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Smith machine reverse grip bench press: Discover how this unconventional chest exercise bags you 25-30% more upper pec activation

By Lee Thomas
Last Updated on 24th July 2020

The reverse grip bench press is the best upper chest exercise for mass—it activates more muscle fibres of the clavicular (upper) pectoral head than any other exercise in existence. It's just a shame that the barbell version is such a risky movement. Otherwise, I think that it could easily replace the incline press.

However, there is an alternative, and he goes by the name of Mr Smith. You might have heard of him before because some people make their hatred of this poor fella very clear.

Me? I think he's a sterling chap—one who keeps you out of harm's way. It's why I always do my chest exercises on the Smith machine.

Ah yes! The Smith machine reverse grip bench press—that's his full name. What a wonderful stimulus he gives your upper chest! It's practically like being Arnold for the day!

"You can use a much wider grip compared to a regular bench, and it's not going to hurt your shoulders because you have the external rotation."
Alexander Leonidas
Creator of the Naturally Enhanced System

Smith machine reverse grip bench press exercise details

  • Main muscles: Chest, triceps, front delts
  • Supporting muscles: Lats, rhomboids, glutes, abs, forearms
  • Exercise type: Compound
  • Difficulty: Advanced
  • Equipment needed: Smith machine, weight bench
  • Recommended gear: Wrist wraps, chalk, Sling Shot
  • Exercise purpose: Develop a more symmetrical chest by emphasising the clavicular (upper) head of the pecs

How to do a reverse grip bench press on the Smith machine

  1. Wheel a bench into a Smith machine and position it so that, while lying down, the bar's in line with your lower chest.
  2. Grab the bar with a reverse (underhand) grip and space your hands about 1.5x shoulder-width apart.
  3. Rotate your wrists to unrack the bar.
  4. Lower the bar towards your lower chest until you feel a deep stretch in your pecs.
  5. Explode back up by pushing your fists towards the ceiling and actively squeezing your chest.
  6. Repeat for 3-6 sets of 8-12 reps.

Reverse grip bench press mistakes

Bending your wrists

man performing the bench press in a gym

Want a surefire way to wreck your wrists in a week?

Perform heavy reverse-grip bench presses—I'm talking one-rep max grinders—with a bent wrist.

Ok, please don't actually do that. Instead, once you've unracked the bar, you want to keep your wrists as straight as humanly possible. Imagine that you're throwing a punch in a boxing match. You'd obviously want to keep your wrists straight to stop your joints from absorbing the impact—and, you know, to knock the other bloke out.

Not prioritising the reverse grip bench press

PRIORITIES word cloud, business concept

According to the priority principle of strength training, the exercise that you perform first in a workout enjoys the fastest strength gains. Naturally, this benefit extends to muscle growth, too.

And listen, I know that you want to protect your precious flat bench press strength. But trust me, you're going to be gutted when you look at your beach photos next year and realise that you've still got the same saggy pecs that you've had since your teens.

Prioritise the reverse-grip bench press and watch your upper chest grow.

Using a narrow grip

man performing a pressing exercise at the gym

Using a narrow bench press grip might well help you to fill out your sleeves, but it's not going to do squat for your pecs.

Your chest muscles are like a rubber band—they need to be stretched to expand. And the best way to stretch your pecs and make them grow is by benching with a wide grip—especially when it comes to the reverse-grip bench press.

Recommended training gear for Reverse grip bench presses

1. Wrist Wraps

man wrapping his wrists before a workout
  • Beast Gear Heavy Duty Wrist Wraps: Minimises wrist fatigue with a supportive cotton/elastic blend. Also comes with a sturdy velcro fastener to prevent your wrists from becoming exposed mid-set—these are my go-to wrist wraps for heavy lifting.
aqf wrist wraps
  • AQF Power Weight Lifting Wrist Wraps: Elastic thumb loop and thick tri-blend construction provide plenty of joint support while pressing. Extremely easy to clean and stupidly durable for less than a tenner. Highly recommended if you want quality on a budget.

2. Weightlifting Chalk

weightlifting chalk
  • Liquid Sports Chalk: Chalk your hands on the sly with this inconspicuous liquid weightlifting chalk. This magnesium carbonate mix dries in just a few seconds and washes off with simple soap and water. It's perfect if your gym isn't fond of chalk because it doesn't leave any dust clouds behind.
  • Psychi Chalk Ball: Traditional gym chalk that comes with a cool mesh covering to reduce wastage. Available in 6 sizes for all needs and budgets.

3. Sling Shot

sling shot original
  • Mark Bell Sling Shot: This one-of-a-kind bench press Sling Shot from world champion powerlifter, Mark Bell, increases bench press strength by an average of 17-24kg while helping you to maintain healthy shoulders. It's a must-have for anyone serious about strength training.

