September 10, 2021 10 min read
Along with the deadlift and squat, the bench press is a juggernaut of a lift that has been a mainstay in gyms for a very long time. If you want to develop immense upper body strength and look big, the flat bench is the way to go.
Along the way, several different bench press variations have come along. These are often delineated by the angle of the bench itself, the range of motion, and the choice of the grip. Each variation emphasizes different muscles.
But when it comes to maximizing the already raw power and activation that the bench press gives your chest, there’s no better variant than the wide grip bench press. If you want a strong and hulking chest, look no further than this lift. Your chest muscles will thank you.
The primary muscle worked with the bench press is the chest—the pectorals. It hits the largest muscle in the chest, the pectoralis major, and it challenges it enough where it’s often the muscle that fails to get you to another rep. This is important because you want the majority of the tension being placed on the largest muscle you’re training.
The bench press also significantly involves your triceps, since it’s a pressing exercise. If you opt for the narrow grip bench press, there will be more tricep activation during the lift. The third major muscle that’s worked in the bench press is the front delts. They help to lift the weight upward and they’re second to the chest in importance—sometimes even more important.
If you’re benching in lower rep ranges, it’s often the deltoids that will end up taking over. Several other stabilizing muscles are also recruited in the bench press, including your core and glutes. But how do things differ with the wide grip bench press?
Grasping the barbell with a wider grip is how you put even more engagement on the pecs. This is the opposite of a narrow grip, with the conventional grip giving you decent tricep and chest activation. One study even found that a wider grip at 2x the width of the shoulders is enough to recruit double the amount of pec muscle fibers.
A wide grip is generally considered to be between 1.5x to 2x your shoulder-width distance—with the standard being closer to 2x. However, there are many factors that are going to dictate how wide you can (and should), go. One example is powerlifters: they’re not allowed to go further than 81cm apart.
This is already marked on most bars with the hashmark, so the index finger on both of your hands should be just covering this hashmark. Although people can go narrower, wider isn’t allowed. However, outside of competition, there are still other considerations to make.
The biggest aspect that’s going to regulate the width of the grasp is the length of the arms. It makes sense that someone with naturally longer arms is going to gravitate to a wider grip, simply because it’s more comfortable and there’s greater power output. This highlights the importance of not comparing your grip width with other peoples’ unless you know for a fact that your arms are the same length.
Lastly, we can’t forget about overall comfort and personal preference. Even though there are benefits to having a wider grip, some lifters might find that they simply can’t get used to a wide grip. Even after months of trying, you might still prefer a narrower grip, and there’s nothing wrong with this—do what’s comfortable without blindly going for a wider grip.
You also don’t want to go too wide if you care at all about your shoulder joint, or if you have a history of shoulder pain.
While we know that generally the wider grip will work the pecs more, and also disengage the triceps, there are other benefits to this lift. The mechanics of a wide grip bench press have significant effects on the range of motion, the types of muscles you’re using, other powerlifting techniques, and a more advantageous position for the shoulders.
One of the largest differences with the wide grip bench is the reduced range of motion. Since your arms are splayed further apart from one another, you’re not going to be able to move the bar as high above your chest as with a narrower grip.
This will obviously reduce the distance that the barbell needs to travel, which will mean that you’ll need to perform less work throughout the whole movement. However, the key is that you’ll still be applying the same amount of force during the lift, albeit over a shorter distance. This is beneficial because you’re going to be expending less energy for the same amount of muscle activation and development.
For most lifters out there, the most difficult part of a bench press is the bottom-end range when your elbows and shoulders are at full flexion (i.e., bent). This is where the pecs come into major play, and if you have strong pecs, then this is where you’ll be able to get the biggest bang-for-your-buck in terms of muscle activation and growth.
This remains true at least for those who have pecs that are very strong since you want to be playing to your strengths with the bench press. If you play into your strengths, you’ll be able to lift heavier and therefore so more results in your training.
That isn’t to say that you should completely ignore your shoulders and triceps, but rather that they should be built up with other exercises while making the bench press into a primarily chest workout with the wider grip. This will help ensure that you can move a larger load and can see faster, more consistent results in your workout routine.
The reason there’s a maximum wide grip standard for powerlifters is that wide grip bench pressing is the standard in the sport. This makes intuitive sense because reducing the range of motion with a wider grip allows for less energy expenditure (because of the shorter route) over the same amount of weight.
However, there are more tricks that powerlifters use to reduce the range of motion of the lift, and therefore allow them to lift heavier. One common technique is to bring your feet backward, root them to the floor, and then arch your back on the bench.
As the bar travels down to your chest, it’s going to get to your chest touch point sooner if your back is arched and the chest is pushed up high. Combining the back arch with the wider grip is a sure-fire way to increase the amount of weight you can bench since you’ll be moving the bar over a much shorter distance.
However, this will obviously take good technique in order to maximize results and keep you safe, so don’t immediately go to a significantly heavier weight.
Using a wider grip is also a good way to ensure that your shoulders remain in a more stable (and safe) position throughout the lift. When you bench press, your shoulders are meant to be pulled back and down throughout the entire movement.
This is important because if your scapula begins to move apart or upward while the bar begins to come down, you’re going to lose a lot of stability. In the end, you need stability for both safety and in order to more efficiently be able to transfer force in an optimal path. So, if your shoulders aren’t stable, this is going to result in a worse transfer of power and ultimately, worse gains.
