You may not automatically think of your back as a key muscle involved in the bench press. But the bench press goes beyond just your chest, shoulders, and triceps.
So does a strong back help your bench press? Yes, a strong back helps your bench press because your back muscles provide stability to your bench press. It helps you confidently lower the barbell to your chest as well as to retract your shoulders and scapula (shoulder blades) to get into and maintain an ideal bench press arch.
But don’t go thinking this automatically means doubling your back volume will suddenly help you double your bench press. Let’s dig into the details of how and how much the back muscles impact your bench.
How Important Is Back Strength For Bench Press?
You’re right to think of the bench press as a chest/triceps/shoulders exercise first, because it is. And if your bench is struggling, you’re far more likely to find improvement while working on those three muscle groups.
But your back is involved in the bench press in two major ways: getting into position and in the descent, or eccentric portion, of the lift when you lower the bar to your chest. We’ll dive into more detail on this in a moment.
When you get into the bench press arch position, you should be retracting your scapula. To do that, you use you a combination of your rhomboids (the muscles in the middle of your upper back), trapezius (the muscles along the back of your neck and shoulders), and latissimus dorsi (the flat, wide muscle along the side of your mid and lower back).
You can visualize this by shrugging your shoulders up, then pulling them back by squeezing your shoulder blades together, and then finally pushing your shoulder blades downward. This is the position you should hold while benching.
Secondly, as you lower the bar toward your body, you are essentially performing a row. The only difference is that we are currently underneath the bar instead of on top of it, like in a bent over barbell row.
The row is a back exercise that relies on your rhomboids, trapezius, latissimus dorsi, the teres major (the muscle that connects to the scapula and the humerus bone in the upper arm), and teres minor (a muscle that makes up part of the rotator cuff) to pull the bar toward your chest.
When benching, we rely on those same back muscles to bring the bar toward our chest in a stable, controlled fashion. Your back muscles help prevent the bar from falling on you with the pull of gravity.
Now all this being said, while getting into position and lowering the bar accurately is important, I think we’ve all seen guys with a terrible setup who drop the bar onto their chest like they want to break their ribs but still successfully press the bar. However, someone with that kind of chest, shoulder, and tricep strength would benefit from a stronger back to keep the bar in control.
As such, the back is an often forgotten element to the bench press that can absolutely improve your overall results when you train it specifically for the bench press.
2 Ways Back Strength Improve Bench Press
Now that we know that the back is helpful but not always game—changing to our bench press, let’s talk about how those back muscles actually impact our bench for the better.
As I discussed above, the back serves the bench press in two main ways — getting into position and pulling the bar to your chest. Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail.
Getting Into Position
When getting into an ideal bench position, you want to pull your shoulders back, and then depress your scapula (shoulder blades) down as much as you can. This creates an arch in the upper back. You can exaggerate it further with more lower back arching.
The reason competitive bench pressers position themselves this way is for two reasons — to reduce the strain/load placed directly on the shoulders, and to slightly reduce the range of motion to move the bar from touching their chest to locking their elbows at the top.
If you have weaker or untrained back muscles, this position will be difficult to get into and even harder to maintain during the lift itself. If you’re positioning shifts during the bench press as a result, you’re likely to lose focus, muscle tension, and momentum in your lift, and therefore will likely fail the lift.
Learn more about how to properly arch your back in the bench press in The Bench Press Arch (How To Do It, Benefits, Is It Safe).
Pulling the Bar Downward
The second (and more impactful) way your back assists in the bench press is in the downward motion of the bar.
Let’s break down the bench press a little bit to illustrate.
The very best bench pressers in the world treat this portion of the lift with great respect. They know if they are careless on the way down, they introduce several variables that will make it harder or impossible to get the bar back up.
Dropping the bar too fast can ruin our form, muscle tension, and position, and lowering it too slowly and carefully can exhaust our strength before we have a chance to press it back up.
