Q: Coach DeFranco – I’ve read about your history with back surgeries so I was hoping you can help me out. My low back kills me during my bench set up. (I try to get a nice arch in order to shorten the range of motion). This pain lasts throughout the workout and even into my squat workout – which is 2 days later! I guess my question is: how important is an arch while benching? Anything you can suggest to help remedy this problem? Your time and expertise is much appreciated.
I must preface my answer by suggesting you see a doctor and get an MRI if your back pain is a chronic issue. (Coming from someone who has lived with major back pain for the past 21 years, I can’t stress how important it is to take care of your back pain before it turns into a serious issue. My back problem(s) were not preventable; if your pain is preventable/treatable – make sure you address the problem now – before you do more damage. Living with chronic low back pain sucks!
Now that I got my disclaimer out of the way, here’s my advice regarding your problem.
I do NOT teach any of my athletes to set up on the bench with a huge low back arch. Unless you’re a powerlifter; I don’t feel the stress on the lumbar spine is worth the “reward” of decreasing the range of motion a few inches. And before all the “hardcore” lifters start calling me a pussy, please remember that my clientelle consists of non-powerlifting athletes…many of whom have scholarships or multi-million dollar contracts on the line. (You can check out my updated Pro Client list and then tell me if you think the risk is worth the reward for my athletes.)
Here are my four “Quick Fixes” to reducing damage to the low-back and preventing pain while benching:
QUICK FIX #1 – Perform some type of soft-tissue work on the hip flexors before you bench
Improving the soft tissue quality and length of your hip flexors will drastically reduce low-back pain while you’re on the bench. This is because – after your soft tissue work – the hip flexors will have less tension, which reduces their “pull” on your spine. This makes it much more comfortable when you extend at the hips to place your feet on the floor.
Many people will warm-up their shoulders and upper body before benching, but few address the lower body. Doing so will have an immediate impact on how you feel.
My favorite “cure” for hip flexor tightness/pain is Kelly Starrett’s “Psoas Smash & Floss” (using a kettlebell & lacrosse ball). It’s quite uncomfortable, but it works BIGTIME. When done correctly, most of my athletes report a 50-90% reduction in low-back pain and tightness immediately.
Here’s a video that demonstrates the technique:
You can fast-forward to 3:00 into the video if you’re impatient and you just want to get right to the “good stuff”…
After you “smash & floss” the psoas, I recommend performing your favorite hip flexor stretch for 1-2 sets of 15-20sec.
QUICK FIX #2 – Focus on “arching” your Upper Back instead of your Lower Back
When I refer to an upper back arch, I’m referring to squeezing your shoulder blades together, then pulling them slightly down towards your hips.
*I cue my athletes to grab the barbell and then perform an isometric “row”. (Basically, they’re retracting their shoulder blades as they pull down on the barbell.) Next, they will slide their shoulder blades down towards their hips. This brings their chest up so they are not completely flat on the bench.
I suggest keeping the natural curve in your low back without attempting to “over-arch”.
QUICK FIX #3 – Squeeze your glutes!
Nothing protects your spine better than squeezing your glutes while benching…(or during any lift for that matter)!
If you’re pressing submaximal weights for higher reps, the “squeeze” doesn’t have to be as intense (yet you should still be contracting them throughout the set). On the other hand, if you’re attempting a max-effort lift, squeeze those glutes like you’re trying to crush a quarter between your butt cheeks! Your lumbar spine will thank you the next day, trust me.
QUICK FIX #4 – Place some plates or mats under your feet
“Raising the floor” under your feet prevents you from going into extreme lumbar extension while on the bench. (This is especially helpful for people with short legs.) This will also help with your leg drive.
NOTE: I recommend placing the feet directly under your knees – or slightly behind – while benching. Placing your feet way behind your knees forces you into lumbar hyperextension. Again, unless you’re a competitive powerlifter, the risks out-weigh the “reward” of this type of set up.
*Here’s a video of me benching 405 after using the four “quick fixes” mentioned above…
Hopefully the information provided in this blog post will enable athletes around the world to still bench big, without causing unnecessary structural damage to the oh-so-fragile lumbar spine. Don’t forget to let me know what you thought of this blog post by dropping me a comment below.
P.S. For those of you who asked if I’d be re-stocking our new #SummerOfSavages tees… The answer is, “Yes!” I had a feeling they’d go fast, but I didn’t anticipate selling them out in one day! The new batch should be arriving in about a week, so keep checking my STORE page so you don’t miss out, again 🙂 As always, I truly appreciate all your support. Thank you.