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Sean Hyson demonstrates the Larsen press.

How To Do The Larsen Press Like A Pro

Written by
May 29, 2024

You’ve arrived here seeking info on the Larsen press, and that means you fall into one of two camps. You’re either a competitive powerlifter looking for an edge to get your bench press stronger, or you’re a recreational but serious lifter curious if the truth about this novel exercise matches the hype. Let’s break down what a Larsen press is, why it might benefit you, and what else you can do to build up your bench press.

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Key Takeaways

1. The Larsen press is a bench press done with the legs extended.

2. The Larsen press takes the legs out of benching, which forces the upper body to work harder, strengthening it over time.

3. The Larsen press also removes much of the arch from the lower back, which can help relieve irritation if you’re injured in that area.

4. Make sure you set up with your feet on the floor first to get the proper arch in your upper back. Then extend your legs.

What Is The Larsen Press?

(See 00:23 in the video.)

A Larsen press is a bench press done with the legs extended. Your feet are off the floor and your whole body is relatively straight from head to heels.

The Larsen press takes its name from its innovator, Adrian Larsen, an American powerlifter and former world bench-press record holder in the 220-pound weight class. Most powerlifters use their legs to get extra stability and strength in their benching—after the bar touches their chest on the descent, they drive their legs hard into the floor to help press the bar back up—but due to being born with dislocated hips, resulting in multiple surgeries, Larsen wasn’t able to do this. Instead, he had to bench with his legs elevated. It didn’t seem to cost him strength, as he went on to press a motorcycle—and its rider—while lying on the ground on multiple occasions.

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How to Do the Larsen Press Correctly

(See 01:04 in the video at the top.)

Step 1. Lie on the bench and set up for a normal bench press with your feet on the floor. Position yourself with your eyes directly under the bar.

Step 2. Grasp the bar with hands about shoulder-width apart and lift your body up off the bench so you can retract your shoulder blades and arch your back. Now lower yourself onto the bench. You should feel like your upper back has been pulled together tightly and your chest is pushed out—upward and closer to the bar.

Step 3. Unrack the bar and pull it into position directly above your shoulders. Now lift your legs off the floor and extend them with straight knees. This will flatten your ribcage and lower back against the bench.

Step 4. Gripping the bar firmly, pull it down to your chest, touching the middle of your pecs. Take a second or two to do this, so you lower with control. (Don’t let the weight free fall or bounce off your ribs.) Pause for a second or two, and then press the bar to lockout.

If you do it right, the bar won’t take a straight up-and-down path. Instead, it will drift slightly down your body as you lower it, and slightly toward your face as you press, following what’s called a J-curve. The bar should always stack directly above your wrists and elbows, but will only stack directly above your shoulders at lockout.

Perform your set to within one or two reps of form failure—the point at which you don’t think you can do another rep with good technique. As you get more experienced with the Larsen press, you can occasionally take your last set of the exercise to failure, under the supervision of an experienced spotter. Note that it’s best to have a spotter for Larsen pressing, and any other type of bench pressing in general, for the sake of safety.

Additional tips:

Make sure you set up with your feet on the floor, and don’t just skip ahead to raising your legs. “When you set up for the bench your upper back and lats need to be tight,” says Dave Tate, a former elite powerlifter and the founder of elitefts.com. “This is done by lifting your body up off the bench and tucking the shoulder blades down and tight.” This must be done on the Larsen press even more so than a normal bench press, because you don’t have the benefit of your legs providing stability.

When you raise your legs, your core should engage naturally, but don’t feel that you have to hold a hollow-body position like you were doing some ab exercise. Adrian Larsen actually let his legs dangle passively. If you find that holding your legs out is distracting or uncomfortable, you can rest them on a bench or box.

How To Stretch Before Doing The Larsen Press

(See 02:35 in the video at the top.)

Use these exercises to warm up your torso, shoulders, and elbows before performing the Larsen press in your workouts.

1. Cat-Camel Stretch

(See 02:40 in the video at the top.)

Step 1. Get on all fours and brace your core. Your arms should be directly under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.

Step 2. Press your arms into the floor while you round your upper back toward the ceiling, spreading your shoulder blades. Hold for a second.

Step 3. Now retract your shoulder blades while you arch your upper back and drive your solar plexus toward the floor. Hold for a second. That’s one rep. Imagine the motion as having a string running through your solar plexus with someone pulling it up and then down—try to move at the upper back and not the lower back. Do 2 sets of 10 reps.

2. Kneeling Elbow Circle

(See 03:21 in the video at the top.)

Step 1. From the same all-fours position as the cat-camel, turn your elbows to point out to the sides and then bend them, lowering your body to the bottom of a pushup.

Step 2. Turn your elbows toward your body and extend your arms to return to the starting position. That’s one rep. Alternate directions each rep, and do 2–3 sets of 6–12 reps.

