Bench Press Leg Drive: 4 Benefits That'll Unlock New Gains

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
August 4, 2022

Leg drive in the bench press is responsible for a number of form cues and advantageous characteristics that ensure the exerciser remains stable and in a secure position despite the stresses of the exercise, allowing for such things like proper back arch and greater pectoralis muscle recruitment as a direct benefit.

Among the many mechanics native to the proper performance of the bench press, few are as important as that of leg drive; a concept describing how an exerciser will “drive” their legs downwards into the ground in order to aid the exerciser in completing the lift.

However, there is more to utilizing leg drive during the bench press than simply pushing one's legs into the floor, and as such it is vitally important for the exerciser to understand leg drive in order to maximize its effectiveness during the exercise.

Should Leg Drive be Used?

Except in a few specific cases, nearly every exerciser can and should benefit from the usage of leg drive, as it not only allows for greater muscular recruitment and thus greater loads to be used - but also a safer and more stable bench press.

The majority of novice exercisers do in fact utilize leg drive during the bench press to a certain extent, even without them realizing it, as the usage of leg drive is a natural mechanic that many individuals use unconsciously.

How to Set Up the Leg Drive

Setting up the leg drive is relatively simple; the exerciser need only arch their back upon the bench as they ensure their buttocks and pelvis remain in contact with said bench, spread their feet a comfortable (but not too excessive) distance apart on the floor and then drive their feet downward into the ground, forcing their body into proper bench form and aiding greatly in the bench press movement.

Despite the simplicity of the leg drive mechanic, there are several parts of the action that must be paid attention to, especially in regards to the relative angle of the lower body in line with the upper body, the extent of the exerciser’s spinal arch and what particular part of the foot is being driven into the floor throughout each repetition.

One particular mistake that can make all the difference in concerns to the leg drive is its usage only after the bench press set has already begun, wherein the ideal leg drive mechanic is one wherein the exerciser will begin pushing their feet into the floor prior to starting the set so as to maintain a rigid and stable form throughout the exercise.

What Benefits Does the Leg Drive Provide?

While this article has established that utilizing the leg drive does indeed provide a number of positive effects in its usage, we have yet to fully elucidate what exactly these benefits are.

For the most part, the benefits of the leg press have to do with the exerciser’s body being put into a position that allows for greater force output and muscular recruitment cohesion, thereby improving their effectiveness in terms of bench press performance and injury risk reduction.

1. Greater Muscle Group Activation

Perhaps the most significant and most useful benefit of the leg drive is in its capacity to improve primary mover muscle group activation in regards to the bench press.

This is due to several factors caused by the leg press, such as the exerciser’s pelvis forcing the torso into a more upward tilting angle, thereby allowing the pectoral muscles to be recruited to a greater extent in line with their own natural range of action.

In addition to this, the same angle of the torso also aids in scapular retraction as the exerciser’s leg drive pins their torso against the bench in a stronger fashion, increasing anterior deltoid head co-activation as the scapula remains unmoving beneath the exerciser’s torso, forcing the shoulders to exert more force consequently.

When looking into the specifics of this, it is seen that the larger or lower head of the pectoral muscle group is what receives the greatest improvement in activation from the leg drive - though one must note that this improvement in activation is in fact not a direct result of the leg drive itself, but more of the arch of the exerciser’s lower back and thus the tilted angle of their torso as well.

2. Greater Scapular Stability and Retraction

As was touched upon earlier in this section of the article, the force provided by the leg drive also drives the exerciser’s torso upwards and into the bench itself, pinning their upper back against the padding and thereby aiding in proper retraction of the scapula or shoulder blades, of which is something many novice exercisers have trouble with consciously retaining.

bench press shoulders

For the exerciser, this may present as the back of their shoulders and bottom of their neck making better and more stable contact with the bench throughout the movement, providing a more stable area from which the exerciser may push against the resistance of the barbell.

Having a more stable base from which the shoulders and pectorals can synergize against will allow more exertion to be placed in actual force output instead of simple joint stabilization, resulting in greater loads to be lifted and thus translating to greater bench press performance.

3. Greater Spinal Arch

The most direct benefit of the leg drive is its improvement of the exerciser’s spinal arch throughout the bench press movement, of which allows for the highly advantageous angle of the torso as well as a greatly reduced range of motion, both factors that can greatly improve an exerciser’s bench press performance, safety and maximal load potential.

While it is technically possible for the exerciser to maintain a small but visible spinal arch without the use of leg drive, this is what is known as a baseless arch and does not actually convey the same benefits as an actual leg drive motivated bench arch.

However, the extent to which the leg drive aids in the arching of the exerciser’s back will depend on how far forward or back the feet are placed relative to the exerciser’s pelvis, as moving the legs too far forward will result in less leg drive being transmitted to the pelvis and lower back, and moving the legs too far behind will result in an excessive arch that reduces the range of motion far too much.

