The barbell bench press is one of the most common and popular exercises that you can do. From a powerlifting staple for upper body strength, NFL & NBA draft strength test and average gym goers queuing to use it on chest mondays it’s clear that the bench press is seen as a bit of an ultimate exercise for the upper body.
There is no denying that it is an exercise and movement with multiple benefits and that is because it’s classed as one of major compound exercises. This is an exercise that uses multiple muscle groups and joints and is in the same bracket as other staple movements like the squat, deadlift and overhead press.
While it’s true that the bench press is a great exercise there are two issues that people struggle with and that is that they don’t know what to do when a bench press isn’t available and also there are those that get stronger on the bench press but see little chest development despite this.
Therefore it’s important to know how to work chest without bench pressing but also (and more importantly) that the bench press isn’t the optimal exercise for chest growth and development.
How to work chest without bench pressing? To work the chest without bench pressing you should master bodyweight movements like push ups and dips, use a dumbbell press as your primary chest exercise due to the increased range of motion offered over a standard bench press and finally a floor press to minimize anterior delt involvement.
In this article I’ll give you a full run down on why you are holding your chest development back by focusing on the bench press too much and how you can utilize exercises that will actually engage the pecs more.
Is Bench Press the Best Chest Exercise
While the bench press is one of the best exercises for building upper body strength and muscle mass it is not necessarily the best exercise for engaging your chest.
In fact, you will likely find that once people get past the beginner stage of training and become aware of muscle contractions they tend to find that they are struggling to actually feel their chest working during the bench press.
While this is often the case I’m not saying that the bench press doesn’t work your chest, a lot of people struggle feel certain muscle groups in their legs working during a squat but the capacity to add a lot of weight to the bar means you will still build your legs by getting stronger over time.
The same is true with the chest, the potential weight that you can lift with the bench press means that you will be overloading the pecs even if you don’t necessarily ‘feel’ it working.
Where the issue lies however is that for a lot of people depending on your individual characteristics and how active your secondary muscles are (triceps and front delts) you might find that you work your chest less over time.
The range of motion for the chest on a bench press is also heavily restricted and working your muscle through a full range of motion (and overloading this ROM over time) is what will lead to maximum muscle growth.
Therefore whilst the bench press is a great exercise it’s not necessarily the best chest exercise.
Can You Build Your Chest Without Bench Press
I think It’s clear what direction I’m going with here, not only can you build your chest without bench pressing but the bench press might actually be holding your chest development back.
On a very basic level when it comes to muscle development you need to have a few factors present for growth:
- An ability to place a load/tension on a muscle to create metabolic stress
- An ability to progressively increase this load/tension over time
- An ability to work a muscle through its full contractile range of motion
The first two are very basic principles that even people who don’t go the gym or workout can understand. When you pick up a weight and put it back down a repeated number of times then this leads to muscle growth.
Again that is about as basic as an example as you will ever read, there is of course much more that goes into it but if you do your reps and get stronger over time then you will build muscle.
The third point is the one most relevant to this section and that is taking a muscle through its full contractile range of motion. The best example I can give for this is when training your biceps.
Each muscle has different functions so without being too technical, a good example is the standard barbell or dumbbell bicep curl. For everyone the sticking point during this movement is the mid portion of the rep, at the top and bottom of the rep there is minimal tension.
This is the strength curve of a movement and if you only ever train in this range then you won’t fully recruit your muscle fibres and will never develop your bicep to its full potential.
An incline dumbbell curl will work your bicep in the fully lengthened position and overload the long head of the bicep whilst a preacher curl will work your bicep in the fully shortened position and overload the short head of the bicep.
For a more detailed look into training the strength curves of a muscle group I’d highly recommend checking out Joe Bennet (The Hypertrophy Coach), he specializes in this aspect and as the name suggests, muscle growth.
My point is that the bench press is similar to a bicep curl in that the sticking point is the mid portion of the movement. At the bottom of the rep (bar touching chest) the pec may be stretched but for most the front delt and rotator cuff will pick up some of the work and at the top of the movement your triceps will take over for lockout.
It’s very difficult to change the mechanics of this exercise when using a fixed bar and therefore there are actually exercises that are better suited for isolating the chest but also allow you to get stronger over time.
How to Work Chest Without Bench Pressing
To work the chest without bench pressing you will need to focus on ways to work the chest through its full contractile range of motion.
I also don’t mean that you need to fully isolate the muscle and focus only on dumbbell flyes. Sure a fly will allow a greater stretch and contraction for the chest but compound movements have much more potential for the amount of weight you can lift and progressive overload is key for muscle growth.
Note – you can still use progressive overload for isolation exercises
What you instead need to look at is exercises that will work the chest through a greater range of motion but still utilize multiple joints and muscle groups.
I’m not saying that you need to omit the bench press from your routine but if you are struggling to feel your chest working during the bench press then it is essential that you can utilize other exercises.
