Angle, Grip Width, Free Weight or Machine, Failure & More - What Really Works for Building A Bigger Bench & Pecs

If you don't see any results, changing the angle, grip, etc. is unlikely to bring you from "zero" to "extreme" gains.
I don't need a scientific study to tell that the bench press is among the favorite exercises of all (male) trainees. That being said, the science investigating its effects and how to do it is comparably scarce. Leg extensions are after all the favorite exercise of every researcher, because even sedentary couch potatoes can do them and the results don't depend on your "extension technique" ;-)

That being said, there are a handful of studies dealing with the bench press. Studies that investigate the effects of bench angles, grip width & type, free weight vs. machine training, training to failure or not, etc. a selection of which I will review in today's SuppVersity article.
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  • Is there a place for the incline bench press in your routine? According to data from a 1995 study from the University of Queensland, it would seem the answer is "unlikely". In the corresponding experiment, Barnett et al. investigated the effects of varying bench inclination on the EMG activity of five muscles acting at the shoulder joint.

    Six male weight trainers performed presses under four conditions of trunk inclination and two of hand spacing at 80% of their predetermined max. Preamplified surface EMG electrodes were placed over the five muscles in question. The EMG signals during the 2-sec lift indicated some significant effects of trunk inclination and hand spacing (see Figure 3, as well).
    Figure 1: As you can see, the deltaoid muscles take over, as the angle increases (left), when it decreases significantly, i.e. on the decline bench, on the other hand, the latissimus dorsi (right) is suddenly involved (Barnett. 1995).
    More specifically, the sternocostal head of the pectoralis major, or the "middle part of the pecs" as the bros would say, was more active during the press from a horizontal bench than from a decline bench. Since the clavicular head of the pectoralis major, or the "upper part of the pecs", was no more active during the incline bench press (where the delts "shouldered" much of the exercise) than during the horizontal one, and was less active during the decline bench press, it would appear as if doing incline benches is at best something you can do on top of the regular press.

    On the other hand, we are - once more - lacking data on the long-term effects of benching on a flat vs. incline bench, which is why I cannot guarantee that changing things up from time to time is not eventually going to give you the best results. Or, as Barnett et al. point out: "Any benefits of varying the bench inclination for the pectoralis major are more likely due to psychological or biological factors (other than the quantity of EMG activation)" (Barnett. 1995).
  • Is benching with a slightly wider than shoulder wide grip still the way to go? The purpose of this study from the University of Southwestern Louisiana was to determine the effect of grip width on myoelectric activity of the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, triceps brachii, and biceps brachii during a 1-RM bench press. Put simply, Clemons et al. wanted to know if using different grip widths would have the triceps, biceps or deltoid do more and the pecs less work.

