The bench press is one of the most used exercises for training and hypertrophy of the upper body muscles , especially the muscles of the chest.
In this exercise different grip widths are used ( wide, medium or narrow ) and different positions in the bank (flat, inclined or declined).
But do these variations change much the muscular activity of the different muscles involved in the exercise? Is one grip width or one bench position superior to the others?
Until now there was limited evidence on the effects of different grip widths and inclinations of the bank on muscle activation patterns during the execution of the bench press exercise, until a recent study has evaluated these aspects.
Muscles, grip widths and bank inclinations evaluated
The study, published in this year 2017, was carried out in subjects with extensive experience in strength training and in the bench press (they competed nationally and some internationally).
The bench press was performed with a free bar (six maximum repetitions), evaluating the muscular activity of the pectoralis major (clavicular and sternocostal part), the anterior and posterior deltoids, the triceps brachii, the biceps brachii and the latissimus dorsi.
In turn, the three grip widths (narrow, medium and wide) were evaluated in the flat bench, and the wide grip in the three bank positions (flat, inclined and declined).
Specifically, the grip widths and inclinations were as follows:
- Wide grip: 81 cm between the palms of the hands (maximum width allowed in competition).
- Narrow grip: biacromial distance (42.0 ± 3.5 cm)
- Medium grip: half between the wide and narrow grip (61.5 ± 3.5 cm).
- Inclined bench : +25 degrees
- Bank declined: -25 degrees
Muscle activation according to the position of the bank
A similar muscular activation was observed in the pectoralis major (clavicular and sternocostal part), in the posterior deltoid and in the latissimus dorsi in the three positions of the bench (flat, inclined and declined).
In the inclined bench , the triceps brachii muscle activity was 58.5% and 62.6% lower than in the flat bench and declined, respectively, observing a similar activation of the triceps brachii between the flat bench and the declined bench (only 4.1 % Of diference).
In the biceps brachii , a greater muscle activation of 48.3% and 68.7% was observed in the inclined bench compared to the flat bench and the declined bench, respectively, the difference in brachial biceps being between the flat bench and the bench. declined by 20.4% (the declined bank is the one that least activated the brachial biceps).
In the anterior deltoid , similar muscle activity was observed between the flat bench and the inclined and declined bench positions, with the greatest difference in this muscle between the inclined bench and the declined bench (25.7% greater in the inclined position compared to with the declined position).
Muscle activation according to the width of the grip
Contrary to what many may think, no significant differences were observed in any muscle according to the width of the grip (narrow, medium or wide), with the exception of the biceps brachii.
In the narrow grip , activation of the biceps brachii was 30.5% and 25.9% less than in the middle grip and wide grip, respectively, observing a similar muscle activation between the middle grip and the width (only one 4.6% difference).
Performance according to the width of the grip and the inclination of the bench
The load of six maximum repetitions (6 RM) on the incline bench press (109.2 ± 11.1 kg) was 21.5% lower than on the flat bench press (132.7 ± 17.1 kg) and 18.5% lower than in the bench press declined (129.4 ± 13.7 kg).
No differences were observed between the flat position and the declined position. Comparing the loads of six maximum repetitions in the different grip widths , we obtained 5.8% and 11.1% more loads of six maximum repetitions in conditions of wide grip (132.7 ± 17.0 kg) in comparison with the medium grip (125.4 ± 17.4 kg) and the narrow grip (119.2 ± 16.6 kg), respectively (the narrow grip is the one with the lowest load that could be lifted).
What should we consider then about these variations in the widths of grip and inclinations in the bench press?
The muscular activation of the pectoral and shoulder muscles is very similar with the different grabs and inclinations.
The main finding is that performing the bench press (with a free bar) on an inclined bench results in less muscle activation of the triceps brachii , but a greater muscular activation of the biceps brachii , in comparison with the flat bench and the declined.
Comparing the three grip widths , a similar muscular activation is observed, with the exception of a lower muscular activity of the biceps brachii using the narrow grip, in comparison with the medium and wide grip.
In turn, the loads that can be lifted increase as we increase the width of grip in the bench press, in addition to that in the inclined bank the loads that can be lifted are lower compared to the flat bench and the declined , which may be relevant when designing effective protocols of muscle strength and hypertrophy .
Therefore, in the bench press, it is more advisable to use a wide grip on a flat bench during strength training and hypertrophy with high loads.
It remains to be seen if there would be some major differences in other types of subjects with less experience in strength training and the bench press and its variations, although this study already gives us many clues that differences in muscle activation are surely not as big as we think.