The bench press is a strength-building exercise popular amongst powerlifters, athletes, and those who lift for general health and well-being.
But the grip you choose when you bench press is a major determiner in which muscles you activate, as well as the amount of effort required in the press motion.
You may have noticed that many powerlifters have a wide grip when performing the bench press, which may leave you wondering if this a better option for you.
In this article, we’re going to explore the wide grip bench press and all of the associated benefits.
However, there are also a few other things to consider before trying a wider grip on the bench press, so we’ll go through these as well.
What is considered a wide grip bench press?
First up, you might be wondering what classifies a grip as “wide” when performing a bench press. A wide grip bench press will be different for everyone, as it’s basically considered a grip that is 1.5-2 x the measurement of the space between your shoulders.
So if you measure 40cm between your shoulders, you’d leave a space of around 80cm between your hands when performing a wide grip bench press.
Muscles used in a wide grip bench press
When performing a bench press, the extent to which the pecs, shoulders, and triceps are used depends largely on three factors:
- The angle of the bench press, ie. whether your bench press is flat, incline, or decline.
- The range of motion, ie. whether the barbell is moving at the bottom, mid, or top-end range of motion.
- The grip, ie. whether you’re using a narrow or wide grip
In this article, we’re talking about the choice of grip.
The wider your grip, the more you’ll use the chest, and the less you’ll activate the triceps. With a wide grip, you’ll recruit the pec muscles, which produce maximum force off of the chest. A wide grip also reduces the range of motion of the bench press, which means less work is required to press the barbell.
Lehman (2005) found that a wide grip bench press recruited the pec muscles twice as much as the triceps when compared with a shoulder-width or narrow grip. This is because the wider placement of the hands means your elbows fall directly in line with the barbell throughout the range of motion, rather than in front.
In contrast, a narrow grip causes the elbows to tuck in the front, which means the pecs are activated less and the triceps are recruited more.
How to do a wide grip bench press:
Wondering how to do the wide grip bench press safely? Here’s our guide:
- Lie with your back down on the bench and your feet flat on the floor. Have a weighted barbell above you at eye level.
- Use an overhand grip and grasp the barbell in a wide grip (depending on your shoulder width, or about 4” closer to the plates than normal)
- Now lightly push the bar upward to remove it from the rack so that it’s hovering above your chest.
- Lower the bar towards your chest, breathing as you do so. Make sure you keep your elbows perpendicular to the rest of your body.
- When the barbell reaches chest-level, briefly pause in this position.
- Breathe out and push the bar upward to return to the position you started in.
- Rerack the barbell.
Benefits of the wide grip bench press
You lift less range of motion
By pressing with a wide grip the barbell has less distance to travel compared with a narrow grip bench press. This means that overall you perform less work, and save more energy.
By ‘work’ we’re referring to the force multiplied by the distance it needs to be applied over, so if you need to move the barbell over a long distance, you’ll need more energy to be able to maintain the same amount of force.
You can recruit your strongest muscles
If you know you have more strength in your pecs than in your shoulders and triceps, a wide grip can allow you to utilize your strongest muscles and train to your full potential.
We’re not saying neglect your weaker muscles, as you should obviously pay attention to your shoulders and triceps too.
However, the good thing about the wide bench press is that it’s the best position for allowing those with strong pecs to drive the barbell off the chest at high speed.
Shoulders are in a better position
When preparing for the bench press your shoulders should be set in the correct position, ie. pulled back and pressed down. This position should be held from the moment you unrack the barbell and throughout lowering it to the chest.
However, if your scapula moves off the rib cage you’ll feel your shoulder blades sliding apart or shrugging upwards, which will mean you’ll lose stability and as a result, strength. This will also decrease your ability to drive the barbell upwards off of your chest, which could leave you more prone to shoulder injury, too.
The wide grip bench press can help you maintain the correct form. With a wide grip, it’s easier to keep your shoulder blades retracted and depressed throughout the full range of motion, whereas in a narrow grip, the closer the barbell gets to your chest, the more your shoulders are likely to roll up and forward.
Wide grip is the default for powerlifting
In professional powerlifting, a wide grip bench press is the default position, and it would be pretty strange if a world-class lifter used a narrow grip.
This is because powerlifters want a technique that will use the least range of motion while also maximizing the amount of weight they can lift.