    Figure 2: Like most people this guy benches with ~125% of the biacromial breadth (distance from the outer part of the shoulder on the left to the outer part of the shoulder on the right).
    Grip widths of 100,130,165, and 190% (G1, 2, 3, 4, respectively) of biacromial breadth were used in the study. Mean integrated myoelectric activity for each muscle and at each grip width was determined for the concentric portion of each 1-RM and normalized to percentages of max volitional isometric contractions (%MVIC). Data analysis employed a one-factor (grip width) univariate repeated measures ANOVA.
Supination or pronation? Next to the grip width it's also heavily debated which grip one should use. Lehmann et al. found in their 2005 study that a supinated grip during the bench press increases the recorded myoelectric signal of the biceps without adversely affecting the muscle recruitment of the prime movers. As Lehmann et al. point out, this "increased myoelectric activity may translate to an increased force production of the biceps muscle, which can act to stabilize and flex the shoulder joint" /Lehmann. 2005). Accordingly, forearm supination during the bench press may be an important component in the functional retraining of injured shoulders. Supinating the forearm does also appear to inhibit this myoelectric activity decrease in the sternoclavicular portion of the pectoralis major without adversely affecting the increases in triceps activity on narrower grips.
  • The results of the study indicate that (a) the grip width you select will have significant main effects on muscle activity (3%, 5% and 8% increased maximal volutional isometric contractions with 30%, 65% and 90% increased grip width vs. should width) and that (b) that this difference was particularly pronounced (surprise ;-) when comparing 190% to 100% and 130%. More specifically, the involvement of the triceps increased, as the grip narrowed. Simlarly, a study by Barnett et al. (1995) indicates that the middle of the pecs major was more active with a narrower hand spacing.
    Figure 3: As a study by Barnett et al. indicates the effects of grip width on the absolute activity of the sternocostal head (middle pecs) is negligible (Barnett. 1995).
    Since EMG measures don't necessary translate to gains, these observations do not mean, though, that the wide bench press was the best chest builder (read all SuppVersity EMG Articles). To confirm that we'd need long-term studies on the actual growth effect, which are unfortunately lacking.
  • Are free weights always the better choice? Common wisdom has it that nothing compare to free weight training. A claim that is supported, but not fully confirmed by a 1994 study from the Illinois State University which shows that greater muscle activity is in fact achieved during the free-weight bench press, especially at the 60% 1-RM load.
    Figure 4: Comparison of the muscle activity during free weight and machine guided bench presses - please not that the differences reached significant only for the low = 60% 1RM weight (McCaw. 1996).
    What is quite noteworthy, though, is that (a) few people bench at only 60% of their 1-RM which would allow them to do at least 15 reps if not more and (b) that there were notable differences among the patterns of individual subjects.

    It is thus questionable that (1) the free-weight bench press is vastly superior to benching on a guided machine and that (2) this is the case for everyone - specifically in rookies, I could imagine that they get more out of the benching on a machine... One should keep in mind, however, that if you never bench with free weights, how will hardly learn how to do it properly to eventually benefit from the increased muscle activation.
    Figure 4: Free weight bench presses have the edge over the smith machine, in terms of avg. pec activity, but the differences are highly variable individual and don't reach statistical significance (Schick. 2010).
    In view of the fact that a similar study by Schick et al., which otherwise confirms the results of the study at hand observing increased activity of the stabilizer and measurable, but non-significantly increased pectoralis activity on free weight vs. machine bench presses (see Figure 5), indicates that the advantage of free weight vs. guided smith machine bench presses increases in experienced vs. rookie weight lifters, that'd be a bummer.
  • Going to failure on the bench - is that useful or bogus? According to the results of a 2005 study from the ACT in Cranberra, bench press training that leads to repetition failure induces greater strength gains than nonfailure training in the bench press exercise for elite junior team sport athletes.

    As you can see in Figure 5, the differences that were observed in response to thrice weekly bench press training for 6 weeks using equal volume programs (24 reps, 80-105% 6RM in 13 minutes 20 seconds) in 26 elite junior male basketball and soccer players with a history of greater than 6 months’ strength training were significant, but not exuberant.
    Figure 5: Effects of training to failure on bench throw (left) and bench press 6RM (right) in soccer and basketball players (Drinkwater. 2005).
    The results of previous studies on training to failure are ambigous, by the way. Rooney et al. (1994), for example demonstrated that when a 6RM load is lifted repeatedly 6 times without resting between repetitions, the strength gains are significantly greater than when the same load is lifted an equal number of times with a 30-second interval between each lift to avoid fatigue. He suggested that when the athlete is fatigued, additional motor units are recruited in an attempt to continue the muscular activity, and this is thought to provide an additional stimulus for strength gains and hypertrophy.

    Other studies have shown, on the contrary, that training to failure may not be necessary for optimal gains, but they were not controlled for volume and intensity (Kramer. 1997; Stowers. 1983). In his 2010 review Schoenfeld argues that the possible increase in strength and size gains is also paid for with an increase in overtraining and injury risk. It is thus still not clear, whether training to failure is necessarily beneficial for all or should be used only by certain athletes and/or training phases.
  • Do exaggerated eccentrics increase your strength gains on the bench? "Yes, it does!" - that's an answer researchers from the Ball State University would probably give to the question. In their 2002 study, the scientists examined the effects of additional eccentric loading on subsequent concentric strength.

