The arch used by lifters, often powerlifters, during the bench press tends to always cause a little controversy. In reality, the controversy typically spurs from comments made on YouTube, Instagram, and other social platforms where arched bench press videos are shared.
There tend to be two arguments used by those who oppose an arch during the bench press, and these revolve around injury and “cheating.” The first argument injury, focuses on the possible lumbar dangers this style bench can inflict.
Photo screenshot from @savvysavit Instagram page.
The second argument, “cheating,” revolves around a viewers perception of the press not counting due to less range of motion. Both arguments could hold a little truth to them (in certain scenarios), so this is where the arch argument gets dicey.
Why Lifters Bench Press With an Arch
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.
After the birth of the floor press, the bench press eventually made its way to mainstream lifting around the 1930s. 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. The bridged pressing position would soon earn the title of “belly toss.”
This “belly toss” movement became popular because it correlated to a lifter’s ability to move more weight, as opposed to lying completely prone.
In 1939, in an attempt to regulate the way a bench press must be performed the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) would ban the “belly toss” technique. The governing American Federation felt it wasn’t a true test of upper body strength, as the lifter relied on their abdomen strength and flexibility instead. These rulings and standards would continue to set the tone for powerlifting moving forward and have helped shape the way competition pressing is regulated today.
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Bench Press Arch and Injury
In reference to the argument of arching causing injury, there are a few misconceptions that follow this logic. Keep in mind, this for those without pre-existing back conditions. First, there needs to be an understanding of what commonly causes injury from an arched back.
There are two predominate factors often present at the time of spinal injury. These are axial loading, or force pressing down on the spine, and shear, which is force pulling the spine in an offsetting direction. These two points are discussed in more detail in the video below by Dr. Quinn Henoch, DPT and head of sports rehabilitation at JuggernautHQ, and Dr. Mike Israetel, PhD in Sport Physiology.
There are multiple reasons a lifter arches during the bench press. Dr. Henoch and Israetel discuss that a moderate level of arch is healthier for the shoulders and can activate more of the lower pectoral musculature. In addition, they point out that the force put on the lower back, even during the leg drive portion of the bench are lower than force produced by light weight squats. Injury to the lumbar in the form of disk herniation is generally caused posteriorly, so a healthy arch can offer some lumbar protection, as herniation anteriorly is less common.
Is Arching in the Bench Press Cheating?
The next argument that follows the use of an arch while benching is whether it’s “cheating.” This is an argument that may possibly never end due to personal opinions getting in the way of competition standards.
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For example, if we look at USAPL’s bench press standards, then we see they allow an arch, but the buttocks must remain in contact with the bench and cannot slide. This is often referenced as maintaining the five points of contact.
Photo screenshot form USAPL Rules Handbook.
Disqualification on the bench press can be caused by multiple reasons, but a few standards that would be linked to over-arching and bouncing are shared below.
Photo screenshot form USAPL Rules Handbook.
Now the question becomes, if a lifter competes with an arch and follows the governing body’s standards for a successful lift: Is it still “cheating?”
Obviously, there will always be a little discrepancy between different judges’ standards, but for the most part powerlifting calls are made with consistency. It’s hard to call a lift cheating when a powerlifting’s federation has counted a lift as successful.
Improving the Arch in Your Bench Press
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 athropometrics, and a coach’s critiquing. Yet, there are a few things to consider when establishing your perfect bench press form.
- Five points of contact: Basically, would your press count in competition? If you’re finding your hips rise or feet slide out, then you may need to adjust your setup and amount your lumber is arched.
- Grip width and chest contact: Where do you 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 you’re benching cause pain? If so, assess which area the body pain is present and adjust your form starting there and moving to each point of contact.
- Developing your arch: Check out the video below by Mark Bell and Silent Mike from SuperTraining Gym for a few “finding your arch basics.”
Final Bench Press Arch Thoughts
There are multiple factors that go into establishing a bench press’s legitimacy due to arch. A natural and comfortable arch is an effective way to press and can be beneficial for most lifters interested in improving their strength. There’s always risk of injury, but in regards to arching specifically, this is often due to improper form (excessive arch & mobility issues) and preexisting back problems, not simply arching itself.
Whether an arch is considered “cheating” is completely dependent on who’s viewing the bench press. If we go off of competition standards and an arched press that receives white lights, then it becomes increasingly harder to argue that the press is “cheating.” When developing your natural arch always make sure to do so in a safe manner under the watchful eye of a knowledgeable coach.
Feature image from Juggernaut Training Systems on YouTube.