As we mentioned previously, the wide grip bench press reduces the range of motion, so powerlifters combine this grip with a technique called the bench press arch, where they push their chest up high on the bench to further reduce the range of movement.
This combination of the wide grip and other powerlifting techniques allows powerlifters to lift more weight while reducing their range of motion - so they get the best of both worlds.
Things to bear in mind
There are a few things to consider before switching from a narrow or normal grip to a wide grip bench press.
Your touchpoint is going to differ
The length of your arms is the usual dictator of the touchpoint between your nipples and sternum, but if you’re changing from a narrow grip to a wider one, your bar path will change and you’ll find that your touchpoint will be higher on your chest - closer to your nipple line rather than the sternum.
However, if you were to touch the same point on your chest as when doing a narrow grip bench press - so lower down on the chest - it would be a much weaker position.
This is why it’s important to recognize that your touchpoint will become higher on your chest with a wide grip, which might feel a little strange at first but will feel more natural with practice.
Move your hands out one finger-length at a time
It’s important to move your hands one finger-length at a time when trying out a wide grip bench press. As we said, this grip position requires a lot of strength in the pec muscles, and if you’re lacking in this department it’s unlikely you’ll have the strength necessary to press the same weight you were doing with a normal grip.
Some lifters try a wide grip and become immediately discouraged when they realize they can’t handle the same load as with their usual grip. However, they don’t actually give their body enough time to adapt to the new grip - it may be more a matter of your muscles getting used to the additional load, rather than them being too weak.
This happens when lifters are more tricep-dominant from using a narrow grip, so sometimes when they change to a wide grip it can take a few weeks for their pecs to catch up.
Widening your grip too much or too quickly can also result in elbow or bicep pain when benching.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to take things one step at a time by gradually widening your grip by one finger-length per side. Each time you do this you can practice with this grip for a couple of weeks or a month, and once you’re into the swing of it and you feel comfortable with the weight (or want to increase it) you can move your grip out a little wider.
By following this process over the course of several months you’ll be able to gradually widen your grip while hopefully maintaining the same weight load.
Don’t attempt if you have shoulder issues
Anyone with shoulder issues such as a rotator cuff injury or shoulder impingement should approach the wide grip bench press with caution, as it may place additional strain on the shoulders.
For this reason, Fees (2008) has previously recommended a grip width of no more than 1.5 x the shoulder-width distance of the lifter.
It has also been suggested that this 1.5 x shoulder-width grip places the shoulder below a 45-degree abduction which decreases the shoulder torque on the rotator cuff and bicep tendon.
This doesn’t mean that if you have a shoulder issue you’ll never be able to go further, as some lifters have a history of shoulder injuries and manage to widen their grip with no issues, however, it’s best to be cautious and take things slow before widening your grip completely.
You can also address shoulder issues by reducing the load to make it more comfortable when lifting with a wide grip, as well as using stretching and stabilization exercises to improve the range of motion in the upper body.
Powerlifters can’t go beyond 81cm
Professional powerlifters can’t grip the bar with their hands more than 81cm apart. This means that those with a shoulder width of more than 40 are unable to double this to achieve a wider grip.
So while you’re free to press with a narrower grip, your index finger on both hands must be covering the hashmark. This is the widest you can go in professional competitions: so your hands can be within this hashmark but cannot go outside of it.
Grip width also depends on arm length
Your ideal grip position for a bench press will also depend on your arm length; for example, those with shorter arms will naturally grip the bar at a narrower distance than someone with long arms.
Everyone has a different arm length, and therefore everyone will have a different grip preference and wide grip.
This is why the recommended wide grip is usually 2x your shoulder-width distance, however, as we said in the previous section, those with broader shoulders are restricted in professional powerlifting tournaments, so the 2x shoulder-width rule is not always possible.
This is why there’s some flexibility here, and most people will widen their grip to a distance that is between 1.5x – 2x their shoulder-width distance.
It’s also important to consider how the grip feels, as, at the end of the day, it’s a matter of preference more than anything.
If you gradually widen your grip over the course of several months but still don’t feel comfortable with this, it doesn’t mean you should stick it out just for the sake of achieving a wider grip. It might be the case that a narrower grip will provide better results for you and may enable you to lift more. It’s a matter of trial and error and seeing what works best for you.
