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Bench Press Technique: Should You Keep Your Feet Up?

Written on March 16, 2012 at 8:52 am, by Eric Cressey

A while back, I published a blog, Are Pull-ups THAT Essential?, that was the single most popular in the history of EricCressey.com.  One particularly important point I made was that chronically driving the scapulae into depression with overuse of the lats could lead to various injuries in lifters and athletes.

In the comments section after the article, one reader had a great question along these lines: Isn’t benching with a big arch and cueing “down and back” with the shoulder blades during a bench press the exact same thing?  Shouldn’t the feet be up on the bench to get people out of extension?

I think it is a similar thing, but not the exact same thing.  And, I am not a fan of bench pressing with the feet up on the bench.

Before I get into the details of why, though, we should make an important differentiation between “gym” bench press technique and the bench press technique used by competitive powerlifters in competition.

In competition powerlifting bench press technique, the goal is to shorten the range of motion of the bar while maximizing leg drive.  Putting yourself in a big lower back arch and tucking the feet up under you more is the way to do this.  Additionally, equipped powerlifters wear bench press shirts that pull the shoulder blades forward, and the humerus into extension past the body.  Accordingly, the lifter has to consciously pull the shoulder blades down and back to counteract this tension and not jack up the anterior aspect of the shoulder.  After about 20 minutes of searching my laptop, I found this old video of me from 2005 when I was a legit 165-pounder (you can tell by the ostrich legs).  Notice the big arch and how much upper back involvement I needed to “fight” the shirt (and, for the record, I was never good at using the shirt…hated those things):

The Average Joe doesn’t need to worry about these factors when he’s lifting in the gym; he just needs to figure out what gives him the optimal set-up to stay healthy and still benefit from the exercise.  Still, I think we can learn a few things from the powerlifting approach.

First, I’m not convinced that such substantial loads for the upper body alone are a good thing. There are smaller joint structures and more mobility than stability than we see in the lower body, which can handle far greater loads. Sharing the load with the lower body tends to better distribute overall training stress.  Bringing the feet up on the bench takes this away.

Second, folks are more likely to go into excessive humeral extension (elbows pass the body) in the bottom position with a “sunken” chest. So, they either jack up the anterior aspect of the shoulder there – or the elbows flare out and we deal with a host of other stability issues.

Third, in standing, we actually have a “normal” lordotic curve.  I think it’s optimal to maintain this lordotic curve on the bench rather than take it away completely.  Core stability isn’t about cranking someone into excessive extension or flexion; it’s about learning how to maintain neutral.  A “middle of the road” approach like the one in the videos below is fine for most lifters (you’ll notice a slight arch is even more important on the close grip bench press, as there is a greater tendency for humeral extension past neutral when the hands are closer together):

Fourth, there is something to be said about learning from very strong people and their experiences.  We learned about how bracing was far superior to hollowing in terms of core stability by simply looking at world class squatters and what they did under insane loads.  Along these same lines, you simply don’t see world class bench pressers with the feet up and shoulder blades winging out. The flat back posture shifts guys into an abducted scapulae position from the get-go – and it becomes excessive at the top of the press. Internal rotation with protraction closes down the subacromial space and can cause increased rotator cuff impingement as well.  A similar thing actually happens when guys have to lift off the racks to themselves to start the lift, and it’s one reason why I always recommend getting a bench press handoff.

Fifth, you have to appreciate that the amount of time spent in scapular depression and lumbar extension (if you are even past the point of “neutral”) is relatively trivial.  If this position provides some extra stability, and doesn’t take place for long enough to yield chronic adaptations, I’m all for it.

Hopefully, this brief overview explains why I don’t like to have the feet up with bench press technique.  If you’re looking to learn more, I’d encourage you to check out Mike Westerdal’s resource, Bench Press Explosion.  It features some outstanding bench press technique advice, as well as 18 different bench press specialization strength training programs.

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18 Responses to “Bench Press Technique: Should You Keep Your Feet Up?”

  1. John Says:

    So main point in this is feet back for leg drive and slight back arch to mimic the lordotic of the body standing?

  2. Charlie Reid Says:

    Great Points, Eric. Like any argument, we need context before assigning black or white answers. If the quality one wishes to develop is to get bigger and stronger in their upper body, adopting a powerlifting style approach to the Bench Press seems to make the most sense and biomechanically puts the body in the safest position for loading heavy.

    Contrarily, based on DNS principles from the prague school, i could see how training excessive depression and retraction can cause problems with physiologic function/centration of the shoulder during sport tasks and everyday life. From my understanding, the scapulae need to be in slight abduction with a posterior tilt during certain movements which i often see people fail to do well (especially those that have a history of the depression/retraction strategy). I also see the scap depression/retraction folks over-dominate the deeper stabilizers like the low trap and serratus.

    With this in mind, it may not be the bench press that’s a problem, but instead we should be mindful of providing the right assistance work to balance out and make sure all functions of the scapulae, humerus, and t-spine are maintained (or improved).

    Charlie

  3. Mike Zawilinski Says:

    Cressey talking about benching…I love it!

