Powerlifters are some of the strongest people on the planet. They train to lift as much weight as possible in the Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift, so many of their methods trickle down into strength and conditioning programs for team sport athletes. But should athletes train like powerlifters?
The short answer is no, because athletes should train with the goal to become better prepared to play their sport, not to move as much weight as possible. But there are some positive things athletes can learn from powerlifters, including how to perform certain heavy barbell lifts safely and efficiently. This includes the Bench Press, and I believe athletes should emulate powerlifting technique while benching to maximize strength and safety.
What constitutes “powerlifting technique” during the Bench Press? Rather than simply lying on the bench and grabbing the bar, powerlifters are taught to arch the back into a position so that only the head, shoulders and glutes are touching the bench. While this may look extreme at first and may raise the eyebrows of athletes and coaches alike, it’s actually the best way to bench press regardless of whether you’re a team sport athlete or a powerlifter.
Here are three big reasons you should arch your back while you bench press.
1. It’s the Safest Position for Your Shoulders
Your back isn’t what you need to worry about while bench pressing—it’s your shoulders. Arching your back while lying down doesn’t load your spine like a Squat or Deadlift (more on this later), but holding a heavy bar over your face certainly loads the shoulder joint. An extended spine helps lock your shoulders in place and reduces the range of motion through which your arms must travel, resulting in a safer exercise.
The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint. The head of the humerus (upper arm bone) is the “ball” and the glenoid fossa is the “socket.” The glenoid fossa is where the humerus and scapula (shoulder blade) meet, and they’re held together by several soft tissue structures, including your glenohumeral ligaments, labrum and biceps tendon. The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body, designed to move a lot while throwing a ball, swinging a racquet or performing any other high-speed, upper-body motion. But this also means the shoulder is naturally less stable, so you need superb body awareness and co-contraction of the muscles surrounding the shoulder to keep it in a safe position.
To keep your shoulders safe during the Bench Press, you MUST keep the “ball” in the “socket.” Arching your back helps draw the ball deeper into the socket and allows you to use your upper-back muscles to pull your shoulder blades down and back into a stable position. Ideal shoulder positioning when the bar hits your chest looks like this, with the elbows directly under the bar and the shoulder blades pinned to the bench:
Flat back benching pushes the ball forward in the socket, which causes the elbows to drift behind the bar and the shoulders to shrug into a bad position:
This can lead to biceps tendonitis, pec and rotator cuff strains, and other injuries. Think of it like repeatedly squatting with your knees caving in, or letting your back round repeatedly while deadlifting. Eventually, those joints will wear down and get hurt. For your shoulders’ sake, arch your back when you bench press.
2. Your Spine Is Not Axially Loaded
Arching your lower back to an extreme degree while squatting or deadlifting is a bad idea. When your spine is axially loaded (i.e., top-to-bottom) AND compressively loaded (i.e., the weight pushes the vertebrae closer together) the safest position is to stack your vertebrae on top of each other in their natural curve. If you arch your back aggressively, those vertebrae are no longer stacked directly on top of each other, increasing shear stress and your risk of injury. However, the bench press arch removes most of these factors, because your spine isn’t directly loaded by the bar.
It’s similar to an upward facing dog pose in yoga. And while you’re not holding heavy weight over your face on a yoga mat, it’s still unloaded spinal extension. And you’d be hard-pressed to find many people lecture you about the dangers of arching your back during yoga.
Most importantly, your spine isn’t MOVING during the Bench Press. Moving segments of your spine under load is risky (e.g., rounding your back while deadlifting), but the Bench Press keeps your spine in place while only your arms move.
There are some athletes who may experience pain with unloaded spinal extension, such as those who have spondylolysis (spinal stress fractures) or stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal canal through which nerves and spinal cord run). In these cases, athletes should use different pressing exercises that can be performed safely without arching the back, such as Push-Ups and Landmine Presses.
3. You Can Press More Weight
While this is perhaps the least important of the reasons mentioned here, it’s still relevant: benching with an arched back lets you move more weight. The arch increases full-body tension and decreases the range of motion through which the bar moves, leading to heavier loads and more strength. Heavier loads mean greater force production, resulting in a stronger athlete.
Weight on the bar isn’t the be-all to end-all, but consider this: in team sports, almost all upper-body pushing motions are performed against an opponent. Blocking and tackling in football and rugby, checking in hockey or lacrosse, or holding your ground in soccer or basketball, etc. These all require ABSOLUTE strength (exerting force on an external object) rather than relative strength (moving your own body). The more weight you can bench press, the more force you can exert on an opponent, and the harder you’ll be to take down on the field or court.
These simple principles of biomechanics should clear up any confusion about whether you not you should arch your back while bench pressing. The safety and effectiveness of the Bench Press relies on using an arch, and as stated, if your spine can’t tolerate getting into such a position, there are plenty of other pressing exercises you can use to build upper-body strength.