Tom Hamilton was the World Drug Free Powerlifting Federation champion in 2016, with a 665kg total in the 82.5kg weight category. He works out of W10 Performance in London
There’s endless debate about how much arch is correct – or advisable – in the bench press. Yes, it’s true that an extreme arch can produce some stress on the lower back, and that many powerlifting federations allow a degree of arch that’s counterproductive for bodybuilders. But even if hypertrophy is your main goal, you should take steps to fix your arch for optimal growth. Here’s why – and how.
Firstly, let’s be clear: there should be a degree of arch in any bench press – you’re pulling the shoulder blades back which pushes the chest up, so it’s inevitable. Powerlifters exaggerate that arch a bit more, aiming to stick themselves into a bench like a spring, but for hypertrophy having that arch and locking it in puts the pecs in a prime position to do most of the work, and it means the front delts won’t be stimulated as much. Not getting the shoulder blades back makes your shoulders loose, the stress comes off the pecs and you’re hitting the delts more. It’s one of the key reasons why people do barbell bench press and don’t feel their pecs. If you relax your shoulder and put one hand on your pec, then pull your shoulder back, you’ll feel your pec activate: what you want, ideally, is to get that feeling throughout each rep. Here’s how to do it.
The most simple thing to do is to make sure you understand what retraction feels like. You’re aiming to bring the shoulders back and down – you don’t want to shrug the traps. Do a couple of sets of scapula push-ups, and a couple of sets of paused band pull-aparts: the first will give you the feeling of retraction, the second will get you used to holding it isometrically. Practice it on your non-bench days.
Hopefully, you’re already taking the bar out of the rack correctly, but just in case: unrack it, keep your arms straight and bring your shoulders back into the bench. For hypertrophy, having your heels just behind your knees – feet flat on the floor is optimal. If you’re getting lower back pain or your feet come off the ground, that’s sub-optimal – it’s against the rules in some competitions, and you’re sacrificing some drive out of the ground even if you decrease the ROM.
You should notice if your arch improves, because you’ll be able to handle more weight, for more muscular tension, almost immediately. If you can bench close to the same numbers with your feet up or on the bench, you aren’t maximising leg drive. Take a couple of weeks to fix it – and watch your chest improve.