For these reasons, elite bench pressers treat the eccentric, or downward motion of the bar, like a row. They aren’t simply resisting gravity as the bar slowly crushes down on them — they are thinking about pulling the bar into their chest in a controlled fashion.
Imagine doing an inverted row. You set up under the bar just the way you would for a bench press. You grab the bar in the same spot as when you bench. But instead of unracking the bar and pulling it to your chest, you pull your body up and bring your chest to the bar while the bar remains stationary on the rack.
That pulling motion is due to your back muscles (and a tiny bit of biceps and forearms) working to bring your body weight up to the bar. This is the exact same muscle engagement when we invert it, put weight on the bar, and bring it down to our chest to begin the bench press.
The stronger your back is at rowing weight toward your chest when you are above the bar, the stronger it will be when lowering a weight to your chest when you are below the bar. And the more control and strength you have getting the bar down to your chest exactly the way you want, the better control you’ll have pressing it back up.
Voila — you have a better bench press as a result of having a stronger back.
That being said, it doesn’t mean that your back strength is the problem if you have failed a few bench attempts recently. So let’s look at how you know if your back is the issue.
Want to improve your bench press technique?
How To Know If You Should Prioritize Back Work For Bench Press?
There are several reasons why you may be experiencing a bench press plateau, and having a weak back is just one of them.
Look back at training videos of your bench press. If you don’t take videos, think back to your failed lifts. Can you identify why or where you failed? If it was due to any of the four points below, it could indicate that you have weak back muscles:
- Bad Positioning
- Failed Positioning
- Unstable Eccentric
- Exaggerated ROM
1. Bad Positioning
If you notice in your videos that you don’t have a good, stable arch in your back/chest when you start the bench press, this could be a sign you need more back work to get into that position.
Your back muscles work to squeeze your shoulder blades together toward your spine, helping to reduce the load placed on your shoulders. This is important because the bench press does not put our shoulders in their best pressing position, so we don’t want to make them do more than they should.
The more we develop those back muscles to pull our shoulders back and together, the better position we can get in to bench.
You may need to either strengthen those muscles, learn to control them better, or both.
2. Failed Positioning
If your videos show that you can get into your position well, but you notice your form/position changes during the lift at any point, this would be an indicator you need to focus on your back.
Again, it may be a matter of strengthening those muscles, it may just be a mental reminder to keep them engaged and tight during your lift, and it could be a combination of both.
Ultimately, our position is only good if it stays good throughout the lift, so it’s important to be able to hold onto the form once you set it.
3. Unstable Eccentric
An obvious cue here would be your videos showing a wobbly, awkward, or otherwise uncontrolled descent of the bar to your chest.
This can take many forms for a lifter — from practically dropping the bar on your chest, to shaking under the load as you lower it; from an indirect, wobbly bar path with no clear direction, to a straight and deliberate bar path that never hits the right spot on your chest.
Ultimately, if your eccentric portion of the lift looks rough, I’d probably include some back work in your program at least in part to address it.
It’s worth noting that your pecs are heavily engaged during the eccentric portion of the lift (and dedicated, slow, eccentric reps are a great way to improve pec strength for that reason), so our back is not the only muscle at work here. But this is where the back is in the spotlight for its involvement in the bench press, so it’s worth looking at.
Do your arms shake when you bench press? Find out why and how to fix it in Why Do Your Arms Shake When You Bench Press? (6 Reasons).
4. Exaggerated ROM
The last point of failure I’d look at to consider more back work is a lifter who sees they are moving the bar farther than they need to, or not arching enough or using their back to get into a position that would reduce their ROM (range of motion) by a few inches.
In any other sport, athletes operate this way. For example, in basketball, a shooter gets 3 points as long as they are behind the three-point line, so they shoot as close to that line as they can to get all of those points while increasing their likelihood of making the shot.
We do the same thing in the bench press by arching our back as much as we can. If your video shows you have a flat back and you’re failing at your lockout, it may not just be a tricep strength issue like you might initially think.
