Press is one of the events in competitive
powerlifting, as well as one of the most popular exercises
among athletes and recreational weight trainers. Particular concerns
have been raised by certain authorities calling upon possibly
somewhat controversial guidelines. We'll analyze the bench press
and examine the actual literature behind these guidelines so
you can determine how to best perform or coach the bench press
based on specific circumstances.
Should you flair or tuck your elbows? Does
benching with a wide grip offer any advantages? Is it safer to
bench with a narrow grip? Is it better to maintain shoulder flexibility
through a full range of motion or is it better to stop short
in fear of shoulder injury? Is incline or decline bench press
really necessary? How likely is a complete pec tear while performing
a heavy bench press? Let's take an in-depth look at these questions
and others like it.
Pectoralis Major is the primary muscle used in the Bench Press.
Both the Sternal
heads of the Pectoralis Major transversely
flex the shoulders during the bench press (Lauver 2015, Duffey
2008). Pectoralis are utilized the greatest in the lower portion
of the decent phase and the early portion of the lifting phase.
Peak activity in the lift phase occurs early (35% lift time).
Deltoid assist in transverse
flexion of the shoulders as well as flexion
of the shoulders, particularly when the upper arms are closer
the sides of the body. The Anterior Deltoids are utilized the
greatest in the mid position in both the descent and lifting
phases (Duffey 2008).
particularly the lateral and medial heads extend the elbow during
the Bench Press. They are utilized the greatest in the lifting
phase as compared to the lowering phase. Like the Pectoralis
Major, maximal activity of the triceps actually occur late in
the descent phase and early in the lift phase. Their involvement
also peaks again near the top of the lifting phase, particularly
with a narrower grip. (Duffey 2008)
Brachii act as a dynamic
stabilizer with low relative activity. Clemens (1997) measured
Biceps Brachii involvement at approximately 22% maximum voluntary
Dorsi remains relatively inactive during the bench press,
at least in experienced non-competitive lifters (Barnett 1995).
Dumbbell Bench Press & Smith Bench
The average load of the Dumbbell
Bench Press is approximately 17% less than a barbell bench
press and 14% less than a Smith
Bench Press. Electrical activity in the Pectoralis Major
and Anterior Deltoid did not differ during the lifts. However
triceps activity was reduced using Dumbbells versus Barbell or
Smith Machine. Biceps Brachii activity increased according to
stability requirements (ie: Smith Machine < Barbell < Dumbbell)
Incline / Decline
Trebbs (2010) found that the Bench Press
on a flat bench activates the sternal head of the the Pectoralis
Major more than Incline
Bench Press. The sternal head tends to decrease in activity
as the incline increases (Trebbs 2010). Glass (1997) reported
Decline Bench Press recruits a greater portion of the Pectoralis
Major than does the Barbell Incline Bench Press. Barnett (1995)
reported that flat Smith Bench Press activated the the sternal
head of the Pectoralis Major more than the Smith Decline Bench
Trebbs (2010) found that the clavicular
head of the Pectoralis Major (upper chest) was most active at
a 44º incline, over the 0º (flat bench), and incline
bench presses of 28º, and 56º. In contrast, Barnett
(1995) reported that the clavicular head of the Pectoralis Major
was no more active during the Smith
Incline Bench Press than the flat Smith Bench Press, however
it was less active in the Smith
Decline Bench Press. Glass (1997) reported no significant
differences in clavicular head of the Pectoralis Major between
Barbell Incline and Decline Bench Press. Interesting, Lauver
also found no significant difference in the activation of clavicular
head when comparing decline, flat and incline presses. However,
when they divided the concentric phase into 4 parts, they observed
particularly more clavicular activation during the 26-50% contraction
duration in both 30º and 45º Incline Bench Press.
The Anterior Deltoid tended to increase
in activity as the bench inclination increased (Glass 1997, Trebbs
2010). The long head of the Triceps Brachii was more active on
the Smith Decline bench press than the flat Smith Bench Press
or Smith Incline Bench Press, particularly with narrow hand spacing
Barnett (1995) reported very low levels
of Latissimus Dorsi during various angles of the bench press
(decline, flat, and incline) with a short burst of activity immediately
prior to the initiation of the lift. Despite its relatively low
activity, the Latissimus Dorsi exhibited significantly greater
activation in the decline position compared to the flat position
with both wide and narrow grips. (Barnett 1995)
Grip & Grip
Grip the bar with an opposing thumb grip so
that the barbell does not slide out of the hand onto the body.
Position the wrists directly under the bar by turning the wrists
out slightly so bar is placed on lower outer portion of palm.
This grip positioning prevents the wrists from becoming completely
hyperextended under the weight of the bar. It also facilitates
elbow flare and allows the elbow to be positioned more directly
under the weight of the bar.
Bench press lifting performance increases
as grip width is increased up to approximately twice the biacromial
width (shoulder width as defined by the distance between acromion
processes) performance (Madsen 1984, Wagner 1992, Clemens 1997,
Gilbert 2003). Barnett (1995) reported a approximately 5% greater
resistance can be lifted in a wide grip smith bench press versus
a narrow grip smith press, however this difference was calculated
to be statistically insignificant. However Wagner (1992) showed
that the greatest single 1-rep bench press performance was achieved
with a relatively wide 200% biacromial width, a 7% greater load
compared to narrow grip beech press performance.
