07 March 2013

The Art Of The Reverse Grip Bench Press

The reverse grip bench press is an enigma to some, a pariah to others, and a curiosity to all.  It does not seem, however, to be in any way a popular method for conducting the bench press in any gym I have ever visited.  This may be because the lift is relatively new, or because the lift never gained enough traction to elicit interest in the average trainee.  Most likely, however, it just scares the shit out of everyone, as the most common comment about the lift that I've heard or read is that people fear dropping the weight into their mouth.  I like my teeth as much as the next guy, and I'm happy to report that even without a spotter, it's highly unlikely that you'll drop the bar on your chest, neck or mouth, provided you're not a spastic, prone to cold, clammy hands, or a possessor of hands so weak you have trouble opening a jar of jelly unaided.

From what I was able to find, the reverse grip bench press's origins are buried in the mists of time.  Scant information appears online about the lift, and I've not come across anything in print about the reverse grip bench press either.  My introduction to the lift was with Anthony Clark, a now-deceased morbidly obese powerlifter of the 1980s and 1990s.  Clark was a bench press phenom known for reverse grip bench pressing and bombing out of meets, which he appears to have done as religiously as he visited church.  All of his interviews are rife with religious blatherings, so it's safe to say he went to church almost as frequently as he hit up the all you can eat buffet at Sizzler.  After sifting through his vociferous spiritual exhortations, I could not find any mention of his introduction to the lift, as his only mention of it made it sound like it was some sort of spiritual epiphany.  Nevertheless, he rocked the balls off the reverse grip bench, and was the first person to bench press 800 lbs in competition (though the lift was later turned down because he didn't wait for the rack command).

The only other people of note to have done the reverse grip bench press were the 1980's bodybuilding duo, the bench pressing stud of the 1980s Rick Weil and Barbarian Brothers.  Weil still holds the bench press records at 165 and 181, and credited much of his bench pressing strength with having done a lot of reverse grip bench pressing in training. According to a post he wrote on Bodybuilding.com, "[he does] lift reverse grip, but never benched that way in competition. [He] did a lot of exhibitions reverse grip and actually did a 545 reverse in the gym. [He also] would do exhibitions with 505 for 5-6 reps"(Weil).  Frankly, that's about the best endorsement the lift could have, as that's crazy impressive at any bodyweight.

Peter and David Paul were the worst dressed bodybuilders in an era known for tragic clothing choices but absolute freaks at the bench- they benched 315 with a reverse grip for around 30 reps, and did 500+ for reps on the lift as well.  Had these two ever bothered to compete in powerlifting this lift would doubtless be more popular, but as they had no interest in doing anything but lifting and making terrible B-movies, this lift languished in obscurity until Clark popularized it (somewhat).

Apparently, the reverse grip bench press gained a great deal of prominence in the 1990s because of Clark's success, but soon fell out of favor.  One source I found stated it was due to injuries, but I found no other source to corroborate this or any record of anyone seriously injuring themselves on the lift.  In fact, people seem to use the reverse grip so they can train around injuries, like Vince Urbank, who recently benched 530 raw with a reverse grip.  Most likely, federations banned the lift because it shortens the range of motion for the bench press and butts were hurt because this was considered "an unfair advantage".  Nevertheless, North Georgia Barbell lifters continued to use the lift, getting Phil Harrington a 480 bench at 181 lbs.  Jon Grove, former WPO elite competitor and current owner of North Georgia Barbell, coached one of his lifters to use the reverse grip bench press to break through plateaus.  The lifter, 220 lb competitor Glenn Baggett, had missed multiple attempts at multiple meets with 600 on the bench.  Utilizing the scheme he outlined in the following, he got his raw bench to 405 for the first time and finally benched 600 in multiply compeition.
Harrington is one bigass 198.

According to Baggett, he started out with a "weak", "mere" 365 lbs, and a shirted bench of 590.  Grove broke his training into 3 week long mini-cycles, starting with form practice with light weights on the reverse grip and progressing up into sets of 5, 3, and 1.