Reverse grip bench press muscles worked

Chest

A black man with a muscular body

Even when performed on a flat bench (you can also do it on an incline) the reverse grip bench press activates significantly more upper chest muscle fibres than the traditional incline press [1].

Don't believe me?

Try this: raise one arm out in front you—palm down—and place your opposite hand on your upper chest, right below your clavicle. Now, rotate your palm so that it's facing upwards—think about turning your little finger as far as it'll go.

Did you feel the intense contraction in your upper chest?

Yeah, I bet you did. Now just imagine the muscle growth that this contraction will produce with some weight on the bar.

I'm salivating just thinking about it.

Triceps

man flexing his arms

Since your elbows are naturally close to your torso during a Smith machine reverse grip bench press, it's actually a pretty good tricep builder. Just don't rely on it as your only tricep exercise, though. Because it's still primarily an upper chest exercise.

Front delts

The front delts are highly active during reverse grip bench presses because the underhand grips put them in a position of intense shoulder flexion [2].

"Based on the available research, it seems like incline still doesn’t challenge your upper pecs quite as much reverse grip benching with a wide grip does."
Greg Nuckols
Natural Powerlifter

Reverse grip bench press benefits

Bigger upper chest

bodybuilder doing the most muscular pose

You might be surprised to learn that incline bench presses aren't the best upper chest exercise. And you might be shocked to the core to discover that some studies suggest that incline presses are no better than the regular flat presses for activating your upper chest! [3]

However, the reverse grip bench press—even when performed on a flat bench—is much more promising. Research from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning shows that bench pressing with a reverse grip activates between 25-30% more upper chest muscle fibres than lifting with an overhand grip [4].

This disparity is because your upper pecs are a potent shoulder flexor. And by that I mean they assist in raising your arm (hence why bodybuilders often perform low-to-high cable flys). Just look at the position of your delts when you switch from the overhand grip to the reverse grip. Your shoulders travel inwards, don't they?

This subtle movement—and the resulting pec contraction—is why the reverse-grip bench press is such a brilliant upper chest builder.

Healthier shoulders

muscular box in weight room

When you perform the reverse grip bench press Smith machine style, you're naturally placing your shoulders into external rotation. Now, besides making your upper pecs work harder, this positioning keeps your rotator cuffs safe because it gives them more room to move inside your shoulder capsule.

Ultimately, this dramatically reduces your risk of developing a shoulder impingement. Or, as I like to call it "bench presser's shoulder".

Faster pectoral growth

high speed train in modern railway station with motion blur
Destination: Swole City

Have you ever heard of the novelty effect?

If you have, then great—you're probably enjoying the gains as we speak. But if you haven't, then allow me to open your eyes to this potent muscle growth accelerator.

Here's how it works: when you perform a brand new exercise (or come back to an old one after some time away), you force your muscles to adapt—and quickly. This is an evolved physiological mechanism that helps human to cope with the demands of the environment—hence why human existence was often referred to as the survival of the fittest.

But since we've stopped throwing rocks at each other, we no longer need to grow bigger and stronger (physically) in order to survive. However, we can still use the novelty effect to our advantage. Namely, to rapidly increase our muscle mass.

The best way to do this is by varying your exercise selection. Once you start to stagnate in strength progress (which is a good proxy for muscle growth) then it's time to switch things up for a few months.

And since most people have been doing incline bench presses since they were old enough to drink protein shakes, they're probably ready to receive some long-overdue upper chest growth. Maybe you're one of these people?

If so, then the Smith machine reverse grip bench press is where you should focus your attention. Once you make the switch from incline press, your chest simply won't know what's hit it. And as a result, it'll be left with no choice but to grow as fast as it possibly can.

Reverse grip bench press alternatives

Smith machine incline press

bodybuilder doing a high incline press in a fitness centre

Performing the reverse grip bench press Smith machine style is likely the safest and most effective way to stimulate your upper chest. However, if you're seeking overall upper body mass, then the incline Smith machine press is probably a better option because you can lift heavier weights and thus, overload your muscles with more tension.

Smith machine guillotine press

Bodybuilder Working Out Chest With Barbell

If you know anything about my chest training philosophy, then you'll know that I'm very much a safety-first kinda guy. As such, I think that performing the Smith machine neck press for your upper chest is a hazardous endeavour—not just for your shoulder health, but also for your life.

Yeah, it's that dangerous.

Smith machine bench press

strong man performing the flat bench press

As good as the Smith machine reverse grip bench press is, nothing beats the Smith machine barbell press when it comes to adding overall mass to your chest. It offers all the same muscle-building benefits as the free weight version—but in a far safer environment. I highly recommend it if you train without a spotter like I do.

Lee Thomas
Ey Up! I'm Lee, a Leeds-based strength and conditioning coach who's been helping serious trainees achieve their physical potential for the past 20 years. In my time, I've been a competitive physique athlete and a national powerlifter. I hope you enjoy my exercise guides.
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