A wider grip width on the bar both decreases
the range of motion of the lift and the final height of the bar.
These factors could be possible explanations for increased bench
press performance with an increased grip width (Madsen 1984,
McLaughlin 1985). The bar travels nearly 25% further with a shoulder
width grip (biacromial width) as compared to a grip twice the
width. The increase in lift height results in 20° greater
shoulder flexion and 25° greater elbow extension. The forearms
are also angled out further with a wider grip (Duffey 2008).
A wider grip has shown to increase
involvement of the clavicular head of the Pectoralis Major while
decreasing Triceps involvement. However, Lahman (2005) only observed
an 18% in pectoral activity when benching at 200% biacromial
width as opposed to a 100% biacromial width, which was not was
not deemed statistically different.
In contrast, Barnett (1995) reported that
Grip Smith Bench Press increases activation of the Triceps
and clavicular head of the Pectoralis Major (upper chest). Lahman
(2005) found that Close
Grip Bench Press increased triceps activity 210% from that
experienced during the wide grip bench press.
Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell recommends a relatively
narrower grip bench for geared
powerlifters. Since geared powerlifters' bench shirt assists
in the lower portions of the lift, geared lifters typically perform
closer grip bench press to emphasize the triceps during lockout.
In contrast, raw powerlifters may gravitate toward wide grip
bench press to accentuate strength in the lower and mid portions
of the lift. Coach Simmons has recommended wide-grip benching
powerlifters (Simmons 2014) and periodic illegally wide grip
(beyond the bar markings) benching as an auxiliary exercise (with
the elbows tucked in) for geared bench press training (Simmons
Both raw and geared powerlifters appear
to be at higher risk to pectoralis
tears compared to the average gym goer largely (yet not entirely)
due to the large loads they are capable of pushing (Butt 2015).
A narrower grip is thought to decrease the risk of pectoral tears
by decreasing torque on the Pectoralis Major (Green 2007). Geared
powerlifters often bench wide in competition within the protection
of their bench shirts. However many raw powerlifters who use
a wider grip, in both training and competition, seem to do so
with apparently no repercussions. More on this later.
Upper Arm Positioning
the upper arm out to the sides, such as in the Wide Grip Bench
Press may increase activation of the Pectoralis Major (McLaughlin
1985). In a more extreme position, the Guillotine
Press (popularized by old time bodybuilding coach, Vince
Gironda) with the upper arms near 90° to the torso mimics
the upper arm position of chest
fly and is thought to decrease anterior deltoid involvement,
thereby isolating the Pectoralis Major and consequently limiting
the resistance that can be used in this auxiliary movement.
Some individuals may be able to perform
bench press with the upper arm portioned further out without
issues due to individual structural differences (Contreras 2011).
However, performing bench press with the upper arms positioned
close to 90° to the torso is thought to place the shoulder
in a potentially vulnerable position, at least for some individuals,
particularly when combined with other Weight
Training Injury Risk Factors (Green 2007).
In contrast, positioning the upper arms
closer to the body in the lower position is thought to increase
the load on the Anterior Deltoid, clavicular head of the Pectoralis
Major (upper chest), and Triceps while decreasing involvement
of the sternal head of the Pectoralis Major. In this close arm
position, the shoulder may have greater mobility with less potential
shoulder issues. In fact, those with a history of certain shoulder
issues may find that positioning the upper arm closer the the
sides does not aggravate their shoulder condition. However, this
totally adducted shoulder positioning can also limit the resistance
that can be used since this close arm position limits the involvement
of the powerful sternal head of the Pectoralis Major while emphasizing
the relatively weaker front deltoid, upper chest, and triceps.
For those with healthy shoulders with proper
mobility, positioning the upper arm somewhere in between these
two extremes will allow for the best combination of strength,
muscular development, and safety. Lowering the bar between the
lower to mid-chest will typically result in a 45º to 70º
angle between the shoulder and torso and can be customized according
to individual goals and body mechanics.
Hand spacing of 2 biacromial width increases
shoulder abduction above 75°, whereas hand spacing <1.5
biacromial width maintains shoulder abduction below 45° (Fees
Interestingly, Zatsiorsky and Kraemer (1995),
leading academist in the field of weight training recommend the
upper arm to form a 65º to 90º angle to the torso in
the chest-touch position.
Coach Rippetoe (2015), author of Starting
Strength, suggests a 70º upper arm position with the forearms
vertical at the lowest bench press position. According to Rippetoe,
this width of grip permits the longest range of motion around
the shoulder at the bottom of the movement. As the barbell is
raise, it is positioned over the shoulders in the path of a J.
Greg Nuckols who has held 3 all-time world
records in powerlifting in the 220lb and 242lb classes, explains:
Tuck your elbows (30°-45°
shoulder angle) is generally a bad cue for the raw bench press.
Flare and push (~60°) is a much better cue. Benching
in this manner will help you use your pecs more effectively and
gain strength faster.
