Written by Strength Coach and State Champion Powerlifter Christina Myers, MS Performance Enhancement and Injury Prevention with special guest commentary by Dr. Sloan Beard, DC, MS Sports Science and Rehabilitation.
Why the controversy?
If you follow any female powerlifters on social media, chances are you’ve happened across a video of her performing the bench press with an impressive arch. Scroll through the comments section on that same video, and you’re likely to find that a whole team of self-proclaimed “experts” have taken it upon themselves to “help” this strong lady with her form. Nine times out of ten, the “help” comes from guys who barely bench themselves (or admit to not lifting at all!), or are amateur “bodybuilders” who have no real credentials and don’t even train legs. Let’s review the most common arguments made in these comments and prove the trolls are wrong.
- It’s “cheating” or “not a full rep.” “It’s not fair girls can arch but guys can’t.”
Firstly, let’s review the rules of powerlifting competition bench press: according to the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF—arguably the strictest and most consistent governing body, comparable to the IOC in the powerlifting world.), a legal bench press requires the feet to be flat on the floor, and the glutes, shoulders, and head to remain on the bench at all times. Maximum grip width is limited to 81 cm (the rings on the bar). The bar must be held by the lifter until the officials give the command to start, come down to the chest and rest there until an official gives the command to start the press, and remain in the locked out position until the rack command is given. Some federations may allow the lifters to bench on their toes or even lift their head, but ALL are in agreement that shoulders and glutes must remain on the bench throughout the lift. Thus, the 125lb girl whose strongest bench position resembles a rainbow and the 200 lb guy who chooses to bench flat as a board are both performing a legal bench press. If a lifter chooses to assume a position that has been established as strong and stable through years of architectural advances, maybe she’s onto something and you should take note. When you drive across a bridge designed with supportive arches, do you accuse it of cheating because it isn’t flat? No, you thank the architect who designed it for keeping your vehicle from tumbling into the water below. A baseball player sets up in the batter’s box in the position that he feels most comfortable and most successful with, and while other players may not use the same set up, they don’t go around accusing player 1 of cheating. It is not “cheating” to maximize your competitive potential by making best use of mechanical advantages.
A second part of this argument is that it’s not fair for girls to arch when guys can’t. Is it true that most women are naturally more flexible than most men? Yes. Is it true that guys can’t arch? Absolutely not. Mobility can be improved, and arches can be mastered if someone is willing to put in the time and effort to work on it. Here’s the thing, though—most men have SIGNIFICANTLY larger chests than women, especially those lightweight women who are most likely to take advantage of a big arch and wide grip. Of course there are exceptions and outliers, but, most of the time, the distance the bar must travel for a lightweight lady with an arch and a wide grip and the distance the bar must travel for a big, strong guy with a flat back are roughly the same. Instead of complaining about how life’s not fair, let’s instead celebrate how wonderfully impressive it is to see a 115 lady bench 200lbs (here’s to you, Marisa Inda). Let’s applaud her for putting in the time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears it took to accomplish that feat of strength, in spite of the erroneous advice she got along the way.
- “It’s a decline press.” “You’re not targeting your pecs/chest.”
Right, and right again. But here’s the thing: the bench press is a compound exercise, and cannot be turned into a chest isolation movement no matter how many feet-in-the-air variations you try. This argument is invalid. If pectoral muscle isolation is your sole goal, step away from the bench and head over to the pec deck or cable set up. If your goal is overall strength and/or athletic performance, the bench press is a fabulous tool for training several muscle groups to work in unison, and obviously it’s a main staple for competitive powerlifters. Keep in mind that powerlifters who compete with an arch spend plenty of time training other bench variations and accessory exercises to strengthen the individual musculature involved in the bench press. In addition to building strength, the arched press serves as practice for meet day.
