Raiders of the Lost Arch
Imagine the scenario; you’re in the gym, you see an attractive girl walk past and you look at her arm length and think:
"Damn she would be an awesome bencher."
This is what happens to me each and every day. I can no longer look at people without the thoughts of how much potential they have to be a big bench presser. It’s a curse.
That said, a good bench isn’t just to do with biomechanics and arm length. Building a solid base can massively influence your pressing potential, and that’s where a more substantial arch comes into play. Developing a good arch is a fine art, but useless if you can’t keep that shape under pressure at and above 90%, and there are some particular areas of focus that are invaluable here:
Chapter 1: The Starting Base
Chapter 2: Improving Shape and Flexibility
Chapter 3: Keeping Your Shape Under Pressure
CHAPTER 1: THE STARTING BASE
There are a few areas that can instantly build a strong base so that weight feels good in your hands. This is half the battle sometimes and for me personally, a massive mental edge.
Let’s start from the beginning:
Get your hands as wide as you can – Meaning as wide as you can in the long run. If you want immense pressure on your rotators and lose 20kg of your bench straight off then move out all the way that’s fine… If not.. then take it slowly!!
A finger movement out every training cycle and you will end up getting used to a wider position and not risk injury through overloading stabilisers that aren’t ready for that sort of weight yet. The reasoning for this is simple; it essentially shortens the range of motion (ROM) that the press needs to go through. You will also find that a wider grip lends its self to a more efficient bar path in an arched position.
In the IPF, the outer rings are not allowed to be showing. I utilise this by covering the rings with the webbing of my hands (the bit between your thumb and index finger). This allows me to get another half an inch wider on the bar and shorten the distance even further.
Get onto your shoulders… A LOT! (see photo above) – You see many many people attempting to shape up by squeezing their shoulder blades together and puffing their chest out. Yes, this is a great way to start developing a good base but beforehand if you can get up onto your shoulders as much as possible, your ROM again is going to be shorter.
For any of you who have seen me bench press, then this is the reason why I get up onto my head for my set up. This allows me to dip my shoulder blades into the bench as I come down and utilise that shape throughout the whole of my back. An arch through the upper back more important than through your lower.
Bring your feet back towards yourself – This is a tricky one, and a bit of trial and error for some, as your ass needs to stay down and feet need to be flat. But the further back you can get your feet while keeping in line with the rulebook, then the tighter the upper back, the tighter the glutes, the sturdier the base is to press from.
Squeeze that ass – No this isn’t me trying to sell you a bums and tums class, it’s a real thing. Honest. Contracting your glutes will help with leg drive and add kilos onto your bench without developing any upper body strength what so ever.
The bench is something your bum needs to be touching, but not something you want to be pinned down to. Squeezing your glutes tight will help them perch on the bench and not sink in. A perch will keep that shape under pressure, drive through your legs at the press and not allow you to fold in at the chest.
NOTE – Monitor this as you try it. You don’t want to develop a bad habit of driving with your legs and your hips shooting up too much that the bum rises.
CHAPTER 2: IMPROVING SHAPE AND FLEXIBILITY
Yoga – This is the main thing that made a difference for me. Once a week working on flexibility and mobility was crucial, and something that I neglected from my workouts for years. Yoga forced me to get it done and in an actual way that was doing something and not just endless mobility drills before and after a session. One hour of an Ashtanga Vinyasa flow (a pacey and more active yoga session) seemed to work for me but find a type of yoga class that works for you. Yoga teachers are exactly the same as coaches, and not all are created equally.
Benching over a foam roller – This one feels pretty uncomfortable the first time you do it, but it is one you can really see results from. Focus on all the areas on getting an arch, discussed above, but with the addition of a foam roller under your lower back. Your bum doesn’t need to touch the bench at first, but over time the distance between bum and bench should decrease. But now for the important bit… keep your chest high, shape big and don’t lie on the roller as you press through the reps. Loosing shape, air and just lying on the roller will do nothing for teaching consistent shape.
Being consistent – Ingraining your position. Whether its empty bar or 200kg, don’t take it for granted. I will shape up for empty bar and every single warm up in the exact same way that I will for a 190kg on the platform. There is no difference, and bringing that methodical approach to your lifting will only benefit it.
CHAPTER 3: KEEPING YOUR SHAPE UNDER PRESSURE
Ultimately the aim of the game. If you can’t keep your shape over 90% and above, then all that work on shape is for nothing. The analogy I always think of as I’m setting up for a bench is a spring.
What happens to a spring as it compresses? It gets tighter and tighter, building up pressure until it releases in one big powerful movement. At its tightest the spring doesn’t fold, it doesn’t snap and it doesn’t sink. It stays in its tightest position until the compression is released. And that’s how your bench should be. Your movement down towards the chest is building the pressure in a controlled manner until you reach the chest.
At this point you are at your most sturdy and are ridiculously tight. The chest is high, and the bar is motionless within no time at all. Not only is this going to help as you explode up but is also going to help get a shorter pause. As you press up that is the time to fire through your legs and get that momentum to press though to the top. Simple. You can see a practical example below:
A world class arch isn’t always built overnight, unless you’ve got freakishly good flexibility to start with. Be patient with it and don’t expect to be benching 100kg more in two weeks. You might even find that your bench may take a step back for a short period, as you get used to the new bar path the bar may take, due to a larger arch. Stick with it and reap the rewards in the long run.