Feet Placement, Leg
Drive, and Back Arch
general strength training, the lower back forms a natural arch
when the head, upper back, and hips are in contact with the bench.
Placing the feet apart on the floor creates a more stable base
of support. Those with shorter legs and/or inflexible hip flexors
may choose to place their feet on an elevated surface (eg: weight
plates or bench).
However, in powerlifting, the spine is
placed in an hyperextended arched position with the hips making
contact with the bench throughout the lift. To facilitate hyperextension
through both the thoracic and lumbar spine, the feet are tucked
back so forefeet remain on floor. Once the weight is set, heals
are pushed onto floor. (Kovacs 2014)
Arching the spine places the rib cage higher
so the bar does not have to be lowered as far down before it
makes contact with the lower chest. In addition, it also declines
the torso so the Pectoralis can push the bar upward in a stronger
plane of movement: shoulder transverse flexion with slight shoulder
adduction. This plan of motion is more similar to the Decline
Bench Press. In an extreme arched position, the Latissimus
Dorsi may assist somewhat by Shoulder
Unracking and Racking
Lie on bench so eye level is just in front
of the racked bar. The exact positioning of body on bench will
allow proximity to bar for easy unracking and racking yet far
enough away so rack does not obstruct the moving bar. Lift bar
from rack. With elbows extended, pull barbell so it is balanced
directly over shoulder joint before proceeding with the exercise.
Completely lock out over shoulders on last
rep before returning the barbell to the rack. Keeping elbows
straight, pull barbell to back, making contact with back of rack
before bending elbows to lowering bar onto rack supports.
Keep the scapula back and down.
the scapula during the bench press (1) forms a more stable
base of support against the bench, (2) decreases anterior forces
through the shoulder in the lower position, and (3) optimizes
the mechanics of the Pectoralis major.
The Pectoralis Major essentially has characteristics
of a biarticulate muscle,
practically crossing the shoulder girdle and shoulder articulations
By maintaining scapula retraction as the
bar reaches its lowest position, the Pectoralis Major enters
into a stretch reflex cycle
(explained below) sooner without the elbows traveling as far
back behind the shoulders. This is because the Pectoralis Major
enters into Passive Insufficiency sooner with the shoulder girdle
retracted as opposed to scapular tilting forward (Protraction
with anterior tilt).
Keeping the shoulder girdle retracted near
the top of the lift keeps the Pectoralis Major from entering
as they continue to contract. Although the Pectoralis Major is
primarily engaged at the lower portions of the lift, they appear
to also assist the Triceps and Anterior Deltoids throughout the
mid and upper ranges as seen by EMG activity (Duffy 2008).
As the shoulder
transversely flexes, initially with the elbow behind the
shoulder, the powerful Pectoralis Major has a strong stabilizing
component of force, pushing the humerus into the glenohumeral
joint, with a tendency to displace the head of the humerus anteriorly
(Kreighbaum 1996) and increases traction to the acromioclavicular
(Green 2007). This force must be counteracted by the Infraspinatus
and Teres Minor rotator
cuff muscles (Kreighbaum 1996). This responsibility of these
particular rotator cuff muscles is why exercises for the posterior
chain (eg: rowing
movements) are important to maintain shoulder integrity.
As the barbell is lifted, the shoulder
continues to transversely flex so the angle of pull of the humerus
to the Pectoralis major attachment approaches perpendicular allowing
for greater rotary force
through the shoulder joint.
Postural shoulder girdle deficits may compromise
ideal scapular position thereby placing greater anterior forces
on the shoulder. A Protracted
Shoulder Girdle posture places the scapula anteriorly which
can increase the angle of the scapula and humerus in the lowest
position when the shoulder is completely transversely
extended. This greater angle increases the anterior forces
on the shoulder during the initiation of the concentric contraction
of the Pectoralis Major. The antagonist rotary cuff muscles must
exert greater compensatory forces to counter the anterior forces
Range of Motion
The American College of Sports Medicine
recommends performing exercises through their full
range of motion (ACSM 1995).
Kolber (2010) review of the literature
found that the bench press has been implicated in shoulder injuries
including osteolysis, soft tissue strains and tears, anterior
instability, and dislocations. The lowering-eccentric phase of
the bench press has been postulated to be responsible for many
of the injuries particularly when the arm was lowered below the
torso. (Kolber 2010, Morey 2010)
Haupt (2001) suggests the decent phase
should finish 4-6 cm above the chest. Morey (2010) suggests limiting
the end-range positioning on the bench press by placing a towel
roll or barbell pad on the chest to possibly mitigate risk from
the terminal lowering phase.
However, there is no actual evidence demonstrating
that bench pressing through a full range of motion (as recommended
by the ACSM) is inherently dangerous for most individuals.
In fact, restricting range of motion may decrease flexibility,
strength, and joint
adaptations through the omitted range of motion, thereby
potentially increasing risk of future injury.
Strength Training performed through a full
range of motion has been shown to increase and maintain joint
flexibility (Morton 2011, Souza 2013). Flexibility shoulder flexibility
will likely decrease if shoulders do not travel through full
range of motion (until slight stretch or pull is felt through
shoulder or chest, while maintaining shoulder retraction) unless
specific stretches or movements are performed to supplement program
compromised by limited range of motion.
