Where to hold the bench press bar?
Amongst questions like "Where to touch the chest in a bar press?", "How much weight to use on the bench press" and "Are dumbbell or barbell bench presses better" another commonly asked question from beginners is "Where to hold the bench press bar?". When you go to the gym you will find all kinds of variations. Especially in a commercial gym, these have most likely been picked at random. So what made your fellow gym veterans pick the specific spot on the barbell to hold it during a bench press.
Is the aim to feel most comfortable during the press? Maybe the ultimate goal could be to maximize the stretch to the muscles? Is there a rotator cuff injury that only allows you to touch the bar at certain spots without putting yourself through excruciating pain? The more you start thinking about it, the more complex this seemingly simple question can become. I personally think this is the beauty of anything simple. If you break it into tiny pieces and really apply thought to it, it can become endlessly complex and interesting. The bench press is no exception to this rule. To pick the right place to hold the bar for you specifically the first reference point to determine is your main goal.
When you are training there are usually three main goals depending on your personal needs:
- Rehabilitation from injury
Let us exclude rehabilitation from injury for the sake of this exercise as the barbell bench press is most likely an exercise which you will start to do again after you get the all clear from the doctor. Maybe you will phase in from push ups or machine bench presses to the barbell bench press. So ,for this overview, it has been mentioned but is not necessarily the most pressing.
That leaves you to decide whether you perform the bench press mainly to grow your chest for aesthetic purposes to look better, even though looks are very subjective, or to maximize the power output on the exercise. Based on your priorities you might prefer a certain grip compared to the other. From my personal experience there are three main ways to hold the bar during the bench press:
Example of a wide grip for the bench press
A wide grip is usually placed outside the knurling of the barbell when performing the bench press. With a wide grip, you are usually able to move lesser weight than with a narrower, powerlifting style grip. I personally found the wide grip to be a good variation to work on bench press technique in general and to focus more on my pecs than my triceps. The wider the grip the less the triceps can support the movement and therefore your chest becomes more relevant on each repetition. A wide grip can also be utilized in powerlifting to shorten the distance the bar has to travel to touch the chest. I personally think this is most applicable in shirted bench pressing, where you do not need as much drive from your body to make it through the lower parts of the lift, as the bench press shirt helps out. In raw bench pressing, I find that I am personally giving up too much of the power I get out of the triceps for the lower ranges of the lift in relation to the distance saved that the bar has to travel. Therefore I prefer a narrower grip on raw lifts.
Narrow grip example
A narrow grip is usually placed just where the knurling of the barbell begins. This is also known as a close bench press grip. I find this to be most beneficial to maximize the activation of the triceps during the barbell bench press while minimizing the role of the pectorals. So if you wanted to train your triceps mainly and utilize the bench press to achieve this goal, this is the grip to go for. Therefore this grip can have its place when people who are generally interested in building a well-rounded physique or more experienced powerlifters who identified the triceps to be the limiting factor to bench more weight.
Eric Spoto, world record bench presser, using a "thumb-wide" grip
A "thumb wide" grip is in my personal opinion the best option to develop maximum power while still having not to think too much about the setup each time you go under the bar. For this, you place your hands a thumbs length inwards from where the knurling begins. This provides roughly the same amount of activation to the triceps and pectorals without actively manipulating the lift in favor of one or the other. This is the grip I ease whenever I go for maximum power output and I have seen other experienced raw lifters using the same approach on their 1RM attempts.
How to hold the bar during a bench press is depending on what goals you have and which muscles you want to target during training. I hope this short overview helps you to scratch your head a bit less the next time you step into the gym. Always feel free to leave a comment to share your own experience, ask a question or to provide more information in the comments section below.
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