Skip the Arch in Your Bench Press to Build More Absolute Strength

The Bench Press Arch Back

Go to a powerlifting meet and you’ll never see a competitor benching with their back flat on the bench, there are 3 main reasons why this is the case.

You’ll Lift More

If your goal is to increase the numbers you’re putting up on your bench you’ll find that by switching from a traditional ‘bodybuilder’ style bench press to a ‘powerlifter’ style bench press with an arched back and retracted scapula you’ll instantly be able to press more. We’re not talking to the extreme of back arching here – simply enough to fit a fist in the gap between the bench and your lower back.

You’re Actually REDUCING Your Risk of Injury

The #1 misconception I see and hear when it comes to the bench press arch back is that by using this form you’re begging for an injury.

You’ll find it’s quite the opposite, and I speak from experience.

The majority of guys that’ve been lifting for a number of years have experienced some niggling shoulder issues from bench pressing with flared elbows or similiar.

By slightly arching your back you’re able to contract your scapula (squeeze your shoulder blades together on the bench) which reduces the stress on your shoulder joints which are without a doubt the most vulnerable joint in your body.

You’re Far More Stable

Utilizing a slight arch in your back while your feet are firmly planted on the ground and your scapula are contracted on the bench provides far more stability than the traditional flat back style bench press. Not only does this physically help you add those extra pounds to the bar and squeeze out those few more reps, it also gives a big mental boost.

Even with a spotter, getting beyond certain numbers on the flat bench – be it 225lbs, 315lbs or whatever your number may be is more of a mental plateau than anything.

Is a Bench Press Arch Cheating?

People often say that the bench press arch is ‘cheating’ because the person is moving the weight with far less distance when compared with someone who is lying flat on the bench.

“Cheating” is only a legitimate concern if the bench press arch breaks some sort of rule. Since the powerlifting arch is mostly a technique used by powerlifters, let’s look at the rules of powerlifting.

According to the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF), there need to be certain points of contact on the bench and floor. The lifter must:

  • Have their head flat on the bench
  • Have their shoulders on the bench
  • Have their glutes on the bench
  • Have their feet flat on the floor
Based on these rules, the surface area between the

Based on these rules, the surface area between the shoulder blades and glutes do not need to make contact with the bench. As such, putting your spine into extention is completely within the boundaries of the rules.

Just like any other sport, athletes and coaches will push the rules as much as possible in order to squeeze every ounce of benefit out of the game. What most people call ‘cheating’ with the bench press arch is simply a naive understanding of the rules of powerlifting. The fact is that athletes can use the bench press arch in competition as long as they have those other points of contact on the bench.

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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.

Is there an advantage of the Bench press arch?

The advantage of the arch is quite obvious. Apart from a safety perspective, it’s going to shorten the range of motion that will allow your client to shift heavier loads. When your goal is to get stronger – it isn’t just about manipulating levers to lift heavier loads as we still want the shoulders and other accessory muscles to be nice and strong. In training (if the client is a powerlifter) we will keep the arch during our main work despite the reduced range of motion but ensure that in supplementary work we are taking the shoulders through ranges of motion that we may have neglected. Here think dumbbell pressing variations on all angles! 

Let’s talk SET UPUsing their preferred grip, index fingers on the outer ring of the powerlifting bar (if using), ie flat on the bench and slide back to get their feet into position by getting up onto the balls of your feet. They then push your heels down to create a nice arch. The arch of the thoracic spines allows for the perfect setup of the scapula which is retraction and depression and external rotation through the entire movement. Your client will then take a big breath and hold this the whole time until the pressing is complete.

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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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Bench Press Arch andInjury

At first glance, it’s easy to see why an untrained (or new) lifter may associate an exaggerated arch with an injury. That’s because, well, it does look a little sketchy. But with knowledge comes power (literal ower in this case), and so here’s a quick breakdown of how the spine is injured. 