Exercising through a full range may be
the only means of maintaining flexibility through the Pectoralis
major and minor for most individuals engaging in weight training.
However those with a thicker rib cage or those performing a powerlifting-style
bench press will have less lower range of motion due to the
arched back position. Tight Pectoralis muscles in addition to
particular muscular imbalances may contribute to Protracted
Shoulder Girdle posture which could potentially create or
exacerbate the mechanical issues in which Haupt (2001) and Morey
(2010) were attempting to circumvent. See Forces
Through Shoulder Joint above.
Therefore, restricting range of motion
during the bench press as described by Haupt (2001) and Morey
(2010) should be prescribed only for those with specific shoulder
injuries or dispositions. In which case shoulder flexibility
movements for the Pectoralis
minor, and Anterior
Deltoid (second column under 'Stretch') will likely need
to be a part of the rehabilitation program until fuller a range
bench press movement can safely be performed. Also see suggested
exercises for Protracted Shoulder
Fees (1998) points out that the narrower
1.5 times biacromial width grip actually increases transverse
flexion. This may be true in a flat back bench position, however
the arched spine position typically performed
by powerlifters can actually decrease range of motion since the
bar does not need to be lowered as far with the low chest raised
upward. Again this limited range of motion may require assistance
work with dumbbells and/or wide grip benching to mitigate the
effects of a limited range of motion (ie: protracted shoulder
posture and its resulting biomechanical issues).
The descent immediately before the lifting
phase permits a muscular stretch-shortening
cycle allowing greater weight to be used. Approximately 14%
more weight can be lift (eg: 20 kg for young adult male) with
a counter movement bench press than with a pure concentric lift.
(van den Tillaar 2013)
Wilson (1991) found that the effect of
the stretch-shortening cycle in the bench press diminishes rapidly
with time, with a half-life of 0.85 seconds. After a pause of
1.5 seconds between the eccentric and concentric phases, 30%
of the performance augmentation remains in effect. Similarly,
after a shorter pause duration of 0.35 seconds, 75% of the performance
augmentation remains in effect. A pause of 4 seconds between
the concentric and eccentric phase would be required in order
to avoid any performance enhancement from the stretch-shortening
cycle. (Wilson 1991)
The sticking period is the first period
of deceleration of the lifting phase occurring before full extension.
It is the weakest region during the lift, typically occurring
between 316 cm vertically from the sternum (van den Tillaar
The elbows typically move laterally during
the sticking region thereby reducing the resultant moment arm
of the barbell about the shoulder joint. (Gomo & van den
Elliott (1989) concluded that the sticking
region is not caused by an increase in the moment arm of the
weight about the shoulder or elbow joints or by a minimization
of muscular activity during this region. Instead he postulated
that the sticking region was a force-reduced transition phase
between a strain energy-assisted acceleration phase (bottom of
lift) and a mechanically advantageous maximum strength region
(top of lift). However, grip width was not an independent variable
in Elliott's study and intermuscular comparisons were not measured.
Van den Tillaar (2013) concluded that the
sticking region is likely the result of a poor mechanical force
position. In a raw bench press, it was observed that it was not
the Triceps Brachii responsible for getting the lifter out of
the sticking region in the bench press, but instead the Deltoid
and Pectoralis Major muscles were responsible (van den Tillaar
Gomo & van den Tillaar (2015) examined
how three different grip widths affect the sticking region in
powerlifters' bench press performance. Twelve male experienced
powerlifters (age 27.7 ± 8.8 years, mass
91.9 ± 15.4 kg) were tested in one repetition
maximum bench press with a narrow, medium and wide grip. The
sticking region did not occur at the same joint angles in all
three grip widths. This disproved the theory that the sticking
region would occur at the same joint angle of the elbow and shoulder
independent of grip width.
Madsen and McLaughlin (1984) compared the
single maximal lifts for world class power lifters to group of
recreational lifters. The world class powerlifters moved the
bar more slowly throughout the exercise and kept the bar more
directly over the shoulder during the lift phase. Lowering the
bar more slowly may have reduced the forces required to stop
the descent of the bar.
Wilson (1989) compared a maximal bench
press lift with a single sub-maximal bench press lift at 80%
of maximum in elite lifters. In addition to differences in vertical
acceleration, the elite lifters tended to keep the bar more directly
over the shoulder during the lift phase of the maximal load,
showing similar form to the elite lifters mentioned in Madsen
and McLaughlin (1984) study.
Analysis of Green & Comfort (2007)
Green (2007) is often cited on the internet
(eg: T-Nation 2011) suggesting there is no significant difference
when bench pressing with a wide or narrow grip. Green (2007)
points other researchers have not observed a significant difference
in Pectoralis major involvement or one rep max and when comparing
grip width of 100% to approximately 200% biacromial width.
Green cites Barnett (1995) who reported
5% more resistance can be lifted using a wide grip, which was
deemed statistically insignificant. However, Green fails to mention
Barnett used a smith machine in that study and not a barbell.
