I prefer to have my clients and athletes do dumbbell bench press instead of the barbell bench press. And, when doing dumbbell bench press, I coach them to place their feet on the bench instead of having their feet on the floor.
That said, the single most common question I’ve gotten from trainers who have gotten my Practical Program Design Mastery online course is “Why do you do dumbbell bench press with your feet up?”
Put simply, it’s because, in general, I think putting on your feet on the bench instead of on the floor is a better option. Here’s why.
Bench Press for Non-Powerlifters
First off, most of the bench press info out there has a powerlifting bias, meaning it’s for competitive lifters. The problem? Not everyone is training for a powerlifting meet. Here, and in my Practical Program Design Mastery course, I’m talking about the bench press as it relates to clients and athletes who aren’t in the gym to be competitive powerlifters.
More specifically, the Nick Tumminello Program Design system for personal trainers gives your clients the exercise consistency they need, while also giving them the variety they crave. This is exactly what I show you how to do in my Practical Program Design Mastery online course.
Secondly, I’m a much bigger fan of the dumbbell bench press instead of the barbell bench press for clients and athletes because 1) you don’t need a bench press or rack apparatus, and 2) the independent arm action demands more control from each side, which 3) allows each person freedom to adjust their arm positioning to fit their body.
Feet on the Floor for Barbell. Feet on the bench for Dumbbells
Don’t get it twisted! I’m in no way saying the barbell bench press is somehow bad or non-beneficial for non-powerlifters. I’m simply saying that, generally speaking, I prefer to use the dumbbell bench press. Not to mention, speaking generally isn’t speaking universally. So, of course you can find examples of where the barbell bench press is preferred. And, in those cases, I’d use the barbell bench press because I’m not against it in anyway.
In fact, if someone is doing a barbell bench press, I have them do it with their feet on the floor because, due to the length of the barbell; even the slightest dip on one side of the barbell towards one’s weaker side can turn into someone tipping the weight and falling off the bench. Placing your feet on the floor – or feet on small platforms placed on each side of the bench for shorter people – gives you a wider base of support to control minor deviations of the barbell as you move it, and helps prevent them from becoming major deviations that could end up as a YouTube fail video.
That said, it’s a different story when doing a dumbbell bench press because the control demand is very different than the barbell, and it’s more about your individual arm stability than it is about the risk of being pulled off the bench. Therefore, unless my client or athlete prefer their feet on the floor for some reason, I coach them to place their feet on the bench.
Why Feet on the Bench for Dumbbell Bench Press?
There is a study comparing the muscle activation during a Bench Press with the feet on the ground (conventional) to feet off the ground with active hip flexion and 90° of knee flexion. This study used physically active young men who had four years of experience in strength training and had performed the traditional Bench Press before. The study found the feet-up bench press had better muscle activation in every muscle group analyzed.
Now, I’m not mentioning this research to claim it “proves” keeping your feet up is best because it’s only one study and it has its limitations. I’m simply mentioning it because it does go along with the main reason why I generally recommend doing dumbbell bench press with your feet on the bench. And, that reason is because it forces you to focus more on using your upper-body pushing musculature to control the weight and perform the lift instead of getting some help from your lower-body.
Now, many trainers, coaches and lifters encourage placing your feet on the ground because it’s part of powerlifting-style bench press technique. This demonstrates how many people, including trainers and coach, commonly mistake the fundamentals of competitive weightlifting for the fundamentals of strength training.
The fundamentals of weightlifting come from focusing on moving loads – based on what’s dictated by weightlifting sports – to master certain lifts. Whereas the fundamentals of strength training come from focusing on loading movements based on anatomy and biomechanics to master your body.
The difference between weightlifting and strength training is exemplified in this diagram, which is adapted from the 1996 book, “Biomechanically Correct” by Everett Aaberg.
In short, for clients and athletes, the goal is to build a healthier, stronger body that’s more athletic and injury resilient, not to be a weight-lifter. Therefore, specialized weightlifting techniques that are driven by moving the bar are hitting the bullseye of the wrong target.
I coach putting the feet on the bench because it better allows you focus on the body while doing the lift. Not to mention, it feels more comfortable to many people.
What About Feet in the Air Dumbbell Bench Press?
I’m not against holding your feet up if someone prefers it when doing dumbbell bench press, however I don’t coach it because keeping the feet in the air takes some extra effort to hold your legs there, which take away effort from where I want it, which is on the dumbbell press exercise.
In other words, keeping your feet on the bench provides the benefits of elevating your legs into the air without any of the drawbacks.
Muyor JM, Rodríguez-Ridao D, Martín-Fuentes I, Antequera-Vique JA. Evaluation and comparison of electromyographic activity in bench press with feet on the ground and active hip flexion. PLoS One. 2019 Jun 14;14(6):e0218209.