Using a Foot Platform to Eliminate Back Pain in the Bench Press

by Andrew Lewis, SSC | January 29, 2020

Most flat benches sold are between 16 and 20 inches tall. A short-legged person may find that they are not able to effectively plant their feet during the bench press and create a tight arch in the upper back –  both of which are desirable. The anterior pelvic tilt created by their short legs might also cause lumbar overextension, and consequently low-back pain. 

A solution is to raise the feet using plates or a platform (Figure 1a). I created a lightweight platform that is fitted to the flat benches I own. Bumper plates work (Figure 1b), although they are less comfortable. Their placement around the flat bench and rack is also limited due to their geometry.

Figure 1a. A simple wooden box can be used to lift the feet

Figure 1b. Bumper plates work fine as an easy solution.   

Plant your feet on the ground 

The bench press is an upper-body exercise, but that doesn’t mean the lower body is relaxed or useless during a heavy bench press. Every part of the body not directly involved in the movement of the bar should be tight and stable. Rigid segments transfer force more effectively than lax segments. Therefore, rigid segments stabilize the body better. In the bench press, this means the arms and chest are more effective at producing force against the bar if the lower body is rigid and not moving. Consequently, the lift is more effective at developing strength. 

Achieving a tight upper-back arch is difficult without the feet planted. The arch is achieved before unracking the bar by actively tilting the chest toward the lifter’s head. It is also done in between reps if the arch is lost mid-set, but it is better to not lose it in the first place. An effective cue for this is to "show off the chest" just like in the deadlift. The thoracic erectors arch the upper back to give the chest muscles better lines of action to the upper arms. 

If that doesn’t seem to work, the lifter can pick his butt off the bench before unracking, push it up toward the shoulders using the feet, then plant the butt back on the bench. This is commonly seen in competitive powerlifting. However, a powerlifter’s only goal is to lift the most weight. This does not mean it is desirable to arch as much as a powerlifter. The excessive arch leads to a loss of range of motion which reduces the training effects of the exercise. “Excessive arch” is subjective, but the technical constraints of the lift put the lifter in the right general area: feet flat on the ground with vertical shins, butt touching the flat bench, and forearms vertical when the bar touches the chest. If the weight is heavy and the bar touches somewhere below the bottom of the sternum, it’s too low, and the arch is probably excessive. 

Benching safely means touching the chest inferior to the shoulders – roughly in the middle of the sternum. This produces a non-vertical bar path which, although less efficient, protects the shoulder joints from impingement. Impingement is the trapping of tendons between bony structures. This can cause damage to the tendons, so it’s important that the bench press is done in a way that does not cause impingement. The line of action of the pecs is disadvantaged with the non-vertical bar path, but arching partially returns that line of action. 

Additionally, if you can't touch the floor, you can't leg drive. 

Back pain 

Trainees with short legs may also find they have back pain in the lumbar spine – usually a sharp pain. The hips are unintentionally overextended, pulling the pelvis into anterior rotation which, in turn, tends to cause the lumbar spine to overextend. Raising the feet with a platform can effectively eliminate this problem and allow the trainee to bench pain free with flat feet and a tight chest arch. 

In Figure 2a, the trainee can’t touch the ground with her feet. This position is not only less stable than if her feet were flat and planted, but it overextends her low back which produces low-back pain. In Figure 2b, her feet are flat and planted, creating tightness and stability in the lower body. She is actively pushing against the platform. Being able to plant her feet on a raised surface also eliminates her back pain while benching.

Figure 2a. A short trainee’s feet can’t plant due to the height of the bench.  

Figure 2b. A platform allows the trainee to plant her feet without back pain.  

Don’t elevate unnecessarily 

Elevating the feet is unnecessary if flat feet and a painless upper-back arch are possible. Not only is it unnecessary, but if the elevation is high enough, it will be harder to create an arch in the upper back. People who bench press with their feet up on the bench showcase this nicely. Their upper and lower back will be nearly flat against the bench. This is because the pelvis is pulled into a posterior tilt by the hip flexors and abs, which pulls the lumbar spine into flexion, giving the trainee less angle to arch the upper back.

Figure 3a. Top view of bench press foot platform. Slip-resistant tape added for stability. 

Figure 3b. Bottom view of bench press foot platform. 

The same loss of arch occurs when the feet are in the air during a bench press. Some gym-goers do this deliberately to “engage the core” more. If a trainee is squatting, benching, deadlifting, and pressing, they are "engaging the core” enough. Even someone who doesn’t understand this should be able to recognize that a 315 lb bench press isn’t the time or place to worry about ab development. 

However, someone with an injured back may find that a highly-elevated (or even feet-up) bench press will allow for a position that does not exacerbate the injury while it heals. This is a crutch and should only be used as necessary – once you can bench with your feet on the ground, you should. 

Whatever the reason – injury, short legs, or back pain – raising your feet with a platform or bumper plates may allow you to bench more effectively. If necessary, do so.

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