The barbell bench press is THE classic strength training exercise. Bodybuilders use it to build bigger pecs, and it’s the second lift contested in the sport of powerlifting. It’s such a popular exercise that, in most gyms, Monday is designated as National Bench Press Day. The barbell bench press is more than an exercise; it’s an institution.
Bench presses are even familiar to a lot of non-gym-goers. As soon as someone discovers you like to work out, invariably, they’ll ask the question, “so, how much can you bench?”
But, as great as the conventional bench press is, it does have its limitations. For starters, for some exercisers, it’s just not that good a chest exercise. If you’ve got short arms and a barrel-shaped torso, your range of movement may be too small to provide a decent pec workout.
Plus, if all you ever do is bench presses, your muscles will soon adapt, and it will cease to be such a productive exercise.
The good news is that there are lots of bench press variations you can use to keep your workouts fresh and productive. We’re not talking dumbbell alternatives here, but different ways to bench press with a barbell.
So, if you’re bored of bench presses or simply don’t find the plain vanilla version all that productive, try these 15 variations instead.
Not yet mastered the bench press? Check out this in-depth guide and become a bench press expert by Enrico Fioranelli C.S.C.S!
15 Best Barbell Bench Press Variations
Whether you want to build muscle or increase your bench press 1RM, these bench press variations will help. Use them in place of standard bench presses or as a secondary assistance exercise after your main bench press workout. Or, if you train your chest twice a week, use your choice of alternatives to make up your second workout.
1. Paused Bench Press
This exercise provides a simple but effective way to add some variation to your bench press workouts. Pausing mid-rep increases time under tension, which is good for hypertrophy. It also eliminates momentum and reduces the effect of the stretch reflex, and that’s useful for building strength.
How to do it:
- Lie on your bench with your eyes beneath the bar. Plant your feet firmly on the floor. Brace your abs. Reach up and grab the bar with an overhead, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Pull your shoulders down and back.
- Un-rack the bar and hold it over your chest. Bend your arms and lower the bar under control to your sternum. Pause for 2-5 seconds without relaxing or resting the bar on your chest.
- After your pause, drive the bar up as powerfully as you can and then repeat.
- You can apply this pausing method to many of the following bench press variations.
2. Guillotine Bench Press
Also known as the Gironda neck press, the guillotine bench press was a favorite of Vince Gironda, the “Iron Guru.” Gironda was one of the first celebrity fitness trainers and worked with many actors and bodybuilders, including Clint Eastwood, Cher, and Mr. Olympia Larry Scott.
This bench press variation involves lowering the bar (carefully!) to your neck instead of your chest. This increases the range of motion and also boosts upper pec activation. Needless to say, you MUST lower the bar slowly when doing this exercise to avoid what would be a very serious accident.
Guillotine presses can also be done using an incline or decline bench.
3. Bench press with bands/chains
Bench pressing with bands or chains increases the resistance as the bar nears the top of each rep, i.e., as you approach lockout. This increases the tension on your triceps and encourages you to drive the bar up powerfully off your chest, teaching you to use speed to blast through your sticking points.
Bands and chains work in more or less the same way, but bands are invariably cheaper and lighter, so you can buy a set and keep them in your gym bag. However, if your gym has them, nothing feels as badass as benching against a heavy set of chains!
You can use bands or chains in conjunction with many of the other bench press variations in this article.
4. Unbalanced Bench Press
For this variation, all you need to do is put slightly more weight on one end of the bar – no more than about 5-10 pounds. This will overload one arm and also force you to stabilize your core more strongly. Make sure you swap sides set by set to avoid any strength imbalances.
This exercise DOES feel weird the first time you do it, but you will feel a lot more stable when you return to regular barbell bench presses. Work hard to keep the bar level, despite the weight disparity.
You can also do this exercise on an incline or decline bench if preferred.
5. Floor Press
Okay, the floor press isn’t strictly a bench press variation because it doesn’t require a bench, but it’s such a useful exercise that we couldn’t leave it out of this article! As the name suggests, this exercise is done while lying on the floor.
This reduces your range of motion, which makes it a little more shoulder-friendly than regular bench presses. It’s also useful for overloading your triceps. The floor press is also ideal for home and garage gym trainers who don’t have space or want to buy a workout bench.
6. Spoto Bench Press
The Spoto bench press is named after champion powerlifter and arm-wrestler Eric Spoto. Like exercise #1, the Spoto press involves a mid-rep pause. However, for this exercise, you stop the bar 3-6” above your chest instead of touching it.
The Spoto press increases time under tension for hypertrophy and also breaks up the eccentric/concentric contraction cycle, which means you have to work harder to drive the weight back up. This is useful for developing strength and power.
7. Reverse Grip Bench Press
The reverse grip bench press is exactly like it sounds – bench presses done with your hands supinated (palms up) instead of pronated (palms down). Some lifters find this variation more shoulder-friendly than regular barbell bench presses, and it increases triceps activation too. This variation also increases tension on the upper pecs.
How to do it:
- Lie on your bench with your eyes beneath the bar. Plant your feet firmly on the floor. Brace your abs. Reach up and grab the bar with an underhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Pull your shoulders down and back.
- Unrack the bar, bend your arms and lower it to your sternum. Your elbows will naturally come in toward your ribs as you descend.
- Drive the bar back up and repeat.
You can do reverse grip bench presses on an incline or decline bench for even more variety.
8. Narrow Grip Bench Press
Narrow grip bench presses increase triceps activation. With your hands closer together, your elbows are forced to work through a larger range of motion, which means that they have to work harder than usual.