You would also benefit from training your back to get into a good position and have a controlled descent. When you press the weight up, the bar has less distance to travel and you have more strength to finish the lift successfully, so your triceps aren’t the one that take all the blame.
If you often fail your bench press lockout, check out my 9 Proven Ways To Strengthen Your Bench Press Lockout.
Things To Consider When Choosing Back Exercises To Help With The Bench Press
If you feel training your back is going to improve your bench press for the reasons we’ve discussed, there are certain exercises that will do more for you than others.
Whatever your exercise selection, be cognizant of how it relates to the bench press. The more we can select back exercises that look and feel close to the way we use our back in the bench press, the more carryover it will have to our bench press.
Consider the following elements when training a back exercise for maximal bench carryover:
Grip the bar exactly the same way you do on the bench press — the distance of your hands from each other, the rotation of your fists/forearms, all of it.
For example, when performing bent over rows or inverted rows, imagine your exact grip as it is on the bench press and try to imitate it exactly or as closely as you can.
If you’re doing cable rows, use a wide, straight lat pulldown attachment so you can place your hands similarly to your bench grip instead of a v-grip or other narrow grip alternative.
Not sure how wide your hands should be in the bench press? Check out Wide Grip Bench Press: Is It Better? (Definitive Guide).
Use similar equipment as much as possible. The fewer new variables you can introduce, the better you’ll be at mimicking the bench movement, so use a barbell as much as possible.
Did you know there are several different types of bench press bars that all serve different purposes? Learn more about them in 7 Different Types of Bench Press Bars & Their Uses.
Select exercises with a rowing motion similar to the bench press. While trap shrugs certainly train our back, they aren’t moving our back muscles in a way that’s similar to the bench, so we can’t expect much carryover to our bench press by training our traps that way.
This is why I recommend just about every rowing variation, because it can be modified to look similar to your bench press, giving you maximum carryover to your bench goals.
Check out some of my favorite row variations in 10 Hammer Strength Row Alternatives (With Pictures)
Mimic the back positioning you use in the bench press when performing back exercises. For example, I like to do pullups with a full scapular tuck/back arch just the same way I would when I bench. Instead of lowering myself all the way down to let my back muscles completely stretch, I fight to maintain my arch position throughout the entire lift.
You can do the same with a single arm dumbbell row, for example. When you kneel with one knee on a bench and reach down to pick up your dumbbell, first set your back in an arch position like you would to bench, and then perform your rows while holding that position.
Apply this technique to any row or back exercise you want to train for your bench goals to make it more specific to your bench.
Related Article: 9 Lat Exercises With Dumbbells (With Pictures)
Finally, think of where the bar touches your chest during the bench press and make that your touch point for rows and other back exercises as well.
Even when training with dumbbells, imagine it’s a barbell and pull the dumbbell to a point where an imaginary barbell would hit your chest in the same place as when you bench.
In any row with a bar, be it a barbell row or with a cable attachment, pull that bar to your touchpoint to make it as specific to benching as possible.
Wondering where exactly the bar should touch your chest on the bench press? Check out Where Should The Barbell Touch Your Chest On Bench Press?
Best Back Exercises For Bench Press
My favorite back exercises that have carryover to the bench press are:
- Barbell row
- Seal row
- Inverted row
- Reverse band row
- Gentili row
- Dumbbell rows
- Reverse fly
The barbell row is a great exercise that can help the bench press because the movement looks so similar to it in terms of the bar moving toward your chest.
The barbell row is done by bending at the hip and gripping the barbell the same way you would a bench press. Row the bar upward toward your chest, hitting the bar at your bench press touch point, before lowering the weight back down.
While underhand barbell row variations are common, stick to an overhand grip for specific bench carryover effect.
The Pendlay row is similar to the barbell row, but there are a few key differences between the two movements. Learn what makes each exercise unique in Pendlay Row vs Barbell Row: Differences, Pros, Cons.
