During a bench press repetition, you lower a weighted barbell to your chest and then lift the barbell away from your chest. You can alter the muscular effects of the exercise by changing the position of your hands on the barbell. However, you need to stay within a certain range of grip positions to perform a bench press properly and avoid hurting yourself.
Normal Hand Position
When you perform a bench press repetition, you work the muscles in your chest, the backs of your arms and the front and middle portions of your shoulders. You also activate supporting muscles in your upper back, shoulder joint, the rear of your shoulders and the space between your rib cage and shoulder blades. During a typical bench press, you place your hands on the barbell in a position that’s just outside the width of your shoulders.
Narrow Hand Position
If you move your hands inward until they sit in line with your shoulders, you can increase a bench press’ effects on the central, or medial, portion of the pectoral muscles in your chest, according to Jon Greenfield, M.D., of the Center for Orthopedic and Sports Excellence. However, gripping a barbell at this width also greatly increases the downward pressure that the exercise places on your shoulder’s AC joint, which connects your collarbone and a part of your shoulder blade called the acromion. If you repeatedly place this kind of pressure on your shoulders, you can develop AC joint arthritis, also known as osteolysis.
Wide Hand Position
If you develop shoulder pain while performing a bench press, you can reduce the strain on your AC joint by widening the position of your hands so they sit farther apart than they typically would during this exercise, Greenfield says. In addition, performing a bench press in this position will increase the exercise’s effect on the outer portions of your pectoral muscles. However, if you spread your grip to an extreme degree, the load generated by a bench press will fall too heavily on your arms. Holding your hands too wide will also reduce the overall effectiveness of the exercise.
If you develop AC joint arthritis, you can continue performing a bench press if you shorten your arm motions and don’t lower the barbell to your chest, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. You can also remove the bench press from your exercise routine and replace it with an exercise called the butterfly. Potential treatments for an arthritic AC joint include application of a cold source, use of oral or injectable anti-inflammatory medications and surgery. To help avoid any possible shoulder or arm problems, ask a certified fitness instructor to review the position of your hands during the bench press.