What's the right grip width for you?
Close grip, wide grip, competition grip width… which do you use, and when? For the bench press, you have several options for how wide you want your grip to be. For powerlifting competition standards you only have one constraint, that your index finger cannot go past the ring on the knurling (bumps on the bar).
Besides that, you can theoretically grab anywhere from the middle knurling (which I do not recommend), to having your index on the rings, or anywhere in between. Here, we’ll look at how to choose the most optimal bench grip and what you can look for when selecting a grip width.
To find the right grip width, ask yourself these questions:
Before we start discussing different grips, let’s start by addressing that there is no “one size fits all” approach with bench press width. The length of the lifter’s arms and their technique will affect the optimal bench grip width. However, there are some questions to take into consideration to find your optimal grip width:
1. What grip lets you maintain a vertical forearm angle at the bottom?
Let’s dive into the first question and assess the angle of a lifter’s forearm when they lower the bar. The optimal form is when the forearms point straight up while the bar touches the lifter’s chest. If you are already in this position, you have a pretty sound understanding of basic biomechanics on the bench press. You want a grip that allows the wrist to be stacked on top of the elbow to generate the most efficient force transfer into the barbell.
While most lifters understand this, there is room for error when considering the bar placement on the chest. If the barbell can potentially touch higher up on your chest, you may be going too narrow. A relatively narrow grip forces the upper arm into creating an acute angle in relation to the torso. This moves the barbell farther away from the shoulder joint, elongating the movement arm and making the lift inefficient.
You can adopt a wider grip to touch higher up on your chest, but keep in mind that you should only go as wide as you are able to maintain the forearms pointing vertically.
2. Does that same grip also let you maintain proper scapular retraction?
Moving onto the second form of assessment for scapular retraction and depression. If the scapula are in proper position with your chosen grip width, you can try widening the grip further and moving the bar higher on the chest. If the scapula are not retracted and depressed, you should consider narrowing your grip to keep the shoulders back and down as much as possible. Afterward consider practicing scapular retraction drills such as band pull aparts, properly executed seated rows, and lat pulldowns.
Slowly widen your grip until you are able to reach your maximum width while maintaining vertical forearm angle, shoulder depression/retraction and keeping the bar as close to the shoulders as possible when touching the chest.
3. Finally, does using that grip give you the most power in your bench press?
Naturally, lifters fall into one of two categories: a stronger chest in comparison to their triceps, or stronger triceps in comparison to their chest. Once you’ve gone through the above assessments and maximized your technique as much as possible, you can find out where your strengths are by looking at very challenging or even failed reps.
If you struggle to press the bar off of your chest but can grind out a rep once it passes into the lower half of the rep, you probably have stronger triceps in comparison to your chest. In this case, you would benefit from a slightly narrower grip that favors more work in the triceps by forcing an acute angle on the upper arm in comparison to your chest.
But you must keep in mind that the vertical forearm and shoulder retraction/depression as well. This doesn’t mean a lifter should avoid chest work, as direct chest training can strengthen the chest to help eliminate the triceps taking over. Ways to increase chest strength without the limiting factor of the tricep include wide grip bench pressing (2-3 fingers wider than your regular width), dumbbell bench press, and dumbbell and/or cable flies to name a few.
If you're able to move pretty much anything off your chest but unable to lock out the weight, you have a stronger chest in comparison to your triceps. You should seek to maximize your width as much as possible within the biomechanical constraints we’ve discussed and focus on direct tricep work. This direct tricep work can be in the form of any movement that forces the elbow to extend under load. The most popular exercises are tricep pushdowns, dumbbell skull crushers, and dips to name a few.
Remember, though: there's no such thing as the "perfect" grip.
Now that you understand the biomechanical constraints involved in choosing the appropriate bench grip width, you can apply those to your own bench press. Keep in mind that your grip width may change over the course of your training career as technique improves, weaknesses are addressed, and strengths are found in your bench press.