Reverse Grip Bench Press: Ironman Sports Medicine Column

January 20, 2016 — 1 Comment
anthony clark reverse grip bench press

Anthony Clark Reverse Grip Bench Press

Below is an article about the ergonomic "reverse grip bench press" that was originally published in an Ironman Magazine.

I haven't been able to locate the exact issue, but if you have a copy, let me know! I'd love to see the pictures that were included in this article.

I've bolded and highlighted parts that I thought were interesting and important:


The Reverse Grip Bench Press

By Joseph M. Horrigan

Soft Tissue Center

How much do you lift?” echoes the ever-present question around the gym. There’s no need to specify the movement, of course. Everyone knows what it is. The lift is the bench press, and it is undoubtedly the most popular weight-training exercise in America today.

The bench press is used by recreational trainees as the bench mark of their achievement. Powerlifters use it in competition; football players, track and field athletes, hockey players and most other athletes use it in their supplementary training. Unfortunately, too many coaches give this lift too much emphasis and too much priority over other, more appropriate movements for their athletes’ specific sports.

As a result all this bench pressing has led to many injury patterns. In fact, the bench press is perhaps the greatest source of upper-body injuries for weight trainees. The most common site of bench-press-related problems is the shoulder, where the possible injuries include strains and tears of the rotator cuff, various forms of tendinitis, bursitis, impingement and bone spur formation, labral tears, and shoulder instability. These injuries occur due to excessive demand on the shoulder in one or more of the following circumstances:

  1. Pushing the weight - lifting too much when you’re not ready for it.

  2. Not enough recovery - lifting heavy weight too frequently.

  3. Too much volume - too many sets and reps using heavy weights.

  4. Lack of periodization - not cycling the use of heavy weights.

  5. Poor lifting technique.

When a trainee incurs shoulder pain, the first line of defense in a long line of training changes is to drop barbell bench presses from his or her routine and substitute dumbbell benches. I’ve discussed the typical scenario of these training changes in previous columns, but to recap, the trainee usually ends up dropping behind-the-neck presses, bench presses, dips, pullovers and behind-the neck pulldowns. Sometimes dumbbell inclines are tolerable, but frequently they are not. The chest and shoulder exercises that are left include some form of light dumbbell flyes or cable flyes, laterals and pulldowns to the front. Does this seem familiar? Ask the workout veterans at your gym or health club what movements they don’t do anymore and see if this list isn’t identical to theirs.

If you really enjoy the bench press and/or moving heavy weight, there may be a viable alternative to the common bench press. For other trainees this movement may prove to be a valuable supplement to your workouts.

The reverse grip bench press is a rarely performed exercised, but it is a useful training tool. It gained some attention a years ago when the Barbarian Brothers, David and Peter Paul, were using it. David performed a reverse-grip bench of 550 pounds at a bodyweight of 264 lbs. You may have seen him do it, as he performed it on several television shows. Recently, Superheavyweight powerlifter Anthony Clark lifted 804 pounds for one rep in the reverse-grip bench press at a meet, and his bodyweight is approximately 320 to 330 pounds.

Powerlifter Steve Miller, Ed.D., of Shreveport, Louisiana, demonstrates the reverse grip bench press on these pages. Steve is a world-class lifter whose accomplishments include a bronze medal at the ’78 World Championships, first place at the ’78 Pan-Am Championships, and a victory in the 220-pound class at the Hawaiian Record Breakers Meet, as well as being designated Outstanding Lifter in 21 meets. He managed to obtain his masters degree and doctorate in education while working and competing on a world-class level, and his competition personal bests include a 770-pound squat, a 523 bench (without a bench press shirt) and a 760 deadlift.

Figure 1 shows Steve with the reverse grip on the bar. In Figure 2 the bar is lowered to the bottom position. Please note the low placement on the chest. Figure 3 illustrates the top lockout position of this movement.

The reverse grip bench press has its advantages and disadvantages. One of the key pluses is the fact that many trainees who experience shoulder pain while performing regular-grip bench presses can often eliminate the pain by using the reverse grip. This may be possible by the unique manner in which the movement is executed.

The reverse grip bench press is performed in a position that 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 shoulder joint, stable in the socket because two key muscles in the rotator cuff, the muscles that keep the shoulder stable, are lateral rotators. Therefore, this laterally rotated position helps the rotator cuff do its job.

In addition, the head of the humerus is in a position to move a little more freely in the shoulder joint, which in itself may make the shoulder more comfortable and stronger when you do the reverse-grip press. Before he received treatment, David Paul was unable to perform the regular-grip bench press due to shoulder pain, but he could do a reverse-grip press of 550 pounds. This was confusing to many people. Obviously, the shoulder could withstand the stress of that much weight so the damage in the shoulder could not be that severe, yet the pain caused by the regular grip was too much for him to do the movement. The reverse-grip gave him a stronger shoulder position. Once David’s shoulder was properly treated, he was able to perform the regular-grip press with 520 pounds for five reps (using a touch-and-go technique).

