As you look for ways to improve your bench press, whether for max reps or max weight, you might start thinking your grip and forearms need attention. But how much does your forearm and grip strength actually affect your bench press?
While the strength of other larger muscle groups is primarily responsible for your bench press success, your grip and forearm strength are important in controlling the bar in your hands and increasing proprioception (the ability to process how the weight feels).
That being said, there are a limited number of lifters out there who will struggle with the bench press due to a lack of forearm and grip strength. Let’s figure out if that’s you!
How Important Is Forearm & Grip Strength For Bench Press?
My honest answer here is that forearm and grip strength is not as important for the bench press as you might think. Sure, if you can’t hold on to the bar, you can’t bench. So it’s important, but it’s not crucial — at least not in terms of brute forearm strength.
There’s an obvious scenario where a novice lifter truly has a hard time holding on to the barbell and their grip is legitimately weak and undertrained. This lifter would benefit from doing more consistent exercises with cables, barbells, dumbbells, and machines where the load must be gripped with their hand.
Over time, their grip will improve in the bench press as well to the point where they can focus on other muscle groups and not worry about their grip.
For most of you reading this, the next step in improving your bench is probably one of the more obvious solutions. Rather than spending your time (and potentially wasting it) adding in a bunch of direct forearm work, start with the more common, more obvious solutions that will give you a greater return on effort.
For example, if you feel like the barbell is uncomfortable in your hands during the bench press, you may need to fix your bench press technique by changing where you hold the bar in your palms. In some cases, you may also just need to bench press more often until it doesn’t hurt your hands as much.
From there, you might try variations like a single-arm dumbbell bench press to force each arm to work independently of the other and hold onto its own load.
In some cases, you might find after attempting these solutions (hopefully for a long enough time to see results, like 6+ weeks) that you truly need dedicated forearm work. Now would be the time to explore something more niche and specific, after taking care of the broad strokes first.
If you lost your keys, you wouldn’t start looking in the shower drain or the toilet if you never take your keys into the bathroom. You’d look in the usual spots you would set them down or the pockets of the clothes you most recently wore when you last had them.
Treat your training the same — start with the obvious options to improve your bench press strength, then if you haven’t found your proverbial keys, start looking into the more obscure possibilities like doing more forearm isolation work.
If the bench press is causing you pain in the biceps or elbows, check out the articles How To Fix Bicep Pain During Bench Press (5 Tips) and How To Fix Elbow Pain While Bench Pressing (5 Solutions).
Want to improve your bench press technique?
2 Ways Forearm & Grip Strength Improve Bench Press
There are two main ways your forearm and grip strength serve your bench press — in holding on to the bar and in proprioception.
Holding The Bar
Your forearm and grip muscles are the ones used when you’re holding on to the bar so you can press it in the first place. If you can’t hold on to the bar, it becomes very difficult or even impossible to try to balance it throughout the movement. You can’t bench without a grip of some kind.
The second way your grip and forearms affect your bench is not so much in your grip strength, but rather in your grip technique. Believe it or not, you can make the weight “feel” lighter and more in your control when you squeeze your hands around the bar as tight as you can, no matter how hard that squeeze actually is.
This is due to something called proprioception, or the sense of position and movement of your limbs, the sense of muscle force and effort, and your sense of balance.
In plain terms, you can influence and train how your mind responds to the load in your hands just by how you hold it.
Your brain receives messages from receptors in your skin, muscles, tendons, and joints, giving your CNS information about where your limbs are in space and how much strain is being placed on them.
Studies have proven that you can increase your proprioceptive abilities by stiffening your muscles, or contracting them as hard as you can (e.g. squeezing the bar firmly and engaging your grip and forearm muscles).
If your muscles are relaxed, you’ll have a lower level of proprioception. If your muscles are tight and contracted, you’ll have an increased level of proprioception.
This is why it’s important in all compound lifts to completely brace and “tighten up” before unracking the bar and maintain that tightness throughout the lift. Most lifters know the importance of bracing for the squat and deadlift, but breathing properly is also essential for the bench press.
In the bench press specifically, I tell my clients and friends to “squeeze the bar like it owes you money” before they unrack and throughout the entire lift so that they can benefit from the effect of proprioception and perform a more confident rep.
