The reverse grip bench press is the best alternative to the regular bench press that targets the upper chest, biceps, and front deltoids.
The name speaks for itself with this exercise – it is simply a standard bench press, but with a reverse grip. However, don’t underestimate this exercise by its simple description. You need to practice several reps of this exercise to figure out where your hands feel most comfortable and to make the most of your muscles working. Otherwise, it’s all for nothing.
In this guide, we explain how to complete this exercise properly, the benefits of the grip variation, the muscles worked, and how to integrate it into your workout routine. Happy lifting!
What is the reverse grip bench press?
As the name suggests, the reverse grip bench press is a variation of a regular bench press with a reverse grip on the barbell. This means that instead of the hands facing away from you as you hold the barbell, your grip is reversed, so your palms are now facing you as you hold the barbell. This is often called an “under-hand” grip.
While it sounds fairly straightforward, gym-goers have had struggles with successfully making the most of this exercise. The placement of your hands will vary person to person, as some will find that they feel more benefits from a narrow grip compared to a wide one, and vice versa.
If you are used to the regular bench press, it is recommended that you practice several trial reps of the reverse grip bench press with a trainer to familiarize yourself with the new exercise. It’s all about breaking habits!
Reverse grip bench press vs regular bench press
If you’re still unsure about the difference between a regular bench press and the reverse grip bench press, you might be wondering what the point of the variation is. The world of exercise is wonderful, because simply the turn of a hand can change the way the exercise is done by targeting different muscle groups.
When it comes to how both exercises are performed, they are both pretty similar. As we all know, the regular bench press includes lying down on a flat bench (sometimes an incline or a decline if you want to target other muscle groups), holding the barbell with your palms facing away from you.
From then, you take the barbell of the rack and lift it up and down, targeting triceps, pectorals, and anterior deltoid.
The reverse grip bench press is completed in the same way as the regular bench press, except your grip is reversed into an under-hand one. This is where you grip the barbell with your palms facing towards you, and your fingers wrapping around the underside of the bar.
While it might seem straightforward to then complete the reverse grip bench press exercise as you would a regular bench press, this variation requires a different width of grip and more tucking of the elbows.
Unlike the regular bench press, the reverse grip bench press also requires more wrist, biceps, and forearm strength, as well as better wrist mobility and more awareness of the different muscle groups that are being used.
Muscles worked in a reverse grip bench press
The muscles worked in a reverse grip bench press include:
- Pectoralis major and minor (chest muscles)
- Biceps (front arm muscles)
- Triceps (back arm muscles)
- Front deltoid (shoulder muscles)
- Wrist extensors (forearm muscles)
The reverse grip bench press works the same muscles as the regular bench press – the triceps and pectoralis major – as well as some others that are often forgotten about.
Chest muscles (Pectoralis major and minor)
The main muscles worked with the reverse grip bench press are the chest muscles – pectoralis major and minor.
This is because the shoulder muscles aren’t being used as much – unlike the regular bench press – which means that the chest muscles have to be used to support the arms, and therefore the wrists. The upper chest fibers support the movement of the “up and back” motion controlled by the shoulders, known as a “shoulder flexion”.
It is said that using a narrow width (or even a medium width) grip on the barbell helps to target the inner chest muscles even more. However, this should only occur when the user is familiar with the reverse grip bench press enough to find a comfortable spot for their hands.
However, there isn’t much research to prove that the reverse grip bench press is an ideal exercise for the chest muscles. This exercise is less about muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth) than it is about strengthening the muscles. We still recommend the reverse grip bench press for strength training, but there are some other chest exercises that can be done to achieve muscular hypertrophy.
Arm muscles (Biceps, triceps, and wrist extensors)
The reverse grip bench press works the triceps in the same way as the regular bench press.
Unlike the regular bench press, the increased amount of shoulder flexion (supported by the chest muscles) in the reverse grip bench press means that the biceps are targeted more in this variation exercise. It is said that the biceps are activated almost double the amount in the reverse bench grip press than the regular bench press!
This is because the regular bench press activates the forearm muscles, which are mostly supported by the triceps. With a reversed grip, the biceps then take over the role of managing the weight that is going up and down. This is similar to lifting regular dumbbell weights.
The triceps are still activated in the reverse grip bench press as a support to the biceps. To target the triceps even more, we recommend narrowing the placement of the grip (or you could always do some specific triceps exercises). Narrowing your grip will mimic the close grip bench press – which forces the elbows to close together – thus activating the triceps for elbow support.
