When attempting a max bench press, you should use every possible advantage to get the weight up. This includes using your legs, which is what powerlifters call “leg drive” during the bench press.
So what is leg drive during the bench press and how do you use it? Leg drive is when you drive your feet into the floor as you push the barbell off the chest. Leg drive in the bench press will help you maintain your upper back position and increase the stability and stiffness of the torso, which allows for greater levels of strength.
Under lighter loads, leg drive isn’t going to make or break your lift. However, under a max attempt, lacking proper leg drive is one of the main reasons why lifters either make the lift or not. As such, it’s important to learn how this bench press technique can help your performance.
In this article, I’ll talk about:
- What is leg drive?
- 4 reasons to use leg drive
- How to use proper leg drive?
- What you need to consider when using leg drive
- 1 thing to beware of when using leg drive
Let’s get started!
What Is Leg Drive?
“Leg drive” is a specialized bench press technique that elite powerlifters use when applying maximum force to the barbell. For example, when attempting a 1 rep max lift.
Using the leg drive technique allows lifters to position their torso more effectively on the bench.
If the torso isn’t ‘set’ properly on the bench, then it’s much harder to maintain the position of the shoulders and chest. In the bench press, the shoulders should be maximally retracted, and the chest should be pushing ‘up’ as high as possible.
The leg drive will help facilitate these positions, in addition to creating the torso stability and rigidity required to handle heavier weights.
Even if you’re not a competitive powerlifter, the leg drive technique has been said to “make the lift feel easier” for a group of trainees after being instructed on how to use the technique properly (Gardner et. al, 2019).
In the next section, I’ll discuss some of the reasons why this is the case.
4 Reasons To Use Leg Drive For Bench Press
There are 4 main reasons why using leg drive for bench press helps performance once the technique is mastered (learn more about improving your technique in my article on bench press cues).
1. Stronger Arch
The bench press arch refers to a person arching the upper and lower back to create separation between the bench and their back. If you’re not familiar with the bench press arch, I highly encourage you to read my definitive guide as it will help lay the foundation on how leg drive facilitates the arched position.
While there are many reasons why powerlifters use the bench press arch, the main one is that it will reduce the range of motion that the barbell needs to travel.
By using leg drive, especially as you cycle through multiple reps, it will be easier to maintain the arched position on the bench press.
If you don’t maintain a strong leg drive through the floor, you’ll find your sternum start to flatten and your shoulders start to roll forward. This will decrease your performance because you’ll be doing a greater range of motion than necessary to complete the lift.
Leg drive is so important for maintaining the bench press arch that you actually can’t arch properly without it. In other words, the arch is dependant on using leg drive.
2. Better Upper Trap Position
When setting up the bench press, the main point of contact for your upper back should be your trap muscles. This is where you should position your body on the bench.
As such, your goal should be to be as high as possible on your upper traps. This position will allow you to maximally retract and depress your shoulder blades, placing your scapula on your rib cage. As a result, your shoulders can use the rib cage for additional stability while bench pressing.
By using the leg drive technique, you’re able to drive your upper traps back and up into the bench press, which ensures that you don’t lose this point of contact. If you do lose this ‘high trap position’, then your shoulder stability will be compromised, which can lead to a decrease in performance.
3. Potentially Better Recruitment of Lower Pec Muscles
If you can maintain the ‘arched torso’ and ‘high trap position’ as mentioned above, then the flat bench press becomes more similar to the decline bench press, which has some advantages when attempting max loads.
During a decline bench press, there is greater loading demand on the larger musculature of the pectoralis major, which better handles the forces in the bench press and removes some of the stress from the smaller musculature of the anterior deltoids (front of shoulder).
However, it’s important to recognize that leg drive by itself does not recruit greater musculature in the upper body. In fact, a study by Gardner et al. (2019), demonstrated this by observing that whether participants used leg drive or not there was no statistical difference between muscular activation of the pecs, shoulders, and triceps.
With that being said, if you can change the angle of your torso by being in a bench press arch, then you will have greater musculature activation of the lower pec. In other words, it’s not the leg drive alone that helps you recruit the lower pec, it’s the leg drive that leads to the bench press arch.
Using leg drive was one of the ways I said that you can prevent your arms from shaking in the bench press. If you have this problem, check out my article on Why Do Your Arms Shake When Bench Pressing?
4. Might Make The Lift “Feel Easier”
A study by Kristiansen et. al (2015), investigated how different muscles work together in order to complete a max bench press.
Just like the other reasons above, the leg drive technique was said to help increase the stability and stiffness of the torso, which allowed for, in their words, an “easier bench press” and “greater strength expression”.
So why might leg drive, and the arched torso more generally, make the bench press feel easier?
It was hypothesized that since the body is placed in a more mechanically advantageous position, it reduces the demand on the central nervous system overall. This results in less motor unit recruitment necessary for the lift.
In other words, by using leg drive, and maintaining the arched torso position, it will take less muscular effort to lift the given weight. A such, you become a more efficient lifter, which in turn, makes the lift feel easier.
How To Use Proper Leg Drive
There are a few pointers that you’ll want to follow when driving into the floor with your legs during a bench press.
Find a comfortable foot placement
Proper leg drive starts with where you position your feet on the floor, which will vary from person-to-person.
There is a range of foot placements that can work for optimal leg drive. You’ll want to have a comfortable foot placement that doesn’t make your hips cramp, but also one that addresses the angle of your shin.
A foot placement that puts your shins vertical is the starting point for many lifters. From there, you can either place your feet slightly closer toward your shoulders or slightly more in front of you. This will change the angle of your shins more or less, but it will still fall within an optimal range.
