Just like grandma's pavlova recipe and small calves, the belief that the bench press is the champion of chest exercises is something that’s often handed down through generations. By now, bench press has well and truly been written into lifting lore, with a cult-like following sprawled beneath the bar every Monday.
Gym bros will insist you can’t get a pair of button-bursting pecs without benching, but we’d like to debunk this lifting myth. Now before you get your stringers in a knot, hear us out.
To begin with, the bench press is not as effective as you might think in targeting your chest fibers. Because the movement is steered by a barbell, with your hands and elbows fixed in place, bench pressing puts more stress on your front delts and triceps, rather than your chest. For lifters searching for a functional upper body workout, the bench press also offers no improvements in dynamic stability and balance.
The bench press is also one of the biggest causes of injury for lifters, by a large margin. In contrast with other compound and chest exercises, the bench is consistently creating injury wards full of pectoralis major ruptures, chronic elbow pain, rotator cuff injuries and posterior and anterior shoulder dislocations.
Don’t get us wrong, we’re not trying to give the bench press a bad name, and it still has a place in your lifting repertoire. But if you want to buck conventional wisdom for a bigger chest without a barbell in sight, check out these four alternatives!
As the bench press rose to near mythic status, the humble push up was forgotten by many lifters. But a recent study revealed no discernible differences between kinematic and neuromuscular activity between the bench press and push ups.
Worried about not being able to grind out heavy sets of five? While it mightn’t get you the same amount of fist bumps and adoring glances from gym bros, with a weight vest or plate on your back push ups can mimic the same loads and intensities as the bench press. As a closed kinetic chain exercise, push ups are also far more functional, with a lower risk of injury. So next time all of the benches are taken, you can simply drop to the floor and start training!
INCLINE DB PRESS
The Dumbbell press is the safer, more sensible brother of the bench press, with fewer joint consequences compared to the barbell. It’s important to include incline pressing in your chest workouts to target the upper pecs and anterior deltoids, and the incline press offers more recruitment of the pectoralis major and deltoids than any other incline variation like the incline bench or incline smith machine press!
Like the push up, dips are a brutal bodyweight chest-blaster which you can level up with a weight vest or plate. It’s the biomechanical differences which gives dips the edge over bench. When you bench press, your front deltoids receive the same stimulation as the pectoralis major, meaning your much smaller front delts will fatigue well before your pecs, meaning you can’t truly train your pecs to the maximum.
Due to the downward movement, the shoulders aren’t as engaged during dips, and the pecs are isolated in a way that no other compound exercise can offer. Dips also create more functional strength, enabling your shoulders to be strengthened and stretched at the bottom of the movement, increasing flexibility.
STANDING ONE ARM CABLE PRESS
The standing one arm cable press offers a brilliant blend between pure bodybuilding exercise and functional movement. While you can set the weight light enough to bust out reps and burn your muscles, pushing from a standing position will improve your unilateral strength and balance, while training your core and hips more than the bench press, imitating athletic movements.
We know breakups can be tough, but these chest exercises can give lifters the size they’re seeking, with an added element of functionality. If you can’t bear to part ways with your beloved bench press, that’s fine! But think about using these exercises as accessories to replicate some of the specific force production patterns, and watch your benching numbers rise.
BARBELL FREE CHEST WORKOUT
-5 x 5 Push Ups [Weighted]
-4 x 8 Incline DB Press
-4 x 8 Dips [Weighted]
-4 x 10 Standing One Arm Cable Press