Introduction

Many of you who regularly attend the gym to undertake a form of resistance training will opt to workout your chest region as part of your weekly regime.

Whether this is for sporting reasons and to further your development in your chosen activity or for sheer vain reasoning, with the chest region making up part of the so called ‘beach muscles’ (along with biceps and abs), only you will know.

Regardless of your motives, “the bench press may be the most widely used exercise for developing the upper body, particularly the chest.” (Wilson et al, 1989)

Bench Press Variations & Hand Spacing

With every exercise comes some degree of variation, of which the bench press offers many. Provided you don’t opt for the pre-fixed machine press, you can alter the exercise emphasis through variations in both the inclination of your body and your chosen hand grip positioning.

Before moving on to cover these variations in more detail, consider what bench press variations you use in your current training regime; do you opt for incline, flat and/or decline? Do you opt for a wide or narrow grip?

Are you aware that simply by altering your body inclination or hand positioning that you can change emphasis of the bench press exercise? Without trying to generalise and stereotype too much, I expect general gym goers not to know this answer in any great detail and hazard a guess based around targeting different sections of the same chest musculature.

“Based on the perceived differences between variations of the bench press, it has been advised that weight trainers include incline, flat and decline bench presses in their training program.”
(McEvoy et al, 1993).

Does the above quote adopt a similar approach that you would take? After all, if you cover every bench press variation then you can be sure that nothing is omitted. Although this is the case, it might not be the most efficient and beneficial way of exercise selection.

So what about hand spacing then? Previous research has indicated that a wider grip will target the Pectoralis Major (chest) muscles more, whilst a narrow grip will focus and activate the Triceps Brachii to a greater extent.

Although we’re not giving too much away at this stage, it should make you consider the specific reason you perform an exercise and the techniques you adopt as a matter of course.

Research Investigation: How Variation Affects The Target Muscles

In order to clear this debate up, once and for all, and allow you to back up your physical acts with knowledge, we will now consider a research investigation into the ‘effects of variations of the bench press exercise on the EMG activity of five shoulder muscles’.

Barnett et al. (1995) undertook this thorough research investigation and considered the EMG activity of five muscles during varied barbell press conditions. These conditions varied both body inclination and hand positioning as part of the study.

Six men were recruited for the investigation, each with a minimum of two years weightlifting experience. This allowed for both base foundation strength and to successfully undertake repetition maximum (RM) lifts throughout the investigation.

One week prior to testing, 1RM was calculated at the four inclination positions and using two alternative hand positions. This was to allow for the calculation of 80% of their 1RM, which would be later used during the actual testing phase.

During the testing phase, electrodes were placed over the five muscles considered, so that their EMG activity could be monitored throughout the lifts. The muscles tested were: the sternocostal head of the Pectoralis Major, clavicular head of the Pectoralis Major, anterior Deltoid, long head of the Triceps Brachii and the Latissimus Dorsi (Basmajian and Blumenstein, 1980).

Body inclination was measured at four different positions, those being: flat bench, 40º incline bench, 18º decline bench and fully vertical (military press). Hand positioning was measured with both narrow and wide grip positioning.

Participants were asked to lift with a controlled manner throughout experimentation.

The Four Exercises

For those of you not sure exactly what the above exercises entail, check out these instructional photos, sourced from the exercise database at Bodybuilding.com:

Flat Bench Press

Flat Bench Press

Incline Bench Press

Incline Bench Press

Decline Bench Press

Decline Bench Press

Horizontal Bench Military Press

Horizontal Bench Military Press

The Research Findings

Results revealed significant differences with regards to muscle activation when the body inclination and hand positioning were varied. Key findings are summarised below:

  • The sternocostal head of the Pectoralis Major was more active during the flat bench than decline bench.
  • The clavicular head of the Pectoralis Major was no more active during incline bench than flat bench, but less active during decline bench.
  • The anterior Deltoid activity increased with body inclination.
  • The long head of Triceps Brachii was more active during decline and flat bench than the other two positions, and was also more active with a narrow hand grip.
  • The Latissimus Dorsi demonstrated low activity in all conditions (Barnett et al, 1995).
Putting It Into Practise

From the results provided above, it is evident that altering your bench press technique does more than simply target alternative fibres of the chest region.

But what do all these results mean to you from a simplistic, practical application viewpoint?

  • Incline bench press does not further activate the chest region but will further recruit the anterior shoulder region, as your shoulders are brought into action.
  • Decline bench press does not serve to further enhance muscle activation of the chest region at all but will further recruit the triceps muscle region.
  • Hand positioning effects muscle activation, with a narrow grip eliciting a greater response from the triceps muscle region than that of the Pectoralis Major.
Final Word

In summary, if you’re looking to utilise the bench press as a means of developing your chest region first and foremost, then the single most effective exercise is the wide grip, flat bench. This sentiment is echoed by Power and Stratton (1989), who stated: “The flat bench is seen as an essential exercise for developing both heads of the Pectoralis Major.”

That’s not to say don’t train the other bench press variations, just be aware that if you do, you are likely to bring other muscles than simply the Pectoralis Major into the frame.

If your current training regime breaks down muscles into training days, then this research suggests it may be beneficial to omit the decline bench press during your chest workout and instead only opt for flat and incline. This additional exercise space could be filled with a flat or incline dumbbell/cable fly, or simply more sets on the flat or incline bench press.

Save the decline bench for your triceps workout and select a narrow grip positioning to maximally recruit your triceps muscle region. It’s all about training smart and getting the most from a workout.

Happy training.