Perfecting Your Bench Press: How Much Arch is Enough?

When it comes to setting up in the bench, a lot of individuals tend to pull the shoulder blades down and back, squeeze the lats as tight as possible, “screw-in” the elbows and get the chest up. Now that isn’t a bad place to start and for some people this works very well. However, for others who may be bench beginners, have a history of shoulder issues, have a stiff upper back, and/or have other thorax/shoulder muscular impairments, this may cause problems down the road.

 

The bench is a tricky animal since the weightlifter has to adjust their body position to a flat surface. Hence, all the more reason to customize every individual's setup. 9 out of 10 times people will mimic a setup they witnessed on Instagram and end up irritating their bicep tendon. The other 1 out of 10 times is that they may actually end up benching 400+.  Anyways, it is important to alter positions in the lower back, upper back, neck/head, shoulder blades, shoulder joints, elbows, wrists, feet, hips, and knees based on the individual’s presentation through a range of motion.  Yes, every joint in the body will affect positioning in the bench.  It is the available motion at each joint and the coordination/muscle function that comes with this motion. For this blog I am only going to try to keep my focus on the arch and back position or else I will end up losing myself and the audience when trying to dissect every joint….

If you are a powerlifter and compete fairly regularly, you are going to need to bench with an arch whether that arch is subtle or exaggerated. The arch gives you more leverage to press off of and will decrease the distance the bar needs to travel.  However, if you are a powerlifter with pain during the bench or a non-powerlifter and want to bench to have some upper body mass then assessing the extent of the arch (among other variables) may be beneficial to your progress.

 

In my experience as a Doctor of Physical Therapy, weightlifting coach, and weightlifter I have encountered a few issues with “overarching” in the bench with patients/clients and myself. (For the sake of this post let's define overarching as an extension-biased curve that is greater than one’s normal spine curvature front-to-back, not side-to-side.)

Problems that may arise with overarching include, but are not limited to:

Back spasms (can be the upper, mid, or low back) Shoulder pain in the front and/or back of the shoulder Excessive rib flaring may be associated with a hinge at the junction of the thoracic spine and lumbar spine For non-powerlifters this arch and hinge as mentioned above can groove bad habits and increase reliance of back extension during other movements Recurrent pec/bicep strains

For the powerlifter with pain during this movement or the athlete that is not a powerlifter, a thorough assessment should be performed to determine how much of an arch is necessary for the demand of the sport and what the risk/benefit ratio is for even benching. Anyways let’s look at a couple specific cases both incorporating the bench. Take the powerlifter with a stiff upper back for example. This guy has trouble extending (arching his upper back)  when setting up.  As a result he compensates by overarching the lower back to make up for the decreased ability in his upper back and chronically has back spasms during lifting and outside of gym. My solutions for the short-term would involve alterations in positions such as raising the feet and supporting the head during bench sessions while breathing and flexibility/mobility improvements would be utilized for the upper back/thoracic region concurrently. Now let’s look at an Olympic lifter with a history of shoulder pain. (Pretend they are barbell benching for the sake of general upper body pressing strength, many times the bench would just be avoided in these cases). Utilizing an over-arch for this individual's setup may be a train wreck and end up aggravating their symptoms. Therefore, decreasing the arch and teaching the individual to load the bar more smoothly to their chest using tempo training with a more narrow grip may be more beneficial.  

Although this post is about what may happen with overarching, problems can also arise with benching too flat-back. Issues that I have come across in my experiences involve:

Anterior or posterior shoulder pain (front/back of the shoulder) Frequent bicep irritation Distal symptoms into the elbows and triceps such as tendinitis/osis

Keep in mind whether you are benching with a giant arch or a minimal arch, everything comes down to how that movement is conducted and the posture available. The athlete, client, and/or patient needs to be assessed before starting any bench protocol. If you are a powerlifter with pain while benching, then something may need to be altered in your setup (such as your arch) and/or during the loading phase. So the big take home point for this blog is:

FIT THE EXERCISE TO THE ATHLETE, NOT THE ATHLETE TO THE EXERCISE

This post is designed to get you thinking about why and how you are performing a certain movement. The arch needs to be customized to the client, patient, and/or athlete. A lot of individuals think that being in constant pain is normal and should be part of the sport. Yes, some pain may arise in training here and there but it should not be a constant, recurring issue especially if it’s at the same joint, during the same movement every week. Something needs to change.

Hope this blog helps! For more discussion related to benching, positions, or pain/symptoms during various movements check us out at The Athletic Weightlifter Facebook group.  Click below to join. I would love to chat with you directly about any issues you have going on!  

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