The bench press is probably the most popular strength exercise ever and has gained a reputation as one of the core tests of upper body strength. While this fundamental pec developer at first glance might seem like a simple exercise that doesn’t require a lot of coaching (how hard can it be to lie down on a bench and press a barbell over your chest?), the fact is that the bench press is a fairly technical lift. Not as complex as the clean, jerk, squat, and deadlift, but definitely up there with the other major barbell movements. Perhaps the greatest mistake people make when bench pressing is that they aren’t getting into the solid pressing position characterized by scapular retraction, back arch, and a high chest. When failing to “squeeze the shoulder blades together” and create a stable upper back position, you’re not only decreasing your potential to lift heavy weights and build muscle and strength, but you could also be setting yourself up for shoulder injuries. In this article I’m going to focus on the bench press arch and share some tips that allow you to get your chest up – both in terms of exercise technique and strength/hypertrophy.
Safe and effective bench pressing
But how much arch should you aim for? The spectrum seen in the gym ranges from the average Joe who simply lies down on the bench and lifts, to the competitive powerlifter who aims for the “big arch” that significantly decreases the range of motion and puts the body in a position to lift as much weight as possible. For the average lifter, I tend to recommend something in the middle. Pulling the shoulder blades down and back, anteriorly tilting the pelvis, and getting the chest up is essential for a good bench press, but for training purposes there’s no reason to take this to the extreme. When performed correctly, scapular retraction and a “slight” back arch is enough to “lock in” your deltoids and put your pecs in a position to lift heavy weights, but it doesn’t put excessive stress on the erectors by taking the extension to the extreme.
The basic rules of powerlifting states that the upper back and glutes have to touch the bench during the bench press, which means that you can deliberately shorten the distance between your shoulders and butt up until the point where your glutes lose contact with the bench. By going into this arched position you can significantly decrease the range of motion and thereby make it possible to lift heavier weights.
So, while competitive powerlifters often go for “the big arch” when competing and sporadically train with the technique they’re using in meets, the average lifter who wants to build muscle and strength as safe and effectively as possible should aim for a “normal”/slight back arch. However, overdoing the bench press arch isn’t really an issue for most trainees as they aren’t able to get into the “extreme” positions often displayed by powerlifters. This means that pulling the shoulder blades together and down and arching “as much as possible” (while keeping the butt on the bench) function as good guidelines for most lifters.
Scapular retraction is essential for good technique in several types of exercises
Perhaps the most important part of getting into a correct bench press position is to squeeze the shoulder blades together. This puts your deltoids in a stable position during the bench press and elevates your chest. The deltoids and traps should be used to create a stable base for the upper body, not to “shrug” the barbell further up from the lockout position. Scapular retraction is also essential in many other exercises, such as rowing movements and the squat.
Poor bench press technique can result from a variety of factors
But let’s turn our attention to the real issue. The problem most folks have isn’t to moderate their bench press arch, but to be even be able to get their chest up, shoulders back, etc. Some people aren’t able to use good technique with a solid setup because of poor mobility and/or upper crossed syndrome (addressing these issues improves bench press technique), but for the majority of lifters it’s just a question of getting the proper coaching.
I’ve found that simply cuing clients to squeeze the shoulder blades together, shorten the distance between the shoulder blades and glutes, pushing the chest up high, etc. isn’t always enough. Some trainees simply lack the experience and “body awareness” to properly respond to verbal and visual instructions, and in these cases I have a set of exercises that are very effective for teaching the bench press arch. Here are two of those I’ve used the most.
Learn the bench press arch
1. Grab a rope or band and hold your arms out straight in front of you. Tuck your chin in, squeeze the shoulder blades together, keep your chest high, and pull your shoulders down. If you have a training partner, tell him to place his hand in between your shoulder blades.
2. Stand in front of a smith machine ( or a gymnastics ladder) and adjust the barbell so it’s placed directly in front of your chest. Place your hands like you would in the bench press, and push against the barbell while you’re imaging that you’re going to move a large object (e.g., a car). Allow your shoulders to drift back, squeeze your shoulder blades together and attempt to “break” the bar (this tucks your elbows in and forces your chest up)
The Bench Press Arch: 3 takeaways
– Squeeze the shoulder blades together, and drive the shoulders down and back
– “Break the bar”
– Keep everything tight