What Muscles Does the Larsen Press Work?

(See 02:23 in the video at the top.)

The Larsen press is meant to strengthen your upper-body pushing muscles: the pecs, triceps, and front delts. Here’s a quick anatomy and biomechanics lesson to break it down. 

Pectorals 

Your pec major muscle flexes your shoulder and adducts your humerus toward the midline of your body. As you bench press, your shoulders flex and your upper arms converge toward each other. This is a little easier to visualize if you imagine a flye motion or a dumbbell press, but it happens when pressing a barbell too. 

Triceps

Your triceps’ primary action is to extend your elbow, straightening your arm. The upward portion of the bench press starts with a flexed elbow at your chest and your triceps extend your elbows to move the load toward a fully locked out elbow position at the top of the lift. 

Anterior Deltoids

Your front delts flex your shoulder, taking your humerus (upper-arm bone) from a position at your side (or behind your back) and elevating it toward the overhead position. If you think about your shoulder and humerus position and movement throughout a bench press, your arm goes from parallel to your torso to being pointed directly perpendicular from your torso. This motion is flexion of your shoulder, created by your front delt.

Though all three major pressing muscles work together through the entire range of motion of a bench press, your triceps dominate the top portion at lockout, while the pecs and front delts dominate the bottom portion when you’re getting the bar off your chest.

Numerous other muscles work to stabilize your shoulders and overall body position during a Larsen press, including but not limited to your obliques, serratus anterior, and rotator cuff, but we aren’t focused on targeting them directly here. If you want to target more of your upper chest vs. the middle of the pecs, see our guide to upper-chest workouts.

What are the Benefits of Doing the Larsen Press?

“The Larsen press can be great for intermediate to advanced lifters,” says Tate, “as it takes the legs out of the lift and will force them to keep tension through their core.” As much as the bench press is dominated by pecs, front delts, and triceps, a skilled powerlifter can squeeze extra force production from leg drive—the coiled tension of a low back arch and bucking the hips while elevating the ribcage. But as Larsen himself proved, training your body to press without the assistance of your legs makes your upper body take on all the load and learn to better stabilize itself on the bench. Do it for a few weeks and then go back to normal bench pressing. You’ll probably find that now that your upper body is much stronger, you can produce more force overall when you use your legs again.

“The Larsen press can also be a great diagnostic tool for powerlifting coaches,” adds Tate. Without the assistance of the legs, you can see how a lifter’s upper-body mechanics influence their pressing, and can troubleshoot any technique issues.

Here are some other reasons you may want to add the Larsen press to your routine.

Novelty

If you’ve been using the same limited array of basic exercises for months and you feel physically and mentally stale, making a small tweak like swapping out a regular bench press for a Larsen press can get you to re-engage with your training, as well as help you break through a plateau. As it’s similar to the bench press, the Larsen press will allow you to continue working the same muscles in a way that’s specific to bench press gains, but different enough to give your muscles, joints, connective tissues, and nervous system a bit of a break, as well as reduce the risk of injury due to repetitive use.

Reduced lower back stress

An aggressive bench press arch can stress and fatigue your low back tissues and structures. If you’re a powerlifter, you’re also doing other exercises that are hard on this area, such as squats, deadlifts, and good mornings, so it’s a good idea to get away from lifts that wear on the low back whenever you can. 

By keeping your legs straight, the Larsen press won’t let you arch your lower back while you’re pressing, neutralizing any stressful forces in the lumbar spine. If your pressing workouts take it easier on your lower back for a while, you leave more room for recovery and potentially better performance on squats and deadlifts.

Increased range of motion

The primary benefit of arching the back on a bench press is to elevate the base of your ribcage, shortening the distance the bar has to travel from chest contact to lockout. Shaving off some of the range of motion allows you to lift heavier weight, but it isn’t ideal for building muscle. The Larsen press demands that you lower the bar with only a minimal back arch, and that recruits more muscle in your chest, shoulders, and triceps.

(Incidentally, search for videos of small, hyper-flexible female powerlifters and you’ll see many of them using absurd, horseshoe-backed arches that let them lift enormous weights—the bar only travels a few inches from chest to lockout. This is within the regulations of many powerlifting federations, though due to controversy, some have begun to crack down on this “abuse” of the rules.)

Flattening out your arch and ribcage also means more time spent moving and controlling the weight at the weakest point of your bench press, when the bar is at your chest. Therefore, you will get stronger at pressing the bar up from the bottom.

Training with reduced weight

Though benching as much weight as possible is the goal of every powerlifter and motivated gym bro, you can’t bench with max weights all the time and stay injury-free. Because of its mechanics, the Larsen press will certainly force you to use lighter weight than your conventional bench press, to which your shoulders, elbows, and wrists will say “thanks.” Managing your loads over time will reduce your risk of injury and keep you from getting overwhelmed by fatigue, and that in turn should help you max out heavy weights when you choose to.

