Why You Actually Should Arch Your Back While You Bench Press

‍Is Arching Your Back While Bench Pressing Bad?

If you arch your back on the bench press, then you’re a cheater and should be banned from powerlifting. End of article.

Just kidding! Despite what you may see in any given instagram comments section, the back arch commonly performed by powerlifters has a ton of benefits. After all, why do you think all the strongest lifters in the world do it? The benefits far outweigh the risks.

In fact, the “powerlifter arch” may even be the safest bench method of all. In this article, we’ll go over 5 distinct benefits of benching with an arch and why your strength coach isn’t crazy for insisting on it.

Example of Proper Back Arch
Example of Proper Back Arch

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NOW SHUT UP AND GO BENCH

Can we stop arguing and start training? This should clear up some of the confusion regarding the bench press arch and why it’s not as dangerous as the Instagram trolls want you to believe.

For more information on the bench press (including the many myths and mistakes people make), sign up for my newsletter below to receive two free e-books and an in-depth video tutorial on how to bench.

Benefits of Using a Bench Press Arch?

By using a bench press arch, you will be able to lift more weight.

There are four main benefits to using a bench press arch:

  • Reduced Range of Motion: By thinking about lifting your chest as high as possible toward the ceiling, you are reducing the range of motion the bar needs to travel. Think of it like this: for every inch you can increase your arch, that’s one less inch you need to press the weight. This is especially important if you have a sticking point when the barbell is on your chest.
  • Better Shoulder Position: When setting up the bench press, you want to retract and depress your shoulder blades. This position is more easily attained when your upper traps are driving into the top of the bench press. This ‘upper trap’ position will be explained more thoroughly below.
  • Increased Stabilization In Upper Back: The stabilizing muscles in the bench press are upper back and lats. These muscles are responsible for decelerating the bar on the way down and keeping the bar within an efficient movement pattern. The stabilizers are much easier to contract when your shoulders are in a retracted position, which starts with setting up a strong arch.
  • Increased Activation of Lower Pec Fibers: When muscle activation has been studied in the bench press, placing your back in an arched position recruit more muscle fibers in the lower pec, which contribute to greater overall force production on the barbell.

The opposite of using a bench press arch is bench pressing with your legs up or doing a larsen press.

2. Your Spine Is Not Axially Loaded

Arching your lower back to an extreme degree while squatting or deadlifting is a bad idea. When your spine is axially loaded (i.e., top-to-bottom) AND compressively loaded (i.e., the weight pushes the vertebrae closer together) the safest position is to stack your vertebrae on top of each other in their natural curve. If you arch your back aggressively, those vertebrae are no longer stacked directly on top of each other, increasing shear stress and your risk of injury. However, the bench press arch removes most of these factors, because your spine isn’t directly loaded by the bar.

It’s similar to an upward facing dog pose in yoga. And while you’re not holding heavy weight over your face on a yoga mat, it’s still unloaded spinal extension. And you’d be hard-pressed to find many people lecture you about the dangers of arching your back during yoga.

Most importantly, your spine isn’t MOVING during the Bench Press. Moving segments of your spine under load is risky (e.g., rounding your back while deadlifting), but the Bench Press keeps your spine in place while only your arms move.

There are some athletes who may experience pain with unloaded spinal extension, such as those who have spondylolysis (spinal stress fractures) or stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal canal through which nerves and spinal cord run). In these cases, athletes should use different pressing exercises that can be performed safely without arching the back, such as Push-Ups and Landmine Presses.

What Happens If You Bench Press With No Arch?

There are many successful elite bench pressers who don’t use a bench press arch.

This isn’t to say that they purposely try to lie flat on the bench.

However, each person is built differently, and even when trying to improve thoracic extension and mobility, for some people the arch still won’t be as extreme as others.

If you’re one of these people, you’ll need to work with what you got. Be as diligent as you can with trying to improve thoracic extension and mobiltiy, but at the end of the day, don’t worry if you don’t have an extreme arch. Simply try and get stronger through more effective programming.

Here is a prime example of someone who doesn’t have an extreme bench arch:

Jennifer Thompson, 11-Time World Champion

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bue4eODgTVz/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

Jennifer Thompson is the strongest pound-for-pound bench presser in the World, and while arching slightly, it’s not as extreme as other powerlifters. She also has long arms, so by all account she is required to press the bar with a greater range of motion than others.

But isn’t it dangerous?

While a neutral (more or less straight) spine is desirable in many lifts, it’s not important in the bench press. You aren’t asking your back to support weight in the same way you would if you were squatting; your back is just stabilizing while your chest and arms do the work.

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Some people are more flexible than others, so there’s a natural reaction when we see somebody doing a thing we can’t to think that if it would hurt us, it must also hurt them. That’s not the case, of course: A gymnast thinks nothing of doing the splits even if I, watching from the couch, can’t imagine anything other than pain from doing the same.