  4. Taylor Says:

    Kelly Starrett has talked a little about a more global extension than just jacking yourself up onto your traps with a huge lumbar extension. Hip extension is extremely important here and many people are missing that range from sitting all day. Mobilize the hips before benching and leg drive should be much stronger without having to obtain a huge arch. I see many rec lifters with zero powerlifting training copying technique they see from a world class shirted lifter. There is a small chance that they can have their scapulae functioning correctly in that position at all times. On the other hand, feet up bench is not the answer either because it usually ends up with exactly what Eric pointed out in his fourth point, internal rotation and protraction. The humerus jams forward against the subacromial space and usually results in a lot of anterior chronic shoulder pain. This is why I love board pressing for raw lifters because it can take stress off the shoulder and still allow overloading of the movement. The point is that research and practice must both be done to find the optimal position for yourself.

  5. Chris D. Says:

    A little scapular retraction is a good thing for almost everyone seein that 99% of the stuff we do during the day is in front of our body (eating, computer use, etc) and involves us going into scapular protraction and abduction!

    Great article once again!

  6. John S Says:

    Eric,
    Good Article
    I had thought as you were mentioning how internal rotation with protraction closes down the subacromial space. What about push up with a plus for someone with weak serratus? Do you think the closed chain nature of this exercise increases rotator cuff acivation and reduces risk?
    John

  7. Conor Says:

    Excellent article! Great to put things into context with two the two types of benchers.

  8. Jason Mason Says:

    Eric,
    Great article. Doesn’t arching put you more into a decline press giving you a shorter ROM. Giving you a mechanical advantage? You see this when athletes bench on an incline and flat but lose the ability to do it when they are on a decline (Where they are typically the strongest). What are your thoughts on this? I understand the mechanical advantages when feet are planted and thrusting the hips up but speaking as a person who has had back surgery it makes me weary to warrant this advantage. You save your shoulders but what are the risks to your back? I look forward to your feedback!

  9. Tim Peirce Says:

    Thanks Eric, I agree with Chris D above. Coaching people into good scapula retraction during BP seems to be where folks need the most help once everything else is in place.

  10. Don Says:

    So often articles about bench press technique fail to mention the difference between benching in the gym, and a competition bench. Great article as always, Eric.

  11. Eric Cressey Says:

    John – yes, closed chain exercises help with joint stability.

  12. Joe Says:

    Thanks for the advice. Since you prefer the hand-off instead of pulling the bar off yourself do the shoulder positioning what about the home lifter? I was wondering what if I were to use my squat cage and set the safety bars just above chest height and start the lift from bottom? I could keep my shoulders in a better position even though I may have to sacrifice some weight since I seem to be weaker at the bottom? Is the form improvement worth it vs. the sacrifice in weight? I currently bench in the cage anyhow for safety sake but after reading this (and your other posts) if I should try this change? Thanks.

  13. Kashka Says:

    Hi Eric

    So I have heard benching with shoulders back and down, but TC also recommended benching with shoulders back but shrugged up. Which one would you recommend to stay healthy?

    Thanks

  14. Eric Cressey Says:

    Joe,

    I still wouldn’t start the lift from the bottom. You’re just going to have to be extra focused on getting the shoulder blades in the right position after unracking the bar yourself.

  15. Joe Says:

    Thanks very much for the advice; and thanks for the great blog/website.

  16. Anna Says:

    Love it! You explain it perfectly.

  17. Scott Gunter Says:

    Eric,

    Great distinction between the power-lifting benching style and typical gym-goer. It’s always important to remember our goals of training before assigning a “cookie-cutter” or “black-and-white” approach (Thanks, Charlie Reid). Everyone has different strengths, limitations and goals. Whether these goals are to improve these deficits, fine tune a strong point or improve in a specific sport the best results always come from making these considerations and determining the best method “to stay healthy and still (gain the desired) benefit(s) from the exercise” as you discussed.

    Also glad you pointed out the affect of thoracic flexion and extension on scapular abduction/adduction. It reminded me of a conversation I had with my University’s, Head Strength Coach, Brijesh Patel of SBCoachesCollege.com and MyFitTube. He introduced me to many of the thoracic mobility exercises I’ve seen in your videos and pointed out that improving excessively kyphotic posture could even aid shoulder stability by optimizing scapulo-thoracic motion and helping abducted scapula return to their natural position. Pairing this with your post, since an abducted position of the scapula decreases stability, it’s easy to see the benefit of an arched back during heavier/powerlifting loads.

    -SG

  18. Ken Says:

    I totally agree with Jason Mason. I find I can lift much more doing a decline press. When you arch your back doing regular bench you are CHEATING. The heavy lifters want every advantage which is why they arch their back to mimic a decline press to make it easier to press the weight. The every day Joe at the gym that wants to work their chest can benefit from their feet up. They will work more of the chest and see better results. I haven’t even gotten into saving the disks in your back from repeated compression from sudden arching. Once you get use to benching with your feet up you will never go back to your feet on the floor.

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