You’ve seen it before: a powerlifter sets up to perform a bench press, and they arch their back in a way that would make McDonald’s jealous. You ask yourself, “What the heck are they doing” and then shrug it off as some weird form. Well, the bench press arch is a legitimate technique that lifters — especially powerlifters — use to move more weight and reduce the potential risk of a back injury.
Wherever there’s a video of someone bench-pressing with an exaggerated arch, it’s usually accompanied by folks crying “cheater” or “injury risk.” Below, we’ll discuss the bench press arch technique and whether or not it’s dangerous or cheating.
Why Do Lifters Bench Press With an Arch?
This is simple: Because it helps them lift more weight. That’s the primary reason, at least, especially when it comes to competitive powerlifting, where the goal is to move the most weight possible. Here are a few other reasons why people arch during the bench press.
- It allows the lifter to squeeze the shoulder blades together, which better sets the shoulders in place. It is your sensitive ball and socket shoulder joint that’s at the most risk of injury when hosting hundreds of pounds of weight over your chest (not your back). And arching your back allows you to set them in place, so they don’t move out of alignment during the lift.
- Arching while bench-pressing shortens the distance the bar needs to travel, if only by a little, making it easier to move more weight.
- An arch creates more full-body tension than lying supine on a bench, which better activates your quads, glutes, shoulders, and core muscles — all of which help you move more weight.
Bench Press Arch and Injury
At first glance, it’s easy to see why an untrained (or new) lifter may associate an exaggerated arch with an injury. That’s because, well, it does look a little sketchy. But with knowledge comes power (literal ower in this case), and so here’s a quick breakdown of how the spine is injured.
There are two primary forces that can impact and injure the spine — axial loading and shearing force. Axial loading is when the spine is compressed under a heavy load — from top-to-bottom — like with the back squat. Shearing forces are when the vertebrae of the spine are forced in opposite directions (which is usually the result of top-down loading). The thing is, bench-pressing doesn’t load the spine in a top-down manner. Also, arching better positions the bar over the upper back and shoulders, so there’s even less pressure on the lower back.
In the video below, courtesy of Juggernaut Training System’s YouTube channel, Dr. Quinn Henoch, DPT and head of sports rehabilitation at JuggernautHQ, and Dr. Mike Israetel, Ph.D. in Sport Physiology, break down the nuances of the bench press arch.
Henoch and Israetel discuss that a moderate level of arching is healthier for the shoulders and can activate more of the lower pectoral musculature. Also, they point out that the force put on the lower back, even during the leg drive portion of the bench is lower than the 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?
Where there’s a video of folks lifting heavy amounts of weight over their chests, there will be people trying to discredit them. That said, USA Powerlifting allows 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 defined as the head, butt, hands, feet, and shoulders. Disqualification on the bench press can be caused by multiple reasons, but a few standards that may be linked to over-arching and bouncing are listed below, according to the USAPL’s Lifter’s Handbook.
- Failure to observe the Chief Referee’s signals at the commencement, during, or completion of the lift.
- Any change in the elected lifting position during the lift proper (i.e., any raising movement of the head, shoulders, or buttocks, from the bench, or lateral movement of hands on the bar).
- Heaving or sinking the bar into the chest or abdominal area after it is motionless in such a way as to make the lift easier.
- Any downward movement of the whole of the bar in the course of being pressed out.
- Bar is not lowered to the chest (i.e., not reaching the chest or abdominal area, or the bar is touching the belt).
If one of the most widely recognized powerlifting organizations doesn’t consider the bench press arch cheating, is it?
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, 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 the 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 this article on BarBend covering this superb video from Supertraining Gym on finding your arch.
Final Bench Press Arch Thoughts
Multiple factors 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 a 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 safely under the watchful eye of a knowledgeable coach.
Featured image: sportpoint/Shutterstock