God bless the internet. It gives everyone a platform to voice their opinion, whether others want to hear it or not. Particularly in the world of powerlifting, it provides plenty of opportunities to give unsolicited advice to other lifters about techinque. Few things bring out the keyboard warriors like the bench press arch.
Post a video of yourself bench pressing with an arched back and no matter how smooth the rep, you’re bound to get comments like:
“Better stop arching, you’re gonna hurt your back.”
“I’m a doctor and I’d hate to see you show up at my office because you hurt yourself arching like that.”
“Arching is cheating. I benched 500 pounds with a flat back in high school when I was captain of the football team.”
The purpose of this post isn’t to change THEIR minds. They’re beyond help. The purpose is to inform those who aren’t sure what to believe; those lifters who want to get better at benching but are distracted by the jabbering nonsense of Instagram comments.
As a powerlifter with a double bodyweight bench press (and ZERO back injuries in over a decade of lifting) and a strength coach who’s helped many athletes recover from lower back injuries (while collaborating with physical therapists, spinal specialists and surgeons on rehab protocols), I believe I’m qualified to speak on the matter.
Here are four reasons why you SHOULD use the bench press arch:
1. YOU’RE BENCHING TO BENCH MORE
Ask yourself, “Why am I bench pressing?” If the answer isn’t, “To bench press more weight,” then choose a different exercise.
Health and performance aren’t one and the same. Training for world-class performance often comes with bumps and bruises. Ask any professional athlete and they’ll tell you that they don’t feel “healthy” 100 percent of the time. In the context of powerlifting, the goal of the sport is to move as much weight as possible. This isn’t the path to a perfectly healthy, pain-free life.
I’m not saying to train through pain, but I’m also not saying that the bench press will cause pain. What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t be arguing about bench press technique being dangerous. The more important discussion is WHO should be benching in the first place.
If you’re a powerlifter and want to bench press maximum weight, use proper technique and arch your back. It reduces the range of motion and protects the shoulders, both of which help increase the weight you can lift. If you’re not a powerlifter and don’t care about your max bench, choose a different exercise altogether. There are plenty of lower-risk options like:
- Dumbbell bench press
- Landmine presses
- Cable presses
These all require less extreme body positions and lower loads to be effective for general fitness goals.
2. IT’S THE SAFEST POSITION FOR YOUR SHOULDERS
This is hands down the most important reason to arch your back. Your back isn’t what you need to worry about, it’s your shoulders. Arching your back while laying down doesn’t load your spine like a squat or deadlift (more on this in the next point), but holding a heavy bar over your face certainly loads the shoulder joint in a risky way. An extended spine allows for optimal stabilization of the shoulder joint while moving heavy weights and reduces the range of motion through which the shoulder must travel, resulting in a safer exercise.
The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint. The head of the humerus (upper arm bone) is the “ball” and the glenoid fossa is the “socket”. The glenoid fossa is where the humerus and scapula (shoulder blade) meet, and they’re held together by several soft tissue structures, including your glenohumeral ligaments, labrum and biceps tendon. The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body, meaning it’s also the least stable and at greater risk for injury. It takes superb body awareness and co-contraction of the muscles surrounding the shoulder to keep it in a safe position.
In order to keep your shoulders safe during the bench press, you MUST keep the “ball” in the “socket”. Arching your back allows you to use your upper back muscles to pull your shoulder blades down and back into a stable position. This draws the ball toward the socket and helps keep it there. Ideal shoulder positioning when the bar hits your chest looks like this:
Flat back benching increase the range of motion that the shoulder must go through, making it much harder to stabilize your shoulders and more likely that you’ll run into this position when the bar hits your chest:
If the ball is continually allowed to ride forward in the socket, especially under heavy loads, our risk for injury increases dramatically. For your shoulders’ sake, arch your back when you bench press.
3. THE SPINE ISN’T AXIALLY LOADED
Arching your back to an extreme degree while squatting or deadlifting is a bad idea. You take an axially loaded position (i.e. top-to-bottom) with compressive loading (i.e the weight pushes the vertebrae closer together) and then arch your back to increase shear stress. That’s asking for trouble. However, the bench press arch removes most of these factors because your spine isn’t directly loaded by the bar.
It’s similar to an upward facing dog pose in yoga. Sure, you’re holding heavy weight and using a more high-threshold strategy while benching, but it’s still unloaded spinal extension. In fact, the yoga pose has gravity PULLING you into more extension, while the bench at least has the muscles of the upper back and legs to actively keep the spine from moving. But you’d be hard-pressed to find many people piss and moan about the dangers of arching your back during yoga.
Even more important, the spine isn’t MOVING during the bench press. Moving segments of the spine under load while in an end range position is risky (i.e. rounding the lower back while deadlifting), but the bench press keeps the spine in place while the arms move.
The bottom line is that if you can tolerate unloaded spinal extension, you’re probably good to bench press without worry. The multi-segmental extension test from the Selective Functional Movement Assessment is a great way to see if your body can handle unloaded spinal extension. If you pass this test, bench away.
4. YOU CAN GET YOUR MOVEMENT VARIABILITY ELSEWHERE
Just because you SHOULD arch your back during the bench press doesn’t mean you should arch your back during every other exercise. It’s just one exercise that makes up a small percentage of a well-balanced exercise program. If you’re squatting, deadlifting, lunging and rowing with proper technique while performing dedicated core exercises, mobility drills and rotational exercises, the bench press arch ain’t gonna kill you.
Eric Cressey does a great job of explaining the dose-response relationship in this blog post. One ice cream cone a week won’t make you obese. And a few sets of arched-back bench pressing a few times a week won’t shatter your spine.
Want a few exercises to make sure your spine is durable enough to endure the bench press arch?
Add some flexion-based drills to your warm-up to activate your abs and obliques:
Keep a mobile t-spine (upper back) to make sure you’re using your entire spine to arch, not just your lower back:
Train your core for stability in multiple directions…
…and get out of the sagittal plane often.
A program that includes lots of exercises like these will build a resilient spine that can tolerate arching during the bench press.
NOW SHUT UP AND GO BENCH
Can we stop arguing and start training? This should clear up some of the confusion regarding the bench press arch and why it’s not as dangerous as the Instagram trolls want you to believe.
For more information on the bench press (including the many myths and mistakes people make), sign up for my newsletter below to receive two free e-books and an in-depth video tutorial on how to bench.