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The pros and cons of the reverse grip bench press

Most people have incorporated the traditional bench press into their fitness programmes at least once. Its chest-building benefits cannot be ignored. Nowadays, a similar exercise is stealing the limelight—the reverse grip barbell bench press. It has had its share of supporters and detractors. Is it just as beneficial as the traditional bench press? Or is it an exercise not worth doing at all?

Let us look into its proper execution and weigh its pros and cons.

Execution of the Reverse Grip Bench Press

1. Lie face up on a bench with your back and head fully supported. Make sure your feet are flat on the floor.

2. Hold on to the bar with a shoulder-width reverse grip. This means your palms should be facing you. Your thumbs should be wrapped around the bar.

3. For added safety, have a spotter assist you as you lift the barbell off the rack. This is because your elbows will point forward initially instead of them pointing out to your sides whenever the traditional bench press is executed.

4. Inhale deeply as you lower the barbell to your lower chest area, keeping your elbows close to the sides of your body.

5. Pause and then lift the barbell up to the ceiling in a slight arc using a smooth, controlled motion. Repeat until you reach your desired number of repetitions. If the exercise feels awkward at first, try using a Smith machine.

The Advantages of the Reverse Grip Barbell Bench Press

According to Joseph Horrigan of the Soft Tissue Center in California, says one of the key advantages of the reverse grip barbell bench press is that it eliminates shoulder pain normally brought about by the regular bench press. He says this may be made possible by the unique manner in which the movement is executed.

The position in which the reverse grip bench press is performed involves more lateral, or external, rotation of the shoulder than the regular bench press. This lateral rotation may help to keep the head of the humerus, the ball of the ball-and-socket should joint, stable in the socket. This is because two key muscles in the rotator cuff are lateral rotators. What this laterally-rotated position does is help the rotator cuff do its job.

In the same manner, the reverse grip bench press makes the shoulder more comfortable and stronger. As an example, an American weightlifter by the name of David Paul was unable to perform the regular bench press due to shoulder pain but wound up executing the reverse grip barbell bench press with a resistance of 550 pounds. Horrigan concludes that the reverse grip gave Paul a stronger shoulder position. What's amazing here is that Paul was able to lift only 520 pounds for the regular bench press once his shoulder injury was healed.

Steve Miller is another powerlifter included in Horrigan's study. His deltoids and triceps have responded well to the reverse grip barbell bench press. It also helps him get the initial drive off his chest when he performs the big lifts during competition. Miller says it is "more explosive and uses more than just the triceps. It is a strength development movement. I advise trainees to use exercises that are as close as possible to the bench when trying to improve their bench press."

Disadvantages of the Reverse Grip Barbell Bench Press

Horrigan also points out a slight disadvantage of the reverse grip barbell bench press which is related to its movement. The major chest muscles which are recruited by this exercise are the deltoids, the clavicular heads of the pectoralis major and the triceps. The movement involved does not place a great deal of stretch or stress on the lower and middle portions of the pectoralis major. What this simply means is that the reverse grip barbell bench press does not add much to pectoral development. Horrigan quickly states that this is not really a major problem for most trainees.

Another disadvantage is that it will cause pain in a number of joints. The first of these will be your wrists. The root cause will be the way you have to lift with your palms facing inward rather than push them away from you. Pressing with your palms toward you is also a vulnerable position for straining lower forearm muscles.

A reverse grip also torques joints. This creates an unnatural twist in the wrists, limiting pressing power and range of motion. It can also lead to tendinitis and possible early arthritis. Some fitness experts believe that executing a barbell bench press with a natural grip allows a more natural alignment of your forearms and hands with less wrist twisting and more direct pressing power.

Is the reverse grip bench press better than the regular bench press?

When asking oneself if one exercise is better than another, there are many things to consider. For example, level of injury risk, muscle recruitment, level of enjoyment or motivation to undertake, central nervous system fatigue, etc. Here are some key things to consider choosing between the reverse grip bench and the regular bench press:

  • The reverse grip bench press recruits more of the upper chest than the regular bench press.
  • Some research suggests that a reverse grip bench press is safer on the elbow and shoulder joints compared to a regular bench press.
  • The reverse grip bench press requires additional safety set-up measures. For example, you'll need to set up in a power/squat rack with the pins approximately 5cm below the chest to prevent the bar from crushing your body if you reach a failure point.

Which muscle groups does the reverse grip bench press work?

The reverse grip bench press predominately recruits the muscles of the chest - particularly the upper chest, the anterior head of the deltoids, and the triceps. 

Conclusion 

Whilst the disadvantages of the reverse grip barbell bench press may come off as serious to many fitness enthusiasts, they need not worry as certain precautionary measures can be taken to minimise them. One would be to train under the supervision of a certified personal trainer who can guide and even spot you during the exercise. Consult your physician and personal trainer if you have a history of joint pains that may be aggravated by this exercise.

Make it also a point to place the barbell lower on your chest than you are used to in the regular bench press. Never attempt to touch the bar high on your chest or near your neck when executing this exercise. Doing so will cause you to lose control of the bar because you'll be beyond the effective range of the deltoids.

To sum it all up, the reverse grip barbell bench press is one exercise you can execute but do so with extreme caution.

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