“I don’t like to train arms,” said no one ever. Although most people love to work their biceps, only a fraction of them lay equal emphasis on their triceps.
Bodybuilding is a game of illusions. Full and round triceps can make your arms look bigger and more aesthetic. The triceps consists of three heads — medial, lateral, and long. It is primarily responsible for the elbow joint extension (straightening the arm).
Your triceps workout should include a balance of compound (multi-joint) and isolation (single-joint) exercises. While the former helps build muscle mass and strength, the latter improves muscle conditioning and definition.
Smith machine close grip bench press is one of the most effective yet underutilized triceps exercises. The compound exercise and conventional bench press variation is great for beginners and experienced lifters alike as it helps maintain constant tension on your triceps. It helps build size and definition in your triceps while also working your chest and shoulders.
In This Exercise:
- Target Muscle Group: Triceps, chest, shoulders
- Type: Hypertrophy, functional strength
- Mechanics: Compound
- Equipment: Smith machine
- Difficulty: Beginner to Advanced
The triceps (tri – three, cep – head) or triceps brachii is a three-headed muscle at the back of your arm spanning almost the entire length of the humerus. The three heads of the triceps are —
1. Long Head
The long head arises from the infraglenoid tubercle of the scapula and attaches to the posterior surface of the olecranon process of the ulna — capsule of the elbow joint and antebrachial fascia.
The long triceps head assists with the extension and adduction of the arm at the shoulder joint and helps prevent any displacement of the humerus. It is also involved during forearm extension at the elbow joint when the forearm is supinated or pronated.
2. Short Head
The short, also known as lateral triceps head, originates from a narrow, linear ridge on the posterior surface of the humerus, just superior to the radial groove.
The lateral triceps head is the strongest head of the three. It is active during forearm extension at the elbow joint when the forearm is supinated or pronated.
3. Medial Head
The medial head is overlapped by the long and lateral head of the triceps. It broadly originates along the entire posterior surface of the humerus inferior to the radial groove.
As the medial head does not attach to the scapula, it does not have a role in stabilization or movement. However, it is active during forearm extension at the elbow joint when the forearm is supinated or pronated.
Smith Machine close grip bench press primarily targets the medial and lateral triceps heads.
Related: The 18 Best Smith Machine Exercises
Smith Machine close grip bench press targets the following muscle groups —
- Triceps: The close grip hand placement primarily focuses on the back of your arms. The Smith Machine close grip bench press mainly targets the medial and lateral (short) triceps heads.
- Chest: Since it is a bench press variation, you might experience pectoral engagement, especially while lifting heavier weight.
- Shoulders: While following a full range of motion, you might notice anterior deltoid recruitment.
How To Perform Smith Machine Close Grip Bench Press
This is how to perform the lift with the correct form —
- Adjust the Smith machine barbell to waist height.
- Position a flat bench under the barbell so that the table is in the center.
- Lie down on the bench so that you are facing the ceiling. Your lower chest should be directly under the barbell.
- Grab the barbell with an overhand closer than shoulder-width (just outside your chest) grip and unlatch the bar from the rack.
- Extend your arms straight. This will be your starting position.
- While breathing in and keeping your elbows close to your sides, slowly lower the bar until it touches your chest.
- Return to the starting position explosively while exhaling sharply. Make sure you’re pushing through your triceps.
- Pause and contract your triceps at the top of the movement.
- Repeat for recommended reps.
- To maximize triceps engagement, make sure you’re not flaring out your elbows like you would during a conventional bench press set.
- Spend twice as long to go down than it takes to come up.
- Grab the barbell as tight as you can for optimal arm recruitment.
Some of the most common mistakes while performing the Smith machine close grip bench press include —
1. Bouncing the Bar off Your Chest
Many people bounce the bar off their chest while lifting heavier weights. Utilizing momentum reduces the tension on your triceps and puts you at a greater risk of injury.
Smith machine close grip bench press should be performed slowly and under total control. Using appropriate resistance and form ensures optimal triceps recruitment.
2. Not Using Proper Grip
Using the correct hand placement is of paramount importance while performing the close grip bench press. Hold the bar too wide, and you’d be focusing on your pecs, and grabbing the barbell with a narrower than shoulder-width grip will put unnecessary tension on your wrists and forearms.
Since every individual is unique, they will have a slightly different grip while performing the Smith machine close grip bench press. As a rule of thumb, you should be grabbing the bar just outside your chest.
3. Lifting Hips off the Bench
This is a common phenomenon, especially when lifting heavy. When there is more weight on the bar than a lifter can handle for the recommended reps, they tend to drive through their legs to get the bar off their chest, and in doing so, they end up lifting their hips off the table.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, reduce the weight because lifting with your hips off the bench can mess with your body mechanics and put you at a greater risk of injury.
4. Not Using a Spotter
Since the Smith machine has multiple racking points, many lifters do not use a spotter while using the training equipment, leaving gains on the table.
A training partner can make you push harder, assist you in utilizing advanced training principles like forced reps and negatives, and can help make the exercise safer.