Be aware though that pulling your feet too far back or placing them too far forward will put your legs in ‘no-mans’ land. When your feet are in ‘no-mans’ land, it will be very hard to drive maximally through the floor, maintain your arch, and shoulder position.
This is where you can experiment with the width of your legs (how far your legs are apart) and the angle of your feet. I’m less concerned with the width of your legs and foot angle, so long as you feel comfortable and the shin angle is within an optimal range.
The next point I’ll cover will also determine what is considered an optimal range for your shin angle.
Drive “down and away from you”
You want to drive your feet straight down into the floor, and at the same time, away from you.
You can think of it like you’re sitting in an office chair on wheels, and you’re pushing the office chair backward with your feet. You want to replicate this same feeling while benching.
This is because as you drive your feet away, you will naturally push your torso back and up into the bench press. When you ‘drive away’ with your feet, it allows you to maintain a strong arch.
So, where you place your feet on the floor, should allow you to drive both ‘down and away’.
If you put your feet too far back toward your shoulders, you will only be able to drive ‘down’, but not ‘away’. If you put your feet too far in front of you, you will only be able to drive ‘away’, but not ‘down’.
Keep your feet flat
If you keep your feet flat on the floor, then you’ll be able to use the entire surface of your foot to displace force into the floor.
In other words, you can drive harder into the ground with your feet flat on the floor.
You’ll see some lifters bench press with their heels up. This is not mechanically advantageous to be in for several reasons:
- It will be harder to squeeze your glutes in this position, which helps you stabilize your lower back in the bench press arch.
- You put a lot of muscular tension on your calf muscles, which might cramp under a heavy load
- It will be harder to create the feeling of ‘driving away’ with your feet (as described above)
Press into the outer part of your heel
The main pressure point on the floor should be the outer part of your heel.
You’ll find that you can drive a bit harder into your feet when pressing into the heel.
If you start driving through your toes or any other part of your foot, you’ll find that your feet will start to gradually lift through the bench press, or worse, your feet will slide forward on the ground.
If your feet lift or slide during the bench press, then you’ll lose your leg drive altogether, and as a result, your bench press arch.
What You Need To Consider When Using Leg Drive
If you want to maximize the amount of leg drive while bench pressing, then you need to consider the following:
Many powerlifters like to wear a squat shoe while bench pressing.
This is because the squat shoe is completely flat, has a hard sole, and is generally ‘grippy’ on the bottom.
- The flat base will ensure you’re not rocking forward and back on your foot as you drive into the floor
- The hard sole will allow you to transfer force more efficiently through the floor
- The ‘grippy’ bottom will ensure your feet aren’t sliding as you’re maximally driving into the floor
My all-time favorite shoe for bench pressing is the Nike Romaleos 3 (click for reviews, pricing, and sizing on Amazon)
Whether you have longer or shorter legs, the leg drive concepts apply equally. However, if you have longer legs, you will likely take a wider stance. If you have shorter legs, you will likely take a narrower stance.
This is why you can’t compare one lifter’s foot position to another because everyone is built with different leverages.
Remember, the key aspect is to feel like you’re pushing ‘down and away’ from you.
If you get the sense that your upper traps are pushing backward into the bench press then you have adequate leg drive. If not, you will need to experiment with a wider or narrower stance based on your limb lengths.
There are some instances where a lifter needs to place their feet closer to their shoulders on the floor, but their hip mobility is preventing them from doing so.
If this is the case, then I encourage you to structure a proper bench press warm-up, in addition to doing targetted hip flexibility exercises, such as the rear foot elevated runners lunge and the frog stretch.
Leg Drive: Beware of 1 Thing
When you start learning the leg drive for bench press, it can be easier for your glutes to lift from the bench press. However, you’ll want to keep your glutes on the bench for two main reasons:
First, if you’re a competitive powerlifter, you can’t have your glutes break contact from the bench press in competition.
Second, your arch will become less supported, which might cause lower back strain.
Some tips for keeping your glutes on the bench press:
- Stop pushing straight down with your leg drive. Push ‘away’ from you.
- Widen your stance from the bench press. The wider your stance, the easier it will be for your glutes to stay on the bench.
- Place your feet more in front you (further away from your shoulders)
Either one or a combination of these things can help fix your glutes from rising up.
Frequently Asked Questions
When I coach leg drive, here are some of the frequently asked questions I get:
Is leg drive during the bench press cheating?
Leg drive during the bench press is not cheating. However, if your leg drive causes your glutes to break contact from the bench press, then this would be against the rules if you’re a competitive powerlifter.
How much does leg drive add to bench press?
There has been no scientific study investigating how much leg drive can add to your bench press. From personal experience though, leg drive can add between 5-10% to your lift depending on how much of an arch you can generate.
Should you always use leg drive when benching?
If your goal is to promote maximal strength in the bench press then leg drive should always be used. This is because the more you practice leg drive, the more proficient you will become with the technique.
Using leg drive during the bench press can be an effective technique for increasing maximal strength. You will find that using leg drive will help more as you increase the loading demands. So as you become stronger, this technique will become more important for you to master.
Gardner, J., Chia, J., Miller, K. (2019). Leg drive does not affect upper extremity muscle activation during a bench press exercise. International Journal of Human Movement and Sport Sciences, 7(1), 12-17.
Kristiansen, M., Madeleine, P., Hansen, E., Samani, A. (2015). Inter-subject variability of muscle synergies during bench press in power lifters and untrained individuals. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine Science Sports, 25(1): 89-97.
Lauver, J., Cayot, T., Scheuermann, B. (2016). Influencer of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise. European Journal of Sport Science, 16(3): 309-316.