4. Mechanical Force Distribution Advantage

As a net effect of all the aforementioned benefits and several smaller indirect effects of proper leg drive usage, the exerciser’s body will be positioned in a manner that allows maximal mechanical force absorption and distribution among its various structures, providing great advantage in comparison to a bench press without proper leg drive.

This is due to the greater distribution of force throughout the torso due to a spinal arch, the greater rigidity of the entire body as the force of the leg drive tautens it, as well as the fact that the angle of resistance is brought in line with the range of action of the pectorals, triceps and deltoid muscle groups all result in a superior bench press performance capacity.

Are There Disadvantages to the Leg Drive?

The usage of leg drive is a vitally important component of proper bench press exercise mechanics, and is otherwise not known to have any disadvantages if performed in the correct manner.

However, leg drive that is being abused for the purposes of decreasing total range of motion or simply without conscious thought can directly affect the training stimulus provided by the bench press, reducing its effectiveness as a muscle building and strength developing exercise.

While many powerlifters on competition day will pull their feet too far back so as to achieve an excessive spinal arch among other effects of improperly formed leg drive, these are meant to only be used within a single session so as to increase the maximum load total, and are not supposed to be a habit added to an ordinary training routine.

As such, so long as the exerciser utilizes the leg drive mechanic in the proper manner, there are little to no disadvantages associated with it.

How to Maximize Leg Drive Effectiveness

Though leg drive doubtless provides a highly effective number of benefits to the exerciser and their bench press performance, certain tweaks to its usage can aid in maximizing these benefits reaped from the leg drive mechanic of the bench press.

Individual Proportions

In order to optimize the exerciser’s usage of leg drive during a bench press repetition, they must modify the standard form so as to account for their individual bodily proportions.

Individuals with shorter limbs and less hip mobility may find that placing their feet further back and at a reduced distance apart allows them to drive more fully into the ground, while the opposite may be true for exercisers with long legs and high hip mobility, wherein a wide and further forward stance is instead more advantageous to them.

Maximizing the effectiveness of an exerciser’s own personal leg drive mechanic will involve adapting it to their own needs and capabilities, and as such the exerciser’s own sense of stability and comfort must be given equal importance alongside correct form adherence.

Ensuring Maximum Floor Contact

The exerciser making sure that their foot is laid as flat as possible along the ground throughout the entire bench press will greatly aid in maximizing leg drive, as more contact area pushing against the foot as the exerciser drives downwards will subsequently aid in maintaining the proper pelvic and torso tilt of the exercise.

While the exerciser will doubtless unconsciously arch their foot and push through from their toes, this reduction in floor contact will only place greater stress on the foot and potentially reduce the total drive carried into the torso and thereby also reducing the benefits of the leg drive.

Pinning the Pelvis Against the Bench

A common mistake and one of the main reasons why leg drive may be misused in the performance of the bench press is the exerciser failing to transmit the force of their leg drive to the upper body - primarily by way of raising their hips and glutes off the bench.

bench press glutes

Not only does this greatly reduce the stability of the torso during the exercise, but so too will the benefits of the leg drive be reduced, with a greater risk of lower back injury, reduced pectoral muscle activation and an affected range of motion all resulting from this particular mistake.

As such, the exerciser should seek to ensure their hips and pelvis always remain in contact with the bench by altering the angle at which they drive their feet into the ground, as well as placing the feet further forward, thereby reducing the upward force of the leg drive and instead changing it to a more horizontal one.

Conclusion

Apart from a rare few cases where the exerciser wishes to alter their angle of resistance and training stimulus, it is best to always make use of leg drive, as it will not only enhance the training stimulus of the exercise but also aid in the adherence of proper form.

Not only this, but the usage of leg drive is more conducive to full body muscular exertion, as well as teaching novice exercisers how their body’s musculature interacts with one another at a kinetic level - making the usage of leg drive an invaluable technique in mastering the bench press.

References

1. Kristiansen M, Madeleine P, Hansen EA, Samani A. Inter-subject variability of muscle synergies during bench press in power lifters and untrained individuals. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2015 Feb;25(1):89-97. doi: 10.1111/sms.12167. Epub 2013 Dec 24. PMID: 24372591.

2. Gardner, Jacob & Chia, Justin & Peterson, Brent & Miller, Kelsey. (2021). The Effects of 5 Weeks of Leg-Drive Training on Bench Press Performance in Recreationally-Trained, College-Age Men. Journal of Science in Sport and Exercise. 10.1007/s42978-021-00118-0.

3. Lauver JD, Cayot TE, Scheuermann BW. Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise. Eur J Sport Sci. 2016;16(3):309-16. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2015.1022605. Epub 2015 Mar 23. PMID: 25799093.

4. Stastny P, Gołaś A, Blazek D, Maszczyk A, Wilk M, Pietraszewski P, Petr M, Uhlir P, Zając A. A systematic review of surface electromyography analyses of the bench press movement task. PLoS One. 2017 Feb 7;12(2):e0171632. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0171632. PMID: 28170449; PMCID: PMC5295722.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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