Other researches examine performance differences of an actual
barbell bench press found a 200% biacromial width grip allowed
for the greatest weight to be lifted compared to other widths
(Wagner 1992, Gilbert 2003).
Green's 2007 paper entitled ' The Affect
of Grip Width on Bench Press Performance and Risk of Injury.'
brings up some interesting points. The main premise of the paper
argues that a bench press grip of greater than 1.5 times the
biacromial width places the shoulders in a vulnerable position
(Green 2007). Green cites Fees (1998) and writes "A grip
of more than 1.5 biacromial width increases shoulder torque by
1.5 times that of a narrow grip..." but then adds "...
thus increasing the risk of injury" as if torque in itself
is a cause of injury. Torque cannot be considered a risk factor
by itself since torque is necessary to place a loads on muscles
(ie: required for movement). It's the lack of adaptation to a
given torque that's a risk for injury (see Adaption
Criteria). More on that point later.
Interestingly, Fees (who Green cites) actually
makes the restricted grip width recommendation for athletes with
rotator cuff or shoulder impingement injury and not the general
weight training population, and particularly not asymptomatic
individuals, as the Green recommends.
Grip Width Effect on Pectoralis Activation
(2007) paper states, "Electromyographic results showed that
grip width did not significantly affect activity of the sternocostal
head of the Pectoralis Major (p > 0.05)." and cites Lahman
2005 as one of two references. Interestingly, Lehman (2005) did
find insignificant differences in the activation of the (A) clavicular head
(upper chest) when comparing wide and narrow grips, and (B) sternal head when
comparing wide and narrow supine grips (reverse grips). Activity
in the sternal head of the Pectoralis major dropped 27% when
grip was shifted from wide grip (200% biacromial width) to very
narrow grip (a space equal to the width of one hand between the
hands). Mean activity level dropped 18% shifting from 200% to
100% biacromial width (over hand grip), but this was not deemed
statistically different. So while Lehman's study supports Green's
claim that researchers have found no significant difference in
Pectoralis major involvement when comparing grip width of 100%
and 200% biacromial width it may not be exactly representative
of the entire picture.
In the same section, Green (2007) also
cites Barnett (1995) as further evidence. Indeed, Barnett's data
suggests that hand spacing did not vary EMG activity of the Sternal
Pectoralis Major although a wide grip decreased Triceps activation.
However a Smith
Machine with a linear track was used in this study, not exactly
a free weight bench press! Actually all reviews in other papers
citing Barnett's study also fail to mention this fact.
Green also cites Clemens (1997) (2 pages
earlier) suggesting no significant differences in Pectoralis
Major or Anterior Deltoid involvement with varying grip widths.
However there are several serious limitations to Clemens' study
which warrant caution in interpreting those findings at face
The most obvious issue is that Clemens
uses the same loads (1-RM of narrow grip bench press with biacromial
breadth grip) for all grip widths. The narrow grip width (100%
biacromial breadth grip) represented the least weight of all
grip widths. Therefore no comparison can be made for maximum
loads for all grip widths.
In addition, Clemens only collected EMG
data for the concentric phase and does not collect eccentric
EMG data. Duffey (2008) shows that the Pectoralis are utilized
the greatest in the lower portion of the decent phase. Incidentally
phasic inferences cannot be made since this study only examined
EMG through the concentric portion of the lift. Therefore the
Pectoralis Major's greater involvement in early portion of the
lifting phase cannot be distinguished from the remaining lift.
Possibly unrelated to grip comparisons,
Clemens' methodologies used to obtain standardize EMG values
were fundamentally flawed which essentially invalidate comparisons
between both muscle groups. In attempt to standardize EMG data
for proper comparisons, a Percent of Maximum Voluntary Isometric
Contraction was obtained for each muscle group by collecting
EMG data in a fixed position, a separate predetermined position
for each muscle group. unfortunately the triceps yield a percentage
far above 100%. The chosen elbow positioning of 90º during
static triceps EMG measurements (instead of a greater angle)
is likely the reason his data suggested all grip widths yielded
greater relative Triceps involvement in all grip widths as expressed
in as a Percent of Maximum Voluntary Isometric Contraction: Triceps
112%, Anterior Deltoid 95%, Pectoralis Major 75%, Biceps 22%.
With these obvious errors, no comparisons
between muscle groups can be made. Clemens himself admits his
methodology in calculating relative muscular activation was flawed
and warns, "The intermuscular difference relative to Triceps
and the Pectoralis major might be regarded with some caution."
More recently, Halaki (2012) discusses
recommendations and challenges of normalizing EMG signal reviewing
several potential points of error including MVICs of over 100%
as seen in the Clemens study. Several methodological errors (beyond
the scope of this article) from the Clemens study become apparent
when reviewing Halaki's recommendations. These procedural flaws,
particularly when combined with the earlier issues, in addition
to the contrasting data of other studies, question the validity
or applicability of Clemens' findings.
