Bench Press - Arch, or No Arch
The bench press is performed by almost everyone who lifts weights. Whether it’s the average bloke who goes to the gym, an athlete, or a competitive powerlifter, everyone is interested in benching the most weight possible. To lift the most weight possible you see all sorts of crazy things, mostly by the general population trying to emulate elite powerlifters who have been training hard building a foundation and dialling in their technique for many years.
When it comes to arching in the performance of the bench press I feel it is best saved for the competitive powerlifters and even then it should be saved for final stages before competition to get the set up and groove right. The way I look at is that there is a massive difference between building strength and displaying strength, I heard this from Charles Poliquin in a seminar and it continues to spring into my mind every time I write a program or see someone ego lifting. These people will always do the easiest lift with the loosest technique possible because they are too embarrassed to lift a lighter load and build a foundation of strength that can be displayed at a later time. For example, they will choose the steepest decline on the bench and use the widest grip possible, often using a smith machine just so they can look good in front of their mate. These people will never be truly strong.
What I prefer to do is use disadvantage leverages in the early phases of training and save the strongest for times when competition is nearing or when you truly want to display your strength.
The same goes for arching. I prefer athletes to bench with their butt on the bench and keep a relative flat back. It is not completely flat as I do believe you should keep your sternum high, squeezing your shoulder blades back. This position is healthier for the shoulders and gives you a solid foundation to press from. It also places far less stress on the lower back and lengthens the range of motion in comparison to benching with an arch. For athletes the main focus is to build strength in the gym not display it. The time for them to display their strength is on the field, in the ring, or on the athletic track.
When arching to perform the bench press you have a lot of stress that is applied to the lower back and it feels quite uncomfortable. It is something that you must practice and ensure you have the proper set up before performing with heavy loads. It does decrease the range of motion a fair bit and increases leverages, so you are generally able to lift heavier loads. You also have to know how to use leg drive properly to perform this type of bench press and where to place your feet. Some lifters will go right up on their toes and have their feet directly under their hips whereas others will keep their feet flat on the ground and only slightly back towards the hips. This will also be dependent upon the federation they lift in and the rules used.
I like the advice Ed Coan gives about benching, he says to do whatever is right for you. He has benched with an arch and without an arch. It is about finding what works best for you. He said he used to dig his feet hard into the ground to stabilize himself, he arched his back, and kept his butt in contact with the bench at all times. This was when he was doing his competitive lift. In the offseason he would put his feet up on the bench and perform his benches in this style as it was harder because he had less stability.
Whether you perform the bench arched or not the big cue is to squeeze the shoulder blades back and keep the sternum up. This seems pretty universal. It is a better position for the shoulder joint, minimizes the risk of injury, and allows you to lift good amounts of weight even without an arch.