As far it being a decline press goes—yes, in a way it is. But that’s the whole point. Decline presses allow a greater use of the lower pectoral muscle fibers, which have more mass and therefore more strength. The whole reason decline bench became popular to begin with is because egotistical lifters could move more weight this way. So YES, it does make the lift easier. Let’s go back to our point of taking advantage of mechanical leverages…THANK YOU for making our point for us. Not to mention the fact that proper bench press form for ANY lifter includes lifting the chest, retracting the scapula, and recruiting the lats (i.e. arching), which stabilizes the glenohumeral joint and reduces the risk of shoulder injuries, bringing us to our next point:
- “It’s not safe.” “You’re going to hurt your back.” #snapcity
As with any physical activity, there are risks associated with improper performance. There are ways to improperly perform an arched bench press, just like there are dangerous ways to perform an overhead squat. However, when performed correctly, the arched bench press is perfectly safe. In fact, in some ways it is safer than many more common variations.
An extended (arched) position is safer for the intervertebral discs than a flexed position because of protective structures at the anterior spine (anterior longitudinal ligament) and the tendency of discs to herniate posteriorly.
The devil’s advocate to this statement is that now the force is being transferred and braced against the posterior elements of the spine – the facet joints. This is normal in an extension position, and completely safe if evenly distributed between each vertebra and with proper strength of the individual performing the lift. The problem lies with an athlete setting their arch up in more of a hinge appearance rather than a smooth continuous arch from sacrum to mid back. The hinge point, or angle observed, will now be responsible for a greater force than the joints above and below it. This comes back to your previous statement “with any physical activity, there are risks associated with improper performance.” Do things incorrectly and be prepared to experience the consequences associated with it.
No axial loading is placed on the spine in this position. The bar moves over an anchor point created by the packed lats and retracted scapula. The more musculature recruited, the more surface area upon which the body can distribute the weight on the bar. Performing an overhead press in a hyperextended position, for example, would place an axial load on the spine. – Just a heads up – any overhead movement (overhead press) will put an axial load on the spine even when performed correctly. In fact that is the reason we have discs is in order to absorb axial compression. Axial load is healthy – when preformed correctly, as with everything. However, if hyperextended the axial compression will now be absorbed into the posterior elements of the spine, which are not designed to withstand and hold as much force as a disc can withstand.
The spine does not change positions during the lift when performed correctly. This is unlike the position changes experienced when a deadlift is locked out in a hyperextended position. The leg drive used in this fixed position produces less force in the spine than a light squat, and is safer than a squat in that the spine isn’t actually loaded. This is one of my favorite points of the article. When your body is in a fixed position it can now act as a solid buttress for the moving elements. If an athlete reduces movement during their press to strictly the upper extremity, maintains a fixed spine structure, an arch is now a mechanical advantage by acting as a solid reinforcement for the press. With small movements during the lift anywhere but the upper extremity, energy can be lost and performance is diminished.
- The glenohumeral joint is better protected in a lifted chest, retracted scapula bench press, as activating the lats places the humerus in a more stable position relative to the torso, protecting against anterior shoulder impingements. Proper form for the bench press requires at least a minimal amount of the aforementioned techniques. (Note: benching with the feet up places the shoulders in a very unstable position and should be left to more advanced lifters who already have excellent shoulder and core stability.)
A good bench press arch is uniform throughout the lumbar and cervical spine. There should be no movement in the spine during the bench press, meaning that the glutes must remain anchored to the bench at all times (no bridging) and that the lifter does not let their arch collapse under the bar and then heave the bar off of their chest. The deadlift and overhead press examples mentioned above are examples of when an arch (hyperextension) can produce detrimental axial and shearing forces due to the motion of the spine during the lift. If you are new to arching, introduce it slowly into your program and pay attention to how your body reacts. Ensure that you know how to properly brace your core before adding in a huge arch, as it is more difficult to do in the arched position.
The powerlifting arch is safe for lifters who use it properly and understand the risk to benefit ratio. It is not something that the general fitness lifter necessarily needs to learn. For most people, learning to bench with a small amount of leg drive and a small arch (i.e. retracted scapulae) is sufficient to put them in a strong and stable position to move weight. Keeping all of these things in mind, the arched bench press is a tool that some lifters may employ to help them achieve success in their sport of choice, and there is nothing wrong with that. So, the next time you see a chick turning her spine into a rainbow and grab your phone to sneak a picture, take a second to think about the fact that she’s probably a more informed and advanced lifter than you. Still want to post your inferior lifting knowledge on social media?
- Starting Strength
- NASM Essentials of Sports Performance Training