I’ll be the first to admit- in the grand scheme of things, tricep strength isn’t that important for wrestling.
If I had a limited time in the weight room I’d be working my upper body pulling strength and leg/hip power.
However, there is one exercise that is in EVERY program I’ve ever seen- the Bench Press.
It’s undoubtedly a great strength builder and indicator of overall upper body strength. However, it can lead to a lot of unnecessary stress on your shoulders, something most wrestlers could do without.
So, along with implementing the exercises I detail in this post, what else can be done to minimize shoulder stress while improving upper body strength?
Well, here are two solutions that I use with wrestlers at my gym.
Close Grip Bench
I first started using a close grip for benching a number of months ago. After years of wide, competition grip benching, my shoulders couldn’t handle much more.
So I took some time off from any kind of pressing.
I also worked diligently at strengthening my Triceps with the JM press (detailed below).
After a little while, I started to bench pain free again by using a close grip.
First, let me clarify what I mean by close grip. The grip I take is shoulder width. For me, this means taking a grip on the start of the knurling on a bar.
To some people this may not be a close grip, but for someone who spent years benching with a much wider grip, this is pretty damn close.
The new, narrower grip, has kept me pain free since I started using it.
I think it’s also worth noting that since then I’ve started boxing 4-5 times a week for the last 3 months. So, the stress on my shoulders is obviously high.
Still, no pain or tightness, even while benching.
Additionally, the complaints of shoulder pain from the wrestlers I train have disappeared.
Bodyweight JM Press
The big exercise I initially used to strengthen my triceps was the Bodyweight JM Press.
I now include this exercise in nearly every program I design.
Here’s a video of me performing the exercise on a barbell in a rack:
One of the things I personally noticed was that when I performed this exercise on a barbell, I would get a crunching in my left shoulder.
For whatever reason, that is not the case when I use the Blast Straps.
Click here to read a post on the bodyweight row progression I use. I also include a PDF document that shows you how to make your own Suspensions Straps.
Anyway, I usually program this exercise for between 3 or 4 sets for 6 to 8 reps.
Focus on keeping your elbows tucked and in the same plane as your wrists and elbows.
Additionally, keep your hips locked and core tight.
Once your technique is consistent, lower the bar or straps to add more resistance.
**Remember to keep your technique consistent. No one cares how low you can get on the Bodyweight JM Press. Simply focus on working your triceps without overly taxing yourself by making every rep a grinder.
Finally, to help support my claims, here are some relevant conclusions from Journal articles and research regarding grip width, torque on the shoulders, tricep activation, etc.
The authors cite research that has shown that a wide grip (greater than 1.5 biacromial width) increases the risk of shoulder injury.
Reducing the grip width to less than 1.5 times shoulder width reduces the risk of injury. Additionally, this grip adjustment does not affect muscle recruitment.
The more narrow grip was shown to result in only a ±5% difference in one rep max strength.
Biacromial simply means the distance from one shoulder to another. 1 or 100% biacromial width is simply a shoulder width grip.
“It has been reported that a hand spacing of ≥2 biacromial width increases shoulder abduction by 75°, whereas hand spacing < 1.5 biacromial width maintains shoulder abduction below 45°. The risk of both acute and chronic shoulder injury may be increased by repetitive movements performed with the shoulder close to the 90° of abduction, as seen during the bench press when performed with a grip > 1.5 times biacromial width.”
“A grip of more than 1.5 biacromial width increases shoulder torque by 1.5 times that of a narrow grip, thus increasing the risk of injury.”
To summarize- the wider your grip, the more range of motion there is on the shoulder. This increased range of motion increases the torque on the shoulder. The increased torque increases your risk for injury.
Additionally, research has compared muscle recruitment when using a shoulder width grip and 1.9 times shoulder width grip. The researchers found that the difference in grip widths did not significantly affect pec major or anterior deltoid recruitment.
The shoulder width grip does show greater recruitment of the triceps. This is why strengthening your triceps via the Bodyweight JM Press is an important piece of the puzzle.
EMG has also shown that grip width did not significantly affect activity of the sternocostal head of the pec major (commonly referred to as the “lower pec”).
However, a more narrow grip did increase activity of the clavicular head (commonly referred to as the “upper pec”).
Green, C., P. Comfort. The affect of grip width on bench press performance and risk of injury. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 29(5), 10-14. 2007.
This study had the same conclusions regarding increased triceps activity and minimal effects on pec activity when using a shoulder width grip.
“Considering the small changes that occur during changes in grip width, the choice of grip position should be determined by the positions athletes adopt during their sport. Sport specificity should supercede attempts to train specific muscle groups.”
“While small changes in muscle activity occurred during different grip widths, sport- and movement-specific training must still determine the exercises chosen in a training program. These changes in muscle activity are quite small, and attempts to focus on individual muscle groups rather than on movements requiring strength may be less than ideal.”
Basically, from a wrestling-specific standpoint, a close grip is more functional and “sports-specific” because you’re rarely in an extended position when on the mat.
Your arms are usually shoulder width apart when you’re in your stance:
And when you’re hand-fighting:
On a side note, this is the same reason I regularly use close grip pulling exercises as opposed to wide grip pulling.
Lehman, G. The influence of grip width and forearm pronatino/supination on upper-body myoelectric activity during the flat bench press. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 19(3), 587-591. 2005.
Myth Buster Alert #1- “The incline press does not result in greater activation of the clavicular head (“upper pec”) of the pectoralis major than does the horizontal press.”
Myth Buster Alert #2- “Employing the decline press to recruit the sternocostal head (“lower pec”) of the pectoralis major is not justified because the EMG activity obtained from the horizontal press with either hand spacing exceeds that elicited during the decline press.”
The researchers suggested that any believed benefits associated with different angles of the Bench Press (for example, the Incline Press builds your upper pecs more), are more “likely due to psychological or biological factors (other than the quantity of EMG activation).”
It was also found that anterior deltoid activation increases as truck inclination does. Therefore, when looking to strengthen this part of the shoulder, a military/overhead press is your best option.
Barnett, C., V. Kippers, P. Turner. Effects of variations of the bench press exercise on the emg activity of five shoulder muscles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 9(4), 222-227. 1995.
Alright, that’ll do it for today. If your shoulders are banged up, I hope this post provides you with some solutions.
And, if your shoulders are healthy, consider a proactive approach to your training- implement a shoulder width grip with the Bench Press. Also, consider utilizing the Bodyweight JM Press.
Finally, if you have any questions on shoulder health, benching, or strength training for wrestling in general, leave me a comment below.