Can you lift more with a wide grip?
Technically you can lift more with a wide grip bench press. This is due to the shortened bar path which means less effort is required to complete a full rep. So if you’re doing shortened reps, you can potentially cope with a heavier load.
According to studies, 6RM loads can vary as much as 5-11%, meaning you might be able to turn your 200-pound bench press into a 210-222-pound bench press by switching to a wider grip.
A wider grip will activate your pecs more than your triceps, so widening your grip could see you gain a whole lot more chest growth.
Is a wide grip bench press harder?
It’s a misconception that a wide grip bench press is harder, although it might feel harder if you’re lacking strength in your pecs and shoulders. Technically, because the bar path is shorter on a wide grip bench press, you should be able to lift more than with the standard bench press.
However, it can seem harder for some people if they lack the strength and stabilization to generate enough bar speed. This is because with a wide press you’re handing more responsibility to your deltoids, and if you’re lacking in this department, it’ll slow each rep down.
This is why it’s best to move your grip out wider gradually, and not take the leap straight away. By inching your grip outwards, you can build up strength in your pecs and deltoids so you can lift the same load and improve your shoulder stability.
Wide Grip Bench Press Variations
Ideally, if you want to build strength in your pecs you’ll simply add the wide grip bench press to your chest routine, and this will be most effective performed with your standard barbell and bench.
However, there are a few variations you can opt for if you can’t access this equipment or you’re yet to build up the strength to safely bench press alone.
These alternative exercises will still activate the pec muscles directly — just like the wide grip bench press — but in a slightly different way. This will help you in a regular bench press, but could also help you if you’re struggling to switch to a wide grip, too.
Dumbbell Wide Grip Bench Press: You can activate your pec muscles by using a pair of dumbbells, and these will force each muscle to work separately. Swapping the bench press for a pair of dumbells can help build strength in your pecs to correct muscle imbalances and stabilize your shoulders.
Resistance Band Wide Grip Bench Press: If you haven’t got a bench or even a pair of dumbbells, fear not. A resistance band is a great home workout tool for upping your foundational strength, and these are available for just a few dollars online. This exercise is a great lead-in to the barbell variation, and you can also increase the difficulty of the exercise and build more strength by using different resistance bands.
Wide Grip Chest Dip: Chest dips are super challenging and ideal for those with impressive upper body strength. The wide grip version will activate your lower and outer pecs, sculpting them for more noticeable gains.
Wide Grip Push-Up: A simple exercise requiring no equipment - just your own body weight. Widening your grip in a push-up is basically the opposite of a wide grip bench press with a barbell, so it’s a great alternative if you don’t have a bench at home. You can also work-out your core if you ensure you maintain the correct push-up form throughout.
You can use these exercises instead of a wide grip bench press or in preparation for widening your grip on the bench. Whichever way you look at it, you’ll be building your pecs up which is going to make a wide grip bench press a whole lot easier.
Tips for achieving a wide grip bench press
- Start light: While the shorter range of motion can certainly help you lift heavier, the wide grip bench press puts more torque on your shoulder muscles, so it’s best to start with a lighter weight than you would normally, to allow your shoulders to get used to the added pressure.
- Widen your grip gradually: As we said earlier, it’s really important to take it slow when it comes to widening your grip. It’s a huge difference to adjust to, and in order to avoid injury, it’s best to take it one finger-length at a time.
- Use a spotter/Smith machine: widening your grip will shift your muscle activation and put extra strain on the shoulders, so always train with a spotter or smith machine.
Final Verdict: is a wide grip bench press better?
A wide grip bench press is great for building up your chest, as it recruits the pecs more than the triceps.
Because the bar path is shorter on a wide grip bench press, you should theoretically be able to lift more than with the standard bench press. However, for those who are lacking strength in the pecs and delts departments, they’ll find the wide grip harder and may have to reduce their load.
While the wide grip is preferred by professional powerlifters, it’s not neccessarily the better way to bench press. It simply has different benefits, and some people will find the wide grip bench press a great way to take their training to the next level.
However, don’t be put off if you struggle at first. Widen your grip one finger-length at a time, and if after a few months the grip still doesn’t feel comfortable, there’s no harm in narrowing your grip. After all, the more comfortable you feel, the harder you’ll be able to train.