Build Your Bench Press ArchYour feet do not become the end of the arch. If you lift your butt off the bench, your arch now spans from your upper back to your feet. This position is a weak pressing position. Instead, your feet and legs create an abutment, providing horizontal resistance against the tendency for your butt to move away from your shoulders.
Build Your Bench Press Arch
Most of the time, physics and anatomy line up nicely in barbell training. Physics tells us that we should move barbells in a straight vertical line so that the force we exert is directed toward work against gravity. This is efficient. Biomechanics tells us that any horizontal distance between the bar and a joint in the kinetic chain creates a moment arm, which the muscles operating the joint must overcome. Unnecessary moment arms make moving loads more challenging. So, the best way to move barbells is in straight vertical lines with no unnecessary horizontal displacement from any joint. Accordingly, when we squat, press overhead, and deadlift, our proper form includes a to a vertical bar (or as close an approximation as possible).
But the bench press is a little bit different. When it comes to vertical bar paths, the bench press is the black sheep of our main lifts. Experience and observation have taught us that the bench press is a valuable addition to the main lifts. Besides letting you lie down while training, it allows someone to lift heavy in a way that rounds out our general, full-body training when combined with the overhead press.
The bench press makes the cut as one of our four main lifts for the sheer potential it carries to develop upper body strength. In terms of trainability—the potential for ongoing, long-term, consistent growth—the bench press is an amazingly useful lift to develop raw upper body strength, allowing for steady progress for a long time. It’s a big, basic lift that trains large muscle groups and multiple joints.
(Read more about the Muscles Worked in the Bench Press)
Anatomy vs. Mechanics
When you bench press, the lockout position at the top is directly over the shoulder joint. In this position, there is no horizontal distance between the load in your hands and the joint, the bar is held in compression with your muscles exerting only enough force to maintain that balanced position and keep your elbows extended and the bones of your arm stacked between the bar and the socket of the shoulder joint.
Then, anatomy and efficiency become at odds in proper bench press form. The most efficient way to move the bar down and then back up would be in a straight vertical line, your elbows tracking outward at 90-degrees of shoulder abduction from your body, the bar touching directly along the line of your shoulder joints, and you pressing the bar vertically to the lockout position. A straight vertical line would minimize the moment on the shoulder joint.
Your shoulder anatomy, however, requires something a little bit different. At 90-degrees of shoulder abduction, your upper arm is put in a position to scrape the bony processes of your shoulder blade (the coracoid and acromion processes). This can damage the soft tissues of the rotator cuff that travel through those bony spaces, possibly causing impingement syndrome and long-term damage to the function of your shoulder. So, the most efficient bar path is unavailable during the bench press.
To bench press safely, you must bring your elbows closer to your body. Maintaining neutral wrists means you will touch your chest a few inches lower than your shoulder joint—about mid-sternum. This position prevents shoulder impingement, making the bench press safe. But it is also inefficient.
The movement of the bar horizontally down your chest from your shoulder joint creates a moment arm that the muscles of your shoulder must overcome. Thus, anatomy requires that we break our optimal rule of a vertical bar path. But we can still strive for an efficient lift.
Build the Bridge
The way to proper bench press form is through the arch. When you arch your back in the bench press, you are both raising your chest and the touchpoint that marks the bottom of the movement, shortening the distance vertically. You are also pulling your shoulder horizontally closer to that touchpoint, shortening the amount of horizontal travel away from the shoulder joint that is necessary for the safe execution of the movement. The arch improves the efficiency of an inherently inefficient movement.
But the arch is not easy to maintain at heavy weights. When you arch, you are concentrically contracting your spinal erectors to extend your spine into that position. You are also retracting your shoulder blades to pull them flat against the bench. And you are supporting a heavy load in your hands, requiring stability and control. There is a lot of muscular tension necessary to hold that position. The net effect is that you face the same problem as a bridge builder.
An arched bridge holds its position by resisting the forces that gravity and traffic put on it, tending to push the ends of the arch outward, farther apart from each other. The compressive force on top of the bridge disperses down the sides of the arch. If nothing were there holding the arch together at the bottom, then the sides would push apart, and the bridge would collapse. So, too would your bench press arch.
The bridge builder’s answer is an abutment. The bridge abutment resists the outward movement of the bridge’s ends with vertical force from the ground and horizontal force from supports. This holds the arch of the bridge. And you can use the same idea to strengthen the arch of your bench press. The two points that are trying to move apart are your upper back, where your shoulder blades contact the bench, and your butt, which should be firmly in contact with the bench.
At the top, you have vertical and horizontal resistance to help keep your shoulders in place. With sufficient weight on the bar, the vertical downward force of the bar pins your shoulders in place. That pressure is supported by the friction of the bench. Good benches are a bit “stickier” than cheap ones and will help you keep your upper back in place.
At the other end of the arch, you do not have the same downward vertical pressure from the bar to help hold you in place. So, while there is friction against the bench, it is less effective than at your upper back. But you can create resistance to support your arch from the ground with your legs and feet.
Your feet do not become the end of the arch. If you lift your butt off the bench, your arch now spans from your upper back to your feet. This position is a weak pressing position. Instead, your feet and legs create an abutment, providing horizontal resistance against the tendency for your butt to move away from your shoulders.
The most effective resistance is along the same line as the opposing force. If your butt moved farther away from your shoulders, it would do so along the plane of the bench. Parallel to the bench is the optimal direction to resist that movement. Your feet should be actively pushing to create a line of force parallel to the bench, pushing you toward the head side of the bench.
To practice this, grab a friend next time you bench. Lie down on the bench without taking the bar out of the rack. Assume your normal bench press set up: arch your chest, retract your shoulder blades, and feet flat on the floor. Now, have your friend stand by your head and use their hands to block your shoulders. Their goal is to keep you from sliding upward and off the bench. Now, using your legs, push into their hands. What you should feel is a squeezing and supporting of the arch in your back. If your shoulders cannot move, you will be using your legs to squish yourself into a more supported, arched position. Take note of how your legs feel in this position and try to maintain that squeeze.
Once you have a little bit of weight on the bar, you can do this on your own. The weight on the bar pins your shoulders to the bench so that you can push with your legs—just like you did before when your friend was blocking your shoulders. Now, HOLD THIS SQUEEZE for the entire set. Some lifters are skilled at throwing the bar off their chest, but that skill does not start from a relaxed position. Instead, focus on active motionless, continuous stabilization from your feet on the ground through your legs, bracing the big stable arch of your back.
As with all the lifts, proper bench press form flows from a proper setup. Practice building your arch and using your legs, and you will be better able to push through the slower, grind-ier reps that help build a big bench press.