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A: The traditional bench press usually refers to a flat-bench press performed with a grip that’s shoulder-width or wider. The primary muscular emphasis is on the chest. The close-grip bench press, on the other hand, typically refers to any grip that’s narrower than shoulder width, which greatly increases the emphasis on the triceps. But where between shoulder-width and hands-touching is optimal? That’s a debate that many disagree on.
Some bodybuilders take the name of the exercise too literally and bring their hands so close that they almost touch. They often reason that the closer the grip, the greater the triceps involvement must be. While a grip this close does target the triceps, it also negatively impacts the wrists and elbows. The excessive joint stress could lead to injury, especially if you press heavy weight (and the heavy weight is more difficult to balance).
Many bodybuilders use what’s affectionately known as the “thumb grip”: They place their hands at the point where their extended thumbs meet at the tips (about 6 inches apart for most guys). This is as close as you’ll ever want to go. It hits the triceps well, but you may still find it stressful on the wrists and elbows.
Few bodybuilders realize that a grip just less than shoulder-width apart is close enough for the close-grip bench press. It effectively targets the triceps just as well as any closer grip yet dramatically reduces the stress placed on the wrists and elbows. Plus, you’ll find that you can press more weight than a closer grip would allow, which means better overload on the triceps. Just be sure to keep your elbows in close to your sides to minimize chest involvement.
Because bodybuilding is an individual thing, experiment with different grip widths until you find the one that’s comfortable for your wrists and elbows but feels the best on your triceps. If you can’t find a grip width that “feels” best, stick with a shoulder-width grip for optimal mechanics, wrist comfort and maximal triceps development.