Similar to the barbell row, the seal row is a great choice for bench training, as the motion is similar to the bench press. Additionally, the added stability of lying on a bench allows you to focus on the back muscles without worrying about your balance.
If you have access to a seal row bench, great. If not, you can get creative and set a flat bench on plates or boxes to get it higher off the ground so your arms can fulyl extend at the bottom of the row.
Lie on the bench with a barbell underneath. Grip the barbell with the same grip you’d use for your bench press and row it to your body like you want to hit your bench press touchpoint, stopping only when the bar hits the bottom of the bench.
One of my favorite back exercises for the bench press is the inverted row because it can be performed almost exactly the same way you would lower the barbell to your chest during a bench.
Place a barbell in a bench rack or low power rack so you can lie on the floor and reach it. Grip the bar and pull yourself upward toward the bar. Keep your feet straight out in front of you, resting on your heels. If this is too difficult, place your feet flat, close to your body, and bend your knees to reduce the amount of body weight you have to row upward.
Related Article: 11 Best Inverted Row Alternative (With Pictures)
Reverse Band Row
The reverse band row is probably the best way to mimic your bench press movement even though it’s a rowing movement. Because you can lay flat, get into your exact bench position, grip the bar the same as when you bench, and hit your same touch point, this row variation is a great choice for training your back for the bench press.
In a power rack, adjust the J-hooks so the bar is high enough that you can reach it with your arms straight above you when you sit on a bench. Hang two bands from each side of a power rack the same way you would for a reverse band bench press. Secure the bottom of each band to each end of the barbell, but don’t load any weight.
Lie flat on a bench below the barbell in your bench press arch position, grip the bar, and pull against the bands toward your chest. If you have to, adjust the bands and tension so that the weight of the bar does not make it too easy to pull to your chest. Be sure the tension is not so strong that it pulls you off of the bench.
As with each exercise on this list, the Gentili row has great carryover to the bench press because you can mimic your bench form closely, which allows for maximal carryover to your actual bench press.
The Gentili row is similar to the reverse band row, but you’ll be standing upright. Place bands on the outer side of a power rack. Using a PVC pipe, broomstick, or wooden dowel as your barbell, place a band on each end.
Step back so the bands have tension on them at all times. Standing upright and with your bench arch, row the stick to your bench press touch point. Adjust the band tension so you can hit the target rep range you want.
Because you have a weight in each hand, dumbbell rows make it harder to mimic your bench press and target the right back muscles. However, they can definitely have the desired effect when done right.
These can be done with your chest supported against a flat bench like a seal row or incline bench. Instead of gripping the dumbbell in the neutral or “hammer” grip (palms facing each other), hold the dumbbells like a barbell. In this case, your palms should be facing the wall behind you.
Mimic the bench press descent while you row by imagining yourself lowering a barbell to your chest as you row the dumbbells upward. Keep your back in the arched position the whole time to further emulate the bench press movement.
Looking for more exercises to help with your bench press? Check out 17 Exercises To Improve Bench Press Strength (That Actually Work).
For the sake of improving your ability to pull your shoulders back and into the arch position, reverse flys and rear delt flys are valuable. They help strengthen the back of the shoulders, which help with overall shoulder health and stability.
Grip a dumbbell in each hand. Bending 90 degrees at the waist, or with your chest against a bench, lift your arms to the side to “fly” the dumbbells backward as you squeeze your shoulder blades together.
Your grip/hand position won’t matter with this variation, but be sure to train these while using your bench press arch to really target your ability to get into and hold your bench position.
Related Article: 18 Rear Delt Workouts (Barbell, Dumbbell, Cable, Machine)
Additional Bench Press Resources
- Do Push-Ups Help Bench Press?
- Do Bands Help Bench Press?
- Does Overhead Press Help Bench Press?
- Does Forearm & Grip Strength Help Bench Press?
- Does Dumbbell Bench Press Help Your Barbell Bench Press?
About The Author
Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.