Many trainees who have tried the reverse grip bench press have noted this same effect. The lack of or the lessened pain enables them to again perform the beloved bench press or use the heavier weights that they toiled so many years to work up to.

Steve Miller and other powerlifters have found the reverse grip bench press to be a valuable training tool even though they don’t have shoulder pain. For Steve it is a natural movement and so specifically an accessory training lift to the competition bench press that he always includes it in his workouts. His deltoids and triceps have responded well to the reverse-grip press, and it helps give him the initial drive off his chest when he performs the big lifts in competition.

Steve noted that there is a natural arc of the movement in the initial blast from the bottom position. “It is more explosive and uses more than just the triceps,” he added. “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.”

To a slight extent the advantage of this movement becomes a disadvantage. The reverse grip bench press primarily recruits the deltoids, the clavicular heads of the pectoralis major and the triceps. The laterally rotated position and the performance style in which you keep your elbows fairly close to the sides of your chest do not place a great deal of stretch or stress on the lower and middle portions of the pectoralis major. Therefore, the reverse-grip press doesn’t add much to pec development. This is not a problem for many trainees, however.

I’ve spoken with hundreds of trainees who are not bodybuilders but who enjoy doing the bench press and lifting heavy weights. What they tell me is that the relative development of the deltoids, upper pecs and triceps is of little or no importance to them. You may also feel this way. Other athletes may have shoulder pain from the trauma of their respective sports, and they may find this lift to be a suitable training tool for giving them the power and stability they need without significant shoulder problems.

If you are a bodybuilder, you may find that this lift can still enable you to lift heavier weights while giving you the added thickness in the shoulder girdle that you may desire or lack. You will, of course, have to add other forms of chest training to target the bulk of the pectoralis major, but don’t get carried away with too many sets or with the hallucination that each exercise is hitting a tiny aspect of a particular muscle. Isolation is a great topic on paper and in academic debate, but it is very difficult to achieve.

The reverse grip bench press does require some precautions, however. This grip position makes it very difficult to take the barbell off the bench press rack by yourself. The reverse-grip press is a movement that has tremendous power in the bottom position coming off your chest, and the most difficult part of the lift is the lockout position. You may find the first two-thirds to three-quarters of the lift to be surprisingly easy, while the top one-quarter to one-third seems to change gears. This is why it’s so difficult to take the weight off the rack.

Do not stress your elbows by trying to lift the bar out of the rack repeatedly. Get a spotter to give you a liftoff or use a power rack and set the supports an inch or two from the top. If you use a power rack, slide your body up the bench a little more than you are accustomed to, and this will give you added leverage to take the weight off the rack.

Note also that the movement of the bar is different from that of the regular-grip bench press. The placement of the bar is lower on your chest than you may be used to. You must place it lower. Never attempt to touch the bar high on your chest when doing a reverse grip bench press. Doing so will cause you to lose control of the bar because you’ll be beyond the effective range of the deltoids. When this happens, your triceps will take the brunt of the load, putting more weight on them than they are capable of stopping. The weight will crash down, and you’ll have a serious injury. So no matter what the so-called gym experts tell you, when doing this lift you should never place the bar high on your chest or near your neck.

The upward movement will feel strange at first. If you’re accustomed to regular-grip bench presses with high chest placement, the arc of the reverse-grip variation will feel as if you’re pressing over your abdomen (even though you aren’t), but do not press the bar over your face as you may do a regular-grip bench.

Note in Figure 3 that Steve is in the top lockout position and the bar is locked out over his shoulder, which is a straight support position. A medium-grip is all that’s required. A wider grip on this movement may put too much stress on your wrists and elbows, and it won’t accomplish that much more. A narrow grip isn’t necessary either, however. You’ll soon find out how much work your triceps can do on this exercise when you’re using a medium-width grip.

If you are new to the reverse grip bench press, begin with a very light weight so that you may easily adapt tot he new movement. Don’t worry about it, as the weight will climb quickly enough, but when it does, you’ll have the balance to be able to get into a new groove.

Author’s note: Steve Miller, EdD is retired from competitive powerlifting.

Originally published in IRONMAN Magazine

Updated by author February 2004


Joseph Horrigan, DC, DACBSP, CSCS

Soft Tissue Center at DISC

13160 Mindanao Way

Suite 300

Marina Del Rey, CA 90292

Voice: (310) 279-4355

Fax: (310) 279-4394

John Phung

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Ever since I started taking strength training seriously, I was bitten by the Iron Bug. Then it burrowed under my skin and laid eggs in my heart. Now those eggs are hatching and I... the feeling is indescribable.

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  • Texas Method: March 4, 2011 - April 28, 2013
  • Smolov Jr for Bench Press: June 4 - 22, 2012
  • Starting Strength: Nov 29, 2010 - March 4, 2011