Larsen Press Alternatives

(See 04:20 in the video at the top.)

The goal of the Larsen Press is to take the legs out of the exercise and better isolate the pressing muscles. A secondary purpose is to preserve the low back, which is done by keeping the spine in a more neutral position. The biggest drawback to the Larsen press, as you may have guessed by looking at it, is the potential to fall off the bench. Without the balance and stability that comes from foot placement, you’re depending on your back and core to hold you in position, and that won’t work well for everyone. Fortunately, you can get most of the benefits of the Larsen press with less risk by doing one of these alternatives or variations.

Larsen Floor Press

(See 04:53 in the video at the top.)

Doing a Larsen press while lying on the floor takes away the effort of holding your legs out in front of you. They’re still extended, so you can’t arch your back much and your lumbar spine gets a break, but you won’t get the stability challenge that you would pressing on a bench. You may also find that your elbows touch the floor before the bar touches your chest. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it will shift more of the load onto your triceps, so it’s a good way to work lockout strength. Also, if you want to continue to press through a full range, you could stack some mats on the floor and rest your back against them, essentially raising the floor for your torso but not your arms and restoring the range of motion.

Feet On The Bench Press

(See 05:20 in the video at the top.)

Putting your feet up on the bench retains the spirit of the Larsen press while offering a little more stability. You may also get a little more lumbar arch and ribcage elevation. This is a great option for shorter lifters who have trouble keeping their feet flat on the floor anyway. Feet on the bench is often an ideal substitution for people who aren’t training for powerlifting but want to bench press without low-back tension. 

Dumbbell Larsen Press

(See 05:40 in the video at the top.)

Not everyone has a barbell and rack in their home, and some people only have access to gyms that ban compound barbell lifts—you know, the kind of place where an alarm goes off if you let out a grunt. While the dumbbell version may not be ideal for competitive powerlifters, it’s fine for the serious enthusiast who prefers to skip their gym’s pizza party and train hard. Find other ideas for training chest in our at-home chest workout guide.

How to Fit the Larsen Press Into Your Workout

(See 06:15 in the video at the top.)

The Larsen press can be incorporated into your training in two main ways.

1. As a primary strength lift

You can start your bench press/push/chest day with the Larsen press, training it the same way you would a regular bench press. Work up to 3–5 work sets of 3–5 reps, resting three minutes or more between sets.

2. As a chest-builder

If you want to train your chest with a bench press but take your legs completely out of the equation, the Larsen press is a fine substitute. Do 2–3 work sets of 6–12 reps, resting two to three minutes between sets.

Why The Larsen Press May Not Be For You

We like the Larsen press for its back-friendly feature and its ability to strengthen the pressing  muscles, but we don’t want to give you the impression that it’s a trendy new lift that you just HAVE to try.

Remember that Adrian Larsen used the Larsen press out of necessity. Those who have healthy legs and hips don’t need to.

Jen Thompson, an 11-time IPF world powerlifting champion and world-record holder in the bench press at 145.5 kilos says that the Larsen press makes a lifter unnecessarily unstable. “In my opinion, it’s not worth the injury risk, and I do not practice it,” says Thompson. The injury risk, in this case, being a shift out of position during the lift or outright falling off the bench due to the lack of stability. “If your goal is to build up your bench press, you should bench heavy in the most stable position.”

Many of the potential benefits of Larsen pressing, like upper-body isolation, low-back safety, and training through a greater range of motion can be gotten pressing with other exercises that don’t place you at risk of falling off the bench with a heavy load over your face.

The type of bench you have access to should also play a role in your decision of whether to Larsen press. Most gym benches are narrower than the ones used in powerlifting competition (competitors usually lift on benches that are 11.5 to 12.5 inches wide). Benching on a narrower surface makes you more likely to lose position, especially under heavy loads. It may be wise, then, to Larsen press only if you have a competition bench to practice on. The pressing skill you build also will transfer better to benching in competition.

The bottom line: the Larsen press isn’t a cure-all for a mediocre bench press, but it’s a good alternative for those who can access the right equipment and want to strengthen their pressing with a novel exercise. Furthermore, if you have lower body injuries or ailments like Larsen himself, the Larsen press may prove to be your ticket to amazing feats of strength that you may have previously thought impossible.

For more bench-press building tips, see our guide to the bench press.

Andrew Coates
Andrew Coates is a personal trainer based in Edmonton, Ontario, with more than 13 years' experience and 23,000-plus coaching hours under his weight belt. Coates has written for numerous fitness industry publications and is a sought after public speaker across North America. He is the co-founder of the Evolve Strength Business and Coaching Conference, and the host of the Lift Free and Diet Hard Podcast. Visit him at andrewcoatesfitness.com
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