These are all common questions and concerns I hear from my clients and others, so I wanted to lay it all out through a collection of notes, lessons, and experimentation I have gained through the years by reading and learning from other reliable sources and great trainers.
Lets begin in the safety department with a hint of biomecanical information. That way before we even get into the how and why you are already convinced and certain of it being not just okay for you to do, but perhaps even better.
Here are the simple and to the point facts:
- The glenohumeral joint (shoulder joint) is actually more protected from developing a shoulder impingement when your chest is in a lifted position with your scapula (shoulder blades) retracted and lats activated. This is best achieved when a lower back arch is involved.
- In this position you’re able to create more stability in your lower extremities and prevent movement made to the spine (aka no wobbling). Meaning all movement made will be in the upper extremity which in return, creates the safest position for the spine. Double whammy.
Alright, so you understand a couple main reasons why it is safe, but isn’t it a form of cheating since your lower back isn’t against the bench and your chest is being lifted closer to the bar?
Noooo. Don’t be that guy.
The best way to address this misconception is to understand a person who arches is simply maximizing their mechanical advances. Just because individual A accomplishes a skill differently than individual B, doesn’t deem it cheating. The goal is to move the most weight one can while following the actual rules,
-which (if you are wanting to follow the powerlifting standard) are that your head, shoulders, butt, and feet must be in contact with the bench or ground throughout the bench pressing process.
No where ever does it state the lower back cant be arched or chest be lifted at the individuals ability. Not to say there is anything at all wrong with keeping a flat back while benching. The same ‘rules’ apply to both methods (arched or flat), it simply comes down to what the athlete is most comfortable with in achieving their lifting goal.
Okay, it’s safe and it’s not cheating, so now lets dive into getting you in position.
There are several ways one can set up into their arch and it may take testing out a few ways before you find the process that you prefer. I think I changed my set up 3 times before I stuck with what I perform now. You can watch other lifters and see how they accomplish their set up and try it out for yourself or email me and I’d be happy to walk you through some ways you could try setting up to help you find what is natural and comfortable for you. Set up is individualized.
The main objective, as previously mentioned, is that the head, shoulders, butt, and heels are in constant contact with the bench or floor once the bench press begins. I say “once the bench press begins” because when you’re unracking the bar, whether alone or with a lift off, you can keep your hips up to better position them on the bench once the bar is placed over your chest. I’m going to also suggest that keeping your heels planted just beneath the knees, or just behind them, will (typically) allow the greatest force from leg drive. But this is another small adjustment that is individualized.
The more you practice and perform your set up and arching technique, the higher your arch and greater your flexibility will become; but, at all levels, warming up can provide a more comfortable, safe, and strong bench press.
Here are the warm up techniques I personally use and recommend before bench pressing. These drills will help loosen up the areas associated with arching and benching and activate associated muscles as well.
Thoracic Spine Mobility
It’s important to warm up your T-Spine before benching because it can become very tight and inflexible through sitting for long periods, even sleeping. These stretches are fantastic even outside of prepping to bench press if you have back pain or stiffness.
My favorite openers for getting my thoracic spine more mobile are
-Foam Roll with Extension
-Floor T Spine Horizontal Rotation
-PVC Pipe T Spine Horizontal Rotation
(Demo videos below)
Internal Rotation of the Shoulders Stretch & Upper Back Activation
Bad posture can make your shoulders cave forward, but even in cases of having good posture the anterior shoulders need to be stretched and posterior deltoids be activated. Both of these movements are to assist in performing a better scapular retraction when positioning into an arch.
-Table Top Stretch
-Band Pull A Parts
Now that we have been over all the nitty gritty, lets take it step by step and get you arching in your bench press!
Step 1: Perform dynamic stretches that loosen up your chest. I (plain and simple) swing my arms back and forth and in forward and backward large circles.
Step 2: Take yourself through the drills and stretches to get your upper extremities ready to bend and activate
Step 3: Warm up to your working sets. Remember the goal of warming up is not to overexert yourself! You’re simply acclimating yourself to lifting the heavier load. My routine is as follows:
- Barbell (45lb) x6-8 reps
- 95lb x4-5
- 115lb x2-3
- 135lb x1
I also don’t begin performing my arch in my warm ups till the final warm up set, but that’s just me. If you feel you need to be warming up with your arch then do it! Again, individualized.
Step 4: Finally, time to move that bar smooth like butta using your strength, knowledge, and mechanical advances!
I will leave you with this:
If you are a beginner at arching with your bench press, understand it does take time to learn the little details that make this approach worthwhile. The little cues like retracting your scapula (squeezing your shoulder blades together) to lift your chest, activating (clinching) your lats and glutes to create tension and stability, and gaining force from the ground up using leg drive, takes practice on top of practice to nail every time. Consistency in how you perform every warm up, set up, and rep will be the key to it becoming an automatic reflex/reaction to a more difficult load – especially when you’re lifting your heaviest and you’ve reached a sticking point, but you know how to act on using each of these cues you have drilled into your technique to get out of that hole. But, just like learning new choreography, it takes time to practice and run through the motions of each step before it become ingrained into your memory. So, stick with it, ask for help, learn more, and practice.