Q: I recently was in attendance at your lecture/hands on session at the Learn-by-Doing seminar in Atlanta, GA. I signed up for your newsletter and have been following your blog ever since- it's great! I have a question for you and would love to hear your thoughts.
I was recently asked by a Physical Therapist about form on a bench press after watching one of my clients training. She wanted to know why I wouldn't put a clients feet up while performing the exercise. She has a theory that when everyone does a bench press (any prone horizontal push for that matter) they should do it with their feet up (as in on the bench)- to take stress off of the lower back. The client I was working with at the time (goal fat loss by his reunion this summer!) was performing dumbbell close-grip bench press with his feet planted on the floor.
A: Thanks for your email and the kind words. My apologies for the delayed response; I was in the UK giving three seminars in six days, and just got back Wednesday night.
Most back problems you’ll encounter are extension-based (a tendency toward an excessively lordotic posture, generally secondary to tight hip flexors and weak glutes/external obliques/rectus abdominus). As I recall, Sahrmann has noted that extension and extension-rotation syndromes account for 80% of back issues.
In SOME people with these problems, flat benching pressing with the feet on the floor can pose a problem. In these same people, sleeping on the back ends up being uncomfortable – one reason why I feel it’s valuable to place a pillow under the knees when sleeping in this position. Flatten the lumbar spine out a bit and you ease the extension stress. Unfortunately, benching pressing is a lot different than sleeping!
Benching with the feet up on the bench is, in my opinion, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. When we flatten out the lumbar spine, we also flatten out the thoracic spine. It goes without saying that the loss of thoracic extension is closely related to scapular winging (abduction). And, if you’ve read stuff from myself, Mike Robertson, and Bill Hartman (who made Inside-Out, a fantastic DVD and a manual along these lines), you’ll notice a resounding theme: the shoulders are at the mercy of the scapulae and thoracic spine.* To that end, I don’t feel that benching with the feet up is the best option.
Rather than just criticize without an alternative solution, though, I’ll throw a few out there that I’ve used with great success:
1. Incline Press – Throw in a bit of hip and knee flexion, and you reduce the need for an arch – unless you’ve got a client who uses the “ceiling-humper” style of cheating! Additionally, incline benches tend to be a bit easier in terms of set-up on individuals with back pain.
2. Bent-Knee Floor Presses – On the surface, this sounds like exactly what you get with a bench press with the feet elevated, but in fact, you’re protecting the shoulders by avoiding the bottom position of the movement. We can get away with sacrificing a little bit of scapular stability when we stay away from the more “at-risk” zones.
Some might recommend stability ball dumbbell bench presses, but I think it would be a bit inappropriate right now. I use unstable surfaces very sparingly in training (and almost exclusively in the upper body), but this exercise has some merit in certain cases. Research from Behm et al. demonstrated that muscular activation is maintained with unstable surface training, even if total force production is lower. Essentially, muscles do more work to stabilize a joint than they do to generate torque in the desired direction of movement. In other words, you can get a solid training effect with less external resistance. So, it can be a great thing with bouncing back from shoulder injuries, or just tossing in a lower intensity deload week. Unfortunately, stability balls markedly increase spine load – not something we want to do with those with back pain.
To get back to the feet on the floor versus the bench debate, I think the “on the bench” crowd really overlooks the fact that the bench press is actually a pretty good FULL-body exercise. When performed properly, there is a ton of leg drive and momentum transfer from the lower body, through the thoracolumbar fascia, to the lats and rest of the upper body with the help of solid diaphragmatic (belly) breathing techniques. We aren’t just training pecs, you know?