Alternatives to bench press

Oct. 16, 2013 @ 03:36 PM

The bench press is probably the most popular weight training exercise for the upper body. It is such a popular lift that when the question of how much can you lift is asked, most people assume the question is about the bench press.
The bench press is a good exercise to develop the chest, but I do think it is too often used, because there are many exercises that can be used for upper body and chest development. For example, the dumbbell bench press is not as widely used, but this exercise contracts your chest muscles harder because the dumbbells allow for a fuller range of motion than the barbell bench press. Also, using dumbbells requires more core activation of muscles.
I am often asked for ways to bench press more weight. The absolute best way -- and there is not much debate about this -- is to train using the bench press quite a bit. It’s just common sense. If you want to run faster, practice a lot of running; if you want to jump higher, practice jumping.
Of course, there are many exercises and training techniques you can use to supplement these goals, but actually practicing the lift or sport movement is the best way.
Concentrate primarily on the chest (pectoralis major) if you want to become a big bench presser.  But also develop your front shoulders and triceps, as these muscles, including the chest, are the primary muscles you use when you push that heavy barbell off your chest to a straight arm position. Here is a selection of exercises I would recommend to you to increase your strength in the bench press, but I will not describe their execution here since I simply do not have enough space, and also because I have described how to perform some of them in previous columns.

barbell bench press
dumbbell bench press  
machine bench press  
Pec Deck machine  
medicine ball toss
stability ball dumbbell bench press

supine dumbbell extension
standing dumbbell extension
machine triceps extension
medicine ball toss
cable press down

dumbbell seated press
dumbbell seated press
dumbbell front raise
medicine ball underhand toss

I know some of these exercise names may be unfamiliar to you, but most of them are basic exercises that you see done in every gym in the area. It may just be that you or your fellow gym mates call it something different. If you need further clarification, just email or call.
Of course, I would not want you to just train the chest, shoulders and triceps to the exclusion of the rest of your body. Overall muscle balance is very important if your goal is to acquire strength in a specific lift.
For example, your muscles work in tandem with other muscles in your body. When you push a barbell off your chest in the bench press exercise, muscles in your middle and upper back, such as the trapezius and rhomboids, and muscles in the back of your shoulder, stretch to allow this lifting of the barbell. When lowering the bar to your chest, your chest muscle stretches while the back muscles shorten. This is sometimes referred to as muscles agonist-antagonist relationship.  Another example of why you should work your whole body is that strong core muscles are needed to lift heavy weights. The abdominals, for instance, help to stabilize your body as you perform a bench press.
When doing the bench press, use good technique, such as using a controlled, medium speed.  Keep in mind that the faster you lift the less your muscles are stressed. Momentum is more involved when you lift at a high speed, and you basically start to throw the weight more so than actually lift it. Don’t bounce the bar off your chest. This is probably the single most common mistake people make when doing the barbell bench press. Do it the right way; when you bounce it you are not really achieving very much. Also, keep the feet on the floor. This helps to give you more stability on the bench and helps to keep your entire body tight to eliminate unwanted extra motion by the body. Most people will find they have more strength with about a shoulder-width grip, but experiment with this a little to see what best suits you. 

"Cultivate the habit of early rising.  It is unwise to keep the head long on a level with the feet."

-- Henry David Thoreau

Lewis Bowling  teaches at N.C. Central University and Duke University. He is the author of several books on fitness and sports. His website is He can be reached at 919-530-6224 and at