If you want a full anatomical breakdown of what’s happening in a bench arch, sports physiologist Mike Israetel has one here. It’s fine.

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All that said, some body types will never fully escape criticism from the armchair coaching crowd. My back isn’t very flexible so my arch isn’t a dramatic one, and even I occasionally get “aren’t you going to break your back” comments if I post a bench video on social media.

Meanwhile, big guys with a big chest or belly have a reduced distance of bar travel just because of the size of their body, and nobody tells them that they’re cheating. And they’re probably arching too, it’s just harder to see that because there isn’t as much daylight under their back as there is on a smaller lifter. They don’t get constant concerns about the supposed health of their spines. In other words, arching is one of those things that women get a lot more criticism for.

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2. Arching Yields Greater Pec Activation

Yep, you heard me. Though the reduced ROM means less work in total, the bench press arch makes up for it by hitting the chest at a different angle. Benching from an arched position recruits more pectoral muscle fibers than you’d need for other bench variations. You’re literally working more of the pectoral muscles’ total volume, which in turn means better gains.

3. A Strong Back Arch Improves Your Shoulder Stability

Most people don’t realize that the powerlifter arch is a natural curve resulting from proper shoulder stabilization.

Think about it. Proper bench technique involves pulling the shoulder blades down and back (a motion called “scapular retraction”). Tucking your shoulders like this allows the pecs and triceps to handle the brunt of the load while relieving the deltoids and rotator cuffs from excessive stress. 

Scapular retraction creates an arch in the thoracic spine (upper back) that protects the shoulder joint, mostly eliminating the common complaint of “bencher’s shoulder.”

image source: bodybuilding.com
image source: bodybuilding.com

4. Proper Arching Increases Leg Drive

As anyone who’s benched heavy can tell you, it quickly becomes much more than just a chest or tricep exercise. When performed correctly, it’s truly a full-body movement that uses your leg drive for increased force production. 

But without a back arch, the force from your leg drive won’t go very far. 

If the back’s loose and then hit with a sudden drive from the legs, much of the force will dissipate as the butt slides back and forces the back to bend into a sloppy arch halfway through the lift.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but if your back is bending in and out on each set like a live fish slapping around on the floor, you may have poor technique. 

Instead of floundering around like a trout, we want to create a thoracic arch during the set up. That way, the force generated from the legs transfers directly into the bar thanks to a pre-stabilized back.

5. An Arched Back is a Healthy Back

Now put down your pitchforks for a second and listen. 

Back injuries generally come from movement of the spine under load, whether it’s axial (vertical) or shear. The reason you don’t want arching in the back squat or deadlift is to avoid these stressors.

The bench press, however, doesn’t involve any axial loading. Plus, we can minimize shear loading by creating a back arch during setup as long as the glutes and shoulders remain in contact with the bench. 

Without an arch, not only does the leg drive go absolutely nowhere, but the spine faces a higher risk of injury as a result. 

Using proper leg drive creates an arch prior to putting the spine under load, will result in an arch becoming created at some point in the lift, and this is much less likely to lead to an injury if done during the set up when the body is not yet loaded.

2. ITS THE SAFEST POSITION FOR YOUR SHOULDERS

This is hands down the most important reason to arch your back. Your back isn’t what you need to worry about, it’s your shoulders. Arching your back while laying down doesn’t load your spine like a squat or deadlift (more on this in the next point), but holding a heavy bar over your face certainly loads the shoulder joint in a risky way. An extended spine allows for optimal stabilization of the shoulder joint while moving heavy weights and reduces the range of motion through which the shoulder must travel, resulting in a safer exercise.

The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint. The head of the humerus (upper arm bone) is the “ball” and the glenoid fossa is the “socket”. The glenoid fossa is where the humerus and scapula (shoulder blade) meet, and they’re held together by several soft tissue structures, including your glenohumeral ligaments, labrum and biceps tendon. The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body, meaning it’s also the least stable and at greater risk for injury. It takes superb body awareness and co-contraction of the muscles surrounding the shoulder to keep it in a safe position.

In order to keep your shoulders safe during the bench press, you MUST keep the “ball” in the “socket”. Arching your back allows you to use your upper back muscles to pull your shoulder blades down and back into a stable position. This draws the ball toward the socket and helps keep it there. Ideal shoulder positioning when the bar hits your chest looks like this:

Flat back benching increase the range of motion that the shoulder must go through, making it much harder to stabilize your shoulders and more likely that you’ll run into this position when the bar hits your chest:

If the ball is continually allowed to ride forward in the socket, especially under heavy loads, our risk for injury increases dramatically. For your shoulders’ sake, arch your back when you bench press.

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