The bench press may be everyone’s favorite upper body barbell exercise, but its shorter-ranged cousin could be even better.
Every kid who walks into a weight room for the first time wants to learn the bench press. It’s the ultimate teenaged-guy lift, and as such many a high school pecking order has been established simply on the basis of bench-pressing performance.
However, the bench press has its drawbacks. It can be brutal on the shoulders and rotator cuffs for some, while others simply don’t feel it in the chest and abandon it for a dumbbell or machine variation. For those who love the effect the bench press has on their triceps but hate what it does to their delts, there’s a classic but under-used exercise that’s right up their alley – the barbell floor press.
The floor press is a pure upper body movement that allows you to press massive weights without undue shoulder stress, maximizing your training efficiency and protecting your shoulders for long-term training and strength gains.
The floor press is the original horizontal barbell press, even predating the bench press. At one time lifters attacked the lift with gusto, putting up some impressive numbers, including George Hackenschmidt’s 361-pound strict floor press back in 1899. Unfortunately, as the bench press grew in popularity, interest in the floor press outside of powerlifting circles waned to the point of relative obscurity.
Whether you’re training for a massive bench press or maximal hypertrophy, the floor press deserves a place in your high-performance repertoire since it conveys the following benefits:
- Jacked Arms: The floor press requires powerful extension of the elbows, placing considerable mechanical tension on the triceps. Overloading the triceps with big weights is key to developing massive arms while keeping excessive joint stress at bay, which is something that can’t be said for skull crushers.
- Upper Body Power: Floor presses negate leg and lower body drive, creating a pure upper-body push. All the stress is focused on the chest, triceps, and shoulders, overloading them for pure strength gains.
- Improved Lockout: The limited range of motion and inherent pause of the floor press will help you if you tend to miss in the middle of your bench press.
- Easier on the Shoulders: You’d be hard pressed to find a big bencher without some degree of shoulder dysfunction. Most athletes flare the elbows in pressing movements, fixing the humerus into internal rotation. To accommodate this position the scapula rotates up and out, forcing scapular stabilizers to work overtime while rubbing on the supraspinatus ligament.
This creates a marked decrease is sub-acromial space and increases impingement in the shoulder. The floor press reduces the range of motion of the shoulder and subsequent injury risk while still training a massive press.
The name “Floor Press” says it all, right? Line up on the floor and push weight. Not so fast, my friend. Success lies in the detail and masterful execution of proper technique.
- Find Your Position. Lie on your back and position yourself under the bar. Too far in front of the bar and you’ll drop the barbell on your forehead trying to unrack it. Too far behind and you’ll be grinding reps into the squat rack. I prefer lining up eyes under the bar, but this is unique to each athlete based upon limb length. Grab the barbell with a shoulder-width grip or slightly narrower and push yourself into the ground to set the scapulae and provide stability.
- Legs Extended. While some perform floor presses with the knees bent, I prefer the legs fully extended. Bending the knees leads to addition spinal stress due to low back arching and it also invites driving with the leg. Fully extend both legs and drive your heels into the ground, increasing stability without leg drive.
- Lift Off. Since your shoulders are locked in, you’ll need a lift off. Unracking without a lift off forces the shoulders into abduction and protraction, completely defeating the purpose of getting tight in the first place. Man up and ask someone; it’s a lift-off, not a slow dance. Should you be hell-bent on pressing dangerously big weights while alone at the gym, your best bet is to pull the weight out of the J-hooks rather than pressing it.
- Row the Bar. There aren’t any points for crashing your elbows into the ground on a floor press. Instead, actively row the bar to the lower chest during the eccentric portion of the lift. By rowing the bar you’ll activate the lats, thereby providing stability to the upper body and greater strength in the press.
- Tuck the Elbows. Keep the elbows tucked at 45 degrees for safe and powerful pressing. Flaring the elbows wide creates loads of stress on the joints and creates an unstable pushing position. Conversely, narrow grips are extremely awkward, stressful, and not conducive to big strength gains. Keep the wrist and elbow joints stacked underneath the bar for best results.
- Pause and Press. Leave your ego at the door and pause. Lower the bar under control until the upper arm touches the ground, stay tight and explosively extend the tucked elbows while maintaining alignment of the wrist, elbow, and bar. Finish with the bar exactly where you began the press.
The floor press can be programmed either as a max effort lift or dynamic movement. I prefer the floor press for maximum effort movements rather than straight bar bench pressing, especially for those who aren’t tested for sports or competing in powerlifting.
If powerlifters are floor pressing on max effort days, then training full bench presses on dynamic days works exceptionally well. On max effort pressing days, work up to one, two, and three-rep maxes, aiming to beat personal records when you perform singles.
A four-week cycle could look something like the following, with each month using a new 1-RM from the previous month for calculating intensity. Your floor press max will likely fall between 75-85% of your best bench press, but it’s best to find your true max before using any percentage-based training.
If using the floor press as a dynamic movement, stick between 40% and 70% of 1RM and no higher, with an emphasis on maximum bar speed.
If you’re barrel-chested with short arms, the floor press can be a full range of motion movement, in which case consider a longer pause. If you’re aiming for maximum strength gains, get comfortable performing near-maximal singles. You won’t push as much weight since you won’t be using leg drive, but you’ll make rapid gains. Adjust your numbers accordingly.
Man-love for the barbell bench press is real, but so is the dysfunction it creates at the shoulder joint. Rather than ditch your press altogether, opt for the floor press. You’ll build massive dead-stop strength, shatter plateaus, and provide some relief to your beat up shoulders.