5. Flairing Out Your Elbows
You need to keep your elbows close to your sides while performing the Smith machine close grip bench press. If you let your elbows flare out, you’ll put more tension on your shoulders and chest than you should in the bench press variation.
6. Not Retracing Your Scapula
When you are performing a bench press variation, you need to make sure you are retracing your scapula. If you do not pin back your shoulder blades, you restrict your rotator cuffs, resulting in shoulder impingement syndrome and bursitis.
By retracing your scapula, you give your shoulder muscles more breathing room by increasing the subacromial space. It also improves your range of motion and triceps and chest recruitment.
Adding the Smith Machine Close Grip Bench Press to your exercise arsenal entails the following benefits —
1. A Compound Exercise on Steroids
No, you do not have to be on juice to perform this compound exercise.
The rails of the Smith machine help you put more focus on your triceps. Plus, using a narrow grip is a great way to increase upper body pushing strength — relatively safely.
2. Builds Size and Strength
Since you do not have to balance the bar while performing the lift, you can lift heavier with better form while using heavier resistance, which can help in building muscle size and strength.
3. Great For People Dealing with Injuries
The Smith machine close grip bench press is great for people recovering from injuries. A narrow grip can reduce shoulder strain and help lifters move heavier weight relatively safely.
Studies suggest that bench press grips beyond 1.5x shoulder width can increase your risk of an injury, making the close-grip bench press a more viable solution for lifters dealing with injuries.  
Furthermore, you can alleviate stress on your shoulders by utilizing training equipment like slingshots or limit the exercise’s range of motion by setting up safety pins on the machine.
4. Builds Explosive Strength
As per research, a close grip bench press is a better exercise than the traditional bench press if your primary goal is to build explosive strength. Since triceps consist of fast-twitch muscle fibers, they react the best to heavier weights for fewer repetitions. 
Below are a few Smith machine close grip bench press variations and alternatives worth trying —
1. Smith Machine Close Grip Decline Bench Press
Smith machine decline press is quite similar to the close grip bench press, with the only difference being that you’ll be performing the exercise on a decline bench.
Using a decline bench increases your range of motion and puts greater tension on your medial triceps head. Tip: To make the most of the exercise, set the bench decline angle at 45 degrees.
2. Bodyweight Smith Machine Tricep Extension
Bodyweight Smith machine tricep extension is one of the exercises that might look super easy but will smoke your muscles in the first set. Your triceps will be begging for mercy when you’re done with the exercise.
- Set the Smith machine barbell at your waist height (or lower).
- Grab the bar with a shoulder-width monkey grip.
- Shuffle your feet back and place all the weight onto your arms by leaning into the bar. Your body should be in a straight line at the starting position.
- Slowly lower your torso until your head is under the bar. Pause at the bottom for a couple of seconds.
- Explode back up to the starting position. Pause and contract your triceps at the top.
- Repeat for recommended reps.
Pro Tip: If the lift feels difficult when the bar is at waist height, raising the bar to chest height can make the exercise easier. You could also perform a dropset on the movement by changing the bar placement.
3. Smith Machine Skull Crusher
Smith machine skull crusher is an advanced exercise and should only be tried by experienced lifters.
- Set the Smith machine bar to waist height and safety catches to head height.
- Lie down on the bench so that your forehead is directly under the bar.
- Grab the barbell with an overhand closer than shoulder-width grip and unlatch the bar from the rack.
- Extend your arms straight. This will be your starting position. You will feel your triceps engaged in this position.
- Lower the bar towards your forehead while keeping your elbows pinned in position.
- Pause when the bar is a few inches away from your head.
- Return to the starting position explosively.
- Pause and contract your triceps at the top.
- Repeat for recommended reps.
Is the Smith machine close grip bench press better than the conventional close grip bench press?
If by “better” you mean safer and more optimal for beginners for better triceps recruitment, then yes, it is better. However, it is an apples and oranges comparison.
How many reps and sets should I perform on the Smith machine close grip bench press?
If muscle-building is your primary goal, performing 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps is best for promoting hypertrophy. On the other hand, performing 4-5 sets of 4-5 reps is great for strength building.
Can I stop hitting the conventional bench press in favor of the Smith machine?
Unless you’re dealing with an injury, you shouldn’t eliminate the conventional bench press from your routine.
Next Read: Machine-Only Bodybuilding Workout Plan
Smith machine close grip bench press is a great exercise to have in your training arsenal if your goal is to build strength, explosive power, and muscle mass.
Performing the close grip bench press will ensure you’re not giving your posterior arm a step-motherly treatment. Best of luck!
- Green, Carly M. CSCS; Comfort, Paul MSc, CSCS The Affect of Grip Width on Bench Press Performance and Risk of Injury, Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2007 – Volume 29 – Issue 5 – p 10-14
- Madsen N, McLaughlin T. Kinematic factors influencing performance and injury risk in the bench press exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1984 Aug;16(4):376-81. PMID: 6493018.
- Lockie RG, Callaghan SJ, Moreno MR, et al. Relationships between Mechanical Variables in the Traditional and Close-Grip Bench Press. J Hum Kinet. 2017;60:19-28. Published 2017 Dec 28. doi:10.1515/hukin-2017-0109