Cycle One
Week One
Sets of 5-8 reps

Week Two
Sets of 3-5 reps

Week Three
Sets of 1-3 reps.  At the end of this week, he hit a touch and go 405 with a reverse grip, which was a 40 lb PR on the bench.

Cycle Two
Week Four
3-1 board press with doubles and triples

Week Five
3-1 board press with doubles and triples, 5-10 lbs heavier than the previous week.

Week Six
Same as week two.  Baggett credited the board work with teaching him to stay tight at off the boards, and at the end of week three of cycle two, he hit 420 off his chest.

Cycle Three
Week Seven
Floor Press (with chains)- 365 lbs + 180 lbs of chain x 3 reps

Week Eight
Floor Press (with chains)- 405 lbs + 120 lbs of chain x 2 reps

Week Nine
Floor Press- 455 x 1 rep and max attempt at 495.

Cycle Four
Week Ten
This cycle was intended to see if there was carryover to regular bench, so all of this week was done with a conventional grip.
Raw Work:
Three Board Press- 405 x 5 reps

Shirt Work:
Three Board Press- 660 x 1 rep

Week Eleven
Raw Work:
Two Board Press- 405 x 3 reps

Shirt Work:
Two Board Press- 660 x 1 rep

Week Twelve
Raw Work:
One Board Press- 405 x 1 rep
Competition Press- 405 x 1 rep (this was his first ever 400 lb bench press)

Shirt Work:
One Board Press- 635 x 1 rep

Redditors can now stop whining about the paucity of tits and go back to whining about the fact that cutting weight is "cheating".

Though the number of sets weren't mentioned in the article, I've seen bench training at NGBB and can tell you confidently that it's not low volume.  As such, if you're looking to follow that scheme, I'd suggest at least five sets on the higher reps and around 10 on the lower reps.  Unlike the low-volume advocates out there, the NGBB guys love to train, and they don't mind putting in their time at the gym- they're not punching a clock... they're in there to kick the fuck out of their competition.  Though I couldn't find anything specific on Phil Harrington's training, or any of the other NGBBers, I did find the following post from Jon Grove on the subject:
My real interest is the actual execution of the modern "belly benching" technique, specifically with open backed bench shirts. When coaching a lifter in this style the basic mechanics taught are to pull the elbows inward, drop the bar low to the abdomen, and to press the bar upward in a straight line, minimizing the travel of the weight. By using this technique, a lifter maximizes leverage by keeping the elbows "under" the weight and his forearm angle at his side or at an upward angle, not below the centerline of his body. The lats create a "launching pad" and a tight benchshirt virtually throws the weight to lockout if this technique is mastered. 
Now, after reading the above caption, visualize the execution of the reverse style bench. By nature, it is absolutely a nearly exact copy of the style we all try so hard to master. The only possible weak link is the hand position and driving the weight up and forward, never allowing it to drift over the eyes.
In conclusion, I feel this style has benefits for two major reasons: It can teach a lifter the basic form behind a shirted bench if he's having trouble getting the groove of a bench shirt. It is also good to train around injuries. As far as using it as the actual competition style, this is something specific to each lifter but should probably be tried in training; it might surprise someone.
Not your typical PhD.

So there you have it, from a four powerlifting world record holders (myself, Phil Harrington, Rick Weil, and Anthony Clark) and a strength coach who's competed at the highest levels- stop taking your training advice from two tards making funny faces at a camera who insist the reverse grip bench press will "snap you up" and sundry other know nothings who feel it necessary to demonize a lift they've never fucking trained.  If I've not yet provided enough powerlifting authority for you, perhaps Jim Stoppani, PhD, the tatted guy you see in Muscle & Fitness who's actually an exercise physiology PhD and the senior science editor for M&F and Flex will.  Stoppani's published a couple of articles on the benefits of the reverse grip bench press for the upper chest, and has waged a one man war against the misinformation propagated by dickless halfwits who find the reverse grip bench press terrifying.  If you're interested in reading his initial article on the subject or want to watch the videos he published on muscular activation with the lift, go here.

