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When we are aiming to bench press the most weight we can, we need to make sure that the force we’re exerting from the chest is transferred to the barbell efficiently. A big part of that process is the position our wrists are in while benching.
So, what position should the wrists be in while bench pressing? The wrists should be in a neutral position with the hands, wrist and forearm in-line and the load of the barbell stacked over the wrist. This position is attained through proper grip width, placement of the bar, and stabilization of the wrist joint.
It is important to follow certain rules in order to bench press the most weight we can, without injuring the wrists or wasting energy. In this article, we’ll discuss 5 rules to follow for optimal wrist positioning, exercises to make the wrists more resilient, and whether you need to use wrist wraps.
We know that the wrists need to be stacked in a neutral position during the bench press, but where should the elbows be? Learn more about proper elbow positioning in our article on Should The Elbows Be In Or Out While Bench Pressing?
5 Rules For Optimal Wrist Positions For The Bench Press
The 5 rules for the optimal bench press wrist position are:
- Choose An Appropriate Grip Width
- Place The Bar In The Palm Of The Hand
- Use A Full Grip On The Barbell
- Keep The Wrist In Line With The Hand
- Maintain A More Neutral Wrist Position
1. Choose An Appropriate Grip Width
An appropriate grip width is the width at which we are the strongest, and that we are able to maintain an efficient transfer of force into the barbell with a neutral wrist. This position tends to be one where the hands are slightly wider than shoulder-width distance, and the elbows are stacked in-line with or slightly in front of the barbell when it is on the chest.
A grip that is too wide requires the muscles of the chest to work harder. Lifters will likely not be strongest in a position that is too wide, because there will be a decrease in the transmission of force from the body to the bar when the forearms, hands and wrists are not in-line (which they wouldn’t be with a wider grip).
There also seems to be more reported shoulder injuries with a wider grip, due to decreased shoulder stability and increased demands of the pectoralis major (chest muscle) leading to a rupture of the muscle. Although this is rare when proper progression and loads are used, there is an increased risk when we push our grip too far out.
In contrast, a grip that is too narrow places more emphasis on the triceps throughout the lift. Because the triceps are a smaller muscle group, this may not be the most ideal grip for lifters to lift the most weight possible in the bench press. In addition, when our grip is too narrow it can place unnecessary stress on the wrist joint, by forcing us to deviate from a stacked wrist position to accommodate this grip.
Although grips that are too wide or too narrow can cause issues, there are benefits associated with these grips when used correctly. To find out more about the proper use of these different grip widths, check out our articles on Wide Grip Bench Press and Close Grip Bench Press.
2. Place The Bar In The Palm Of The Hand
When we grip the bar for the bench press, we want the bar resting in the base of the hand – this is going to to be the “meaty” part of your hand. The reason for this is that when the bar rests towards the base of the hand (rather than in the fingers), we are better able to keep the load stacked over the wrist joint.
This position of the barbell in the hand is preferred because it decreases the strain on the wrist by keeping the load stacked over the joint. If the load is not stacked over the wrist and is instead held in the fingers, it is more likely to bend the wrist back – which could cause pain in the wrist over time, and decrease the transmission of force from our body to the bar.
3. Use A Full Grip On The Barbell
It is encouraged to always bench with a full grip on the barbell – this consists of 4 fingers over the bar and the thumb under the bar. This complete grip on the barbell helps with the transmission of force through the wrist by assisting in maintaining a more neutral position of the wrist. It is also preferred as it is the safest grip to use when performing the bench press.
The thumbless grip (also known as the suicide grip) places the thumb next to the index finger instead of under the barbell, and is not recommended for those who want to compete in powerlifting.
The reason for this is that it is not legal in powerlifting competition, and it is more dangerous. This is because without the thumb locking the bar in place, there is a risk that the bar may slip out of our hands without warning and lead to some serious injuries if we aren’t prepared.
Although the thumbless grip for the bench press is not ideal, using this grip for your squats can help to improve upper body tightness and allow you to lift more weight. Find out more about this in our article on the Thumbless Grip Squat.
4. Keep The Wrist In-Line With The Hand
Keeping the wrist in line with the hand means that we are not allowing the hands to bend towards the left (ulnar deviation) or the right (radial deviation) when the bar is in our hands.
In order to transmit the force applied from our body into the bar more efficiently, and reduce the strain on the wrists we should aim to keep the hands and wrists in-line. The hands, wrists and forearms should all be stacked when this is achieved.
Radial deviations (wrists bent towards the thumb) at the wrist often occur when our grip is too wide, and ulnar deviation (wrists bent towards the pinky) usually occurs when the grip is too narrow. However, both are possible even with an appropriate grip width if our hands are too relaxed and we are not actively squeezing the bar to maintain a neutral position.
5. Maintain A More Neutral Wrist Position
By placing the bar in the palm of the hand we are in a better position to maintain a more neutral wrist position – a neutral wrist is accomplished when the wrist is not bent backwards or flexed forwards.
Maintaining a more neutral position of the wrist during the bench press reduces the strain on the wrist as the load on the bar increases, and allows us to press more weight in the bench press by being able to transfer force more effectively from the upper body to the bar.
It should be noted that it is not uncommon for the wrists to be slightly bent back (into wrist extension), and this is less of a concern as long as the bar is still stacked over the wrist joint.
However, we want to prevent the wrists from bending back too far as it will cause pain over time, and interrupt the transmission of force through the joint. Wrist wraps could be used to help maintain a more neutral position and increase joint stability of the wrist.
Check out my complete review of the Best Wrist Wraps.
A neutral position of the wrist is set as soon as we grip and unrack the bar. For this reason the unrack is a crucial step – to learn how to unrack the bar properly, check out our article on How To Properly Do A Bench Press Lift Off.