It is interesting to note that although
Clemens' data suggesting no significant difference in Pectoralis
and anterior deltoid involvement in all grip widths, in his discussion
section (ie Practical Applications) Clemens' recommends a grip
width between 190% to 200% of biacromial breadth for bench press
Over Generalized Safety Recommendations
So why does Green suggest the narrower
grip? Green appears to overstate the relative danger of wide
grip benching relative to the papers she cites. For example,
Green advises against the incline bench press (unless the angle
is specific to sports performance) since it too could increase
the risk of injury. Well, why not just stay home and forget weight
training altogether? This Chicken Little mentality is sometimes
typical of over-cautious physical therapists, orthopedic physicians,
and the like who lack practical long term weight training experience
and only work with injured individuals who are not necessarily
representative of most individuals. Also see Squat
You'll be left with very few exercises
in your arsenal if believe those who overgeneralize
by claiming a particular exercises is inherently bad because
some individuals have issues with them under particular sets
of circumstances. Risk of injury increases for a number of reasons
other than some inherent flaw of a particular exercise (see Adaptation Criteria).
High volume benching, muscular imbalances (ie: inadequate rowing
work), past injuries, inadequate progressions, and insufficient
recovery between workouts are other common factor leading to
injury. Also see Weight
Training Injury Risk Factors.
Risk of injury is also increased when exercise
is performed at a greater range of motion than the shoulder can
accommodate. Some individuals who lack adequate shoulder flexibility
(exacerbated by a protracted
shoulder girdle position) may either need to (a) stop just
short of the bar making contact onto the chest or (b) tuck their
elbows in slightly while bringing the bar slightly lower on the
chest. In any case, the bar should be lowered in a controlled
manner only as low as when a slight stretch is felt.
Fees (1998) (who Green cites) takes a more
reasonable approach and suggests these sort of modifications
and others for athletes recovering from certain types of injuries.
In contrast to Green, Fees only recommends elimination of the
incline bench press for those diagnosed with anteroinferior instability,
or after anterior shoulder stabilization surgery since the incline
bench press places stress on the compromised anterior middle
and anteroinferior glenohumeral ligaments. Other modifications
are provided and explained for various shoulder disorders including
Rotator Cuff Injury, Shoulder Impingement, SLAP Lesions, Anterior
Shoulder Instability, and Posterior Shoulder Instability.
For those with rotator cuff injury or shoulder
impingement, Fees (1998) recommends bench pressing with a grip
no wider than 1.5 times the biacromial. Fees explains this position:
- Places shoulder below 45º abduction
places bar lower on chest so shoulder extension remains less
than 15º decreases compressive forces at the distal clavicular
- Decreases shoulder torque reduces anterior
and posterior rotator cuff and biceps tendon complex requirements
for humeral head stabilization
Fees (1998) recommends a hand spacing of greater than 2 times
the biacromial width for those diagnosed with posterior shoulder
instability. Fees explains that the wider hand spacing and resulting
component angles allow better structural approximation of the
humeral head in the glenoid fossa and decrease the strain on
the posterior soft tissue. He further explains that the wide
grip permits shoulder abduction greater than 80°, horizontal
abduction greater than 15° at the start of the concentric
phase of the lift, and horizontal adduction less than 20°
in the finishing position at the end of the concentric phase.
So we can see that the recommendations
really depend on the circumstances, not a one way for everyone
approach that Green appears to have suggested. It is important
to understand that many people who use a wider than 1.5 biacromial
width grip simply do not experience complications. And finally,
the studies in which Green cites to make her recommendations
involve injured athletes who certainly do not represent participants
of weight training as a whole.
There's far too many variables and individual
situations involved to make a blanket statements of bench press
grip width and shoulder injury. Injuries with sub-max loads are
likely due to overuse
injury, inadequate warmup,
deficencies, and other
factors rather than in some inherent form characteristic
per se. The conclusion of particular form characteristics being
the cause of injury cannot be made with the current body of evidence.
That being said, several legitimate cases
may still be made for using a grip no wider than 1.5 biacromial
width in certain asymptomatic populations. See Bench
Press Recommendations below.
Major Tendon Tears
claims rupture of the Pectoralis is common. She cites Aarimaa
(2004) and state, "Prior research noted that 24 out of 33
subjects suffered a Pectoralis rupture during power lifting and
bodybuilding with a bench-pressing mechanism." In fact,
Aarimaa (2004) points out that total or near-total Pectoralis
ruptures is a rare injury and that fewer than 200 cases have
been reported in the literature.
Butt (2015) reports that the incidence
of tears to the Pectoralis major tendon has spiked in the last
decade. The majority of these cases occur in muscular young adult
men aged between 20 and 40 years during bench press. It seems
that factors other than the choice of grip width play a role
in this spike. Perhaps there could be an elephant in the room?
Dr. Serrano sees Pectoralis Major tears
regularly in his medical practice, including 4 to 6 complete
tears a year. Serrano patients include many professional and
elite athletes including many of the Westside Barbell powerlifters.
