To arch or not to arch in a bench press…That is the question.
We’ve all seen photos and videos of people bench pressing using an extreme arch in their back. The purpose of this technique is directly related to powerlifting competitions and the rules associated with them. However, before we dive into whether or not you should use an extreme arch in your back when performing a bench press, we need to ask one simple question:
What are your goals?
By goals I mean do you want to build large amounts of muscle and look like a bodybuilder or do you want to simply move as much weight as possible. For me, it’s about building as much lean muscle mass as possible to improve the aesthetics of my body. As Kai Greene says:
“It’s not about the weight. The weight will come.”
My goals though, may not be the same as everyone else’s goals. Powerlifting is an amazing sport that takes dedication and hours of work each day. Do not discount the fact that powerlifters bust their butt in and out of the gym just because my goals are founded in bodybuilding.
So how does that relate to your style of bench pressing? Well, there are two basic types of training styles when it comes to the bench press.
The mechanics of these two style differ drastically, especially when discussing the arch in your lower back. Let’s look at both of these styles in depth.
Powerlifting bench press form
The powerlifting bench press form is dictated by the rules of a powerlifting competition. There are four specific points of contact:
- Head is on the bench.
- Shoulders are on the bench.
- Butt is on the bench.
- Feet are on the ground.
Now, keeping that in mind, the extreme arch you see some powerlifters using while bench pressing is a method of shortening the range of motion of the bar. In a competition, the bar MUST touch the chest and be at rest before the competitor presses the bar back to the starting position. We all know how much more difficult it is to use a full range of motion on the bench press rather than stopping when your elbows make a 90 degree angle. Scapular retraction, as it’s called, is no secret and all powerlifters accept the fact that it decreases the range of motion of the bench press. Ergo, the competitor is able to lift more weight than if they had their back flat on the bench.
Using this technique, one will also recruit their triceps and front delt muscles more than they would if their back was flat on the bench. What this means in terms of functionality is that although the powerlifter’s pectoral muscles may not be as developed as a bodybuilder’s, they will be able to push significantly more weight by using more of their trieps and shoulder muscles. Hence the ability for most powerlifters to push more weight on their bench press for lower reps and their one rep max than many bodybuilders.
What does this do for muscular development though?
Using a powerlifting bench press form will result in muscle growth but not the same amount or type of muscle growth as if we were focusing on bodybuilding technique for bench press. Aside from the mechanics being different in the bench press, most powerlifters that are serious about competing and pushing some serious weight tend to stay away from higher repetitions. The rep range is usually six or fewer reps in a set. Many times it is sets of 5, sets of 3 or single rep max’s. These low rep ranges recruit one type of muscle fiber, the fast twitch fiber.
In The Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger discusses the need for even bodybuilders to recruit their fast twitch muscle fibers. These fibers are the ones that help you push heavy weight for low reps AND make a physique look rock hard. However, it takes both fast twitch and slow twitch fiber recruitment to achieve optimal muscle growth, which is what we will discuss in the next section.
In a powerlifting bench press form, having your feet out in front of you will decrease the total amount of arch in your back. However, it allows for a much more solid interface with the ground. This improves both the ability to drive your weight into your traps and your leg drive. Leg drive is the engagement of the lower body by pushing your feet on the ground. It can be used in two different ways.
First, if you push your feet into the ground, you will transfer the force from your legs as it tightens your whole body. This will then translate into a bigger arch and a higher chest position. A tighter set up will mean more weight lifted.
The second method of leg drive involves waiting until your are given the press command before initiating full leg drive. In other words, you will leave slack in your lower body and then on the press command, drive your legs into the ground, tighten your entire body and create a sort of “jolt” effect to get the bar moving. This method is a little risky as it requires being lose and then tightening up. I’m more of a fan and proponent of keeping your entire body and core tight throughout any lift. This reduces the risk of injury.
Bodybuilding bench press form
A bodybuilder, or anyone who’s goal is to pack on solid, lean muscle mass will need to use completely different mechanics in their bench press – and all of their lifts, for that matter. The mechanics of powerlifting do not lend themselves to building large amounts of lean muscle mass that you see on bodybuilders and fitness competitors. While many powerlifters do tend to have some pretty good amounts of muscle mass, if all you are doing is powerlifting, a definite difference in muscle type, hardness, fullness, and overall density, will be noticed – with bodybuilders having more of these elements.
