We all know bench press is for chest, right? It’s the cornerstone of chest routines around the world. However, there is one big exception to that rule—the close grip bench press. During the close grip bench press, the primary muscle group targeted isn’t the chest, it’s the triceps. Because close grip bench works your triceps so effectively, it’s one of the best exercises to add to your routine if you haven’t already.
Here’s why you should be doing close grip bench and how to do it.
What is Close Grip Bench Press?
You might know a little about the close grip bench variation by now because the name spells it out pretty clearly. Instead of that standard grip on the barbell (or dumbbells), close grip is all about bringing your hands closer together throughout the bench press motion. Seems simple, doesn’t it? And the concept really is that easy.
Of course, it gets more complex than that. In order to maximize results of the close grip press, we’ll need to understand the goal of the exercise and the correct way to perform it. Then, you’ll be ready to add it to your arm-day arsenal.
What are the Benefits of Close Grip Bench?
Your triceps are composed of 3 distinct muscles: the lateral, medial, and long heads. Typically, triceps exercises focus more on 1 or 2 of these muscles, while they also have a tendency to put excessive strain on your elbow. Whether you perform your close grip press with dumbbells, barbell, or an EZ curl bar, you’ll be engaging all 3 triceps heads fully. Also, if you use proper close grip bench press form, you’ll protect your joints from injury.
Simply put, there may be no exercise that works your triceps more completely than the close-grip bench. This muscle engagement leads to big returns in strength and muscle growth, whether you’re tackling barbell close grip bench press or the dumbbell close grip bench press variation.
How to do Close Grip Bench Press
If you’re familiar with the rules of good form for performing a standard bench press, you’re well on your way to performing a perfect close grip bench press. However, there are a few crucial differences you’ll need to keep in mind to make sure you’re maximizing your time in the gym and protecting yourself from injury.
Steps to Performing the Narrow Grip Bench
- Set the bench: Begin with a flat bench. Performing a close grip incline press will recruit more of your shoulder muscles. What we really want to target here are the triceps.
- Retract your scapula: This means pulling your shoulder blades back and down as if you’re “putting them in your back pockets.” Keep your shoulders in this position as you lie flat on the bench.
- Position your grip: Start at the top of your press with your hands about shoulder width apart (8–10 in. or 20–25 cm).
- Keep control: Bring the weight down slowly. This keeps the triceps under tension during the eccentric (downward) motion of the exercise, which increases effectiveness and maximizes results.
- Keep it low: Bring the weight down to the bottom of your chest. If you’re performing your close grip chest press with a barbell or EZ curl bar, the bar should touch the point below your nipples where your pecs meet your abdomen.
- Drive the weight up: Power your feet into the ground as you push the weight off your chest. This will help you lift more weight, as well as keep your essential back and core muscles flexed throughout the bench press.
- Stabilize the weight: Close grip bench press requires a lot of control, especially if you’re using a barbell. This is good though! It keeps the triceps under tension and engages forearm muscles. Remember to push through the press with both hands equally until your arms are extended (but not locked).
- Repeat the process: That first rep might’ve been easy, but you’ll be doing more. Depending on whether you’re on a strength training or muscle sculpting routine you’ll be performing between 5–12 reps per set. Your triceps will be screaming by the end of the set but it’ll all be worth it for the progress you’ll make.
Common Close Grip Chest Press Mistakes
- Grip too narrow: If you grip the bar with your hands much closer than shoulder width apart you will end up transmitting stress away from your triceps and into the joints of your wrists and elbows. Also, this will inhibit you from progressing, as the heavier weight will become impossible to control with your hands too close together.
- Elbows tucked too closely: It may be tempting to keep your elbows as close to your sides as possible throughout the duration of the close grip press, but this actually makes it harder to retain good form. Allow your elbows to flare outwards just a bit (about 30 degrees) and you’ll find control and form come more easily.
- Wrists rolled back: This is a common bench press mistake across all variations. Especially in the later reps as your muscles tire, there’s a tendency to let your wrists turn back until your hands and wrists are bearing most of the weight. This can lead to injury that will keep you off the bench for a long time. Focus on keeping your knuckles pointing up as if you’re punching toward the ceiling on each press.
- Lack of leg support: So, you remembered to keep your shoulder blades back and down in your “back pockets.” Along with that, when you lay on the bench bring your feet backward until your heels come off the ground. Your feet should be a bit forward of your hip bones, with the balls of your feet firmly planted on the ground. This leg positioning allows you to steady the weight throughout your press because your leg muscles are tensed the entire time. This is especially crucial during close grip barbell bench press where weight at either end of a bar can get unwieldy.