For those who do not know, Westside Barbell is considered the
'World's Strongest Gym' with two powerlifters with over 2700
pound totals, five over 2800 pounds, and one who has the biggest
total of all time at 3005 lbs. See Westside
Although it may be somewhat comforting
for the average gym goer to realize that their risk for Pectoralis
tendon tears is relatively low compared to these professionals
(for obvious and possibly not so obvious reasons), it's interesting
to note that even powerlifters from Westside Barbell continue
to incur these sort of injuries despite presumably having Louie Simmons (the most
successful and arguably the best powerlifting coaches in the
world) at their disposal. Are we to believe they have never heard
of the 1.5 times the biacromial width bench press grip recommendation?
Green (2007) suggests restricting bench
press grip width within 1.5 times the biacromial width since
this narrower grip minimizes peak shoulder torque. According
to Green, greater torque increases risk of injury. Although it
is believed that a the 1.5 times the biacromial width protects
against pectoral tendon tears, it should be pointed out that
no study has actually substantiated this theory. It could be
just as well be argued that increasing grip width with controlled
progressions could allow the Pectoralis, its tendon, and accompanying
joint structures to adapt so it may better withstand greater
torque loads, making it less susceptible to injury.
exhibit viscoelastic properties and are adaptive to conditions
of increased loading and disuse. The traditional concept of tensile
failure may not be the essential factor in the pathomechanics
of insertional tendinopathy. Particular joint positions are more
likely to stress the area of the tendon usually affected by tendinopathy.
Incorporating different joint position during exercise may allow
for more controlled stresses on these affected areas of the tendon
which may afford better maintenance of the mechanical strength
of that tendon region in effort to prevent injury. (Maganaris
Consistent with other models of exercise
adaptation / maladaptation, Maganaris's paper suggests that stresses
in which the body has adapted are not a risk for injury. Instead,
risk of injury occurs when the body has not had sufficient opportunity
to adapt to particular stresses by way of Specific
Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID). In the case of tendons,
the adaptions are specific to both torque and their angle to
their insertion as described by Maganaris (2004).
The Pectoralis major tendon typically ruptures
at the bottom of eccentrically loaded bench press position. The
tendon is thought to fail in a predictable sequence, with the
inferior segments of the sternal head failing first, followed
by the more superior segments of the sternal head and subsequently
the clavicular head. (Butt 2015)
During a maximal bench press attempts range
of motion and bar path can alter in two ways. First with a narrower
grip, it is possible that the upper arms would have a greater
tendancy to pull away from the sides (ie elbows flare out) under
a heavier than known maximal wieght (as subject to in competion)
in effort to decrease the moment created by the barbell about
the shoulder joint and/or to further engage the Pectoralis major,
somewhat consistent with observations made by Madsen and McLaughlin
(1984) and Wilson (1989).
Secondly, compared to wider grips, the
1.5 biacromial width grip has the potential to increases horizontal
adduction at the shoulder (Fees 1998, Green 2007), if not for
the bar making contact with the raised chest accentuated by the
arched back position. Under an extremely heavy load with the
bar compressing more forcefully into the body, the upper arms
can be pulled behind the back further than normal causing further
Pectoralis stretch with a higher risk of overloading of the Pectoralis
Major Tendon. The combination of the altered range of motion
and varied arm positioning (or even a single variation) could
place the tendon at an angle in which it is has not fully adapted
thereby possibly overload the Pectoralis tendon, particularly
if recent training has not adequately prepare the athlete for
this altered form.
Is it possible that the very technique
that was intended to protect the Pectoralis Major from tendon
tear potentially could have the opposite effect, or possibly
offer limited protection at best?
Determining Actual Causes of Injury
Causes of injury are likely multifaceted,
meaning more than one contributing factor can be attributed to
a particular injury. It is an overgeneralization to suggest that
wide grip bench press is dangerous. There are too many confounding
variables to make a definitive inference to all individuals with
the current information. To Green's credit, she points to several possible contributing
factors to injury suggested in the literature (other than
the 'inherently vunerable' wide bench press positioning).
Many individuals apparently perform wide
grip bench press without incident. It is certainly plausible
that factors other than grip width at least play a concomitant,
if not a dominate role in the risk of injury. We know of no studies
that explain or even explore how so many individuals who engage
in the mentioned so called vulnerable movements can end up unscathed.
There must be some specific anti-risk or protective factors at
play offering a certain degree of immunity to the unaffected..
Many of the cited studies proposing risk
factors are retrospective, using injured subjects which cannot
demonstrate cause and effect (as many authorities would like
to suggest). The authors of these referenced papers merely postulate
contributing factors surmised from clinical observation and surveys
after the fact, which may or may not be causal or even a contributing
factor under particular cases. A clear cause and effect relationships
can only be accurately determined with well planned controlled
prospective studies. (Kolber 2010)
Also see Proof
that Pickles are Bad.
Bench Press Recommendations
For those performing a full body workout,
a single basic compound chest movement such as the bench
press will generally be sufficient, envolving both sternal
and clavicular heads of the pectoralis major, as well as the
anterior deltoids, and triceps.
