September 06, 2020 10 min read
When it comes to the upper body, sometimes it seems that all roads lead to the bench press—and rightfully so.
The bench press is the heaviest lift for your chest muscles, helping you get that big pec aesthetic while also working your shoulders and triceps to a lesser extent. But while it is a massive compound exercise, it does leave a lot to be desired when trying to work parts of your body other than the chest.
Yes, you need glute activation, you need your core engaged, and your shoulders and arms—but getting the most out of the bench usually means utilizing isolation movements to really home in on other muscles that need to be caught up to your chest.
One of these assistant lifts is the close grip bench press—and while it might seem pretty self-explanatory at first glance, there’s more to it than one would think.
The close grip bench press, much like the bench press, is a compound exercise that necessitates the engagement of several muscles and the movement of a number of joints and bones.
The three major muscle groups that it activates are the pectorals, the anterior delts, and the triceps. However, a proper bench press requires the bracing of most of your muscles—including the core, glutes, and your entire posterior chain. Performing a proper bench press means activating all of the correct muscles.
The benefits of the standard bench press include the above mentioned “compoundedness”—where several different parts of the body are worked at the same time. However, it also boasts a large range of motion, allowing the muscle fibers in your chest to be stretched at the bottom of the movement. This is an important factor when it comes to building more muscle.
Additionally, having your body between a stable bench and the weight allows for greater power generation, and therefore, a heavier load. A large part of having a good bench press (and that goes for any compound lift, really) is having the proper form. Not only are you more likely to get injured without it, but you also won’t be able to max out the weight.
And lastly, the bench allows for a very quick and easy way to overload our muscles. When it comes to any type of improvement (and not to get existential, but that goes for inside and outside the gym), the name of the game is progressive overload. You want to be constantly challenging yourself in order to improve—that much is obvious.
But unlike other upper body chest exercises like push-ups, for example, the bench press allows you to add weight in small or large increments.
It’s easy to see why the bench press has continuously enjoyed so much popularity in lifting circles. Chances are that whenever someone hears that you lift, the first thing they’ll ask is your bench—and for good reason. It’s basically the ultimate benchmark for upper body strength. However, that doesn’t mean it’s flawless.
When compared to other popular compound lifts (the deadlift or squat, for example), it becomes clear pretty fast that the bench press lags behind when it comes to the amount of muscle stimulation. Sure, big pecs will probably never go out of vogue, but when it comes to your other muscles that make up so much of your upper body’s aesthetic, the bench press doesn’t do a terrific job of hitting them. Take the triceps, for example.
The triceps make up most of the muscle mass on your arm, so if you’re looking to fill out your sleeves then you’re going to have to give them some TLC. And while the triceps are one of the main three muscle groups engaged by the bench press, the lift doesn’t really do a great job of stimulating them enough.
Not to mention that the bench press hardly engages the long head of the tricep—which is the biggest part and the one that should be focused on for sleeve-filling purposes.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, the close grip bench press is an answer to that particular limitation of the bench press. The narrower grip shifts the focus from the chest to the shoulders, and specifically the triceps.
Furthermore, it’s done with a large range of motion (more than the conventional and wide grip bench press) and so it keeps the tension in your triceps for the longest time, effectively promoting growth and strength gains.
The close grip bench press can also be a better choice physiologically for certain people.
Especially for those with a history of shoulder mobility issues or shoulder pain, the close grip bench press is a better choice. Even though it technically has a wider range of motion, it places the shoulders under less stress due to the limited shoulder abduction the lift necessitates; something that becomes readily apparent when comparing the wide grip and close grip presses.
If the close grip takes the focus away from the chest and places it on the arms, the wide grip does the very opposite.
Using a wider grip with the bench press is a popular way to elicit more growth from the pectoralis major over the triceps and front delts. While the bench press already has a wide range of motion, especially at the bottom of the lift, placing your grip wider apart stretches the fibers in your pecs even further—promising not to leave any gains on the table.
While the close grip and wide grip seem like perfect complimentary lifts to one another, you should be aware that the wide grip is often not recommended to some people. There is a much higher chance of injury with a wide grip since it places 1.5 times more torque on your shoulders than the narrow grip. Not to mention that you risk pec rupture at the bottom of the lift if you’re using a heavy weight and go down too far.
That’s not to say you should avoid the wide grip bench press—but keep in mind the risks and program your lifts so you can reach your goals faster.
The set up for the close grip bench press is exactly the same as for the regular bench press.
You’ll want a sturdy, flat bench that’s not slick since even a little bit of grip will go a long way when it comes to keeping your shoulders in the correct position.
The hook height will be dependent on the length of your arms and how wide you’ll be gripping the bar. There is wiggle room in how high the bar is set, but try to keep it in a goldilocks zone of not high enough where you’ll lose your shoulder blade positioning, and not low enough to have to push up 5 inches to get off the hooks. You should be pressing the bar around 1 to 2 inches before it clears the hooks.
Once you’ve got the setup right, it’s time to dive into the movement itself.
1. Lay flat on the bench with the barbell at about eye level. Pinch your shoulder blades together—it might help to imagine holding a pencil in between them. Keep them in this position throughout the entire lift. Your feet should be flat on the floor, either straight ahead or slightly angled out; find a position that’s most comfortable for you.