When using a narrower grip with the bench press, it’s going to be much more difficult to prevent your shoulders from rolling in the wrong direction as you bring the barbell down. With a wider grip, it’s much easier to keep your shoulders in the correct position as the bar comes down to your chest. This will make your power output better, and improve your bench press development.
But to garner all the benefits that a wide grip bench press can bestow, we’re going to have to first know how to properly bench press. First, you’re going to want to warm up with either some lighter sets or some stretches. This will get blood pumping into your muscles, helping you avoid injury and maximizing gains.
The bench press is a complex, free-weight exercise. A lot can go wrong, and there are a lot of things that can get in the way of maximizing the gains you get from this lift. This is even truer for the wide grip bench press, especially if you’re moving to it from doing the standard bench press.
Most mistakes with any lift start with choosing a weight that’s much too heavy. While a heavy weight might feel good for the ego, it’s going to be disastrous on your form. Furthermore, you can easily injure yourself. When moving from regular bench presses to the wide grip variety, starting light is even more important. In fact, it’s probably best you get used to the movement with just an empty bar first.
While the shorter range of motion might help you lift heavier with the wide grip bench press, it’s also going to place an unnatural amount of stress on your shoulder muscles and sockets. This drawback is compounded by the fact that your triceps aren’t as engaged in this lift, meaning that a lot more stress is added to the shoulders. This could lead to impingements and tears.
The path the bar will take, and therefore the area where it’ll touch your body, is largely dependent on the length of your arms. This usually varies between the sternum and the nipples. However, a wider grip is also going to significantly affect the touch point.
With a wider grip, you should expect to touch closer to your nipples rather than your sternum. This might feel awkward if you’re used to the previous touch point, but it’s important to get used to it. This will be a much stronger position with a wide grip on the barbell, helping you eke out more gains in the long run.
One of the more common mistakes with the wide grip bench press is with lifters using too wide of a grip right away. This often results in bad results, since their training load is significantly decreased. However, this is likely due to the different requirements of a wide grip bench press: that is, stronger pecs.
This often results in a lack of training load on the wide grip—at least when initially starting out with this lift. It makes sense that your chest needs some time to catch up if you’ve been predominantly doing narrower bench presses till now. The key is to start slow and steady. How slow?
A good option is to only inch your arms outward by a finger-length per side. Maintain this distance for around a month, and then when it feels comfortable enough, move your grip even further apart. The end goal is to get to a grasp distance that’s about double the width of your shoulders.
The key to performing a wide bench press safely is having enough shoulder stability. While wide grips get a bad rap sometimes for putting the shoulder in a vulnerable position, this can be mitigated by having enough mobility in the region. Previous rotator cuff injuries and shoulder impingements can also seriously get in the way of wider grips.
It’s recommended that those with previous shoulder injuries don’t go any wider than 1.5 times shoulder width. This is because a 1.5x distance places the shoulder below a 45-degree angle abduction. In turn, this reduces the amount of shoulder torque on the bicep tendon and the rotator cuff. However, this is just a general rule of thumb, and it is possible to develop stabilization in your shoulder as the grip gets wider and wider.
The simplest modification to the wide grip bench press is opting for dumbbells instead. These will challenge each pec individually, making your development more equal on either side. Furthermore, using dumbbells will help to develop your stabilizers.
If you’re looking for a bodyweight chest exercise that’s equivalent to the wide grip bench, even push-ups can be a good option. Instead of placing your hands on the floor with a medium grip, spread them out a bit more to get similar effects.
If you want to develop your upper body in a holistic manner, hitting all major muscle groups, it’s also important to switch things up from the wide grip bench press. For example, you can opt for the close-grip bench press, decline bench press, overhead press, chest dips, and dumbbell flyes.
When deciding between a narrow, conventional, or wide barbell grip, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to choose between one or the other. They all come with benefits, and not many people should completely replace their regular bench press with a wide grip bench.
The decision is primarily going to come down to whether you want to make the bench press a chest or a triceps exercise—or a mix of the two. However, it’s also very important to consider your fitness level and overall goals. For example, if you’re not necessarily moving towards powerlifting or even strength training, the wide grip press is probably not going to bring you that much closer to your goals.
Furthermore, you need to ensure that you have enough shoulder mobility to perform the wider grip. The torque in the shoulders with the wide grip is 1.5 times greater than with a narrower grip, so wading into the wide-grip waters is necessary unless you’re already certain of your pec strength and shoulder mobility skills.
Nevertheless, the wide grip bench press is popular for a reason and it’s never going to disappear. When it comes to eliciting a ton of muscle activity in the pecs, the wide grip barbell bench press is the crème de la crème. What’s probably more important—especially if your goal is as much muscle activation as possible—is the nutrients that you’re putting inside of your body.
If you want big and powerful pecs, you’re going to need clean, healthy sources of carbs, fats, and especially protein. You can turbocharge your pec development with a properly implemented wide grip bench press routine, and if you want to take your gains to an even greater level, consider supplementing your diet with a high-quality whey protein.
Bring all these pieces together and you’ll be smashing through plateaus and finding never-before-seen progress in your physical development.