The Barbell Floor Press: Best no-rack bench press alternative?

The seated start position for a barbell press from the floor.

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No rack? No problem! The barbell floor press is one of those old-school exercises that is sometimes forgotten in the days of modern gym culture. Often viewed by regular gym goers as an “odd” or supplemental exercise, it is rarely performed by anyone outside of the powerlifting world. However, as we’ll discuss in this article, the floor press is actually quite capable of being a main pressing movement. This is especially true for those who are pressed for time or limited on space and equipment.

If you don’t have a rack or are limited on time, the barbell floor press is an excellent bench press alternative that can be loaded heavy, fits neatly into barbell circuits / supersets from the floor, and only requires a minimum of equipment. It has excellent carry over to bench press performance and great potential for general strength and mass-building in the chest, triceps, and shoulders, depending on the loading parameters used.

First, what is the floor press?

Like many exercises, the floor barbell press has gone through many iterations and is the precursor to the modern flat bench press. It has traditionally been performed by rolling a bar over the lifter’s face, or set on blocks, or even “tossed” into position using a dynamic thrust of the hips from the floor.

Joe Nordquest performing a floor press from the floor.
An old-school floor press from the floor. Take from Fitness Volt’s article comparing the floor press and the bench press.

At its core, the floor press is an exercise that involves laying with one’s back on the floor, and pressing a weight vertically over one’s face. This exercise can be done with barbells, dumbells, kettlebells, or whatever other implement you have access to. For the purpose of this article, we will focus on the barbell floor press variation, performed without blocks (from the floor).

Origins of the barbell floor press

Looking into the history of the floor press reveals that it was once viewed as a main pressing movement in the iron game. This makes sense, as the modern bench press didn’t gain popularity until the 1950s (the floor had already existed for over 50 years).

In fact, during those days the bench press was viewed as a supplementary exercise for the floor press, which was viewed as the main lift. This makes sense, as we didn’t yet have access to quality bench press racks, and the classic powerlifting bench press “arch” hadn’t yet matured as a concept.

The floor press was invented by the legendary strongman and wrestler, George Hackenschmidt (incidentally, also the creator of the hack squat). The first recording of “The Russian Lion” rolling a bar over his face and pressing it was actually from 1899.

George Hackenschmidt's famous physique pose.
“The Russian Lion”, George Hackenschmidt, creator of the hack squat and the floor press.

Looking at images of old-school lifters reveals that there were various ways to set up the lift, such as rolling the bar over the chest, or lifting from blocks. During modern times, this lift is most often seen done out of a rack.

However, for the minimalist with limited space or equipment, performing the lift from the floor makes a lot of sense. It also allows the floor press to fit neatly into barbell circuits with other exercises from the floor (such as deadlifts behind the back, hack squats, Jefferson deadlifts, or barbell rows)

Benefits of the barbell floor press

Why consider the floor press as a bench press alternative? Though this lift is traditionally thought of as supplemental exercise for powerlifters, it’s also extremely useful for those who are pressed for time, limited on equipment, or limited on space. It’s basically a bench without a rack. Consider the following benefits:

1. The floor press doesn’t require a lot of equipment or space

We’ve all had times in our lives where we couldn’t (or didn’t want to) make time to get to a gym. Working out at home makes a lot of sense for someone who’s trying to accomplish the goal of getting stronger with a minimum of time commitment. However, this leaves us with the problem of budget, space, and equipment. The good news is that if you’ve got a barbell and weights, you can floor press:

A barbell and weights in a parking lot.
The author’s actual gym setup during the 2020 COVID lockdown. They say that necessity is the mother of invention!

Above, you’ll see my minimal-equipment “gym” setup during the 2020 COVID lockdown. Like most of us, I had to abruptly stop going to the gym. Armed with only a barbell and a few bumper plates, I was able to continue to build pressing strength by rolling the bar out to my apartment parking lot.

2. The floor press saves time by fitting neatly into barbell circuits and supersets

Since the traditional floor barbell press is done from the floor, it fits neatly into any barbell circuit or antagonistic superset that consists of exercises done from the floor. In the future, we will write articles discussing various options for barbell circuit training for strength. For now, here are some exercises (from the floor) that you can plug-and-play into your program of choice:

  • Barbell row variations
  • Deadlift variations
  • Traditional barbell hack squat variations
  • Jefferson deadlifts (also called Jefferson squats)

With some basic knowledge of strength training principles, it’s not hard to see how these exercises (along with some accessories) could be easily swapped into a full-body, upper / lower, or push / pull / legs routine and then progressively overloaded accordingly.

3. The floor press can be loaded heavy

There is a reason that the floor press is viewed so favorably in powerlifing circles as a strength-builder with huge carryover to the bench press. With proper technique, the floor press can be loaded heavy, even if done from the floor. There is a definite trick to getting the bar up over your elbows, and beginning your set. However, once you figure out this technique, the floor press can provide formidable overload to the chest, triceps, and front delts.

4. The floor press does effectively target the chest and triceps

Anyone who includes the floor press regularly will be able to attest to its efficacy as a strength and mass builder for the triceps muscle group. But what about the chest? This exercise is not usually mentioned in lists of effective pec-builders.

However, in our experience, this exercise can be used as a general mass and strength builder in the upper body. Don’t take our word for it:

In 2010, Bret Contreras published a chest and triceps edition of his “Inside the Muscles” series of articles. In it, the floor press was listed as one of the most effective exercises for the mid pec, as well as achieving relatively high peak activation for the long head of the triceps.

