Fix Your Low Back Arch On Bench Press
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
Although there are literally dozens of common technique errors commonly witnessed during the bench press and variations thereof, perhaps the single most common mistake is the use of excessive low back arch and lumbar extension. Besides producing various energy leaks and structural impairments up the kinetic chain it’s also potentially problematic for spinal health and low back pain.
While it’s important to maintain a “big chest” while keeping the shoulders depressed and retracted during chest presses (which may result in a very mild and natural arch), many individuals compensate by producing excessive extension through their lumbar spine. A majority of the extension should be occurring through their upper back and t-spine while keeping the lumbar spine relatively neutral. Yes, excessively arching the back may shorten the bar path (the distance the bar has to travel before touching your chest), however, unless you’re a professional powerlifter, the neutral spinal position is far superior on all fronts not only on the bench press but on most if not all movements. Here are several of my favorite variations for eliminating low back arch and reinforcing a more neutral spinal position during chest presses.
1. Hollow Body Leg Raise
Learning to fire the core and avoid excessive lumbar arch during chest presses is something many lifters struggle with. The hollow body leg raise protocol is particularly effective for addressing this issue this as the core must work over-time to stabilize the spine and pelvis by keeping it neutral. Here are several of my favorite variations in the video below. Read more about the hollow body leg raise bench press here.
Although a slightly lower leg raise position can blast the core, it can also be tough for some folks to maintain a neutral low back position as it can pull them into lumbar extension. With that said holding the legs 12-24 inches above floor height tends to produce the optimal balance where it maximizes core activation while still reinforcing a neutral spinal position.
2. Double 90 Knee Bend Leg Raise
While the core may not fire quite as aggressively as the hollow body straight leg raise position, the 90 degree double knee bend leg raise helps minimize the degree of extension the low spine can move into. That’s because pulling the knees towards the chest then isometrically holding this position while simultaneously activating the core helps pull the pelvis posteriorly so you can’t over-arch. Think of this is a chest press while holding a knee raise or reverse crunch.
3. Dead Bug Chest Press
The dead bug chest press may represent the perfect combination of the above 2 approaches as the combination knee raise in one leg combined with a straight leg raise position both aggressively activates the core while also reinforcing a neutral spine. Here’s an example of one my NFL athletes demonstrating it with impressive 120 lb dumbbells at a bodyweight of 200 lbs.
It also creates a degree of anti-rotation and rotary stability thereby increasing core activation even further. For more information on dead-bug training check out Kelvin King Jr's awesome ebook on Amazon, 6 Dead Bug Variations for the Weekend Athlete as it's an incredible resource for athletes and coaches alike.
4. Single Arm Floor Press Variations
While seemingly quite simple, the single arm or unilateral floor press protocol is probably one of the most deceptively difficult yet effective variations for firing the daylights out the core and also minimizing excessive lumbar extension. That’s because any lack of core activation will result in the lifter’s body literally being rotated by the offset load.
If you’re going to use heavy loading, you’ll inevitably need the legs pressed into the floor otherwise the weight will rotate the body over to that side. Here’s an example from one of my awesome athletes Ben Lai using a very difficult Javelin barbell press protocol.
If you’re going to be using slightly lighter loading (less than 1/4 of your bodyweight) then the hollow body leg raise protocol or double 90 knee bend position will further fire up the core. That’s because the lifter will be using every bit of core activation to keep their body from being rotated by the offset load as shown below by 2 of my awesome clients Cali and Cami Shadburn.
Here’s one of my NFL athletes Prince Iworah demonstrating a similarly difficult variation that both crushes the core and shoulder stabilizers at once.
In fact the combination of 90 degree knee bend, single arm press, reverse bottoms up kettlebell protocol, and eccentric isometric holds makes this incredibly brutal yet effective for ensuring the core is fully engaged not to mention the entire body. Read more about the reverse bottoms up chest press here.
5. Eyes Closed Chest Presses
Performing any chest press particularly single arm variations on a semi-unstable surface with eccentric isometrics can do wonders for reinforcing a neutral spine as anything but near maximal full body tension and core activation will result in the lifter losing his or her control of the movement. Read more about eyes closed training here.
6. 90 Degree Knee Bench with Band Resistance
If pulling your legs into a hollow body position or a double 90 knee bend still doesn’t cut it in terms of teaching spinal neutrality and core activation, this simple modification is likely to do the trick. Simply attach a band to your feet and pull your legs into a 90 degree position while performing a floor press as I show here.
Similar to the basic 90 degree knee bend position, this closely resembles the activation patterns of a reverse crunch or knee raise position thereby reinforcing high levels of core activation while also ensuring the low back stays in a more neutral position. Don’t be surprised if your abs and core nearly cramp on these as the levels of intramuscular tension in the entire abdominal region is through the roof.