- “Bouncing” the bar: Even more so than the standard bench press, lifters tend to rep out close grip bench as fast as possible. When you perform a close grip press quickly you’re doing 2 things:
- Giving your muscles a break during the downward motion, when you let the weight essentially fall onto your chest.
- Using that downward momentum to bounce the weight off your springy ribcage and drive it part way up before your triceps have to do any work.
Sure, you might be able to move more weight with this style but you’ll lose out on most of the close grip bench press benefits. Going at a controlled speed actually maximizes your time in the gym because your muscles are engaged throughout every second of the lift. If you’re bouncing the weight, you’re probably only working your muscles the right way about a third the weight is moving.
What Muscles does Narrow Grip Bench Press Work?
The close grip bench press should really be called the close grip tricep press. As we mentioned earlier, the primary muscles used are the lateral, medial, and long head of the triceps. Which actually encompasses all of the distinct muscles in your triceps. When performed correctly the close grip bench press also doesn’t incur any of the elbow discomfort or pain sometimes experienced during triceps-focused workouts.
The reason the close grip press is so effective and safe is that it allows you to lift more weight by using other muscles to assist throughout the exercise. During the downward motion of the exercise, your rear deltoids (back of your shoulders) and lats will help to control the weight. On the upward motion the front deltoids (front of your shoulders), your quads, and yes…your chest will come into play.
These secondary muscles essentially step in to keep things steady, allowing you to load your triceps with more weight than they could otherwise handle and get an incredible arm workout.
Dumbbell vs. Barbell vs. EZ Curl Bar
You’ve got a few options for performing close grip bench. Traditional barbell, dumbbells, or that fancy EZ curl bar. The good news is, all of them are great options for close grip press, but each has its pros and cons. Depending on your goals and skill level you may choose differently.
Close Grip Barbell Bench Press
- Weights at either end of the long bar require you to stabilize weight, engaging more stabilizer muscles and keeping triceps under tension.
- While a barbell forces you to start at 45 lbs (20kg) you can customize the weight as you advance. 2.5 lb (or 1kg) weights allow you to build up slowly. In comparison, many gyms only have dumbbells that advance 5 lbs (2kg) at a time.
- Uneven muscle engagement. When lifting with a barbell a stronger arm can compensate for a weaker one, leading to muscle imbalances as you progress.
- Difficult to control. While recruiting additional stabilizers to steady weight can be good, this can be a challenge for beginners and make it difficult to concentrate on maintaining your form.
Close Grip Dumbbell Bench Press
- As covered in our article on dumbbell vs. barbell bench press benching with dumbbells forces both sides of your body to work at an equal rate. This promotes balanced muscle development and prevents injury.
- You can go vertical. When you’re performing a close grip dumbbell press experiment with rotating your hands 90 degrees, so the weights are parallel with your body (while lying on the bench you should be able to give a “thumbs-up” to the ceiling). This “vertical grip” can help you keep your shoulders retracted and wrists straight, while still providing that full tricep-focused benefit.
- Great workout for helping tone your arms.
- You won’t be able to lift as much weight. When working together your hands are greater than the sum of their parts, meaning you can lift more weight with a close grip barbell bench press or EZ curl bar variation than with dumbbells. This means the close grip dumbbell press might not be ideal if you’re on a bulking or strength-building routine.
Close Grip EZ Curl Bar Bench Press
- They fit perfectly with other exercises in your triceps routine. Do you want an instant triceps pump? Use an EZ curl bar to perform a set of skull crushers (another great triceps exercise) and instantly superset into 8–10 close grip presses. Repeat this for a few sets and you’ll feel the skin-tightening sensation that lets you know your triceps are being pushed to their limits.
- They’re a nice middle ground between the close grip barbell press and the dumbbell close grip press. The weight is more easily stabilized with the EZ curl bar than the barbell, and you’ll be able to lift more weight than you can with dumbbells.
- That tricky grip! Due to the thinner bar, it can be harder to keep your wrists straight throughout the press. Additionally, depending on your shoulder width, the kinks of the EZ curl bar may make it hard to put your hands at the correct distance.
- Much like with dumbbells, you may find that your gym contains EZ curl bars that advance drastically from weight to weight (from 90 to 100, for instance). When you’ve just battled past one weight, it can be daunting to know you have to take a big leap to the next level. This is where the modular capability of the barbell can really come in handy.
What is Close Grip Chest Press Good For?
In a word—triceps. We recommend warming up with some pre-lift mobility exercises and light weights before pushing your limits on the close-grip press, but it’s definitely a great first exercise on arm day. Strong triceps are key to improving your performance on other press exercises such as traditional bench press and overhead press, and there’s no better training for these than the close grip bench press.