- In a wide-grip bench press, your chest and shoulders contribute 78% of the force necessary to lift the bar, while your triceps contribute 22%.
- In the medium grip bench press, the same numbers are 74% vs. 26%.
- In the close-grip bench press, the same numbers are 63% vs. 37%.
How much can you bench?
The bench press is the most popular lift in the world. “It builds the showy muscles”, as John McCallum wrote in the ’60s. Moreover, it is the most popular way to measure upper body strength, no matter if you are competing in powerlifting or just trying to put your gym buddies in their place.
But what determines your bench press performance?
The primary working muscles in the bench press are your chest muscles, front delts, and triceps.
- Your chest and front delt act on your shoulder joint.
- Your triceps act on your elbow joint.
But which one of these contributes to your bench press 1RM the most? Or do they contribute equally much?
Triceps vs. Chest and Shoulder in the Bench Press
A recently published study from Norway had recreationally trained young men test their bench press strength at three different grip widths.1
(Note: “bi-acromial” is the distance between your shoulder joints, so slightly less than “shoulder width”)
- Wide grip: 1.7 times bi-acromial distance (0.71 ± 0.06 m)
- Medium grip: 1.4 times bi-acromial distance (0.56 ± 0.04 m)
- Close grip: the bi-acromial distance (0.40 ± 0.04 m)
Using new gadgets such as force plates, loading cells, cameras, and motion capture software, as well as ancient math, they could calculate the contribution from the muscles acting on the shoulder joint (the chest and shoulder muscles) and the elbow (the triceps) in different parts of the lift.
The most critical part of the lift is generally considered to be the sticking point – the point where most lifts fail if they are just slightly too heavy. In this study, the sticking point was defined as the point where the barbell reaches its lowest velocity after it has accelerated off the chest. This was between about 15–20 cm off the chest in the current study.
Let’s look at the joint moment arm contributions in the sticking point:
Wide-Grip Bench Press
- Chest and front delt contribution: 78%
- Triceps contribution: 22%
Medium Grip Bench Press
- Chest and front delt contribution: 74%
- Triceps contribution: 26%
Close-Grip Bench Press
- Chest and front delt contribution: 63%
- Triceps contribution: 37%
Which Bench Press Grip Width Is the Strongest?
In the current study, the participants were equally strong using wide and medium grip widths, but significantly weaker in the close grip by about 5%.
In powerlifting competitions, you are allowed to grip the bar with 81 cm between your index fingers. That is 10 cm wider than the average wide-grip used in this study. I’d guess there is an additional small benefit in strength with using the widest allowed grip, compared to 71 cm as in this case. It would likely further decrease the contribution of the triceps relative to the chest and shoulder muscles.
The Most Important Muscles for Bench Pressing
The results of this study show that if you use a medium or wide grip in the bench press, your chest and front delts contribute 4–5x more to the weight lifted than your triceps. These grip widths also allow most people to lift about 5% more weight in the 1RM.
In the close-grip bench press, your triceps are more involved, contributing about 37% to the weight lifted. Your chest and shoulder muscles contribute about 63%.
Want to get stronger in the bench press?
Then you should likely use a medium or wide grip, and build up your chest and shoulder muscles primarily, and your triceps secondarily.
Want to build your chest muscles and front delts?
The medium or wide grip bench press is an excellent exercise for this, as long as you don’t arch excessively.
For more information on building these muscles, check out:
Want to build your triceps?
Since the normal bench press doesn’t work your triceps very good, you should probably stick to close-grip bench pressing, along with concentrated triceps work:
How much can the average man and woman bench press?
Check our bench press strength standards to find out.
Thank you for reading, and good luck with your training!
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