Off-Season Programming For Wide Grip Benchers
The rise of the wide grip bench press is upon us, and for those that follow me and most of my lifters, you’ll probably notice I am very much a part of that movement. I tend to bias towards a wider competition bench press grip, probably in large part because I coach mainly mid to low weight class lifters. Just because of general chest circumstance and range of motion demands, mid to low weight class lifters tend see a good increase in their bench press strength from a wider grip. But what is all too common is for a lifter to switch to a wider grip, see a bump in their strength, to yet again plateau. And to put it simply, the reason for this is the wider grip bench press may create a stronger and more efficient movement pattern in terms competitive powerlifting, but it doesn’t tend to optimally build the pressing muscles long term. Add in that a larger arch usually accompanies this wider grip, and now that extremely reduced range of motion becomes even less effective for the overall development of the pressing musculature. So how do I combat this? Let’s look at the main differences I take in off-season programming for wide grip benchers:
1.) Further away from a meet the number one thing I will do in many cases is program close grip variants as an athlete’s primary bench press day, and maybe even multiple times a week. Now when I say close grip though, this is not old school bodybuilder hands inside shoulder width close grip. Rather close grip would be somewhere in the range of 2-4 finger widths in from the normal competition grip, dependent on just how wide they typically are. For most I program this as “pinkies 1 finger inside the knurl marker” or “pinkies just inside the knurl marker”. To add to this, based on the athlete and situation, I typically will also prioritize feet up bench as a primary or secondary variation to coincide. The closer grip plus the feet up bench will drastically alter their range of motion and place higher demands on the pressing musculature that the wider competition bench press does not. For accessory work, during this time I really like to hammer dumbbell bench press, both flat and incline. I find that the dumbbell bench press has a close proximity to the pectoral demands of a wider grip bench, yet can be done with a significantly increased range of motion.
2.) If you poll a diverse group of wider grip bench pressers, I would not be surprised to find that most would say that they do not see much transfer to their wide grip bench press from incline and overhead barbell pressing variations. But poll the opposite in close grip bench pressers, and I think they will tell you the exact opposite. I believe the reason for this is the difference in shoulder abduction angles in the close vs. wide grip bench and the demands placed on the anterior deltoid. With a closer grip bench press, due to the decreased shoulder abduction, greater emphasis will be placed on the anterior deltoid. So what I am getting at is that the incline bench press, due to its demands on the anterior deltoid, tends to be a really good exercise for close grip benchers but not wide grip benchers in my experience. BUT, if we are taking prolonged periods of our off-season to push the strength of our close grip bench press, this would also be the perfect time in my opinion to also prioritize some variation of incline pressing, as this is when I believe a wide grip bench presser can see the benefits from it.
3.) So we have prioritized close grip bench pressing, feet up bench press, dumbbell bench press, and incline press variants during our off-season, now what? As we move closer to competition or strength focus blocks, I would now shift gears to prioritizing our wider competition grip as our primary and/or secondary day variant and become more competition specific. That seems fairly obvious, but there is one other thing I tend to do that I think helps to continue the transfer of the off-season training into our comp specific phases, and that is to prioritize dips as our main pressing accessories during this period. Dips continue to place a high emphasis on the triceps and anterior deltoids, more so than dumbbell bench pressing in my opinion, so I find this helps to maintain, if not increase, the gains that were seen from the off-season close grip prioritization. You may say why not do dips during the off-season? I at times very much do, as well as I might have someone dumbbell bench pressing close to competition rather that dips. I don’t think there is a right answer to this and is all just circumstantial, but if I had to argue one way or the other, this would be my route. And the main experiential evidence I have for this opinion is that more is not always better. When we prioritize close grip, feet up, and incline pressing during the off-season, I find that just adding more to that same focus has its diminishing returns. So rather than adding more into that same pile, I would prefer to save dips for these more competition specific blocks so that we have a novel stimulus to possibly create new adaptations.
The above is not a perfect blueprint for wide grip bench pressing success, but rather a generalization of what I have found that works and challenges the rational of just competition bench press year round. The only thing I will say for fact is that if you fall into the category of plateauing after an initial boost in strength from wide grip, it is time to rethink your highly comp specific wide grip bench pressing approach.