacies of the bench press form largely surround where a lifter grips the loaded bar. The width of an individual’s hands on the bar during a bench press, commonly called grip width, plays an important role in muscular activation and force exertion during the lift. Grip widths are often measured with respect to shoulder width, or bi-acromial distance, in three different grip lengths: wide (around 1.7 times shoulder width), medium (1.4 times shoulder width), and narrow (shoulder width).
The bench press activates three primary muscles: the pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, and the triceps brachii. Muscles in the body have directional fibers that sustain loads most effectively when moving along the direction of their fibers.
With different grip widths, weightlifters naturally have different levels of shoulder abduction, shoulder rotation away from the centerline of the body, and elbow positioning during the exercise. Grip width impacts muscle activation because different levels of shoulder abduction and elbow positioning align better with the directional fibers of the primary muscles in the bench press. For example, a study explained that grip widths wider than 1.5 times shoulder width resulted in shoulder abduction greater than 45°. When this angle increases the anterior deltoid becomes more involved in the bench press. The largest muscle activated in the bench press is the pectoralis major. The grip width variation that activates the pectoralis major most effectively exerts the most force. The pectoralis major is activated most with the medium and wide grip widths.
In addition to varying levels of muscle activation, different grip widths also play a key role in an individual’s ability to exert force. Most failed bench press repetitions occur at the bottom of the bench press, in a region called the “sticking position”. In the sticking position, the primary muscles activated in the bench press are put in a poor position to exert the forces required to move the loaded bar. A biomechanical study explains that the medium and wide grip widths place the shoulder in more advantageous positions in the sticking position to move greater loads when compared to the narrow grip widths.
However, one study found that grip widths larger than 1.5 times shoulder width leaves the shoulders in a more vulnerable position for injury. Therefore, the safest and most optimal bench press grip width is a medium grip, around 1.4 times shoulder width, to maximize muscle activation, force exertion, and reduce risks of shoulder injuries.