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June 07, 2023 1 Comment
Bench press alternatives? The bench press is all you need, right? It’s everyone’s first barbell movement and is the primary chest builder for most. When one gym-goer meets another gym-goer for the first time, you can be sure they’ll ask “How much do you bench, bro?” as a friendly greeting…and to size each other up.
That being said, would you be surprised to hear there are actually other pushing movements that can strengthen the chest and increase muscle mass? What about if you heard there are other pushing movements for the chest that are better than the bench press? There are and this article will break down the absolute best bench press alternatives for strength and mass.
The bench press is an exercise everyone knows. Whether they know how to do the bench press correctly is another story. It’s wide known existence and popularity is one of the reasons that the bench press is so often taken at the gym (we've all heard the "how many more sets you got?").
The reason everyone is benching is because it’s the most dominant exercise there is to demonstrate maximal pushing strength; that and they may not know what else to do.
In truth, it really is the best exercise to demonstrate upper body strength, and we also recommend it when trying to lose chest fat. The bench press is one of the primary exercises athletes use to demonstrate their potential, such as the famous 225lbs for reps seen in the NFL Scouting Combine.
To recap what the bench press is (as if you don’t know), it involves pressing a barbell while laying down on a bench. The lifter will position himself on the bench with his feet on the floor and grab the barbell. They then unrack the barbell, lower it to their chest, and push it up. Pure pushing strength.
It’s often one of the foundational movements everyone needs to learn and is often a stepping off point for new gym trainees.
For the purpose of this post, when we say bench press alternatives, we are referring to barbell bench presses.
The bench press is an upper-body compound movement, so it uses a lot of muscle. When looking at the biomechanics, we see that two joints are flexing and extending.
All this being said, the bench press primarily trains:
There are other muscles used, even the lats, but these are either antagonist muscles or stabilizing muscles; these are still important but people aren’t using the bench press to train them specifically.
There are a lot of reasons to love the bench press, here are just a few.
1) The bench press is so popular due to its functionality and familiarity: When we look at life, we see that horizontal pressing is a very common movement pattern. Whether you’re pushing open a door or pushing away an attacker, horizontal pushing strength is vital.
2) The bench press allows a trainee to push a lot of weight: When looking at all of the barbell movements, the bench press is definitely one of the exercises that allows the most weight to be pushed. The ability to load the upper body with significant weight is one of the key reasons why the bench press produces so much strength gains.
3) You can find the bench press anywhere: Because the bench press is so popular, you should be sure that every gym you go into will have a bench. Whether they’re open or not is another story but knowing every gym has one is pretty awesome. Or, if you're more interested in at home chest workouts, you can easily do the bench press on the ground instead.
4) The bench press is a great chest AND triceps strength builder: It’s hard to find another movement that will effectively train both the chest and the triceps the way the bench press does. Nothing much to say other than you’re going to get crazy strong using the bench press.
As you can see, we understand and respect the bench press, but it is not without its faults...
While there’s plenty to love about the bench press, it also has some issues. Here are the reasons why having some bench press alternatives is a good idea.
1) The bench press is not the best for muscle hypertrophy of the chest: While that may seem contradictory to what we said above, you need to realize that building strength and muscle hypertrophy are not necessarily the same thing. While the bench press is excellent for strengthening, it falls a little short when it comes to actually building muscle (dependent on your training age).
2) The bench press can cause shoulder issues: To be clear, the bench press is perfectly safe if you use proper technique, get adequate rest, and maintain appropriate volume with your loads. However, if any of these three go awry, you may fall victim to having shoulder issues during bench press. This is why we make such a big deal about tucking your elbows during the bench press, as it alleviates stress in the joint and allows a more natural movement pattern for the shoulders.
3) The bench press is overused: Now, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve praise, but too many lifters get stuck on the bench press and ignore every other chest exercise there is. In reality, you could build a fantastic chest and never even perform a bench press. While this isn’t necessarily an issue with the bench press, it is an issue related to the bench press. Besides, the bench press only works in one plane of movement, which is never going to give you optimal growth. Again, this has more to do with the lack of knowledge around other chest exercises.
So, the bench press is a great movement but also has some issues. Further, it’s only one movement, and using variety is always superior. Therefore, we want to list the absolute best bench press alternatives and WHY you might want to use them. Here’s the top 12 bench press alternatives to build a massive chest. In no particular order, they are…
The first bench press alternative is the classic dumbbell press. In reality, you are doing the same movement except swapping the barbell for dumbbells. However, the differences are anything but minute.
Because each hand is holding a dumbbell independent of the other, you are causing one arm to work without the help of the other for stability. This means that your muscles will need to have increased firing to stabilize the joints. Being so, multiple studies have shown that dumbbells cause higher activation of the muscles when compared to barbell movements (Note: activation doesn’t directly correlate with effectiveness but that’s another story.)
