The Lateral Arch: A Secret Weapon for a Big Bench Press

It is an axiom: if you want to bench big, you must arch big. An arch shortens the range of motion, puts you into a much stronger decline press angle, pre-stretches the pecs, and puts the shoulders in a much safer position.

Maryana Naumova Bench Press
Maryana Naumova, a Russian powerlifting rising superstar, benched 240 pounds at a bodyweight of 130.

The problem is, an excessive arch, such as the one demonstrated by the young lady in the photo above, is very hard on the lower back. Elite competitors understand the risks and accept them as a part of the sport. If you do not compete in powerlifting and bench to get stronger for some other application, you have no business arching your lower back like them. Force your chest out, pinch your shoulder blades together, and this will arch your back just enough.

But you can and should use one professional technique called the “lateral arch.” If you look at the crown of a lifter’s head, the lateral arch goes from shoulder to shoulder. It brings the scapulae together while spreading the chest out from shoulder to shoulder, as opposed to from the neck down, as the back arch does.

Andy Bolton Lateral Arch
Andy Bolton has an excellent lateral arch, rare for a superheavyweight.

How to Develop the Lateral Arch

At the StrongFirst Lifter certification we teach a number of exercises to develop the lateral arch. The first has an additional benefit of improving the extension of the thoracic spine—your upper back. It is a passive stretch with a yoga block.

Lateral Arch Yoga Block Stretch
The stretch with a yoga block demonstrated by Stina Albihn,SFG Team Leader, SFL, SFB

To do the stretch:

  1. Set the block on what would be the book spine if it were a book.
  2. Lie on it lengthwise, the top end at mid T-spine.
  3. Place a folded towel under your head to limit the neck extension and enable you stay in the stretch longer.
  4. Push your shoulders toward your feet and relax your arms on the floor, palms up.
  5. Stay in the stretch for minutes, “oozing” over the block, developing T-spine extension and the lateral arch.
  6. Come out of the stretch by slowly rolling to your side rather than sitting up.

Vary the placement of the top of the block under different sections of your T-spine. Higher is more advanced.

The kettlebell arm-bar is also a real game changer for your lateral arch. This exercise with many unexpected “what the hell effects”—such as improved roundhouse kicking power—is too subtle to teach in text or video. I strongly urge you to get a lesson from an SFG certified kettlebell instructor.

Kettlebell Arm Bar
The kettlebell arm bar, standard and “crooked,” demonstrated by David Whitley, Master SFG, and Jason Marshall, Senior SFG, at the Superior Strength Seminar in Boston.

Lift More and Get Stronger With the Lateral Arch

Arthur B. Jones who benched 562 pounds raw and drug free at 242 pounds of bodyweight famously quipped, “There is a difference between lifting more and actually getting stronger.”

The traditional lower back arch just lets you lift more. The lateral arch does both.

Power and health to your benches!

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Pavel Tsatsouline
Pavel Tsatsouline is the Chairman of StrongFirst, Inc.

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