    Figure 6: The data in the graph on the top indicates that the patented weight-release devices provide additional eccentric loading and are released at the bottom of the bench press before the concentric phase (Doan. 2002)
    Eight subjects with some experience in weight training volunteered to perform maximal attempts in the barbell bench press using detaching hooks that allowed them to lower 105% of their concentric 1 repetition maximum (RM) and raise 100%. The detaching hooks allowed attachment of extra weight to the bar and would release from the bar at the bottom of the lift, reducing the weight lifted during the concentric phase of the lift. After determining their 1RM for the bench press, the subjects attempted to increase their performance by using a heavier eccentric load with the detaching hooks.

    All 8 subjects who completed the study increased their 1RMs by 5 to 15 pounds; and as the data in Figure 8 indicates, the use of additional eccentric loading significantly (p 5 0.008) increased the weight that could be lifted on the subsequent concentric phase and therefore 1RM performance. As the researchers point out "[t]his phenomenon was a result of the enhancement of stretch-shortening cycle performance by the increased eccentric load" (Doan. 2002).

    Athletes who are interested in developing 1RM strength in the bench press may thus as the study and hand indicates benefit from the use of additional eccentric loading.
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What? You knew all that already? I am sorry, but the number of new studies on the effects of different angles, grip widths and grips, free weight vs. machine or advanced training techniques on the strength and size gains on the bench are limited. Maybe you can start a petition for new studies... no? Well in that case, I suggest you go to the gym and try to find out what works for you. This, i.e. the individual response to certain types of exercise and/or intensity techniques is something no study can investigate for you, anyways | Comment on Facebook!
  • Barnett, Chris, Vaughan Kippers, and Peter Turner. "Effects of Variations of the Bench Press Exercise on the EMG Activity of Five Shoulder Muscles." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 9.4 (1995): 222-227.
  • Clemons, James M., and Chantelle Aaron. "Effect of Grip Width on the Myoelectric Activity of the Prime Movers in the Bench Press." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 11.2 (1997): 82-87.
  • Doan, Brandon K., et al. "Effects of increased eccentric loading on bench press 1RM." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 16.1 (2002): 9-13.
  • Drinkwater, Eric J., et al. "Training leading to repetition failure enhances bench press strength gains in elite junior athletes." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 19.2 (2005): 382-388.
  • Keogh, Justin WL, Greg J. Wilson, and Robert E. Weatherby. "A Cross-Sectional Comparison of Different Resistance Training Techniques in the Bench Press." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 13.3 (1999): 247-258.
  • Kramer, James B., et al. "Effects of single vs. multiple sets of weight training: Impact of volume, intensity, and variation." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 11.3 (1997): 143-147.
  • Lehman, Gregory J. "The influence of grip width and forearm pronation/supination on upper-body myoelectric activity during the flat bench press." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 19.3 (2005): 587-591.
  • McCaw, Steven T., and Jeffrey J. Friday. "A Comparison of Muscle Activity Between a Free Weight and Machine Bench Press." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 8.4 (1994): 259-264.
  • Rooney, Kieran J., Robert D. Herbert, and Ronald J. Balnave. "Fatigue contributes to the strength training stimulus." Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 26 (1994): 1160-4.
  • Schick, Evan E., et al. "A comparison of muscle activation between a Smith machine and free weight bench press." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 24.3 (2010): 779-784.
  • Schoenfeld, Brad J. "The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 24.10 (2010): 2857-2872.
  • Stowers, Tim, et al. "The Short-Term Effects of Three Different Strength-Power Training Methods." Strength & Conditioning Journal 5.3 (1983): 24-27.
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