2. After getting ready in the correct position, grip the barbell around shoulder-width apart (closer grip hand placement than the standard grip). This will depend on your own body and how close you want to go, but staying around shoulder-width (or just slightly under) is usually the safest approach. Going too narrow can injure your wrists, and going too wide will draw focus away from the triceps.
3. Take a deep breath and hold it as you brace your body. Press up on the barbell and unrack the bar. Make sure that your shoulder blades are still retracted.
4. Begin lowering the bar slowly and in a controlled manner. Your elbows will tuck towards your body more than in a traditional bench press at about a 30-degree angle.
5. Continue down until the bar touches your upper rib cage/sternum, just under the nipple. The chest-touch will be slightly lower than with a regular bench press. Pause at the bottom for a count.
6. Bracing your glutes and core, reverse the movement by pressing up powerfully. Lockout at the top, returning to the starting position. Repeat for the desired amount of reps.
Many of the mistakes found with the close grip bench press are those that are also common with the conventional bench.
For one, you should be either using a spotter or smith machine to ensure that you’re staying safe—especially if you’re using heavier weights. While you can always do the roll of shame if you fail to complete a rep, it’s something you want to avoid. And not just for your ego, but also to avoid potential injuries.
Breathing properly will also get you further with the bench. You definitely do not want to be holding your breath during the most difficult part of the lift—something many people end up doing. Make sure that you’re inhaling as you lower the bar and exhaling during the push upwards.
You also want to be maintaining proper body posture throughout the lift. First and foremost, that means keeping your elbows tucked in behind you. If they’re coming untucked, you probably need to go more slowly or use a lighter load in order to maintain tension. Furthermore, your hips shouldn’t be lifting off the bench. Once again, that usually means you’re using too heavy of a weight.
And lastly, don’t “bounce” the bar off your chest, or otherwise use momentum to complete the lift. Pausing for a count at the bottom of the lift will help with this, but you also need to be aware that going fast won’t help you in the long run. Complete the lift in a slow and controlled fashion and you’ll get more gains—it’s as simple as that. Using momentum or going too fast is usually a sign that the weight is too heavy.
And it’s this last point that’s usually to blame for most common mistakes. It’s much more beneficial to focus on correct form and technique rather than go chasing numbers, whether that be rep counts or personal records. Sticking to the correct form will guarantee that your gains are built on a solid foundation, and you’ll elicit more muscle growth too.
But while the above points are important to keep in mind, they’re not necessarily specific to the close grip bench press. Here are some of the common close grip bench press mistakes that should be addressed before they become a problem.
While it might sound that the narrower you go the better it is when trying to engage your triceps, a too-narrow of a grip should be avoided.
Especially if you’re working with heavy weights, a grip that’s less than 6-8 inches apart can result in injuries to your wrists and shoulders. This is because a narrow grip internally rotates the shoulder joints, putting them in a bad position for stress and injury.
Another important point to remember is that going really narrow is functionally pointless. In sports or anywhere in life, you’re almost never going to push something with your hands that close together—so why would you do that in the gym?
That’s why it’s important to keep your hands at about shoulder-width apart. Some people may recommend going slightly narrower, but it’s up to you and how comfortable you feel with a narrower grip. It’s also entirely possible to engage the triceps with a grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width, so don’t feel the need to over-do it.
The positioning of your elbows is also extremely important if you want to get the most out of the close grip bench press.
Flaring them out too much is problematic because it’ll shift a lot of the tension to the shoulders—something you want to avoid unless you want undue stress.
On the other hand, tucking them in towards the body too much will create tension between them and the sides of your body. Not only is this an inefficient method of lifting, but it’ll also take away from the focus of the lift.
The optimal positioning of the elbows is at about a 30-degree angle from your body. You should be focusing on rotating your elbows, so they face towards your feet during the movement. This will help to engage your lats during the lowering of the bar—helping to correctly trace the movement of the bar. Furthermore, the correct elbow positioning will also help to turn the triceps in a way that engages more of them.
Keeping your triceps in one plane (i.e. directly between you and the weight) will activate more of them, because as soon as they’re in multiple planes, more muscles will have to be engaged in order to finish the press.
The standard bench press grip width will usually result in the bar coming down to touch your lower chest, but this isn’t the way to go with a narrower grip.
The path of the bar should lead to the top of your ribcage, or else your elbows are more likely to flare out. Furthermore, more mechanical stress will be put on the wrists and elbows which will hinder the activation of the triceps.
It can be helpful to imagine your arms forming an “L” at the bottom of the movement—this means keeping your forearms perfectly perpendicular to the floor throughout the entire lift. Ensuring that your wrists are directly above your elbows will both limit unnecessary stresses, but it’ll also allow your triceps to generate most of the required force.
Much like with the conventional bench press, the close grip bench press can be performed with dumbbells as well.
Using dumbbells has the added benefit of being a unilateral exercise. Because both of your arms are connected to the same bar during a barbell bench press, it’s more than likely that your stronger side is making up for any weaknesses in your weaker side. If you want a solid and balanced muscular development, you’re going to want to address these weaknesses with unilateral movements such as the dumbbell bench press.
Diamond push-ups are also a great way to challenge the triceps, having the added benefit of being a bodyweight movement that doesn’t require any equipment.
And if your main focus is on the tris, then dips are another great way to go. They differ from the close grip bench press in that they mostly focus on the back rather than the chest. But if you’re looking to beef up your arms, there’s almost no better exercise.
Add these as complementary movements to your training program and you’ll build muscle and turbocharge your tricep gains like never before.