Towards the end of the article, Contreras mentions that the results from the floor press surprised him, writing, “I found it very surprising that the floor press and band push up squeaked their way into the winner’s circle, as they’re the only movements in the entire winner’s group that do not move the pecs into a stretch position.”

5. The floor press has excellent carryover to the bench press

Though many lifters find that they can lift 5-15% more weight on the traditional barbell bench press with proper technique, the floor press is renowned for its ability to be used as a bench press variation to improve bench press strength.

One reason for this is that the floor press acts almost as a “reverse” bench press. Whereas a traditional bench press starts from the top of the lift, a floor press starts at the bottom. This necessitates a huge initial contraction of the pecs and triceps in order to get the weight moving off of the floor.

I find that the floor press seems to provide a benefit to bench performance similarly to how a box squat benefits a traditional squat: it allows the lifter to learn to lower the weight under control, relax for an instant, and then explode out of the bottom.

If you’ve never floor pressed before, you may be pleasantly surprised at the boost in bench press performance you get from this lift.

How to perform the barbell floor press from the floor

Though there are a few tutorials for how to begin the floor press from the floor, they seem to view the floor press as an accessory and therefore often lack the nuance required to actually load this movement heavy. If you’re planning to treat this exercise as a main movement, this just won’t do. Here are a few steps to make sure you’re able to set your floor press up properly and avoid unnecessary injury to the wrists or elbows:

  • Make sure to warm up the exercise properly, the same way you would if you were bench pressing. Since you must roll the bar over your stomach to set up, you’ll have the best luck by starting with a 10lb bumper plate on each side, rather than starting with an empty bar.
  • Sit on the floor, legs outstretched, and roll the bar up over your legs to waist level, as in the image below:
The seated start position for a barbell press from the floor.
The seated start position for a barbell press from the floor.
  • Lay down and prop your legs up as if you were setting up for a glute bridge.
  • Just like in a bench press, set your scapula (shoulder blades) by pinching them together, and then rolling them down your back (in the words of Ed Coan, “put your shoulder blades in your back pockets”). You obviously won’t achieve a dramatic arch like you would in a bench press, but you should feel a similar level of tightness.
  • Set the bar in a comfortable position over your pelvis, and set your grip as if you were setting up for a regular bench press:
Laying down before beginning the hip thrust portion of the barbell floor press.
Laying down before beginning the hip thrust portion of the barbell floor press.
  • Bridge the weight into place, making sure not to lower your hips until you’re certain of your elbow position. Stack your elbows vertically directly under your wrists and grip the bar. This will be your final grip position.
Hip thrusting the weight into position for a barbell floor press.
Hip thrusting the weight into position for a barbell floor press.
  • Under control, lower your hips and release the weight onto your elbows. Maintain some tension in the chest and triceps to stabilize the weight. This will be the start position for the lift:
The start position for a barbell floor press, before initiating the concentric portion.
The start position for a barbell floor press, before initiating the concentric portion.
  • Once you’ve got your butt back down on the ground, press the weight as if in a normal bench press:
The concentric, extended portion of the barbell floor press.
The concentric, extended portion of the barbell floor press.

That’s it! A couple of notes on form completing a full set:

  1. When you lower the weight, make sure to do so slowly so as not to slam your elbows into the ground.
  2. Similar to a box squat, release tension from the chest and triceps momentarily, while maintaining a stiff vertical stacking position of the wrists over elbows.
  3. Contract the target muscles and press again. Repeat until the targeted number of reps has been completed, or until you’ve reached your desired RPE or RIR for the set.
  4. To lower the weight, reverse the setup steps. Bridge your hips up until they contact the bar and take the weight off of your arms.
  5. With the weight supported by your hips, slide your elbows out from under the bar, but maintain your grip.
  6. Under control, lower your hips down to the ground and place the bumper plates back onto the floor.

As stated above, there is a definite technique to this lift. Although the above steps may seem complex to the uninitiated, rest assured that it’s no more complicated than learning to squat, deadlift, or bench press for the first time. It just takes some practice.

One way to learn the lift is to avoid very heavy loads for your first couple of floor press sessions, until you’ve gotten the technique. Once you’re familiar with the intricacies of controlling the weight, you should have no problem getting into and out of position.

A note about how to improve pectoral / upper chest activation using the floor press

While the floor press is typically thought of as a triceps builder, there are a couple of small form tweaks that can be made to improve activation of the chest in the floor press:

  • Attempt to squeeze your hands together (towards your midline) as you press. Maintain this tension toward the midline as you perform the eccentric (lowering) phase of the lift as well. This technique will fatigue the pecs very quickly.
  • Try a slightly narrow grip width. While this technique can be counterintuitive, studies have show greater activation in the clavicular head (read: upper portion) of the chest during narrow grip exercises like diamond pushups and close-grip bench press.

As an aside, I often feel a great deal of soreness in my chest after I perform the floor press. It’s possible that this is due to the fact that lowering elbows to the floor causes me to lower the weight slowly and I inadvertently achieve a high level of eccentric time under tension. This is just anecdotal on my part, but you may be pleasantly surprised if you try it yourself!

Get Pressing!

If you’ve got at least 8×8 feet of floor space and some weights, roll out your barbell, throw on some bumper plates, and give this exercise a try. Soreness warning: at the novel stimulus and the training effect you receive from the barbell floor press!