What Are the Best Exercises to Replace Bench Press
None of the exercises that I’m about to recommend are groundbreaking or advanced by any stretch and it’s likely that you are already including some of these in your current workout routine.
What is going to be important is how you can change your mindset around these exercises that some might consider to be inferior to the bench press and actually start to use them for their pec building potential instead.
The key is going to be prioritising one of these exercises, learning to feel the tension specifically on the pecs and then getting incredibly strong in them over time.
Dumbbell Chest Press
In my opinion the dumbbell chest press is a far superior exercise to the bench press when it comes to overall chest development. It’s very rare that I’d even make a definitive claim like this however the dumbbell chest press allows you to work the pecs through a greater range of motion while also having a high potential for the weight you can lift.
While it of course won’t offer the same weight potential as a standard bench press you can often lift around 90% of your bench press numbers but place a greater amount of tension on the chest in the process.
What makes the dumbbell chest press such a great chest developer? Range of motion is key here, during a barbell bench press the bar moves in a fixed pattern and you are limited with your ROM as the bar hits your chest.
With the dumbbell variation not only can you lower the weight further creating a greater stretch for the pecs but at the top of the movement you can bring your forearms/upper arms closer together meaning you work the chest in a more shortened position.
As mentioned earlier it’s important to hit both the lengthened and shortened range of a muscle and for the pecs a fully shortened pec occurs when your arm crosses over your chest when extended. To test this simply hold your arm out in front of you as though you are holding a bar in a bench press position.
Now simply move your arm across your body whilst squeezing your chest muscle, you should feel the contraction get tighter the further across your body and this is why a cable crossover is a good isolation exercise as it targets the shortened range of the chest.
With a dumbbell you can also significantly reduce tricep engagement and to an extent the involvement of your front delt. When all these factors are combined you can see why the dumbbell press is a great exercise purely to target the pecs.
The floor press isn’t a very common exercise and you won’t see it performed in most gyms. The floor press can use a dumbbell or barbell to initiate the bench press variations and the only difference being that you press from the floor.
A floor press actually decreases your range of motion so you might be wondering how this can possibly be a good exercise to target the chest, especially as it goes against some of the points above.
The reason the floor press is a great exercise for targeting the chest is because it takes the front delt and rotator cuff out of the movement to a greater degree and allows you to overload the pecs with potentially more weight.
** It’s important to note that for safety reasons you should perform this exercise with a spotter or opt for the dumbbell variation so that you can safely drop the weight to your side if you reach technical muscle failure.
Pressing from pins and rack pulls are similar exercises in which you reduce the range of motion but also take certain muscle groups out of the movement in order to overload the primary muscle group. A rack pull has a lessened range of motion than the deadlift but you can actually use more weight while taking the lower body out of the movement in order to overload your back muscles.
It’s a great way to increase your muscle fibre recruitment and increase the strength of a particular muscle group and the floor press works in a similar way.
By reducing the involvement of your shoulders and increasing your ability to lift more weight through a shorter range of motion you can overload the top end of the movement to increase muscle hypertrophy and strength.
This only thing to be aware of is that this will also increase your tricep activation and involvement so even though you are reducing the use of the shoulders your tricep will pick up so of the additional work. With that said it’s still a great chest builder.
Mastering your body weight against gravity is a way to build functional strength and improve the strength of stabilizing muscles in the process.
The pull up is considered a major back building exercise alongside the row and deadlift despite the fact that most people can handle more weight through a lat pulldown. If you can’t master body weight for an exercise (squat, pull up, push up, dip) then you have no right loading that movement and muscle with additional weight.
Mastering body weight should always be a start and the reason I prefer the dip to a push up for chest development is because the dip places the pec in a stretched position but also works the pec minor, and often overlooked muscle group that contributes to chest development.
The other great thing about a dip is that once you master body weight you can simply use a dipping belt to continue to add weight each week or hold a dumbbell between your legs if you don’t have access to a dipping belt.
Exercises that allow you to add more weight mean that you have a greater potential for muscle growth for the specific muscle group. With a dip you need to not only consider that you could be dipping your body weight at 200lbs as an example but that you can then add your way up to 45lb plates on top of this over time.
While it’s true that the triceps and front delts will be active again during this movement there is no denying that a movement that allows you to lift >200lb is going to be a great mass builder.
The key is to take a wider grip (slightly wider than shoulder width, you don’t need to go too extreme) and lean forward whilst also bringing your knees forward so that your body resembles a ‘C’ shape. This will shift the tension towards the pecs and lessen the involvement of your secondary muscle groups.
As you can see I’ve not included any fly exercises or other isolation exercises as I’d assume that you are already including these in your chest routine. Instead I’ve provided some genuine alternatives to the chest press which are not only good exercises in their own right but are also excellent for working the chest.
If you are someone that struggles to feel your chest working during a bench press then you are not alone, the exercises above will help you to overload the pecs whilst also allowing you to still lift some heavy weight in the process.
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