Without doubt one of the odder movements in the gym goers’ repertoire, the reverse grip bench press is a lift you’re unlikely to see on a regular basis. Somewhat circus-like in its execution, the lift is nevertheless an invaluable one to those suffering from issues of shoulder mobility and I’d suggest, boredom.
A fun lift to try, even just once, the Reverse Grip Bench Press (henceforth the RBGP) has a relatively recent and interesting history. A history that stems primarily it seems, from the world of powerlifting and hardcore bodybuilding gyms. A history that will be examined in today’s brief post.
The Lift Itself
Before delving into a discussion on the history of the RBGP, it is perhaps prudent to examine the lift itself. After all, something this rare is likely to be done wrong without at least some cursory comments on its execution.
In the first instance, the RBGP is exactly how it sounds. A bench pressing movement with, and this is the key point here, a reverse grip. So rather than your usual set up in which the palms begin by facing the sky, you supinate the palms so that they’re facing the chest. Further the movement’s arc is different to that of the traditional lift.
In the traditional bench press, the bar moves in a relatively small arc towards the chest or upper pectorals depending on your own biomechanics. Using the RGBP, many users prefer to bring the bar slightly below the nipples if not further down the body. This is in part down to comfort and in part down to safety. After all, who wants to bring a heavy barbell near their neck? Especially when using a somewhat suspect grip.
Similarly, unless you’re using a Smith Machine, it’s advisable to have a spotter un-rack and re-rack the barbell for you. It’s far too awkward to do by yourself. Especially when tired.
In any case, if a picture is worth a thousand words, the following video is worth…you get the idea
Whenever I bring this lift up in conversations, I’m often faced with the question of why bother using the RGBP? After all, it’s not the most comfortable thing to learn, you use less weight and to some, it looks downright ridiculous.
In the first instance, this exercise was a god send for me when I was combating some shoulder impingement issues. Regular pressing, both dumbbells and barbells, were causing far to much pain. As I went through my rehab process, which incidentally included the Indian clubs previously detailed here, the RGBP allowed me to continue training my chest without further aggravating my shoulders.
Coupled with this, as outlined by Lee Hayward in the above video, the RGBP is a fantastic means of pushing through plateaus on the flat bench press. Maybe this is a placebo effect but certainly I feel that the RBGP helps to recruit stabiliser muscles ignored in the regular pressing movement. If nothing else, it’s a nice mental break from your regular training patterns.
Finally, the RGBP, once mastered, is fun. Hardly a scientific reason to do something I know but its always cool to use this variations of the core lifts.
With that in mind, we can now jump in to the history of this unique chest exercise.
Who Created the RGBP?
While this site usually traces an exercise’s history back to the nineteenth century if not earlier, the RGBP, or at least its popularisation, is a very recent phenomena. Indeed by all accounts it seems to date to the 1980s.
It was during this period, in the aftermath of ‘Pumping Iron‘, that the Paul Brothers came to the fore within both the powerlifting and bodybuilding world. Travelling across America to train in the iconic Golds Gym, the Brothers became known as the ‘Barbarian Brothers’ owing to the intensity they brought to their training. Though more famous for their in gym exploits, especially in later years, the ‘Barbarians’ gained notoriety in the media for their strength. This allowed them to appear in documentaries, TV and radio programmes at countless moments during the 1980s.
Such appearances, such as the one below, often saw the brothers demonstrate the RGBP being used for some rather impressive poundages:
While the history is sketchy, the general story is that one of the brothers, Anthony Clark, switched to the RGBP after a shoulder injury prevented him using the regular press. The injury, it seems, did not prevent Clark from training heavy. One famous story recounted about the Brothers illustrates as much. According to the folklore, there once came a moment in the gym when the two Brothers completed a strenuous set of reverse grip pressing with 315 on the bar.
A fellow member approached them and asked “why do you always train so heavy?” and one of the Brothers replied: “Heavy? I just did 27 reps with it.”
From the Barbarians, the lift grew in popularity. Writing in 1993, Doug Daniels revealed as much
There are a lot of assistance exercises available, some productive, some not so productive. One assistance exercise that may have benefits is the reverse grip bench press. Simply put, the reverse grip bench is a bench press with your grip going the opposite way – that is, knuckles facing your feet. I first heard of this exercise in Muscle & Fitness. There was a picture of the famous Paul Brothers, the Barbarians, doing reverse grips.
They put on exhibitions and routinely reverse grip bench over 500 pounds. At first, I considered the exercise a novelty. Later, 275’er Bill Nichols told me in an interview that after Rick Weil suggested he add them to his bench training, his max bench went up when no other technique seemed to work. Lately, Anthony Clark has been benching massive weights in competition using a reverse grip. I am not suggesting using the reverse grip at a meet, but I am suggesting we may have something here.
Since then the lift has sporadically popped up every few years in the iron world as a solution to shoulder problems and plateaus. Who knows though, maybe its popularity will soar in future years.
As always, happy lifting!
For the Biomechanical Advantages of the Lift. See Here.
For the Doug Daniel’s Article. See Here.
For a Thoroughly Enjoyable and Definitely NSFW Article. See Here.
Good info. I have to say, I never had much luck with this one. Something about it just doesn’t feel natural in the movement and is stressful on the wrists far more than I like. I do feel the burn the following day, just doesn’t feel natural.
Funnily I was the exact same until I tried it on the Smith Machine with a very wide grip. Not the most natural of movements as you say but when you want to train with a sore shoulder, needs must!