Jessica Matthews by Jessica Matthews

Barbell bench pressA common upper-body exercise for both men and women, the barbell bench press offers the option to place the hands slightly wider than the shoulders or slightly less than shoulder width- distance apart. But which option is safer and more effective? To better understand the benefits and potential drawbacks of each variation, three top personal trainers weigh in on what you should know about this tried-and-true move.              

Wide-grip Bench Press

Arguably one of the most popular strength-training exercise, the wide-grip bench press has been a staple exercise in workout routines for decades—and with good reason. A research study by the American Council on Exercise found this exercise to be one of the most effective moves for eliciting a high level of muscle activity in the pectoralis major, making it a more effective targeted chest exercise than incline dumbbell flys or traditional push-ups. While the wide-grip bench press does effectively emphasize both the chest and the shoulders (specifically the anterior deltoid), Shana Verstegen, ACE-certified Personal Trainer and TRX Master Trainer argues that safety is always key. “Personally, I steer clear of the wide-grip bench press with my clients due to the risk of shoulder instability and pectoralis major rupture.” Verstegen’s concern that the risks outweigh the benefits of the wide-grip bench press is supported by a review of research published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, which found that amount of torque in the shoulders is nearly 1.5 times greater when performing a wide-grip bench press than a narrow-grip, thereby increasing injury potential. To reduce the risk of injury, move through the complete range of motion with control, during both the lower and lifting phases of the movement. You may also want to heed Martin’s advice of only lowering the bar to 3 to 4 inches above the chest, as opposed to going through the full movement of completely lowering the bar to lightly touch the chest.

Narrow-Grip Bench Press

By adjusting the placement of the hands to just slightly less than shoulder width-distance apart, this variation of the bench press shifts the emphasis from the larger muscles of the torso to the smaller muscles of the arms—specifically the triceps and forearms— shares Jonathan Ross, international fitness educator and author of the book Abs Revealed. “There is more challenge to the wrist and forearm muscles with the narrow grip, so maintaining proper alignment is essential. Watch for excessive extension of the wrists in which the knuckles rock back toward the forearms.” While the narrow-grip bench press serves as an effective exercise for strengthening the upper arms that produces less strain on the shoulders, Ross notes that individuals with elbow, wrist or shoulder concerns will likely find the narrow-grip bench press to be more of a challenge to perform.

Things to Consider

The bottom line is the choice of grip is largely dependent on whether your focus is to strengthen predominantly the chest or the triceps, though there are other factors to consider as well. Don Bahneman, general manager and Master Trainer at VIDA Fitness in Washington, D.C., suggests that determining hand position also depends on individual health history, desired fitness goals and the body awareness of the participant. “With flat bench lifts, there is a need for good mobility in the shoulders, as well as good scapular stability to reduce the potential for injury.” Bahneman adds that if you’re adamant about performing the bench press, yet holding a straight bar results in discomfort, consider using dumbbells in lieu of a barbell and/or try performing this exercise using an incline bench positioned at between 15 to 60 degrees.

While both variations of this move remain popular exercise choices, Verstegen reminds in addition to the bench press, there are hundreds of pushing-based exercises to choose from, so be sure to counter those movements with some pulling exercises to reduce the risk of injury and create a more well-rounded workout experience.

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