In this guide, we cover everything you need to know about the bench press arch.
The bench press arch refers to a person arching the upper and lower back to create a separation between the bench and their back. This technique is used by competitive powerlifters to increase performance. Powerlifters can lift more weight using the bench press arch because it will put their shoulders in an advantageous position, reduce the range of motion of the movement, and recruit more muscle fibers in the lower pec and upper back. The result is a higher 1 rep max.
Questions surround whether this technique is beneficial to non-powerlifters, whether it’s safe or cheating, and how exactly should someone set up a powerlifting arch effectively. We’ll cover these questions, and more, in further detail below.
What is a Bench Press Arch?
The bench press arch refers to putting the spine into extension. Check out the following video, where I explain further:
The top of the arch starts at the scapula (the shoulder blade) with the bottom of the arch ending at the pelvis. The scapula and pelvis are anchored on the bench acting as pivot points with the midsection or torso bending between these two positions. The goal is to have the rib cage reach as high as possible (toward the ceiling) while laying on the bench.
While the bench press arch is primarily used by competitive powerlifters, everyday gym folk can be seen doing this technique too. As long as it’s implemented correctly then anyone can experience the benefits of a powerlifting arch, which will be explained in detail later on.
Learn more about bench press technique in my article on bench press cues
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 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.
Is a Bench Press Arch Safe?
As long as you don’t have any pre-existing back conditions or issues, the bench press arch is a safe technique.
When you see someone arching their back, naturally the question is whether it’s safe or will cause back injuries.
It has been said by Dr. Quinn Henoch (Physiotherapy) and Dr. Mike Istratel (Physiology) that the force put on the lower back while benching with an arch is lower than the force produced by lightweight squats. Furthermore, it’s been noted that injuries to the low back, such as disc herniations, are caused by loading the spine posteriorly (when the spine is rounding) and is far less common when the spine is loaded anteriorly (when the spine is extending). In fact, a healthy arch can even offer some lumbar protection in order to protect the spine from rounding.
The other important note is that the low and mid-back have a natural degree of mobility and is built to move in different directions. You can extend your back in all sorts of positions and it doesn’t cause you pain. As long as you work within your natural mobility and don’t extend beyond what feels comfortable, then arching while benching will be safe to implement.
Check out my article on floor pressing, which is a bench press variation that doesn’t use the arch.
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
inchyou 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.
Drawbacks Of Using A Bench Press Arch?
The main drawback for using a bench press arch is not moving the load through the full muscle length.
Having a reduced range of motion is a double-edged sword.
On one hand, you can lift more weight, which is a benefit. On the other hand, you won’t get the benefits of training a full range of motion. Training with a full range of motion has shown to yield greater hypertrophy adaptations (muscle growth).
While there are examples of partial-rep training
With that said, powerlifters use the bench press as a competition exercise, with the goal of lifting as much weight as possible. While hypertrophy adaptations are still important, it’s not the primary goal for powerlifters. Therefore, powerlifters justify using the arch to lift more
The idea here is to ‘practice the skill of arching’, then use supplementary exercises to stretch the pec muscles through the end range of motion.
How to Set Up A Bench Press Arch?
There are 5 steps to setting up a powerlifting arch:
- Start with your feet on the bench. Bring your hips into the air so that you are putting the majority of your bodyweight on your upper traps. While your hips are in this position, grab the bar and set your grip.
- Retract and depress your shoulder blades. You will want to actively pull your shoulder blades together, and make sure they are pinned down into the bench. This might look like ‘wiggling’ your shoulder blades into position.
- Bring your feet to the floor and set your stance. Your feet should be as close to your shoulders as possible. Once your feet are set, push aggressively into the floor so that you’re still maintaining tension on your upper traps. You’ll want to push the floor down and away from you. Most people will push ‘down’, but not ‘away’. When you push away, it will feel like your upper traps are pushing back into the bench. Through this process of setting your feet, you’re still keeping your hips elevated off the bench.
