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  • Writer's pictureJulian Molteno

FORGOTTEN EXERCISES:   Under-grip (or Reverse) Bench Press

I was training a client a few days ago, it was mid-morning, the gym was pretty empty and we were enjoying having the run of the place to ourselves. Our “private gym session” was not to last however, as the weights area was suddenly invaded by Ed, from pureTraining, who does all the First Aid and safety courses for Fitness First, and a group of his students. I had noticed recently that Ed had started taking group photos of his classes, once they had completed whatever course they were participating in. Presumably he posts them on his website or Facebook etc, to drum up some business and introduce an element of fun into the proceedings. Not that Ed needs to add any more humour to the courses he runs, I have done a few of them and he always has the whole class in stitches with his Dad jokes.  

Anyhow, Ed obviously thought it would be fun for the focal point of his latest photo to be the First Aid dummy performing some sort of exercise. Quite tough to do as First Aid dummies are designed to just lie there playing dead, and are not really well adapted to demonstrating exercise techniques. Quite rightly, Ed chose the classic Bench Press (the king of all bodybuilding exercises!) for the photo, but due to the way the dummy is made, the way its arms lie with palms facing outward, the mannequin inadvertently demonstrated a Reverse-grip Bench Press. This amused me no end because what was originally chosen as a bog-standard exercise, was now, actually, a rather unusual one. This got me thinking - I had experimented with an Under-grip Bench many years ago when I was a starry-eyed teenager, ready to try anything to get any sort of muscle-building advantage, but had quickly rejected it. It is a contrary exercise and it feels completely unnatural to adopt an under-grip. Also, I could not really see the advantage, so I never tried it again and forgot about it. Thirty-five or so years later I thought I’d give it another go. Let’s look at why we should even consider the Under-grip Bench. I did a little research and here are some of the pros and cons. The traditional Bench Press is notorious for contributing to shoulder pain, but the reverse-grip removes almost all the shoulder involvement, and as so many upper-body exercises consist of pressing movements, it makes sense to try an exercise that relieves the strain placed on the shoulders. Two major changes in muscle use when using an under-grip are, firstly, more involvement from the triceps, which is great if you are wanting to increase tricep size and strength using a big basic movement (as opposed to a more “squeezy”cable), and secondly, the upper chest is required to work harder. Recruiting more muscle involvement from the upper pecs is a great bonus if you have troublesome shoulders because Incline Bench Press (for upper pecs) puts even more strain on the shoulders than a Flat Bench does. It’s a win-win situation; allowing you to access the upper pecs whilst minimising stress on your delts. 

On the negative side, more stress is placed on the wrists, as the under-grip is not as natural a position as the traditional over-grip, and can feel quite uncomfortable, as the bar wants to fall out of your hands a lot more. It does feel weird at first but does not take long to get accustomed to. I would suggest coming to the reverse grip only once you have already done some basic chest stuff so your muscles are fatigued, and you won’t have to use too heavy a weight. When I tried it out with my training partner Shane, we used the Smith Machine for added safety. No matter if you begin your workout with the reverse grip, or have a go half-way through your session, be prepared to drop your weights considerably. I mentioned previously that I had tried the Reverse-grip Bench Press in my teens, and my main motivation for giving this exercise a go was “the one (two) and only”, Barbarian Brothers!  

Peter Paul and David Paul, aka the Barbarian Brothers, were (quite literally) huge characters in the world of 80’s bodybuilding. The twin brothers trained in work boots and lumberjack tops, and lifted enormous weights, and then went on to have fairly successful careers in the movies. (I am going to do a “Forgotten Bodybuilders” post on them soon.) Anyhow, one of their attention-getting lifts was the Under-grip Bench, you can see them (below) all togged up and demonstrating how it’s done, with some pretty impressive weights. How could I resist following suit if this was the trick that built their fortress-like chests!? So last week I decided to give it a whirl. Shane and I did some lovely wide, then close-grip, Bench Press supersets to really fatigue our chests. Then, we did the Under-grip Press in the Smith. It was interesting. The under-grip was not as uncomfortable on the wrists as I had imagined, and it felt great in the upper chest. Unfortunately, my left shoulder did not like the new movement so I had to abandon after two sets. I have a feeling that if I persevere my shoulder will adapt to the new movement and this new movement could become a firm favourite. I like to think that in my 50’s I have slightly more patience and doggedness than I had in my teens. 

We shall see . . . 

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