When performing the bench press with bodybuilding in mind, it is important to keep your back as flat on the bench as possible. A small, natural arch in the lower back is acceptable but in order to maximize the recruitment of the muscle fibers in the target muscle group, you need to stay away from the extreme arch we discussed in the powerlifting bench press form section. One reason for this is that using the full range of motion in the bench press recruits far more muscle fibers than the latter. It creates muscular development that extends far beyond what a partial range of motion can provide and allows you to fully develop the entire length of the targeted muscle group. In this case, it’s the pecs.
When I lower the bar completely to my chest I can feel the muscle fibers on the outside of my pecs, where they connect to my biceps and delts, stretching. Using the mind-muscle connection and focusing on only using my chest muscles to move the bar, I contract the outer pec muscles to begin the movement upward and continue to focus on JUST using my pecs. Of course, given the mechanics of the bench press, no matter how much I focus on using just my pecs, my triceps and delts will naturally be recruited to complete the lift. However, the AMOUNT they are recruited will be far less than if I had an extreme arch in my back and was using a powerlifting bench press form.
Full range of motion safety for the bench press
The first argument I hear about using a full range of motion from just about every “book smart” personal trainer is that it puts unnecessary stress on the shoulder joint. In my 24 years of lifting weights and using full range of motion in all my lifts, I have yet to have a shoulder injury caused in the gym. I’ve also yet to bump into one of these “book smart” trainers that has as much experience as I do under the bar and experimenting with different techniques. Additionally, I’ve yet to see one of these advocates of partial rep ranges with a physique worth the cover of a bodybuilding or fitness magazine. I doubt Mike O’Hearn does partial rep ranges on his bench press. Oh wait, I KNOW he doesn’t. Neither does Kai Greene, Branch Warren, Phil Heath, Abbas Khatami, or any other IFBB competitors that I know of.
So here’s the trick to staying safe while using a full range of motion on your bench press – whether it’s bodybuilding or powerlifting. When lowering the bar completely to your chest you will want to incorporate the following:
- Do NOT relax and drop the weight to your chest. Instead, actively pull the bar downward using your lats.
- Drive your chest upward as the bar comes down.
- Arms should flare outward at no more than a 45 degree angle. This is where shoulder injury can occur. If you flare your elbows and arms beyond 45 degrees and more towards perpendicular with your torso you put large amounts of stress on the shoulder and rotator cuff.
With respect to bodybuilding and physiques, I have yet to see someone who practices stopping their bench and pec movements at a 90 degree angle have the type of physique that is adorned by the masses. Rehabilitating an injury is one thing but other than that, in my book, there is no excuse for not using the full range of motion on your bench press. Also, this isn’t to be confused with shortening your range of motion for powerlifting which is done for a very specific purpose, as mentioned above.
Rep range for bodybuilding
The other critical difference in powerlifting bench press form and bodybuilding bench press form isn’t really in the form at all. Rather, it’s in the rep range. While this article is supposed to be about bench press form, it really wouldn’t be complete without discussing the differences in rep ranges.
For bodybuilding, a higher rep range is preferred MOST of the time. This is because higher rep ranges force more blood into the muscle cells and forces your body to recruit more muscle fibers than lower rep ranges. Powerlifters use only a fraction of their total muscle fibers to execute a few repetitions of heavy lifts. Most of these fibers are fast twitch muscle fibers. When the goal is not to move the most weight in the gym in a single lift, but rather achieve overall aesthetics, then one MUST recruit their slow twitch fibers as well.
As you increase your repetitions into the 15-20 rep range, you will begin to use and recruit a greater percentage of your total muscle fibers. As some of them begin to fatigue, your body will begin utilizing other fibers in the muscle group to complete the set. The entire process engorges the muscle cells with blood, stretches the fascia and expands the overall size of the muscle. When you rest and recover, these fibers repair themselves and are prepared for that same amount of stress and stimulation in the next session. They are stronger, larger, and can handle more endurance. The result is bigger, fuller, more aesthetic muscles than if you only did low reps and heavy weight.
Summary of bench press form and arching
In short, the extreme arch you see powerlifters use when bench pressing has a purpose and is acceptable if you are competing or have plans to compete in powerlifting. If though, your goal is muscular aesthetics, fitness or bodybuilding competitions; ditch the extreme arch, use the bodybuilding bench press form as described above, and push the higher rep ranges.
One final reminder. Each style of lifting has it’s own mechanics and purpose and those that choose to dedicate the time and effort to master these mechanics deserve some serious respect. Be it bodybuilding or powerlifting, mastering the mechanics, form, nutrition, and dedication is no easy feat.