If you go into any gym on National Chest Training Day, also known as Monday, you’ll probably see a queue of guys waiting to bench press. Bench press technique varies depending on things like limb length but the one thing you’ll see many people do is bench with their legs bent and their feet in the air.
The alleged reasons for doing this are myriad and include things like arching your back is dangerous, it allows greater chest isolation, or it provides a good core workout. Some do it just because they see other guys doing it and don’t want to be left out of the gang.
So, does that mean YOU should lift your feet when you bench press? Probably not.
Firstly, let’s look at the reasons mentioned above…
Arching your back is dangerous – this is nonsense. Your lumbar spine or lower back is naturally arched. Flattening or straightening your spine is actually unnatural. Your spine is curved to dissipate force and your natural arch should be preserved. Of course, an excessive arch could be an issue but there is no reason to flatten your arch completely.
It allows greater chest isolation – hows that then? Are your legs connected to your arms in any way? Do you push the bar up with your legs? Highly unlikely. Raising your feet might mean you are more aware of your balance, or lack of it, and so use lighter weights, a slower lifting tempo, and subsequently feel your chest working more than usual. But surely you could do that with your feet on the floor too?
It provides a good core workout – if raising your feet while you bench makes you feel like you are getting a core workout, your abs are officially weak. You don’t need to lift your feet; you need to start doing some serious core training. And I don’t know about you but the LAST thing I want is my abs shaking while I’m trying to avoid crushing my larynx with a barbell.
SO, WHY SHOULD YOU KEEP YOUR FEET FIRMLY PLANTED ON THE GROUND WHEN YOU BENCH PRESS?
1) A good bench press requires stability and tension – both of which are lost when you lift your feet off the floor. A strong, tight lumbar arch, tight legs and glutes, shoulders that are down and back, and braced abs will a) allow you to lift more weight, b) allow you to do more reps, c) protect your shoulders from injury. You cannot shoot a cannon out of a canoe and you cannot bench press effectively without a stable base.
2) Better leg drive – pushing your feet hard into the floor as you push the bar off your chest to complete your rep SIGNIFICANTLY increases your bench pressing ability. Powerlifters call this leg drive. Force generated by your legs irradiates up though your braced abdomen and into your arms like a wave to help you push the bar off your chest. You might think this sounds like BS but until you can bench 300 kg or more, like many powerlifters can, you might want to keep your opinion to yourself!
3) Greater lat activation – yes, the bench press IS a chest, triceps, and deltoids exercise but your lats also provide a significant amount of assistance. Lifting your feet reduces lat involvement which can destabilize your shoulders leading to reduced performance and potential injury. Consciously flex your lats (imagine you are squeezing an orange under your armpits as you bench) to understand the importance of this back muscle to your bench press performance.
4) Increased safety – the bench press is responsible for more injuries than any other gym exercise. Lowering a heavy weight to your chest is fraught with danger. Why make this exercise even more risky by raising your feet and purposely destabilizing your entire body? If you want to perform an unstable chest exercise, grab some dumbbells and a stability ball so that, if you get into trouble, you can drop the weights on something other than your own face!
5) Avoiding protraction – inevitably, when you lift your legs, your spine goes from arched to flat and there is a tendency to push your shoulders forward into protraction. This is a mechanically disadvantageous position that can result in shoulder injury or, at the very least Quasimodo-like postural issues. Simply improving your posture will make your chest look bigger and anything that potentially damages good posture is best avoided.
BUT I’M SHORT AND I CAN’T REACH THE FLOOR…
If you can’t reach the floor, raise the floor up to meet your feet by placing a stack of weight plates under your hoofs or using a box, step, or low bench. Use whatever it takes to achieve a position where your back is slightly arched and your shins are vertical. In doing so, even those with munchkin-like proportions should be able to use their legs properly. Anyway, you’re not short, the bench is too high…
AND STOP DOING THE BENCH PRESS SHUFFLE!
And while you might be saying “oh but I always keep my feet on the floor when I bench press” don’t get too cocky; you might be guilty of an entirely different but equally nefarious bench press sin – the bench press shuffle. If you reposition your feet even once during your set of bench press, you are similarly destabilising your body and potentially reducing your bench press performance.
Keep your feet firmly pushed into the floor and fixed in place for the entire duration of your set. Do not shuffle, fidget, adjust, wiggle, or otherwise move your feet. Keep pushing down forcefully from the time you unrack the bar to the time you put it back. If you are using your legs properly, they SHOULD feel tired at the end of your bench press workout.
Just because you CAN bench with your feet up doesn’t mean you should. And just because lots of other people do it doesn’t mean you should copy them. Keeping your feet on the floor will improve your bench press performance while decreasing risk of injury!