Many of you have asked why I use the reverse grip bench press.  Initially, I started using it for the same reason Phil Harrington did- bench pressing hurt my shoulder.  I thought I had an injury to the rotator cuff, but I later discovered that it was simply knotting in the biceps in my armpit.  Nevertheless, I stuck with the reverse grip because I found I could actually bench more with a reverse grip than I could with a conventional grip.  I'd discovered this once before, in grad school (around 2001) when I repped out 315 on the bench with a reverse grip for 5 or 6 reps, a feat I didn't replicate again until the past year.  Frankly, I've no idea why I didn't continue training it then, but I'd imagine popular opinion got the best of me.  Once my shoulder started bugging me, I began trying different grip widths on conventional bench, none of which suited me.  I then tried reverse grip, which I soon found eliminated my shoulder pain as well as worked better for me on paused reps.  Thus, I stuck with it.  No catastrophe has befallen me, my wife has not been turned into a pillar of salt, and I've not developed cancer of the AIDS.  

My technique on the reverse grip bench press is not uncommon, but as there aren't all that many tutorials on the reverse grip bench press, I shall elucidate the finer points of the lift.  Set up for the reverse grip will be the same as you would use for the conventional grip, you want to pull your shoulder blades together to keep your back tight, arch hard, and place your feet wherever you generally would for the lift (this is completely a matter of personal preference).  You will probably find you have to tuck your feet more than usual to keep your ass from coming off the bench, which is a problem that plagued me in competition until I moved my feet under me to the limits of my hip and thigh flexibility.  My grip on the bar is considerably wider and more angledthan I'd use for a conventional grip, as I close grip on conventional.  Here, I place my index finger on the break in the knurling, then have the bar pass diagonally, rather than horizontally, through my hand.  Thus, your grip should look something like this:

Using that grip make the wrist and shoulder rotation far more natural than a more horizontal grip would.

Next, you'll bring the bar down as low on your abs as the rules allow- it generally sits on my solar plexus, touching the top of my upper abs.  If the rules dictate you bring it to just under your nipple line, do so- there's no reason to practice form with which you cannot compete.  The reason for this bar placement is because the entire benefit of the reverse grip bench press comes from the fact that you have to keep your elbows in and your lower arms completely vertical.  If you fail to do so, you'll dump the bar onto your chest.  This is biomechanically advantageous, though, and puts you in a perfect position to drive the bar straight up, which will almost feel like you're pushing it towards your feet if you're doing it correctly.  Doing so will maximize your leverages and keep the bar path to its shortest distance.  I cannot stress the straight-up push enough, as I've missed more than one attempt because the bar drifted high on me, and it's much harder to press it when the bar is over your face.  I developed that habit from training without a spotter, however, so I naturally press the bar toward the rack to avoid disaster in the event of failure.  Thus, my training presses used to look very similar to mark Henry's 800 lb press above.  Should you train without a partner like I do, the best way to do so is to press in a rack, off the bottom pins.  Set them at chest height and simply do bottom-position presses- you'll actually find your competition lifts improve from this because you're used to training to explode from the bottom of the lift.

If you're a neophyte to reverse grip bench pressing, I highly recommend you start out doing them the way I did- in a smith machine.  As a general rule, the smith machine sucks, but it's great for this lift.  It will train you to press straight up, and get you comfortable with the lift before you try it in the rack or on the bench.  I used to do these as burners at the end of chest workouts, for high reps.  Since you can load up the smith machine and look like a boss in shitty gyms, it's kind of fun to throw on three wheels and rep out.

The benefits to the lift aren't exactly legion, but there are a few.  Here are the ones of which I can think off the top of my head:

  1. It's easier to stay tight.  You have to keep your lats and upper back tight throughout the lift, so that's not a consideration the way it is in conventional.
  2. Less strain on your shoulders.  People generally use this when they have shoulder injuries, as it allows them to keep training.
  3. It builds a lot of tricep strength.  This is a very tricep-centric movement, so it's a good way to bring up lagging triceps.
  4. It's a nice change of pace.  For those among you who suck at the bench, it might be a good way to get you out of a rut.  For others, it might be your new best friend.  If you're suffering from some kind of upper body injury, it might allow you to keep benching, like it did for Urbank and Harrington.

