Bench Press: To Arch or Not To Arch?

May 20, 2022 | Exercise guides, Strength & Conditioning

Everyone online seems to have a strong opinion about arching your back in the bench press. The reasons and schools of thought vary around the hows/whys, so what’s a novice athlete to do? Anthony Cuevas is an NCSF Certified PT based out of New York with six years of experience as a personal trainer. He started lifting at 14 years old, so he knows a thing or two about our favorite staple, the bench press. In this piece he talks about bench press mechanics and the differences between holding your back neutral and arching it, along with tips on how to program bench for yourself. Spoiler alert: like most things, it depends on your goals! 

Anthony Cuevas

Arching vs flat-back bench: what’s the difference?

 

To arch or not to arch? That is the question. It’s a common argument among fitness influencers and strength enthusiasts concerning the bench press. And the answer often depends on personal preference—some choose to lay flat when benching, and some (like myself) choose to arch their backs for leverage.

 

The bench press is an important and effective exercise regardless of which variation you take, because it works most of your upper body muscles. Emphasis on effectiveness, because that’s what exercises are meant to be at the end of the day, effective. 

 

Different versions of the bench press put emphasis on different parts of your upper trunk. Incline bench works your upper chest, while close grip bench uses more triceps and forearms. But the mechanics behind the standard bench press are worth exploring, especially when it comes to the age-old argument of whether or not to arch your back. 

Which version is right for you?

It isn’t as one-sided as IG fitness influencers want you to believe. There are actual benefits to both methods of benching.

 

If your goals are aesthetic, the strict method of benching helps develop your chest more since you’re using a full range of motion (ROM) by stretching the chest muscles at the bottom of the movement and squeezing at the top.

 

Arching your back in the bench press is commonly used in the powerlifting and weightlifting communities because their goals are more strength-focused. This method of benching helps boost your numbers due to the shorter ROM and leverage of the bar.

 

I choose to lean more towards the arch due to shoulder injury issues. The shorter range of motion makes the press easier and pain-free. The arch also helps me to be more aware of planting my feet, creating leg drive and spreading my lats on the bench. This added tension uses my whole body to move the bar.

 

Depending on your personal training goals, experience, and shoulder health, it’s worthwhile to explore both methods.

 

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How to bench with and without arching

The classic way to bench press for bodybuilders:

Lie flat on the bench and grip the barbell just outside shoulder-width. Keep your shoulders back and chest up with your spine neutral.

 

Keep your lower back and butt down on the bench with your feet planted to create leg drive. Breathe in as you lower the barbell to your chest and breathe out as you press the bar up.

 

Using the arch for strength:

Create an arch setup by pressing your shoulders and butt down into the bench and allowing your mid-back to bend, engaging your lats.

 

Keep your feet planted to create leg drive. Take a breath to brace your core before unracking the bar. The pressing motion is the same: inhale before you lower the bar to tap your chest and exhale as you press the bar up.

 

Coach’s Tip: Maintaining your lumbar spine’s natural curve is different from arching deeply into your back! With practice, you should be able to feel the difference between the two techniques.

How to Program the Bench Press

I highly recommend programming some form of bench press to develop a strong chest. Here’s an example on how I program my bench press days.

 

1a. Bench Press

Warmup Sets

Empty bar (45lbs) 2×15

135lbs 1×8

165lbs 2×9

175lbs 2×5

 

Working Sets 

195lbs 3×5

205lbs 4×3

225lbs 3×2

 

Rest Time

Warmup Sets: 1:00 to 1:30

Working Sets: 1:30 to 4:00

 

This might seem like a lot of volume for one day, but in order to adapt and make strength gains, I focus on volume one day and technique drills on another day.

 

The rest period is vital to your success. Don’t skip it! Instead of sitting on the bench looking at social media, I suggest you focus on injury prevention by stretching your upper body muscles during your rest periods. This will help you stay in peak performance while pressing weight.

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Bench press variations

If you want to truly build those bench numbers in the weight room, you’ll need to add different variations of the bench press using a variety of equipment. Unilateral work (using one arm at a time) helps you focus on creating proper form and addressing imbalances in your barbell bench press.

 

Here are some common horizontal pressing variations to add to your bench program. Try one of each variation along with your barbell benching to help boost your numbers and grow your chest. 

 

Dumbbells

Flat Bench DB Press

Incline Bench DB Press

Single Arm DB Chest Press

Floor Press

 

Cables

Cable Chest Press

Seated Cable Chest Press

Single Arm Cable Chest Press

 

Kettlebells

KB Chest Press

KB Push Ups

KB Floor Press

The final verdict

Whether or not you choose to arch depends on your own personal goals at the end of the day.

 

If you’re looking to build an aesthetically pleasing chest—try to bench without arching.

If you’re looking to build compound strength and boost your bench numbers—use the arch.

 

Whether or not you use the arching method doesn’t need to be some huge argument to determine the right or wrong way to bench press. 

 

It’s mostly a personal choice depending on the goals you’ve set for yourself.

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