Despite the bench press having a reputation as one of the most well-established exercises available to modern day lifters, there is still some debate within the fitness community as to how this classic movement should be performed.
One particularly large-reaching point of contention is in whether the lifter should raise their legs up to the bench so as to make the feet parallel to the torso, or to keep the heels planted upon the ground beneath the bench itself.
In actuality, there are indeed several clinically-established benefits to performing the bench press with the legs up, though it is nonetheless still contested as to whether these benefits are worth the risks involved, especially in comparison to the more conventional legs-down bench press.
The bench press is a free weight compound resistance exercise usually performed with a barbell and set of weight plates. It is frequently encountered in many bodybuilding and strength-training workout plans as the main source of upper body training stimulus within a given workout.
The bench press is performed for the purposes of training the chest, triceps and deltoids to a significant extent - often resulting in these aforementioned muscle groups growing in size, force output and endurance.
To begin performing the bench press, the exerciser will lay upon a flat bench with a loaded barbell placed over their torso. From this position, they will retract their shoulder blades and arch their lower back, as well as either dig their heels into the floor or otherwise place them atop the bench.
Placing the hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart along the barbell, the exerciser will then unrack the bar and lower it to a comfortable spot along the chest or sternum, ensuring that the elbows do not flare and that the scapula remains pinned against the bench.
Once the bar has made contact with the torso, the exerciser will pause for a moment before pushing the bar upwards, stopping once the arms have reached a state of full extension. This completes a repetition of the bench press.
Despite the fact that moving the legs up onto the bench appears to be a rather small change, it can actually have significantly wide-reaching effects in regards to the stance with which the exerciser will perform the bench press with.
The largest change that drawing the legs upwards will have is reducing the angle at which the pelvis can tilt, altering the curvature of the lower back and preventing a proper lower back arch from being formed.
While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it can greatly reduce the amount of force and leverage that is transmitted into the upper body - as well as further the reduction in total weight lifted as the leg-drive produced from a legs-down bench press is removed.
Furthermore, raising the legs upwards will increase the range of motion of the bench press as the contact point will be vertically lower in comparison to a legs-down bench press, reducing the total volume possible per set.
In addition, much of the stability of the bench press movement is derived from the friction and force produced from the pelvis and buttocks, of which will also translate much of said force from the legs.
As such, the abdominal muscles and various other smaller muscles in the back will fatigue at a more rapid rate as they struggle to stabilize the exercise.
It should be no surprise that bench pressing with the legs up is a two-fold choice, presenting both advantages and disadvantages that may make doing so more suitable for certain individuals than others. Afterall, if there was no merit to raising your legs up to the bench, then no lifter would be a proponent of it.
Though a larger range of motion is not always necessarily a good or a bad thing, in the case of the bench press, it can equate to greater time under tension being placed on the various muscles recruited by the exercise.
This, in turn, will result in greater hypertrophy and other forms of muscular adaptation occurring, making a legs-up bench press arguably just as efficient as its legs-down counterpart, if not more in certain situations.
Just as how the greater range of motion caused by raising the lifter’s legs will result in greater results, so too does the change in position change how the resistance is distributed among the muscles of the upper body.
More specifically, the pectoral or chest muscles are recruited to a greater extent due to the reduction in leg-drive and lower back mediated stability, causing the muscles of the chest to adapt and bear more of the resistance of the bench press.
Because of the greater pectoral muscle recruitment, reduction in translated leg drive and generally longer range of motion, many lifters will find that raising their legs upwards will reduce the maximum amount of weight that they can lift - subsequently allowing a similar level of intensity to be retained without the need for as many weight plates, as well as a lesser risk of injury therein.
For the rare few exercisers who suffer from lower back soreness or pain caused by the arch of a legs-down bench press, performing the movement with the legs up will remove the need to do so - thereby eliminating the cause of their lower back pain, or at the least reducing its incidence.
A large amount of the stability needed to perform the bench press can be derived from friction and a greater base - two aspects of performing the movement with the legs down and the lower back arched by proper pelvic tilting.
As such, when the movement is performed with the lifter’s feet atop the bench, the overall stability of the movement is reduced, leading to a greater risk of injury and the stabilizer muscles involved in the exercise reaching a point of fatigue at a far more rapid pace.
This can present as the back and shoulders becoming sore or otherwise failing to aid in maintaining correct form, further affecting the exercise in a negative manner.
Because of the aforementioned greater range of motion and more taxed stabilizer muscles, performing the bench press with the legs up will significantly reduce how much weight can be lifted - making it a rather poor decision for powerlifters or other strength-based athletes that require high resistance to be a part of their training program.
Otherwise, for individuals with limited access to weight plates or who do not wish to move as heavy a load, performing the exercise with the legs up can nonetheless allow for similar levels of intensity to be achieved despite a reduction in weight moved.
It can be quite difficult for a lifter to “pin” their shoulder blades beneath the torso without a lower back arch being present. This can lead to a flaring or “winging” of the scapula, of which can lead to quite a number of different bench press-related issues such as shoulder dislocation, elbow flaring or an entirely unbalanced press.
As such, lifters performing the bench press with their legs raised upwards should act to mitigate this risk as much as they possibly can, such as ensuring that the scapula is indeed retracted prior to even unracking the barbell, as well as pressing their back as tightly into the bench as possible despite the lack of leg drive assistance.
Furthermore, performing the bench press with the legs up can also change the range of motion of the shoulder joint’s rotation biomechanics, resulting in a greater risk of shoulder instability or otherwise poor movement that may result in injury under heavy load.
As is the case in most exercise variation related questions, the answer is that it will depend on your goals and current level of training experience.
Powerlifters, strongman athletes or individuals concerned with increasing their gross strength level (and doing so in as safe a manner as possible) should avoid performing the bench press with their legs up. In fact, doing so can be entirely counterintuitive to their goals, as it can lead to poor bench press habits and injuries that may stall their progress.
However, for lifters with a limited amount of equipment, lower back pain or those who wish to improve their chest muscle development in a manner that does not involve a more distant bench press variation, performing the exercise with the legs up is acceptable - so long as it is done with extra attention paid to shoulder and shoulder blade health.
Remember that every individual lifter is unique in their mobility, body proportions and muscular insertions - meaning that what may be comfortable for one person may be less so for yourself.
Try out the bench press both with your legs down and your legs up, and see what feels most compatible with you.
If you find that you function far better with your feet atop the bench - then do so, and master it in such a way that any disadvantages are mitigated in their severity. So too is the case if you find the legs-down press to be more preferable.
And as always, remember to pay attention to maintaining proper form above all else, and to only lift as much as you are reasonably able.
1. Muyor, J., Rodriguez-Ridao, D., Martin-Fuentes, I., Anterquera-Vique, J. 2019. Evaluation and comparison of electromyographic activity in bench press with feet on the ground and active hip flexion. PLUS One. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0218209
2. Stastny P, Gołaś A, Blazek D, Maszczyk A, Wilk M, Pietraszewski P, et al. A systematic review of surface electromyography analyses of the bench press movement task. PLoS One. 2017; 12(2): e0171632 10.1371/journal.pone.0171632