Q: How far out should my elbows be when I do a barbell bench press?

A: Where your elbows fall at the bottom of the bench press dramatically affects the stress placed on the muscles involved and also the joints. Optimal elbow placement depends on your bench-press goals.

The primary muscles involved in the bench press are the pectoralis major, triceps and anterior deltoid (front shoulder). The movements include elbow extension (straightening of your arm), shoulder horizontal adduction (bringing the arm from straight out to your side inward at shoulder level) and shoulder flexion (lifting your arm from down at your side upward). A change in elbow position during the bench press shifts the shoulder movement from flexion to horizontal adduction and alters utilization of the three primary muscle groups.

Elbows Out

With your elbows straight out to your sides, the movement at the shoulder is primarily horizontal adduction with minimal flexion. Pectoralis major involvement is at its highest, while anterior deltoid use is significantly decreased. Yet the farther your elbows are out to your sides, the greater the stress on the shoulder capsule.

Elbows In

The closer you keep your elbows to your sides, the less pectoralis involvement. Shoulder movement shifts from horizontal adduction to flexion, boosting anterior deltoid stimulation. This also increases the triceps’ range of motion and their subsequent involvement.

Elbows at 45 Degrees

Lowering the bar with the elbows out at 45 degrees from the body allows more strength production because the chest, delts and tri’s all play a significant role. It also reduces stress on the shoulder, which is critical when heavy poundage is used.

The Ins & Outs of Pressing

Determine the best bench-press elbow position to meet your goals:

Elbows Out (90 Degrees)         –    Best for Pec Growth
Elbows Middle (45 Degrees)   –    Best for Strength
Elbows In (0 Degrees)              –    Best for Triceps Growth