Here’s why you should sometimes bench press without a bench.
The floor press – a barbell bench press that you perform without the bench – has become a staple exercise with many high-level powerlifters, but anyone who wants to get stronger and build muscle can benefit from it.
Interestingly, it’s not a new exercise; it’s simply been resurrected. Back before lifters had benches, the floor press was the only chest press they could perform. So it’s been around for more than 100 years, making it much older than the bench press itself.
It’s a very effective movement to build pure pressing strength, along with muscle mass in the chest, shoulders, triceps. To understand why it’s effective, it’s important to understand force production when you lift a weight.
- The actual contraction of the muscle.
- The elasticity of the muscle tissue and the tendons. A muscle is elastic by nature. Like a rubber band, it will forcefully return to its normal length after it’s been stretched. This pre-stretch contributes to force production when you lift and the muscles return to their original length.
- The myotatic stretch reflex. A muscle has receptors called muscle spindles. Their role is to protect the muscle against tears. When that muscle becomes stretched, the spindles activate the stretch reflex, which shortens the muscle to prevent it from being torn. This contributor to force production works in concert with the elasticity of the muscle.
Pressing from the floor reduces the contribution of elasticity and the stretch reflex. If you pause with your upper arms on the floor for a second or two at the start of each rep, you can reduce the contribution of the stretch reflex by as much as 90 percent. That’s why most of us will be weaker pressing from the floor than we are when we press from a bench, even though the range of motion is shorter.
But by inhibiting the stretch reflex, you rely almost entirely on the actual contraction of the muscles during a floor press. The result is a more forceful contraction, and lots of gains in size and strength. In that sense, it’s the upper-body equivalent of a deadlift.
This doesn’t mean that you should drop regular bench pressing in favor of the floor press. If you do, you’ll lose your ability to use the stretch reflex to your advantage, which will decrease performance and increase injury risk.