The bench press may be the most visible of the big three lifts, and it’s probably the best compound lift for working the muscles in the upper body. It’s also the least technical of the big three: squatting and deadlifting require your form be finer tuned, because the risk of injury (especially to the back) is a bit higher in those lifts. For this reason, the intricacies of bench pressing form are often ignored in the fitness community. But an often overlooked form tweak can help you move more weight on bench. What is this tweak?
Simple: Arch Your Back.
The arched-back bench press is performed almost identically to the flat, or strict-press bench, but with one difference: instead of holding your lower and middle back firmly on the bench, you arch it up. Performed properly, it looks like this:
Notice how his butt and shoulder blades stay flush against the bench, while his middle back lifts off of it. Developing this form is as much about flexibility as it is about strength. Exercises designed to increase spinal flexibility, like bridges and back extensions, can help you achieve proper form if you aren’t quite flexible enough to perform the arch when you first try it.
The last thing you want is for your arch to fall mid-lift, so make sure your flexibility is up to par before you load on the weight with this form! Practice with a lower weight and add more gradually – and always enlist the help of a spotter.
Why arched instead of flat?
The arched back bench press has many advantages over the strict press. Its biggest advantage is the way it distributes the press weight across the muscles of your upper body. In a strict press, the weight on the bar is moved mostly by the pectorals and upper arms, and the push from the chest puts a lot of strain on the rotator cuffs of the shoulders. Arching your back changes the angle of the push slightly, directing the strain away from the rotator cuff and onto the deltoids and trapezius.
Arching also allows for a more forceful foot drive. A good bench press uses the feet as counterpoints: you push down into the ground at the same time you push up against the bar, using your torso as the fulcrum of the movement. Arching helps more of the force from that downward push translate into the upward push against the bar.
Another advantage of arching your back while squeezing your glutes is allowing for stabilzation. Driving your stomach upward and driving your heels into the ground will allow your hips to be higher than your knees are.
Video: How to Bench Press-Mark Bell
The biggest advantage of the arched-back press may be the most subtle, and also the most technical. It has to do with the path the bar takes during the movement:
CORRECT BAR PATH FOR STRONGEST LIFT!
INCORRECT BAR PATH FOR STRONGEST LIFT!
This compares the bar path of a bench press performed on a Smith machine (bottom) to one performed with a free barbell (top). Notice how the bar path arcs in the free weight press. This is how flat pressers attempt to reduce the angle of the upward push, and arching your back makes this arcing path easier to attain, without putting undo pressure on your rotator cuff.
The overall result of arching your back on bench? You lift more weight.
Video: How To Bench Press Correctly
Is the arched-back press a true bench press?
In a word: yes.
Most people who reject the arched-back press claim it as cheating, because most people lift more with an arched back than a flat back – provided they have the flexibility to execute the form correctly. But the advantages of arching your back come because the form takes advantage of your body’s natural lines of motion, not because it makes the weight magically easier to lift.
For example: compare how much you can squat with your feet closer together with how much you can squat with a wider stance. More likely than not, squatting with a wider base allows you to move more weight. This is because the wider base makes you more stable, and therefore more able to explode out of the “hole” to finish the rep. Arching your back on bench works similarly: it takes advantage of how your body generates force to help you push more weight, and has the added bonus of protecting the ligaments of your rotator cuff from bearing too much of the strain of the lift.
And that’s what any lifting form should do for you: help you lift more, more safely.
What tips have you discovered that helped you increase your bench press?