The appropriateness of a particular width
grip should be based on an individual basis. Choose a bench press
grip width depending on level of mobility, joint stability, and
training goals. For example, keeping the arms closer to sides
with a narrower grip may be more ideal for those with certain
For most fitness goals including general
muscular strength and development, a standard bench press grip
of 1.5 to 1.7 times the biacromial width can be used for those
who follow adaptation criteria with healthy shoulders and no
risk factors. This grip width achieves a suitable balanced between
the ability to use heavy weights, ideal muscular involvement,
fuller range of motion, and safety. This grip width affords a
slight emphasis on the sternal head of the Pectoralis major with
moderate involvement from the clavicular head, anterior deltoid,
Grip widths variations (either slightly
closer or wider) can supplement the standard grip width in training
for either strength gains or muscular development. Grip widths
approaching 2 times the biacromial width and upper arm positions
of approximately 70º can be performed by individuals with
healthy shoulders as long as certain precautions referenced in
this article and site are followed. What ever grip width used,
practice all precautions, including controlling the speed of
decent so the range of motion and torque forces do not exceed
what the joints structures and musculature are accustomed to.
A bench press grip with 1.5 times the biacromial
width may be utilized for various reasons. In addition to placing
slightly more emphasis on the triceps, this slightly narrower
grip also involves both upper and lower chest more evenly, potentially
useful when attempting to perform as few exercises as possible
(eg: a full body workout). Both the 1.5 times biacromial grip
width and 45º upper arm placement guidelines can serve as
a beginning point for beginners who do not have sufficient body
awareness or weight training experience. It can offer a conservative
positioning for beginners who may not be aware of possible orthopedic
weaknesses or inflexibilities at such an early stage.
Although studies have shown that a grip
width of 2 times the biacromial width allows for the greatest
weight to be used (see grip width above),
those involved in powerlifting may choose to bench within the
conservative 1.5 times the biacromial width constraint for safety
concerns, particular when other risk factors are prevalent (eg:
extremely heavy resistances, high training volumes, anabolic
steroid use, etc.).
The 1.5 times the biacromial width may
also be chosen as a standard width for either high volume bench
press work or extremely heavy bench press attempts. Practice
maximum attempts sparingly and judiciously. Regardless of the
standard grip width chosen, supplemental work should be performed
as a contingency to permit structural adaptation to unintentional
deviations of form during personal bests attempts.
Some individuals may find
Bench Press or Chest
Dips stimulate greater chest development than bench press.
Some may choose to maintain slightly greater range of motion
by periodically including dumbbell bench press or lever bench
press adjusted to the appropriate range of motion. In fact changing
exercises every month or so offers many benefits (see Changing
Exercises). For all movements, perform exercises through
the full range of
motion, lower the weight only until a very slight stretch
is felt in the chest or shoulders.
Bench Press and chest dominant plyometrics work (eg: Depth Push-ups) can
also be performed with upper arm abducted approximately 45º,
particularly if other risk factors are present. For those switching
from a wider grip to a narrower grip, or to position where the
arms are tucked in closer to the body, it take some time before
being able to use resistances that approaches the wider grip.
Bench Press can be included in addition to a basic general
chest exercise in a split
program. A prudent 1.5 biacromial width grip with bar contacting
lower chest can be considered, particularly since wide grip incline
bench press does not appear to offer any redeeming benefits.
However many people can seemingly perform incline bench press
with a wider grip width without incident despite others being
more prone to injury.
Grip Bench Press, targeting the triceps, can be performed
at a grip around 1 biacromial width or slightly narrower.
Limiting the range of motion the bottom
range of motion may be appropriate for individuals with certain
types of shoulder injuries. However, limiting the lower range
of motion has the potential of decreasing shoulder flexibility
which may eventually alter shoulder girdle posture thereby
increasing the mechanical stresses in which one is attempting
to avoid. Healthy shoulders with proper shoulder girdle posture
can typically adapt to to full range of motion if provided the
opportunity through a sensible weight training program incorporating
Proper posture and upper back strength
is important for shoulder integrity. To maintain shoulder integrity
for bench work, perform comparable upper body posterior chain
work, particularly rowing
exercises (emphasize scapular
retraction). In case of a protracted
shoulder posture, engage in corrective exercises to achieve
and maintain proper shoulder girdle positioning.
Practice recommended safety techniques
and maintain proper form throughout the movement. Perform a specific warm, at least
one set of 50% 10 RM. Use a workout weight that can be handled
in good form. Avoid bouncing the bar off your chest or raise
your butt off the bench during the lift. Progress
resistance systematically to allow adequate adaptation. For
those with a couple years training, undulate
workloads (eg: light/heavy or heavy/speed).
injuries and overtraining
by performing the fewest number of sets and exercises that will
accomplish the desired fitness objectives. If high volume training
must be performed, temper it will periods of lower volume work.
Avoid continuous use of advanced
training techniques that may increase likelihood of chronic
overtraining (eg: Forced
Reps). Listen to your body; take an additional day off if
not adequately recovered and use the number of planned sets merely
as a guideline. Every set should have a purpose. Walk away when
the job is done.
Do not attempt to work through any unusual
discomfort that could possibly be the start of an injury. Be
prudent and take even subtle pains seriously. Administer first aid, take additional
rest days, and/or readjust program to avoid reaggregating potential
injury. Increase intensity and volume gradually when coming back
from a layoff or recovering from an injury. Think long term progress.
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