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Written by Kim Leggett (Clean Health Online Master Coach)

The arch we see often used by powerlifters during the bench press is often a cause of controversy – that is causes injury and that it is ‘cheating’. So this begs the question, “how much arch is too much?”

The answer is – in a powerlifting competition, you’re allowed to arch as much as you want. As long as your feet are on the ground, butt and back are on the bench – you can arch as little or as much as you like.

So, where did the arch originate?
There is no set in stone beginning but there are a few speculations as to when the arch was developed. The history of the arch in the bench press doesn’t have a set in stone beginning, but there are a few speculations as to where it developed. Before diving into the arched bench press form, we’ll take a brief look at the history of the bench press. A 2009 article in Iron Man Magazine makes a link between the bench press’s beginnings and George Hackenshmidt.

Hackenshmidt is often credited as the mind behind the very beginning of the bench press. He was one of the first strength athletes in the late 1800’s to perform a movement similar to the bench press, which at the time was a floor press. At this time, lifters would lie prone on wooden benches to perform the movement. There were two forms used by lifters at the time, and these were a completely prone position and an arched, or bridged position.

Is there an advantage of the arch?
The advantage of the arch is quite obvious. Apart from a safety perspective, it’s going to shorten the range of motion that will allow your client to shift heavier loads. When your goal is to get stronger – it isn’t just about manipulating levers to lift heavier loads as we still want the shoulders and other accessory muscles to be nice and strong. In training (if the client is a powerlifter) we will keep the arch during our main work despite the reduced range of motion but ensure that in supplementary work we are taking the shoulders through ranges of motion that we may have neglected. Here think dumbbell pressing variations on all angles! 

Let’s talk SET UP
Using their preferred grip, index fingers on the outer ring of the powerlifting bar (if using), ie flat on the bench and slide back to get their feet into position by getting up onto the balls of your feet. They then push your heels down to create a nice arch. The arch of the thoracic spines allows for the perfect setup of the scapula which is retraction and depression and external rotation through the entire movement. Your client will then take a big breath and hold this the whole time until the pressing is complete.

Bench Press Arch and Injury
Now, there are a few misconceptions that follow this logic for those without pre-existing back conditions. First, there needs to be an understanding of what commonly causes injury from an arched back.

Axial loading, or force pressing down on the spine, and shear, which is the force pulling the spine in an offsetting direction are the two main factors present during spinal injuries. 

Why do lifters arch during the bench press?
It is actually HEALTHIER for the shoulders and can activate more of the lower pec musculature. The force put on the lower back, even during the leg drive portion of the bench are LOWER than force produce by light weight squats.

How can you improve your client’s arch?
There isn’t a set method for establishing or improving the amount of arch a lifter should have. A lot of this comes down to a lifter’s mobility (hips/thoracic specifically), where a lifter feels strongest in relation to their biomechanics. Yet, there are a few things to consider when establishing your perfect bench press form, including:

  • Five points of contact: Basically, would a press count in competition? If you’re finding your client’s hips rise or feet slide out, then you may need to adjust their setup and amount the lumber is arched.
  • Grip width and chest contact: Where do they feel strongest pressing? The width of a lifter’s grip will often dictate where the bar makes contact with their chest. This will then correlate to a lifter’s arch.
  • Pain: Does the way they’re benching cause pain? If so, assess which area the body pain is present and adjust their form starting there and moving to each point of contact.
  • Homework: A good drill to run through is to practice sitting down then extending the upper back or arching the upper back then trying to retract and depress the scapula but maintaining this position whilst imagining they are doing a bench press. Now, this is not a human movement. Get your client to practice this motion – bringing the bar down to their chest and pressing the bar off the chest whilst maintaining this position. It’s not as easy as it sounds but will be a great way to help nail the retraction and expression of the scapular in order to bench press perfectly. 
  • Breathing: They will need to hold their breath through the entire set. Why? A big breath or inhalation creates the extension position of the upper back and exhalation creates the opposing movement. In this way, by taking a big breath, they will ensure that they get the maximum height on their arch – which is important for those in competition as every millimeter at the highest level could mean the difference between 240 kilograms and maybe getting a PB. 

You might be thinking, my client is not a powerlifter and they don’t want to compete – do they need to arch? It is recommended that the healthier way to bench press for the shoulders, is to arch as it is deemed the safest way to perform the exercise. 

If you want to learn more on how you can perfect your client’s arch in the bench press, click here to enrol into the Strength Systems International Certification Level 1 online course by Sebastian Oreb. 

References

  1. Boly, J. (2020). Is arching in the bench press unsafe or ‘cheating’? BarBend. Retrieved from: https://barbend.com/bench-press-arch/
  2. Oreb, S. (2020). Bench Press – The Arch. Strength System International Certification Level 1. Clean Health Fitness Institute.
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