The wrist extensors in the forearms are activated to support the wrists, and greater wrist strength is essential for this exercise. This is because the wrist muscles are activated more in an under-hand grip to help your hands to maintain the grip.
Shoulder muscles (Front deltoid)
There are three deltoid heads that make up a shoulder muscle – the medial deltoid, the posterior deltoid, and the anterior deltoid. The anterior deltoid, often referred to as front deltoid, are activated the most in the reverse grip bench press.
People will often complain about shoulder pain when doing the regular bench press, which is why trainers will recommend reversing their grip to alleviate the discomfort. The reverse bench press doesn’t use the medial or posterior deltoid as much as the regular bench press, because it simply doesn’t require them for shoulder flexion.
Instead, the anterior deltoid (front deltoid) are the most activated deltoid to create the “up and down” motion of shoulder flexion. The medial deltoid (side deltoid) are also used as a stabilizer for the anterior deltoid.
As the pressure is alleviated from the shoulders with the reverse bench grip press, gym-goers will often turn to this variation if they are recovering from a shoulder injury. This is because the reverse grip bench press is still strengthening other muscles that the regular bench press doesn’t activate enough, just without the added stress on the shoulder muscles.
Who the reverse grip bench press is for
Technically, anyone can do the reverse grip bench press. They just have to take time to familiarize themselves with the exercise – especially if they are so used to the regular bench press.
The reverse grip bench press is best for those who wish to target specific muscle groups – especially the chest muscles, which are often overlooked and forgotten about. It is also best for those who are struggling with shoulder pain or recovering from a shoulder injury, as the exercise doesn’t activate all the shoulder deltoid in the same way as the regular bench press.
However, it’s generally not recommended for powerlifters to do the reverse grip bench press. Compared to the regular bench press, the reverse grip bench press is more about strength training than it is muscular hypertrophy. This is especially the case if aspiring powerlifters are trying to improve their regular bench press – while both exercises look so similar, the simple act of reversing the grip changes the variations entirely.
Interestingly, the reverse grip bench press isn’t allowed in sanctioned powerlifting meets, so it’s not a necessary exercise for powerlifters in general.
It is important to remember that people who are used to the regular bench press need to familiarize themselves with the reverse grip bench press. A lot of people can’t handle the same amount of weight with a reverse grip, so the body needs to be retrained to handle the weight in this new position.
Despite this, it is still recommended being familiar with the regular bench press, so you can easily transfer the skills of breathing techniques, patience, and safety.
Whoever decides to try out the reverse grip bench press, as with any exercise, must seek the assistance of a trainer or expert who can guide you through the exercise. They can also work as a spotter who can overlook the exercise just in case something isn’t quite right, or if something goes wrong.
Benefits of the reverse grip bench press
It’s no secret that the reverse grip bench press comes with an abundance of benefits. When the exercise has been completed properly and safely, it can be a brilliant variation to the regular bench press that can be integrated into strength training workouts easily.
Here are the top benefits of the reverse grip bench press:
- It improves and builds upper body strength
Building strength is all about low-velocity and high-load exercises. The reverse grip bench press is an excellent variation of the regular bench press that works to build muscle strength in the wrists, front deltoid of the shoulders, biceps, and upper chest muscles.
The strength gained from the reverse grip bench press can be transferred into other exercises that also target the chest and bicep muscles, as you can then look to use heavier weights.
The wrist muscles are often overlooked in the gym, but the reverse grip bench press works to strengthen the wrist extensors also.
- It is a good exercise for shoulder injuries
Working out with an existing or temporary injury can be a nightmare – especially when you’re trying to improve your strength with injured shoulders. Whether you’re currently in physiotherapy or if you want to simply give your shoulders a break, the reverse grip bench press mostly activates the front deltoid, which means the rest of the shoulder muscle can take a break as the other deltoid aren’t needed for shoulder flexion.
Instead of relying on the shoulder muscles to maintain the weight of the barbell, the reversed grip opens up the upper chest muscles, which alleviates any strain at the shoulder joint.
- It can improve upper chest hypertrophy
While the reverse grip bench press is mostly about strengthening the muscles, that doesn’t mean that muscular hypertrophy doesn’t happen at all. With frequent completion of workouts, this bench press variation can work to greater muscular hypertrophy in the upper chest. This is because the upper chest muscles are the most activated muscles.
This is why the reverse grip bench press is preferred by bodybuilders and strength athletes who are non-competitive.