7. 90 Degree Knee Bend on Stability Ball
Although the hollow body leg raise and 90 degree knee bend positions are very effective for eliminating excessive low back arch in most lifters, some athletes will find that the intense hip flexor activation doesn’t always produce the optimal outcome in terms of hip and lumbar positioning. With that said the 90 degree knee bench position with the feet on a stability ball as shown here by my awesome figure athlete Leslie Petch is a perfect way to resolve this. In fact, it may be one of the single most effective training methods I know of to eliminate lumbar extension as it provides the perfect blend of different variables. Here’s what I mean.
The normal leg raise or 90 degree leg raise positions involve intense hip flexor activation which for some folks can place too much tension on the low back. In contrast, elevating the feet on a bench although effective for eliminating hip flexor tension can also allow the athlete to relax and deactivate their core since they’re essentially resting their feet on a fixed surface with no consequences for relaxing their core. However, stabilizing the feet on a more unstable surface such as stability ball provides the perfect combination of factors. That’s because it provides the optimal biomechanical position for optimizing a neutral spine yet also produces the appropriate internal neuromuscular activation patterns that are most conducive to optimizing lumbopelvic hip function and spinal neutrality.
Additional Benefits Associated with Leg Raise Chest Presses
Besides providing a surefire remedy for eliminating excessive low back arch, performing chest presses with the legs elevated provides 7 other additional benefits.
1. Learning to drive with the hips and legs during chest presses is an essential component for maximizing force production and pressing mechanics. However, many lifters lack the ability to fully engage their upper body musculature and rely excessively on their legs to help press the weight up. As a result the stimulus to their chest, shoulders, and triceps, is minimal. Implementing any of the above chest presses is a very effective method for resolving this as it helps to isolate the upper body by eliminating the assistance of the legs.
2. By using this method to periodically isolate the upper body pressing muscles this helps create a stronger muscle mind connection with the targeted musculature. Once these enhanced neural connections are grooved into your CNS, transferring these improved activation patterns back to standard chest pressing variations with leg assistance will inevitably result in increased pressing power.
3. With consistent use of the above variations you’ll notice increased hypertrophy to the chest, shoulders, and triceps, as the amount of intramuscular tension and metabolic stress will be significantly greater than you would typically find with standard chest presses.
4. With the leg raise chest protocol you’ll experience increased activation of the core and surrounding stabilizers. The increased recruitment of these areas will greatly improve your motor control, balance, and stability. Once you return to standard chest pressing variations you’ll feel unusually locked in with your mechanics as your CNS will be more dialed in than ever.
5. Enhanced core stability and spinal rigidity aren’t the only stabilization components addressed during the above chest presses. Because the lifter has no firm foundation with his or her legs, their bodies are in a fairly vulnerable and unstable position. Excessive momentum, shifting, asymmetrical pressing, or cheating can easily result in loss of balance. As a result the lifter is forced to eliminate compensation patterns and rely on crisp yet smooth motions to complete the exercise. This means more tension to the targeted musculature and less tension on the joints.
6. Any of the leg raise chest presses indirectly improves the lifter’s ability to activate the upper back and lats as well as tuck the elbows. The reasoning is a bit complex but see if you can follow.
When the feet are driving into the floor (during standard chest presses) it allows the lifter to set a base with their feet, hips, and legs, and another base with their upper torso. By pushing from these two points this creates an almost-coiled like, spring-loaded position making it easier to tuck the elbows, fire the lats and upper back, and depress the shoulders. This represents optimal pressing mechanics for any traditional chest press particularly when attempting to maximize strength development. Unfortunately many lifters lack the ability to recruit their upper back unless they can create tension with their legs. But even then, their upper back activation is sub par at best.
By eliminating leg drive from this equation, it becomes exponentially more difficult to fire the lats and depress the scapula as you’ll no longer have a solid lower body foundation to press into. However, over time, the lifter will be forced to adapt to this by mastering the ability to fire the upper back and tuck the elbows as a means of ensuring control of the load and their body.
Once the lifter can harness their ability to activate the lats and create proper shoulder centration without leg drive, the muscle-mind connection this will produce in the lats, upper back, and shoulder retractors is incredibly high. After mastering this, returning to standard chest press with the legs firmly planted will feel more powerful than ever as your ability to lock the scapula in and engage your upper back will be exponentially improved.
7. Most if not all of the variations shown in this article will require the lifter to decrease the load they typically use by at least 20%. As a result their joints particularly their elbows, shoulders, and wrists will be less loaded yet the upper body pressing muscles will still receive ample strength and growth stimuli. Simply put these variations represent the perfect way to deload the joints while also blasting the targeted musculature and improving your bench press.