The second benefit of dumbbells is going to be you will have greater horizontal shoulder adduction. When pressing with a barbell, your arms are fixed and can’t move inward (adduction) any more than your grip, which should be slightly outside shoulder width. Because the dumbbells are independent of each other, they can move inward farther. Actually, the proper form of a dumbbell press has the dumbbells coming inward until they touch.
The third benefit of using dumbbells is that they allow greater range of motion. This is why dumbbells are great for anyone with a nagging shoulder injury, as they can tuck their elbows more, which generally alleviates discomfort (to an extent)
Last, dumbbells can be used to perform what’s known as unilateral movements. This simply means that one limb is working independently of the other by itself. Basically, pressing two dumbbells together qualifies as bilateral.
Related: Best Dumbbell Chest Exercises
The floor press is usually performed using a barbell, but dumbbells can also be used. Regardless, the floor press is simply doing a bench press (or dumbbell press) on the floor. It’s a pure strength movement that is very popular with powerlifters and other strength athletes.
Essentially, what happens is when you come down with the bar, your upper arm is going to make contact with the floor, thus creating a significantly shorter range of motion. This makes it great for those with shoulder injuries as limiting the range of shoulder abduction significantly decreases the stress on the joint.
Still, this will also increase your lockout strength on the bench press.
Pin presses are done with a bench, but now you are altering the bar placement on the set-up. Basically, you are going to set up pins at a low height from which you will press the bar from. To be clear, instead of unracking the barbell and bringing it down to your chest before pushing up, you will set the bar at a height where you can just press with no unracking.
This takes away the eccentric portion of the lift, which is what’s responsible for the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC). SSC is when energy is stored in muscles being stretched like a rubber band. During the bench press, this occurs as the bar comes down, so when the bar hits your chest, and you push the bar up, that energy is released and helps create extra strength when you come up. It’s why you draw back before a punch or swings a bat back before coming forward. WIth pin presses, you have no SSC, meaning you must rely on pure brute strength.
Plus, you can place these pins at any height, making it extremely versatile. You can choose a height to prevent shoulder discomfort or slightly below any sticking points to help you power through.
Fact: You can never do enough pushups. Pushups are a great bodyweight exercise that can be done anywhere. Plus, studies show that highly similar muscle activation occurs between the bench press and pushups, making them an obvious choice for best bench press alternatives. Even better, this is a bench press alternative with no equipment…perfect for a chest workout at home!
Besides, the similar muscle activation, pushups can be done using a wide variety of variations to alter the movement. Use wider or narrower hand width, staggered hands, come down to one hand, incline or decline pushups; you get the idea. There are many pushup variations to use, which allows you to train just like the bench press and in ways not possible with the bench press.
One thing to consider is that you may need to use some sort of weight apparatus to use an appropriate load. Something like a resistance band push up (seen above in pic), weighted vest or plates on your back. While the pushup is a fantastic bench press alternative as it mimics the movement exactly, many trainees are too strong, so they actually train muscle endurance rather than muscle strength. You should be doing pushups somewhere in the range of 5-20, so adjust as necessary (you can use strength loads AND endurance as well).
Also, be sure to use the many variations of push ups - wide grip, close grip, incline, decline, etc.
Dips are another excellent bodyweight exercise that will destroy your chest, especially with this slight variation. Triceps dips, or vertical dips, are traditionally done with an upright torso, which causes most flexion to occur at the elbow. In reality, this method will also train the chest.
However, to really hit the chest, you want to:
If you want a strong chest, do these. Trust us. While it’s a chest exercise with no equipment, you’ll need access to some bars.
Related: Best Dips Alternatives
There’s another dip variation that many swear hits the chest harder than the chest dip. They’re called Gironda Dips, named after famed bodybuilder Vincent Gironda. How good are they? Well, Gironda trained Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Arnold swears they are responsible for building his lower chest…so yea, there’s that.
The form here is unique so pay attention to how it’s performed:
If you want to seriously add some mass, especially to the lower chest, switch up your dips with Gironda dips once in a while. However, be careful with the form as the elbows are flared more than usual so don’t do too many too soon.
Related: Complete Dips Exercise Guide
The squeeze press is absolutely brutal, even though it may look like you’re just pressing a little weight. That’s because the squeeze press takes advantage of using an isometric contraction for maximal results. Well, it’s not a pure isometric contraction because you are contracting the muscle; they’re just not moving.
To perform this movement, you have a few options:
Basically, anything that you can hold merely by squeezing.
Note: Using two dumbbells held in a neutral grip and squeezing them together is also a great option and actually one of the more common methods of the squeeze press...as seen in the pic above.
If you want to do it with one dumbbell or a plate, you will want to lay down on a bench and place the dumbbell (horizontally) or plate (vertically) on your chest. You then pack the object using FLAT HANDS to hold the weight as you press up. These burn like no other, significantly when fully extended.
Word to the wise: Do not go heavy at first or you’ll have various objects falling on your face.
