Not too long ago, we highlighted the best alternatives to the back squat. Yes, the back squat is one of our favorites for overall lower body development. But, as we covered in that article, there are a whole host of awesome squat/lunge pattern exercises that are worthwhile as well. There is no doubt that having a big back squat 1RM is a great goal to work toward, but sometimes it’s cool to hit a front squat PR or even a split squat PR. Plus, throwing in a few accessories will actually help you hit those back squat PR’s faster!
Since we covered one of the “big 3” in that article, it is natural that we continue on with the rest. In this case, we are talking about the barbell bench press. For the average gym goer, this is probably the most beloved of the Big 3. For serious powerlifters, this is probably the one that causes the most grief as well. Maybe you want to take a break from those feels, or perhaps you just want to mix up your monotonous routine. Either way, it’s worth learning about some awesome alternatives. That way, you can keep making gains and keep your sanity at the same time!
How Much Ya’ Bench?
Almost every gym bro, high school lifter, and lover of lifting will ask or be asked the age old question: How much ya’ bench bro? So naturally, the bench press makes its way into the workout plan of many lifting enthusiasts across the world.
But, just because it is such a beloved exercise, doesn’t mean you have to do it. Or better yet, there is nothing to say that you can’t take a break from it every now and then. In fact, taking a break from the bench press in favor of an alternative exercise might actually help you bench more in the long run.
Also, not everyone can, or wants to bench press. Maybe you have a nagging shoulder injury that’s been giving you grief lately. Or maybe you’re a novice who needs to build up technique/strength in other movements first. Even some advanced bodybuilders decide to forgo the barbell bench press in favor of a more targeted exercise. Whatever the case, there are tons of alternative out there for you.
Unless you have a few hours to spend, I can’t go through every single alternative you can do in one article, but I can boil them down to a few that I find most beneficial. Now of course, each exercise is going to be more or less beneficial depending on your goals. Plus, your experience level and health are going to play a role as well. At any rate, the following exercises range from simple to complex and give you some good ideas of what you can do besides plain old benchin’:
DB Bench Press
If the barbell bench press is the most favorite of the horizontal presses, then Dumbbell Bench Press might be second. This may seem like a no brainer as far as alternative exercises go. However, it is still worth noting that this is an awesome substitution. Depending on the gym you go to, weights can be loaded up pretty heavy on this exercise. Plus, you can change the angle of the bench in order to work the muscles in a different way. Overall, I actually suggest that the DB Bench Press be mastered first before moving on to barbell bench pressing. It provides awesome stability control and allows for novices to start with lighter weights than that afforded by a barbell.
People often overlook the floor press as a worthwhile exercise to perform for the upper body. This movement can be performed with a barbell or dumbbells, although the barbell version is easier to set up. What is great about this exercise is that it offers a similar pattern to the bench press while overloading the top of the movement. Those who struggle to lock out their reps or whose triceps are weaker will benefit greatly. Additionally, this is a more friendly option for those who have nagging shoulder pains. Throw these into the mix and you’ll be sure to get stronger in the traditional bench press as well.
Alternating DB Press
If you are looking for a more challenging way to perform the DB Bench Press, then this is your go to movement. There are two ways you can go about alternating your reps: active or passive. The active version requires you to hold your arm extended between reps. This places more tension on the muscle and makes for a real burner. The passive version allows you to keep the dumbbell at your side while the other side performs a rep. This also places some tension on your muscle, but to a lesser degree. I prefer the “active” version as it feels more natural, but you can decide for yourself.
DB Bench Press w/Glute Bridge
If you want to give your whole body a jolt while working your chest, introduce a stability challenge. Bringing your body off of the bench (except for the shoulders) while you press is a great way to work the core and glutes at the same time. These muscle will work to keep you up while you press away with your upper body. Plus, you’ll get a better stretch of the musculature which may enhance hypertrophic gains. This is already a challenging exercise that takes a bit of experience to do correctly, but if you want to turn up the heat, try the single arm version and feel your core light up!
Hammer Strength Chest Press
In general, free weights tend to be more helpful for building muscle and strength compared to machines. But sometimes, a machine is made that is good enough to make it into the rotation. Hammer Strength makes some quality equipment that sort of bridges the gap between machines and free weights. They are plate loaded but are still guided on a pre-set track. This helps you load on a bit more weight without having to worry about looking stupid when you fail. The Hammer Strength Chest Press feels really good as far as muscle activation goes. Plus, the “bar path” they designed into the machine feels more natural than other pieces of equipment. I like this exercise as a bodybuilding focused accessory, or to help novices get stronger and more confident with horizontal pressing.
You may have asked yourself in the past, are dips a chest exercise or a triceps exercise? Well, in actuality they work both muscles pretty handily. This makes them a great substitution for bench press on occasion. This is especially true if you have impressive chest musculature/strength, but need to work more on your triceps. Now, dips are also a bit controversial given the strain they can put on the shoulders. So, if you are someone who suffers from shoulder pain or discomfort, then dips aren’t your best bet. However, for individuals with normal shoulder structure, dips can be a great. You can load them up to get a heavy stimulus going or rep them out with bodyweight alone. Throw these into your next training program and you’re sure to see some impressive gains.
You may remember a time way back when you did pushups in order to jet a jacked upper body. But then, with all the cool equipment and heavy weight you discovered at the gym, you forgot all about them. By now you are probably strong enough to bang out 50+ reps of pushups at once. That makes it a useless exercise, right? Not so fast bro. There are tons of variations you can use to make the pushup a great horizontal pushing exercise. Weighted pushups, deficit pushups, and TRX pushups are just a few of the progressions you can try that will be sure to give you a great pump. Additionally, you can use pushups as a finisher or pre-exhausting exercise to add some variety to your training. Of course, this is one of the best exercises for novices as well. Learning to do a pushup correctly teaches core and shoulder stability that will later translate to other pressing exercises. If needed, regress the pushup to an incline pushup or even a wall pushup.
The beloved bench press is definitely going to stick around for many years to come. People find a lot of joy in pressing heavy weight off of their chests. But sometimes, you need to switch things up if you want to continue progressing. Hitting a few variations of the bench press can serve to break plateaus and spice up your training again. Plus you can save yourself the frustration of waiting for a bench on Mondays. There are countless different exercises you can choose to sub in for the bench press. However, the ones listed in this article are a few of our favorites. Some are more complex than others, so make sure you choose appropriately according to your experience level. Take a few of them for a spin and let us know what you think!