You should arch your back. You shouldn't arch your back. Which one is right? As with most things, you have to consider goals and purpose. This week we explain the risk and benefits of the arch.
Flat Back Bench Press
Above is a picture of safe form for the bench press. Although it is referred to as "flat", the spine is actually slightly arched to create a neutral position. you want a slight arch that you can fit a hand under. Below are cues to get the right form:
- Keep the shoulder blades tight and pinched together
- Slight arch in the back
- Hips on the bench
- Arms 45 degrees at the bottom phase to take stress off the shoulder joint (if the bar hits your nipple line, you will be at 45 degrees)
This is safe and the direction of force from the humerus and torso is perpendicular to the torso's alignment.
Arched Back Bench Press
Above is what we mean by arch in the back. Notice the foot position and hip position. This is a good position for powerlifting since the goal is to push as much weight as possible within the proper guidelines on form and rules.
Why can some people lift more like this? The arch turns the traditional flat bench into somewhat of a decline press; the direction of force is LESS than perpendicular from the humerus to the torso. For that reason, there is less distance the bar needs to move if the bar touches the xiphoid process or below. Another aspect that makes lifting with an arch easier is due to the angle of pull. Below is a bell curve explaining that with most free weights, a lift starts easy, gets hard (often when the moving joint is parallel to floor), and then finishes easy as the movement is done. The shorter range of motion means it is easier, but some may still have a "sticking point" elsewhere in the movement due to one's own weakness.
So if the goal is about the maximal amount of weight you can lift while performing a bench press, an arch may be the best way to go, given you practice benching with an arch. This is due to the reasons below:
- Shorter ROM meaning less distance
- Due to shorter ROM, the humerus joint angle is less likely to encounter common sticking point
- Decline press showed the highest EMG (graph showing amount of muscle activation) of the pectoralis major compared to other chest exercises and variations (Bompa & Carrera, 2005). More neuromuscular signal means more strength.
As for the actual cues for the bench press, I myself do not practice this form too much as I do not work with many powerlifters. I often refer them to my good friend Zach Trahan (@zach_trahan or #coachedbytrahan on instagram) for all things powerlifting/strongman. Contacting him or asking me for his contact info would be the better option in my honest opinion.
Of course there can be risks as well. One risk is that it can cause impingement along the backside of the spine due to hyperextension. Anytime you extend your spine, you risk going too far back and actually hurting it; hence we say neutral spine, not extended spine, all the time. The core should be properly trained and angle of arch should be optimal, not as far as can be. A second risk is that some competitions allow hips off the bench (not powerlifting competitions), some let require they stay on (powerlifting competitions). Practice what you are training for; don't get disqualified or lift less weight just because of unfamiliarity of form. Nothing is wrong with the traditional way either.
Each form is okay to do, but should be chosen based on goal and ability to perform each form correctly. The argument whether arch should be used for all athletes is commonly debated, and trainers can always have their own opinion. For non-powerlifting athletes, I opt for the traditional form, but that's just me. To each his own, however everyone should understand the mechanisms behind form and function.
ACSM Resources for the personal trainer 4th edition. (2014).Walters Kluwer.
Baechle, T. R. & Earle, R.W. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning 3rd Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Bompa, T.O., & Carrera, M.C. (2005). Periodization training for sports 2nd Edition.
Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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