This is a great bench press alternative for anyone, especially certain populations such as rehab patients, the elderly, and even youth. It allows you to use minimal weight to get a maximal contraction. In fact, you can contract as hard as you squeeze. Still, it’s also an excellent press alternative for healthy, strong populations and can be used as burnout at the end of the set.
Cable chest flys are the best exercise to take full advantage of chest activation through shoulder adduction. While you can perform the movement with dumbbells, we prefer using a cable pulley system as the force will always be consistent and coming from the same angle. Regardless, cable flys are one of the best chest exercises you can do to add muscle mass.
Plus, the cable pulley is highly versatile in that you can lower and raise the pulley system, which effectively targets different areas of the chest. High, low, even…there are a ton of variations to use. You could even use one side for more unilateral work.
Related: Best Cable Chest Exercises
Sometimes machines can get unfair opinions; generally, they are inferior to barbell movements. Well, they actually kind of are BUT every tool has a purpose, and the chest press machine is no exception. To be perfectly blunt, some people are scared to bench press for whatever reason. While a good coach should gently nudge them into using free weights (assuming they have no conditions preventing them), some people need to start on machines. They are less scary than big barbell movements and more manageable as there is less of a need to stabilize the weight. That being said, they still place a load on the chest and will work to build mass and strength.
The other group that machines may benefit from are people recovering from injury. Again, you are seated, and the weight is stabilized, making it safer for those who are in rehab.
The standing chest press can be done with a cable machine, which is the most common method, OR, a standing chest press machine. The thing is, most gyms don't have a standing chest press machine.
The standing chest press machine is usually plate loaded and looks like a bench that is standing straight up behind a platform for your feet. Then, two bars come up in front with a set of handles; generally, you can choose overhand grip or neutral grip. You then stand up with your back on the pad, take a grip, and press.
Still, because it’s a machine and the plates are supported, you can go a little bit harder on these without the fear of a bar crashing down on your chest.
Either way, a standing chest press (using cable pulleys or standing chest press machine) is a bit like the T-bar row for the back. It’s incredible and will seriously blow your chest up.
Because you are standing, you aren’t able to use leg drive to push the weight. Even if you don’t know how to use leg drive effectively, you will still utilize it some during the bench press (assuming your feet stay on the ground!). That being said, when you perform the chest press standing up, you will definitely notice a difference.
Note: If using the cable pulley tower, keep your feet in a bilateral stance to take them out of play. By using a split stance, you are effectively bringing them in for leverage.
Dumbbell pullovers are a classic bodybuilder movement that builds a monster chest. It’s technically a single-joint exercise moving at the shoulder, but it hits a ton of muscle. In our situation, we’re concerned with the activation of the pectoral muscles AND the serratus anterior. The serratus anterior is that muscle on the rib cage that looks all bumpy and screams chiseled. The serratus anterior isn’t necessarily the chest, BUT a developed serratus will make a decent chest really pop.
These are typically done as burnouts set towards the end of a chest workout.
The Swiss bar is a type of barbell that allows you to use a neutral grip. A typical Swiss bar will have a wide section placed in between these two collars. Within this section are various handles that are placed at different widths and angles, which gives you a choice to choose what you want to work on.
One tremendous benefit with neutral grips is that generally speaking, many trainees report it is much more comfortable on the shoulders for pressing. This is partially due to the elbows being tucked more, but whatever the reason, they are great to add just to give your joints a rest.
Plus, the different handles allow the angle of force to be slightly different, which is always good for the complete, total training of a muscle. Not to mention that it’s just fun to do something different once in a while
Now that you have all the exercises, what do you do with them? That’s what we’re about to tell you as we’re going to directly lay out some guidelines for you to follow.
1) Train your chest twice a week as studies have shown this to be the optimal frequency for resistance training.
2) Use exercises with various mechanics. For example, it doesn’t make sense to only use movements that push straight away from the chest as you’ll miss a lot of fibers. Therefore, include exercises that push straight away, push down, push up, and pure shoulder adduction exercises.
3) Be sure to include a range of loading schemes with your movements. For example, be sure to include compound movements with heavy loads (>85%), compound movements with moderate loads (75-80%), and isolation with light-moderate loads (70-80%). Also, be sure to include bodyweight exercises as well, just to keep your relative strength and check.
Here’s an example of how a program could look when training the chest twice a week.
From here, just use progressive overload as normal. While we gave you 12 chest exercises, use the same ones for 2-3 months before you start swapping them out.
Here are some good chest and shoulder stretches for before and after your workouts.
There you go. You now have everything you need to build a massive, strong chest without even using the bench press. In fact, we gave you a sample program to get you started. To be very clear, you can still use the bench press, but you need to start using other chest exercises to optimize your strength and muscle size. Besides, with all of these bench press alternatives, you’ll never have to sit around and wait for a bench to open up…let the guys who haven’t read this article do that.
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