- With your hips still off the bench and actively pushing the floor ‘down’ and ‘away, take the bar off the rack. As soon as the bar is over your start position, bring the glutes down to the bench, trying to touch the lower part of the glute. Keep the low and mid-back elevated as much as possible.
- As you bring the bar down to your chest (ensure you’ve taken a breath), cue yourself to keep the chest high. One of my favorite cues is to ‘meet the bar with your chest’. It’s not that you’re trying to bring the bar down to your chest, but rather, you’re trying to bring your chest up to the bar. You’ll also want to keep your glutes flexed the entire time to keep your lower back protected.
How to Improve Your Bench Press Arch?
It’s important to recognize that you’ll likely not have a ‘perfect arch’ on day one. But not trying to get better with the arch is one of the biggest bench press mistakes a powerlifter can make.
It might feel awkward and unnatural when you attempt a bench press arch for the first time. This is normal and to be expected. You’re learning a new movement pattern, and challenging your mobility under load.
The way that you need to treat the powerlifting arch is like any other ‘sport skill’. It will require consistent practice over a prolonged period of time. For example, if you want to get better at free throw shots in basketball, you need to perform thousands of
The same level of practice is required to perfect the bench press arch.
Furthermore, with any new movement skill, the principle of specificity applies.
This principle states that for any desired movement outcome, the more specific the practice as it relates to the skill, the greater the positive adaptation.
For example, if you want to get better at back squatting, you probably shouldn’t perform front squats. This is because performing back squats is a more specific method than front squats.
This same level of specificity is required to improve the bench press arch. You don’t want to arch one day, and then not arch the next. If you want to get better, always bench press with an arch, and your joint mobility and musculature will adapt positively to the new movement pattern.
Use the bench press arch with the cue “bend the barbell in half” for a stronger bench press.
Exercises That Will Help Your Bench Press Arch
There are a few exercises that you should implement if you are going to start using a bench press arch.
These exercises are especially important if you find that you aren’t able to keep your arch while benching.
Before you lift:
- Dynamic Thoracic Foam Rolling. I’ve detailed in another article how you should warm up for bench press, but one of the exercises you should include is specific mobility through your mid-back. You can use a foam roller to loosen up your spinal erectors so that your thoracic spine has more mobility while benching.
After you bench press:
- Heavy, Strict Mid Back Rows. My favorites are Penlay rows or wide grip seated rows. Two important technical elements you need to implement are: (1) grab the bar in your bench press grip, and (2) pull the bar to where you touch the bar on your chest while benching. I like to do any rowing movement directly after I bench press.
After your workout:
- Static Foam Roller Stretch With Arms Overhead. This movement will increase the range of motion through your mid-back. Hold the stretch for 1-2 minutes. Hold a weight with your hands if you want more of a stretch.
- Static Hip Flexor Stretch With Rear Foot Elevated. This movement will increase range of motion through your hips, which will allow you to pull your feet further back on the floor. Hold stretch for 1-2 minutes.
What Makes a Good Bench Press Arch?
There are two key factors that contribute to a successful bench press arch.
First, you want to create a full body arch. This means that you need to develop the ability to arch from your upper back to the pelvis. Think about anchoring your upper back and pelvis onto the bench, and use them as pivot points where you distribute
Second, once you set your arch, you want to ensure you maintain this position as you cycle through reps. What we’re trying to avoid is a change in position. If you aren’t successfully anchored into the bench, or your arch
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
Here is a prime example of someone who doesn’t have an extreme bench arch:
Jennifer Thompson, 11-Time World Champion
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.
The bench press arch is a specific technique for powerlifters to increase performance.
To improve your bench press arch, you’ll want to focus on an effective set-up, and then practice using this technique consistently over a long period of time. The bench press arch is a safe technique if your shoulders and pelvis are anchored into the bench press properly, and your position doesn’t change while lifting the weight. Improve your arch by strengthening your mid-back, and performing specific drills to increase mobility. Don’t compare yourself with other people who have extreme bench press arches, work with what you got, and continue to get stronger.
Feature image thanks to International Powerlifting Federation