This again is not a function of your actual grip strength but has more to do with your technique and squeezing the bar as hard as you are able to during the lift.
Curious about all of the muscles used in the bench press? Check out Muscles Used In Bench Press (A Complete Guide).
How To Know If You Should Prioritize Grip & Forearm Work For Bench Press?
In my opinion, just about every novice and intermediate lifter would benefit from a refresher on the bench press cue to squeeze the bar tightly. Advanced lifters didn’t get where they are without making that an instinctive habit, so they probably have this down.
So if you’re a beginner or intermediate lifter, in your next bench press workout (and in all of the following bench press workouts), from your warm ups with an empty bar to your last rep, focus on squeezing the bar as tightly as you can.
That said, there are three groups of lifters who I recommend should prioritize grip and forearm work:
- Novice lifters
- Lifters who depend on straps too much
- Recently injured lifters
I list this group not because I think every beginning lifter will have grip struggles. In fact, I think most beginning lifters won’t even be aware of weak grip when it comes to the bench press at first.
But I do think that novice lifters would benefit greatly from some kind of dedicated grip work to help prepare and develop them for the demands lifting puts on our hands and forearms when holding on to the weights we use to train all of our upper body muscles.
This doesn’t have to be sophisticated — any work with dumbbells, cable attachments, barbells, kettlebells, or any other load we put in our hands will develop grip strength.
Using forearm grippers is an excellent way to increase your forearm strength.
Lifters Who Depend on Straps Too Much
This is the group of lifters that have avoided developing greater grip and forearm strength by relying on lifting straps for too long.
I’m not demonizing any and all use of straps — they have their time and place. But they can be used too often, leaving the lifter with underdeveloped grip gains.
For lifters who always (or very often) use straps when doing deadlifts, rows with either barbells or dumbbells, or pull-ups, I’m talking to you.
Start putting your hands and forearms to work holding on to those loads so you have a greater ability to squeeze the bar during the bench press. If bench press reps feel heavier than they should, if you feel less confident performing those reps, and you’re a common strap user, breaking your strap habit would be the first thing I recommend changing.
Recently Injured Lifters
If you recently had an injury that affects your forearm or general ability to grip a barbell, then more grip work may be right for you.
I’m not your doctor, so you should talk with a physician before you start adding in additional forearm work. But you may need to give your grip some specific time and training to get your other lifts (bench press included) back to where they were before your injury.
Best Forearm & Grip Exercises For Bench Press
If you feel that grip training is what’s best for you, here are the best exercises to improve your grip and forearm strength.
There’s no getting around it — doing deadlifts and holding a heavy barbell below your waist with your own bare hands is one of the best ways to improve your grip strength.
To make deadlifts more specific to your grip, you might consider timed holds with a heavy barbell instead of full deadlift reps. You can also load the barbell onto blocks or a rack so you don’t have to pick it up off the ground each time.
Make it more difficult and effective by holding the bar with a double overhand grip instead of with a mixed grip (one palm facing forward and the other facing backward) or use a hook grip (double overhand, but with the thumbs wrapped under the fingers).
Whatever your variation, focus on squeezing the bar as tight as you can, just like I recommended with the bench press. Increase the amount of time you hold the bar, the weight on the bar, frequency, and/or reps gradually each week, and you’ll see the improvement you’re looking for.
If you’re curious about the different types of deadlift grips, check out How to Maximize Your Deadlift Grip (Never Fail Again On Grip).
All row variations are a great way to develop grip strength as well, since you have to hold on to the load to perform the rep at all.
Any dumbbell, barbell, or cable variation will work, since each requires our hands to keep the load from getting away from us.
As with any grip exercise, squeeze the bar, dumbbell, or cable attachment as hard as you can during the reps to activate your forearms and grip muscles as much as possible.
To make these most applicable to the bench press, try to mimic your bench as much as possible.
For example, if you are performing a seated cable row, use a straight bar and set your hands in your usual bench press grip width. Imagine you are benching (though you are sitting upright) and pull the bar to the same touchpoint on your chest that you hit with the barbell in the bench press.