Your pecs are still involved in this exercise, but not as much as with regular bench presses. Some lifters also find narrow grip bench presses easier on their shoulders.
9. Board Press
Powerlifters use board presses to work on their outer range of motion. With board presses, the lifter lowers the bar to touch a board on their chest before driving it back up.
This exercise is beneficial for powerlifters who use bench pressing shirts. Bench pressing shirts are designed to help lift the weight off your chest. Using a board in training allows you to work in the same range as motion.
You can use anywhere between 1-5 boards for board presses. Each board is around two inches thick. There are specially made boards available, but you can also make your own from planks of wood.
To do board presses, bench press as usual but lower the bar to lightly touch the board(s) resting on your chest. Drive the bar back up and repeat. The boards can be held in place by a training partner or a resistance band around your chest if you are training alone.
10. 1 ½ Rep Bench Press
1 ½ reps is a training system designed to increase time under tension, which is useful for hypertrophy. This method makes light weights feel considerably heavier, so it’s also helpful for building muscle size and strength without resorting to really heavy loads. That’s good news if heavy bench pressing hurts your shoulders or elbows.
There are two ways to do 1 ½ rep bench presses: upper rep emphasis or lower rep emphasis.
The upper rep emphasis method increases triceps activation. To do this variation, lower the bar to your chest as usual and then drive it back up. Next, lower the bar just halfway down and then push it up again. That’s one rep.
The lower rep emphasis method increases chest activation. Unrack the bar and lower it to your chest. Push it halfway up, and then lower it to your chest again. Push the bar all the way up to lockout and then repeat.
11. Incline Bench Press
While the incline bench press is a well-known exercise, many lifters treat it as a secondary or assistance movement rather than a primary one. That’s a shame because it’s arguably the better pec builder.
Incline bench presses increase the range of motion at the shoulder joint, which provides more work for the chest. Plus, the incline bench increases activation of the clavicular head of the pecs – the upper chest. A lot of exercisers have underdeveloped upper pecs.
Swapping regular bench presses for incline bench presses could have a significant impact on the shape of your pecs. However, this variation may also increase shoulder joint stress, so use it cautiously.
12. Decline Bench Press
If flat and incline bench presses hurt your shoulders, you may find some relief if you switch to decline bench presses.
The decline position reduces your range of motion and also negates the need to arch your lower back, taking stress off that part of your body too. Some exercisers also find they can decline bench press heavier weights, making them useful for building strength.
The main difference between flat, incline, and decline bench presses is that this variation increases lower pec activation. Many exercisers rely on dips to work their lower pecs, but that movement is notoriously hard on the shoulders. Decline bench presses are a much more shoulder-friendly alternative.
13. 3 Count Eccentric Bench Press
A lot of benchers lower the bar very fast and then all-but bounce it off their chests. While such a maneuver may allow you to lift more weight or complete more reps, it’s basically a form of cheating and actually takes stress off the target muscles. It’s also VERY dangerous for your sternum, ribs, and shoulders.
Instead of seeing how fast you can drop the bar, try lowering it extra-slow. 3-count eccentric bench presses force you to lower the bar under control, increasing time under tension.
To do this simple variation, unrack the bar as usual and then lower it to your chest for a slow count of three. You can then either pause and press or touch and go as preferred. With touch and go bench presses, there is no noticeable pause between the eccentric and concentric portions of the lift.
A slow eccentric also means that you’ll get a better workout from lighter weights, which is useful if heavy loads hurt your joints.
14. Kettlebell Bench Press
The bench press is an inherently stable exercise. The bar is free to move in any direction, so you still have to work hard to keep it balanced and in the correct movement path, but the bench doesn’t wobble, and the bar shouldn’t either.
That all changes with this variation. Instead (or as well as) of using weight plates, you hang kettlebells from your barbell. The weights will move as you train, forcing you to work much harder on stabilizing the load. This is a useful rehab exercise after a shoulder injury and will also improve your regular bench press technique.
To do this exercise, simply hang kettlebells from your bar, using collars to stop them from sliding off the ends. Alternatively, you can suspend your kettlebells using resistance bands, which will create an even more unstable load.
15. Stability Ball Bench Press
No bench? Don’t like floor presses? No problem! You can do bench presses using a stability ball instead. This exercise allows your shoulders to move naturally as you lower the bar, which may help reduce shoulder joint pain. You’ll also need to use your legs and core to stabilize the weight, making this more of a full-body exercise.
Needless to say, before doing this exercise, you should check your stability ball and make sure it is free from damage and strong enough to support you and the weight you are training with. If possible, also use a non-burst ball, which will deflate slowly if it fails. For added safety, this bench press variation is best done in a power rack.
How to do it:
- Sit on the ball and then walk your feet forward. Lean back and keep moving your feet until the ball is behind your shoulders and head. Contract your legs, glutes, and abs to stabilize your lower body. Your knees, hips, and shoulders should form a straight line. Move your feet outward to increase lateral stability.
- Grab the bar with your preferred grip and pull your shoulders down and back. Unrack the bar and hold it over your chest.
- Bend your arms and lower the bar slowly to your chest. Slower movements will help stop you from wobbling so much.
- Press the bar back up and repeat.
- Remember to keep your lower body tight throughout to maintain stability.
At Fitness Volt, we’ve got a whole lot of love for the classic bench press. But, while we love this exercise, we don’t want to marry it! After all, there are so many exciting, unusual, and challenging variations to try. Why settle for just one?
You don’t have to quit regular bench presses, but you don’t have to form an unbreakable bond with them either. Breathe new life into your upper body workouts with any of these barbell bench press alternatives.