Low back pain occurs in ~75% of the general population. Resistance training and exercise can decrease the risk of low back pain. Unfortunately, some things during weight training can increase stress on the low back! This results in people doing all kinds of silly exercises and modifications for reducing the stress on the low back. We are only going to tackle low back stress during the bench press.
Foot position during bench press is a cause of concern, as I often seen people lifting their legs in the air to “decrease” low back pain or stress. Contrary to what people think, having the legs in the air can actually increase low back stress, especially if you aren’t contracting the abdominal and gluteal muscles.
Another modification is to put the feet on the bench. Although this flattens the back, creates instability and may not help the extension-intolerant individuals. Extension-intolerant simply means, extending your back (performing a back bend) aggravates the back. This results from many issues, but most commonly tight hip flexors, weak gluteals, and overactive lumbar extensor muscles (quadratus lumborum). Lets break down the different foot positions in more detail.
4 Foot Positions During Bench Press
1. Knees Bent 90 Degrees, Feet Flat: Having the knees bent 90 degrees creates a flat foot position on the floor, allowing the force developed through the legs to transfer through the shin bones. When performed properly, the core and glutes are braced, helping protect the spine. This provides maximal low back safety, while allowing maximal force output (if you can maximally contract your glutes without your hip flexors inhibited, see below).
2. Knees Bent ~130 Degrees, on Toes: Having the knees bent 130 degrees puts the hip flexors on a stretch, inhibiting their strength, allowing the glutes to fire more. This increases glute contraction and helps protect the spine, especially if the core is also braced. In this position, the toes are on the ground, decreasing the linear force created through the ground, as noted in the knees bent 90 degrees position. However, this position creates a greater arch, decreasing the distance traveled by the bar. This position creates some stress on the low back, luckily this is negated in most people due to the higher glute contraction. It also provides the greatest ability to create force through the bar and decrease the distance the bar travels.
3. Feet Off the Ground: This position helps flatten the back, as the knees and hips are commonly bent 90 degrees. In this position, the core can contract, but the glutes are inhibited due to the stretch, limiting the amount of spinal stability and protection. Overall, this position creates the lowest force production potential and lowest low back stabilization potential.
4. Feet on the Bench: When the feet are flat on the bench, the back flattens and the back is in a relatively safe position. Unfortunately, this position is not stable and like having the feet off the ground it prevents the glutes from fully contracting and stabilizing the spine. Although having the back flat is “safer”, the other consequences of this position make it not ideal for many.
Luckily, the bench press is mandatory for most people.Unless you are a competitive power lifter, there are many alternatives to the bench press which can protect the spine and facilitate recovery.
- Incline Press – During incline bench, the hips and knees are bent, reduce the lower back extension. This exercise is a bit easier for set-up, a plus for novice lifters.
- Bent-Knee Floor Presses – When doing the floor press, the legs are flat and like the incline bench, the hips are bent. This position helps flatten the back. This exercise also prevent extreme shoulder range of motion, a healthy option for overhead athletes.
- Band Press – There are many options for upper body push exercises. Unfortunately, many get suck into the “bench press” mindset. Here is an option which gets you on your feet and off the bench! During this exercise, ensure you aren’t arching your back and pressing straight forward.
Written by G. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS