No other exercise is as universally loved as the Barbell Bench Press. Its popularity remains at an all-time high among athletes and regular gym-goers alike.
Unfortunately the Bench Press also has a reputation—justified or not—for causing shoulder issues.
One aspect that hardly receives the attention it deserves is grip width in the Bench Press. Minor changes in hand placement can have a profound impact in alleviating or even eliminating shoulder pain.
In the sport of powerlifting, the forefingers are not allowed to be more than 81 centimeters (approximately 32″) apart. Knurl marks (a.k.a. “rings”) on the bar denote the maximal approved grip width in competition. Many (though not all) elite bench pressers use an ultra-wide grip to reduce range of motion and lift heavier weights.
Despite allowing you to move bigger loads, this isn’t optimal for long-term shoulder health. Research has found that hand placement greater than 150 percent biacromial (shoulder) width presents a considerable risk factor for shoulder injury.
Many gym-goers opt for a potentially harmful grip without realizing it. In one study where trained male subjects self-selected a bench press grip they normally used in training, it was measured at 189 percent biacromial width (76.5 cm). Every one of the 24 trainees chose a grip wider than 150 percent biacromal breadth, with the widest grip measured at 207 percent.
Knowing a narrower grip would likely lead to healthier shoulders but keeping a priority of getting strong, the question then arises:
How wide should you grab the bar to lift as heavy as possible without inflicting shoulder damage?
How to Determine Your Optimal Bench Press Grip in 30 Seconds
Here’s a trick to quickly determine the best bench press grip for yourself.
Set upon the ground for a regular Push-Up. Your hands will be slightly outside the shoulders. Lower down and come back up.
Do you feel strong in this position? Can you keep your elbows tucked at about 45 degrees, with your left and right elbow pointing to 8 and 4, respectively, on an imaginary clock?
If not, you should dedicate your time to improving at Push-Ups until you own the movement. Only then should you move on to the Barbell Bench Press.
If yes, move on to the next part.
Now, apply some chalk to your hands. With a barbell set in one of the lower pins in a power rack, place your hands on the bar at the same distance you just used for the Push-Up on the floor, and now perform an Incline Push-Up.
Still able to tuck the elbows and feel strong on the way up? Good. You just found your optimal Bench Press grip.
Thanks to the chalk prints you left on the bar while performing Incline Push-Ups, you will have a visual cue for the exact spot where you want to place your hands as you begin your Bench Press workout.
The above video recaps the main points of what we just covered.
Won’t a Narrow Grip Tank Your Strength?
When you recommend a male trainee move his grip in to spare the shoulders, his typical response goes something like this: “Makes sense. But I will be weaker, so no thanks.”
This fear, though logical, is not warranted. Initially, there will likely be a small drop in your Bench Press performance as you get accustomed to the new, narrower grip. Based on research, about a 5 percent difference exists when benching with a grip that is 100 percent biacromial width compared to 200 percent biacromial width. To put this in the right context, a 275-pound wide bencher would lift around 260 pounds with a narrow grip.
Realistically though, you should expect a strength decrease of less than 5 percent. How so? Because the grip we determined above will be somewhere between 120 percent and 150 percent, not 100 percent biacromial width—meaning that it’s a stronger position to press from than the one used in that study where that 5 percent figure came from.
As always, once you get used to a different form of exercise, training style or in this case, limb position, things tend to level out. Within a few short weeks bench pressing with your new grip, you should be right back to where you left off strength-wise. And this time without the shoulder pain.
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