If you arch your back on the bench press, then you’re a cheater and should be banned from powerlifting. End of article.
Just kidding! Despite what you may see in any given instagram comments section, the back arch commonly performed by powerlifters has a ton of benefits. After all, why do you think all the strongest lifters in the world do it? The benefits far outweigh the risks.
In fact, the “powerlifter arch” may even be the safest bench method of all. In this article, we’ll go over 5 distinct benefits of benching with an arch and why your strength coach isn’t crazy for insisting on it.
Simply put, the point of the back arch is to help you lift more weight. It accomplishes this by reducing range of motion, increasing stability, and recruiting other muscle groups to help you generate more power.
Let’s break these benefits down one by one.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: yes, the back arch reduces ROM to allow them to lift more weight. That is, believe it or not, the entire goal of our sport. As long as a lifter’s technique stays within the agreed-upon rules (butt and shoulders on the bench), then there’s no reason to trash them for benching with an arch.
The technical perks of reducing the range of motion are straightforward: there’s less work to do. A shorter distance for the bar to travel means less time under pressure.
Doesn’t limiting the ROM mean the pecs aren’t activated as much?
Nope. In fact, it actually leads to even better activation. That brings us to benefit number two.
Yep, you heard me. Though the reduced ROM means less work in total, the bench press arch makes up for it by hitting the chest at a different angle. Benching from an arched position recruits more pectoral muscle fibers than you’d need for other bench variations. You’re literally working more of the pectoral muscles’ total volume, which in turn means better gains.
Most people don’t realize that the powerlifter arch is a natural curve resulting from proper shoulder stabilization.
Think about it. Proper bench technique involves pulling the shoulder blades down and back (a motion called “scapular retraction”). Tucking your shoulders like this allows the pecs and triceps to handle the brunt of the load while relieving the deltoids and rotator cuffs from excessive stress.
Scapular retraction creates an arch in the thoracic spine (upper back) that protects the shoulder joint, mostly eliminating the common complaint of “bencher’s shoulder.”
As anyone who’s benched heavy can tell you, it quickly becomes much more than just a chest or tricep exercise. When performed correctly, it’s truly a full-body movement that uses your leg drive for increased force production.
But without a back arch, the force from your leg drive won’t go very far.
If the back’s loose and then hit with a sudden drive from the legs, much of the force will dissipate as the butt slides back and forces the back to bend into a sloppy arch halfway through the lift.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but if your back is bending in and out on each set like a live fish slapping around on the floor, you may have poor technique.
Instead of floundering around like a trout, we want to create a thoracic arch during the set up. That way, the force generated from the legs transfers directly into the bar thanks to a pre-stabilized back.
Now put down your pitchforks for a second and listen.
Back injuries generally come from movement of the spine under load, whether it’s axial (vertical) or shear. The reason you don’t want arching in the back squat or deadlift is to avoid these stressors.
The bench press, however, doesn’t involve any axial loading. Plus, we can minimize shear loading by creating a back arch during setup as long as the glutes and shoulders remain in contact with the bench.
Without an arch, not only does the leg drive go absolutely nowhere, but the spine faces a higher risk of injury as a result.
Using proper leg drive creates an arch prior to putting the spine under load, will result in an arch becoming created at some point in the lift, and this is much less likely to lead to an injury if done during the set up when the body is not yet loaded.
Some of you may be thinking “okay, that’s great and all, but you’re still cheating.” And for that reason, I’m going to have to get on my soapbox for a minute.
By definition, if it’s within the rules for a competition powerlifter, then it cannot be cheating.
Let me draw a comparison to other sports for those of you outside of powerlifting.
As long as it’s a level playing field, there’s really no case against it. Think about how differently we feel about steroid use in the MLB/NBA/NFL compared to its use in the Mr. Olympia Bodybuilding Contest. They’re clearly against the rules in major league sports, but not in bodybuilding. As long as everyone’s playing by the same rules, it’s not an issue of fairness.
Powerlifters have all agreed to a specific set of rules that allow arching, so if the goal is to lift as much weight as possible as safely as possible, why not encourage it?
Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now.
Thanks for reading, as always. If you’re interested in learning more about the bench press, I recommend checking out our other articles on bench:
It's one thing to read it; it's another to do it. And when you're training without a coach, you need to make sure you know what you're doing.