This can also be done with bent over rows as well as with barbells, dumbbells, or cables.
If you’re not sure where the bar should hit your chest during the bench press, check out Where Should The Barbell Touch Your Chest On Bench Press?
Farmer carries have the lifter hold a weight in each hand and walk a certain distance or for a certain amount of time without dropping the weights.
These can be done with specific farmer carry barbells that have hand grips attached to the bar and with which you can load plates on. They can also be done with dumbbells, kettlebells, plates, or any other load in each hand. The type of load you use will affect how it trains your grip (e.g. pinching a 45lb plate in each hand will be harder than holding on to 45lb dumbbells).
Similar to the deadlift and rows, the weight is below our waist, so our fingers and grip strength are all that prevent gravity from taking the load away from us.
When performing farmer carries, squeeze the load as tight as you can and get the load as high in your palm (closer to your wrist and further from your fingertips) to allow room for the weight to slip before you drop it as your grip starts to give out. This will allow you to carry the weights farther or for longer than if you started with the weight in your fingertips.
You can progress farmer carries with added load, added distance, added time, frequency, and reps.
Forearm curls use a barbell or dumbbell to contract the forearm muscles in an isolated fashion. Instead of training your forearms to grip the weight for an extended period of time, the forearm curl uses reps to contract the muscle repeatedly.
While sitting, turn your arms so your palms are facing up and hold a barbell in both hands or one dumbbell in each hand. With your arm resting on your thigh, hang your hand off the end of your knee with the weight in hand.
Allow the weight to pull your fist all the way back, bending only at the wrist. Contract the fist upward while bending at the wrist to engage your forearm muscles. Return the fist down to extend past your knee and repeat for as many reps as your program calls for (8-15 in most cases).
Progress this lift week over week with increased reps, sets, or load. You can also add extended pauses during the contraction or timed reps to slow them down and increase time under tension.
For more ideas on how you can train the forearms, check out How To Workout Forearms With Dumbbells (10 Exercises).
Reverse Grip Forearm Curls
The reverse grip forearm curl is very similar to the forearm curl, but with the hand pronated (palm facing down) instead of supinated (palm facing up).
With your arms resting on your thighs, holding a weight with your fist just beyond your knee, allow the weight in your hand to pull your fist all the way forward over your knee. Bend the fist backward (upward), bending only at the wrist to perform a rep to contract the forearm muscles, and then return it to the starting position.
Repeat for as many reps as your program calls for (8-15 usually).
If you’re interested in increasing your forearm size for aesthetic reasons, check out How To Increase Forearm Size (Complete Guide).
Fat Grip Training
In addition to these exercises, you can exaggerate forearm engagement by using barbells, kettlebells, and dumbbells with thicker handles. If you have access to axel bars, these are also a great alternative to help train your grip.
If you don’t have access to items like these, you can buy products that will make any barbell or dumbbell fatter by slipping grips over the bars you already use. However, you can also do this yourself in many ways.
For example, I’ve used hand towels to make pull ups harder by wrapping them around the pullup bar. It adds a significant amount to the circumference I must grip and compromises my grip as well, forcing my forearms and grip muscles to engage more to hang on to the bar. You can do this with hand towels on barbells and dumbbells as well.
Is it safe to train the forearms every day? Get my expert opinion in Can Forearms Be Trained Every Day (Yes, Here’s How).
Your grip and forearm strength matters with the bench press, but not that much. More than your grip strength, your grip technique will affect your bench press.
But at the end of the day, any forearm training can help you think more about how you squeeze the bar during the bench press. You can improve your mind-muscle connection with those muscle groups by training them more.
The most important factor will be that you actually squeeze the bar when you bench. No amount of added exercises or volume on your forearms will matter if you’re not conscientiously squeezing the bar as hard as you can.
Take advantage of your ability to improve your proprioception, squeeze the bar firmly, and give your mind and CNS the information it needs to move that weight in the most efficient way possible.
What To Read Next:
- Does a Strong Back Help Bench Press? (Yes, here’s how)
- Fat Grip Training: How & When To Use & Does It Work?
- 11 Battle Rope Benefits (And, Who Should Do Them?)
About The Author
Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.