Raise Your Legs To Increase Your Bench Press

Raise Your Legs and Increase Your Bench Press

Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.

The leg raise chest press protocol is one of my favorite pressing techniques to improve bench press and horizontal pressing mechanics. Here are several of my clients and NFL athletes demonstrating some of my favorite variations.  

There are 7 reasons why this is so effective

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 the leg raise protocol during 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.  This is also the grand equalizer of all bench press protocols as it’s truly an indication of upper body strength.

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 will inevitably result in increased pressing power. 

3. With consistent use of the leg raise chest press protocol 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.  In fact the degree of metabolic stress and mechanical tension to the local musculature will be greater than just about any chest pressing variation you’ve ever attempted.

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 you’re CNS will be more dialed in than ever.

5. Learning to fire the core and avoid excessive lumbar arch during chest presses is something many lifters struggle with.  In fact over-arching the lumbar spine during the bench press is a sure-fire way to both injure your low back and eliminate the growth-inducing stimulus of the chest press itself.  Using the leg raise position eliminates this as the core must work over-time to stabilize the spine and pelvis by keeping it neutral.

6. Enhanced core stability and spinal rigidity aren’t the only stabilization components addressed during the leg-raise chest press position.  Because the lifter has no firm foundation with his or her legs, their bodies are in a fairly vulnerable and unstable position while lying on the bench.  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.

7. The leg raise chest press technique 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 legs and hips are driving into the floor (during standard chest presses) this allows the lifter to set a base with their feet 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 the legs 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 while keeping their legs elevated, the muscle-mind connection this produces 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.

2 Leg Raise Methods

There are two methods you can use during the leg raise chest press, both of which involve a straight-leg position.

Method 1. Use a slight leg raise position with the legs elevated 4-8 inches above the height of the torso.  This involves more tension on the core musculature however for lifters who suffer from low back issues this can cause stress to the lumbar spine as there can be excessive arching of the low back.

Method 2.  Use a hollowed body leg raise hold.  This is essentially the same leg raise only higher as the lifter will be elevating the legs 12-18 inches above the height of the torso. 

While the overall tension to the core is reduced due to better leverage, elevating the legs slightly higher allows the lifter to hollow their core and midsection.  In other words they’ll be pulling the low back into the pad or floor and keeping their lumber spine in a more neutral position without exaggerated arch.  Think about having more of a braced core with the abs and low back pulled-in tightly throughout the set.   For lifters who struggle with excessive low back arch this can do wonders for eliminating this common yet problematic issue.

Single Arm Variations

The single arm variation takes the hollow body leg raise chest press several notches further as the degree of anti-rotation, anti-lateral flexion, & overall core stabilization goes through the roof.  Here are two of my awesome clients Cali and Cami Shadburn showing how it’s done using the reverse bottoms up kettlebell technique.

There are several components I want to point out here as I often see many athletes, coaches, and trainers performing this incorrectly.

1. The head should be kept in neutral against the floor/bench rather than tilted up and flexed.  That’s because had position has a direct impact on shoulder mechanics ultimately impacting upper body recruitment. Maintaining cervical flexion during most upper body movements especially presses results in poor t-spine positioning and compromised shoulder mechanics as it’s very difficult to properly pack and centrate the glenohumeral joint when the head is kept in a forward head tilt. 

2. Rather than quickly blasting out rep after rep where the movement tends to get sloppy and spastic, the lifter will benefit greatly from pausing briefly in both the top & bottom as well as controlling the eccentric.  This is particularly true of the single arm hollow body chest press as increased momentum tends to pull the spine, hips, and shoulders out of alignment whereas a more controlled rep cadenced ensures more precise execution.

3. The single arm hollow body chest press is often limited by your bodyweight as it can be quite difficult to use more than ¼ of your total weight without the load pulling you out of position.  Again this is more of a bodyweight/load ratio than a strength issue.  Unfortunately this ends up taxing the core quite extensively however this limited loading capability makes it difficult to fully tax the upper body especially when using a standard dumbbell setup.  With that said I frequently like to incorporate more difficult and unstable loading techniques such as bottoms up or reverse bottoms up presses as the lifter inevitably handles lighter loads on these anyway.  As a result the entire body including the chest, shoulders, triceps, grip, and core get equally crushed.  Additionally the athlete can equally work core stability and shoulder stability simultaneously.  Read more about Bottoms Up Presses Here.

To learn more about implementing unique movements such as these into your training routine check out my Complete Templates program