- It is ideal for deload workouts
Deloads are usually premeditated and scheduled workouts that are designed to prevent (or alleviate) injury. This is a period of training where there is a reduction in volume and intensity of the workouts. These periods work to prevent injury whilst still slowly activating other muscle groups, rather than stopping workouts altogether.
The reverse grip bench press can be used in deload workouts similarly to how it can be used for those who are already injured. As shoulder injuries are fairly common in strength training, it’s important to commit to scheduled deload workouts to provide a routine for your muscles.
The reason why the reverse grip bench press is great for deload workouts is that it works the same muscles as a regular bench press, but alleviates the strain from the specific range of motion to give those areas a well-needed break.
You might even find some improvements when you return to the regular bench press, as your muscles (particularly the shoulders) have been rested.
- Provides variation in a workout
Even if you’re not one to schedule deload workouts, the reverse grip bench press still provides a good variety in a workout from the regular bench press.
Workouts need to have some sort of structure to allow your muscles to familiarize themselves with exercises. Once they are familiarized, however, sometimes you need some short-term variations to allow you to progress with your regular workout.
It’s mostly fun to incorporate a new exercise into your workout routine! The psychological benefits may be as good as the physical benefits – so it’s always good to try new things to see what happens.
How to do the reverse grip bench press
Finally, it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for! Now that we have outlined the muscles worked and benefits of the reverse grip bench press, it’s time to teach you how to complete the exercise properly and safely.
Remember that this exercise can take 1-2 weeks to familiarize yourself with, as it’s quite a lot for your hands and wrists to adapt to at first. The key is patience and practice.
Step 1: Set up the bench and hooks
Most people tend to complete the reverse grip bench press on a flat bench, which is recommended mostly for beginners. Those with more experience may use incline or decline benches.
Regardless of what bench you use (even if it’s a squat rack or combo rack), you need to adjust the height of the hooks. The hooks are on the rack which holds the barbell above the person.
When you grab the bar of the barbell whilst it is in the hooks, your elbows should be slightly bent. Make sure to adjust the height of the hooks before the exercise, so you’re not wasting your time doing it during the exercise.
Step 2: Position yourself
Lie down on the bench with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Don’t move your feet during the exercise, as you will lose balance. Your glutes should remain on the bench at all times and your eyes need to be directly under the barbell.
Step 3: Unrack the bar
Before you unrack the bar, you must prepare yourself. If possible, roll the bar to the edge of the hook, so it is slightly closer to you.
Time to master the reverse grip! Extend your arms so your palms are facing the ceiling/towards you. Your fingers should wrap underneath the bar in an underhand grip. Your wrists should be cocked back slightly for extra comfort.
The standard grip position is shoulder-width apart.
Then, push the barbell upwards from the hooks and bring it forward into the start position as you would a regular bench press.
Step 4: Start the rep
When you are ready, brace your core and take a deep breath as you lower the barbell, so it gently touches your chest. Make sure not to lift your chest deliberately to meet the bar – allow this to happen naturally.
Your elbows should be tucked into your sides and should only move up and down. Moving your elbows sideways could cause discomfort and won’t allow enough strength to stabilize the other muscles.
When the bar touches your chest, drive it upwards back into the start position. Make sure to always keep your elbows slightly bent and don’t lock them, as this can cause injury and won’t give you enough stability to complete the flexion movement.
Step 5: Complete the set
It is recommended to do around 8-10 reps per set, and to do 3-4 sets in a workout. Should you feel discomfort at any point, stop immediately.
Step 6: Rack the barbell
When the number of reps is completed in your set, you’re going to want to put the barbell back into the hooks.
To do this, stop at the lockout position where you first started your rep. Once the bar is balanced and motionless, place it back onto the hooks.
As this exercise can take a couple of weeks for your body to familiarize itself with, you should always make sure to have a spotter by your side. At the end of the day, regardless of how skilled you are in the gym, you’re still holding a heavy barbell over your throat. If anything happens, you’re going to want someone there.
The spotter should be experienced enough to know the exercise and predict when something could go wrong. The reverse grip bench press features a less secure grip than the regular bench press, so it’s vital to have someone there.
When to do the reverse grip bench press
If you’re looking to integrate the reverse grip bench press into your workout routine, make sure you are firstly confident with the regular bench press. It is recommended to complete the reverse grip bench press fairly early into your upper-body workout.
As it can take a while to familiarize yourself with this bench press variation, you should communicate with a professional to schedule when is best to integrate it into your routine. It could be that you swap the regular bench press for the reverse grip bench press every other two weeks, for example.