There are two primary forces that can impact and injure the spine — axial loading and shearing force. Axial loading is when the spine is compressed under a heavy load — from top-to-bottom — like with the back squat. Shearing forces are when the vertebrae of the spine are forced in opposite directions (which is usually the result of top-down loading). The thing is, bench-pressing doesn’t load the spine in a top-down manner. Also, arching better positions the bar over the upper back and shoulders, so there’s even less pressure on the lower back

In the video below, courtesy of Juggernaut Training System’s YouTube channel, Dr. Quinn Henoch, DPT and head of sports rehabilitation at JuggernautHQ, and Dr. Mike Israetel, Ph.D. in Sport Physiology, break down the nuances of the bench press arch. 

Henoch and Israetel discuss that a moderate level of arching is healthier for the shoulders and can activate more of the lower pectoral musculature. Also, they point out that the force put on the lower back, even during the leg drive portion of the bench is lower than the force produced by light weight squats. Injury to the lumbar in the form of disk herniation is generally caused posteriorly, so a healthy arch can offer some lumbar protection, as herniation anteriorly is less common.

Why Do People Arch Their Back When Bench Pressing?

Simply put, the point of the back arch is to help you lift more weight. It accomplishes this by reducing range of motion, increasing stability, and recruiting other muscle groups to help you generate more power. 

Let’s break these benefits down one by one.

1. The Arch Reduces Your Range of Motion (ROM)

Let’s get one thing out of the way: yes, the back arch reduces ROM to allow them to lift more weight. That is, believe it or not, the entire goal of our sport. As long as a lifter’s technique stays within the agreed-upon rules (butt and shoulders on the bench), then there’s no reason to trash them for benching with an arch. 

The technical perks of reducing the range of motion are straightforward: there’s less work to do. A shorter distance for the bar to travel means less time under pressure. 

Doesn’t limiting the ROM mean the pecs aren’t activated as much?

Nope. In fact, it actually leads to even better activation. That brings us to benefit number two.

1. Its the Safest Position for Your Shoulders

Your back isn’t what you need to worry about while bench pressing—it’s your shoulders. Arching your back while lying down doesn’t load your spine like a Squat or Deadlift (more on this later), but holding a heavy bar over your face certainly loads the shoulder joint. An extended spine helps lock your shoulders in place and reduces the range of motion through which your arms 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, designed to move a lot while throwing a ball, swinging a racquet or performing any other high-speed, upper-body motion. But this also means the shoulder is naturally less stable, so you need superb body awareness and co-contraction of the muscles surrounding the shoulder to keep it in a safe position.

To keep your shoulders safe during the Bench Press, you MUST keep the “ball” in the “socket.” Arching your back helps draw the ball deeper into the socket and allows you to use your upper-back muscles to pull your shoulder blades down and back into a stable position. Ideal shoulder positioning when the bar hits your chest looks like this, with the elbows directly under the bar and the shoulder blades pinned to the bench:

Flat back benching pushes the ball forward in the

Flat back benching pushes the ball forward in the socket, which causes the elbows to drift behind the bar and the shoulders to shrug into a bad position:

This can lead to biceps tendonitis, pec and rotato

This can lead to biceps tendonitis, pec and rotator cuff strains, and other injuries. Think of it like repeatedly squatting with your knees caving in, or letting your back round repeatedly while deadlifting. Eventually, those joints will wear down and get hurt. For your shoulders’ sake, arch your back when you bench press.

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About Me 130lbs 15%~ body fat to 190lbs 8% body fat Hi, I'm SJ. I'm a published author, entrepreneur and fitness fanatic. Over the past 9 years I've completely transformed my body (and mindset!) without any confusing phony workout routines or expensive supplements that the fitness industry thrives on. I'm here to help you transform your body and mind to become the best version of yourself possible using proven, easy to follow methods that won't blow your bank account. You don't need steroids, you don't need to spend 2 hours a day in the gym and you don't need overpriced supplements. Regardless of how skinny or overweight you may currently be these methods and tailored to work for you.

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