Want to improve your bench press technique?
Exercises To Help Keep A Neutral Wrist Position While Benching
To build up the strength capacity of the wrists to maintain a neutral position, it is often necessary to include supplementary exercises. The following exercises are recommended because they build strength in the proper movement patterns by mimicking the desired positions of the wrist in the bench press:
- Isometric Hold
- Kettlebell Bottoms-Up Press
- Max Contraction Ball Squeezes
The isometric hold is beneficial because we are holding a load that is trying to pull us into wrist extension, and we are applying force to resist this motion – which is similar to the bench press, as we want to resist wrist extension.
To perform this exercise:
- Sit with the knees bent and forearms resting on the legs
- Have the wrists hanging out over the knees with palms facing up
- Hold dumbbells in the palms as we would when gripping the bar in the bench press
- Maintain a neutral position of the wrist against the load (do not allow the wrists to bend back)
- Hold for 30-60 seconds, repeat 2-3 times.
Kettlebell Bottoms-Up Press
The kettlebell bottoms-up press is used to practice stabilizing the wrist joint in a stacked position of the hand and wrist, when a load is applied through the joint. This replicates a similar loading pattern to the one presented in the bench press.
To perform this exercise:
- Grab a kettlebell with one hand, with the bottom of the kettlebell towards the ceiling and support it near the shoulder
- Grip the kettlebell in the palm of the hand (as we would grip the bar in the bench press)
- Keep the wrist in a stacked position
- Squeeze the kettlebell to activate the muscles of the hand and wrist to prevent wobbling of the kettlebell
If it’s too hard: If you can’t do it without the kettlebell falling over, practice holding this position (3 sets of 15-30 seconds)
If it’s too easy: practice pressing the kettlebell up overhead while maintaining the stacked wrist position and keeping the kettlebell from falling over (3 sets of 6-8 reps)
Max Contraction Ball Squeezes
Implementing ball squeezes can be beneficial for the bench press by reinforcing a maximal grip on the barbell, to properly activate the muscles of the hand and wrist which assist in maintaining a neutral wrist position. It can also make the load of the barbell feel lighter.
To perform this exercise:
- Find a stress ball (or any ball you can squeeze)
- Squeeze as hard as you can for 20-30 seconds
- Relax fully between sets (3-5 sets)
Building up the strength in the stabilizing muscles is important for injury prevention, this is why we should go through the proper progressions for each lift. These are the Progressions For The Bench Press, From Beginner To Advanced.
Wrist Wraps: Do You Need Them?
While wrist wraps are not necessary for the bench press, they are certainly an option for those who need extra support at the wrist joint or simply feel more comfortable when using them.
My absolute favorite wrist wraps are the Inzer True Grippers (click for today’s price on Amazon). These wraps are the best in terms of performance and durability, which is quite rare to see with the majority of commercial wrist wraps being made pretty cheap these days. They also last the longest so you won’t have to replace them after 6 months (a common experience for powerlifters who use their wrist wraps often).
Most lifters train and compete using wrist wraps because they want the extra support that wrist wraps offer when bench press volume or intensity increases. They are also valued for their ability to make the weight of the bar feel lighter in the lifter's hands, due to increased grip tightness on the bar that comes from wrapping the wrists.
However, it should be noted that many lifters are very successful without using wrist wraps and are still able to bench impressive amounts of weight by following the 5 rules previously discussed.
The use of wrist wraps is up to the lifter’s discretion but should be considered if a lifter is struggling to maintain a neutral wrist position during the bench press, or has had a previous wrist injury that requires additional joint support.
Wrist wraps are only as good as our ability to wrap them correctly. To learn how wrist wraps work and how to properly use them, check out these 13 Tips For Using Wrist Wraps That All Lifters Should Know.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do I Keep My Wrists Straight While Benching?
The wrists can be kept straight by holding the bar in the base of the palm, gripping the bar forcefully, and keeping the load stacked over the wrist . However, it may be necessary to perform supplementary exercises or use wrist wraps if we are still struggling to keep the wrists straight.
How Do You Know If You Should Change Your Wrist Position?
We should change our wrist position if we are experiencing pain or discomfort in the wrists, the wrists are not in a neutral position, and/or the bar is not in the base of the hand – as these are all factors that would decrease bench press performance.
Why Do My Wrists Hurt While Bench Pressing?
Wrists can hurt while bench pressing if they are not in a neutral position – they are bent to the right or left, and/or bent backwards or forwards. Pressing with the wrists in these positions places unnecessary strain on the wrist joint. This can also occur when the load we are benching is currently too heavy for our wrists to support.
Is Bench Pressing Hard On The Wrists?
If we follow the rules for bench press wrist positions and adapt the proper grip width, placement of the hands around the bar, and maintain a neutral wrist position then we are in a relatively safe position for the wrists. It is also important to increase the volume and load gradually to allow the muscles that stabilize the wrist to adapt as well.
Another important aspect of the bench press is touching the barbell to the chest, which can make or break the lift by altering wrist and elbow positions. Check out our article on Where We Should Touch The Barbell On The Chest.
To ensure that we are getting the most effective transfer of force from our body to the bar in order to press the most weight possible, we need to follow the rules for the optimal bench press wrist position. If we ignore these rules, we increase the risk of injury and limit the amount of weight we are able to press.
About The Author
Amanda Parker has a passion for competing and coaching in both powerlifting and weightlifting. She uses her knowledge from her Kinesiology Degree, CSCS, and Precision Nutrition certification to coach athletes and lifestyle clients for performance in training and nutrition. Connect with her on Instagram.