There are still benefits to the regular bench press.

Points More Salient Than Florida:

  1. WRAP YOUR THUMBS AROUND THE BAR.  You are a creature with opposable digits, use them.
  2. Do not train this lift without a spotter on a bench that lacks catches halfway up.  You probably shouldn't do them without a spotter anyway, but I've managed not to kill or hurt myself and I've trained this lift without a spotter for the last two years.  Should you do so, be prepared for a lot of biceps knotting lifting it off yourself.
  3. Use an angled grip, rather than one that's parallel with the bar.
  4. Press the bar straight up.
  5. Train bottom position presses in the rack.
  6. It's ok to use the smith machine, just this once.

Now, go forth and conquer.

Baggett, Glenn.  Forum Post.  Southern Powerlifting.  Web.  5 Feb 2013.    http://www.southernpowerlifting.com/powerforum/index.php?topic=400.0;wap2

Grove, Jon.  Reverse grip bench press.  Forum Post.  2 Nov 2004.  Web.  6 Mar 2013.  http://www.boards2go.com/boards/board.cgi?action=read&id=1099404736&user=ngbb

Weil, Rick.  Forum Post.  Bodybuilding.com.  8 Jun 2013.


  1. Interesting. Similarly I've done this to burn out.. but never for serious reps and weight.

    What's your opinion to using this on an incline or decline bench?

  2. John Phung also favors the reverse grip, he says he fucked up his shoulder and switched to it, and last I heard he hit a 385@200lbs with it.

    1. You must have heard that from a time traveler from the future, because my current best with a reverse grip is only 370 lb.

      And I changed mainly because of forearm pain (of all things).

      But in all seriousness, I'm glad there's finally a solid article about the reverse grip bench press. Too many misconceptions out there, and I'm leaning towards the idea that reverse grip could be safer than regular grip bench press.

  3. This article definitely got me thinking. My bench is so bad that it's a wonder I haven't committed seppuku yet (for reference I can barely bench 225 with a big bounce and recently deadlifted 500.) Maybe the reverse grip is the grip for me and I can propel myself out of shitland.

  4. Relevant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5NP7YodXpTM
    (in regards to Anthony Clark)

    I actually learned this lift from Christian Thibadeau. I did it for a while last year and its pretty great. Most people are all WTF but you can't knock it til you try it.

  5. Jamie

    In Dr. Stoppani's video, he states that once the weight gets heavy, one will not be able to unrack the weight on their own using the reverse grip. Since you train alone, have you found this to be true or are you still able to unrack it yourself using the reverse grip (as opposed to Stoppani's method of unracking the bar with the regular grip and lowering it to the chest and switching grips from there)?

    1. I was still able to unrack it myself, up to 365 ( I never tried any heavier), but it resulted in a bunch of knotting in my biceps, so I stopped.

  6. Nice one! I'll definatelly try it next time in the gym since my shoulder has been bugging me for quite some time.

    Also, what's up with reddit and the cutting thing? Got any links?

  7. Any thread about RUM in which I was mentioned was all about it. Same went for the myrtle beach meet, and Clash for Cash.

  8. A good article on the RGBP is harder to find online than intelligent life on Reddit, so this was very welcoming.

    That Barbarian Brother pic never ceases to amaze me. You should really do a BME on them, 320lb BTN press, and these guys weren't even strength athletes. Any chance of seeing you attempt an old school BTN press, Jamie? Or does the fact that you gotta sit down for it put you off?

    1. Pretty sure that's actually 365 he's pressing, unless they're using the biggest 2.5 plates in the world there.

  9. I'll bet you won't guess which muscle in your body is the muscle that gets rid of joint and back pain, anxiety and excessive fat.

    If this "secret" highly powerful primal muscle is healthy, you are healthy.