Ask almost any bodybuilder to name the best exercise for building a bigger chest, and most of them will tell you it’s the barbell bench press. Since its inception back in the 1940s, the bench press has been regarded as a great chest builder. So much so that, in gyms all around the world, every Monday is Bench Press Day!
There is no denying the popularity of the barbell bench press. After all, it’s part of the sport of powerlifting, and a lot of lifters measure their strength with the bench press. Whether we’re talking a big 1RM or a more moderate weight for reps, the bench press is a universal test of upper body strength.
But, as a muscle builder, the barbell bench press is not always the best choice.
That’s not to say it doesn’t work. Enough bodybuilders have built their pecs with the barbell bench press to suggest it CAN be a productive exercise.
But, depending on how you are made, the bench press could be an ineffectual muscle builder that actually causes more harm than good. So, for example, if you’ve got narrow shoulders, long arms, and/or a shallow chest, the bench press may not suit you very well.
Your genetics and biomechanics (thanks, mom and dad!) could mean that, even if you work up to lifting heavy weights, barbell bench presses may not produce much muscle growth. However, they might wreck your shoulders.
While you could keep on bench pressing in the hope that it’ll suddenly start producing the results you want, the smarter move would be to drop them from your workouts and try something new.
This may come as an emotional blow, and you won’t be able to answer the age-old lifter’s question, “Hey, bro – how much do you bench,” but that’s a small price to pay for renewed pec growth and shoulders that don’t hurt 24/7!
So, in this article, we reveal several exercises that may be better for building a bigger chest than the barbell bench press and a no-bench press workout to try.
Chest Anatomy 101
Before we get into how to build your chest without the barbell bench press, let’s briefly take a look at some basic anatomy of this oh-so-important muscle group.
The pectoralis major is a large, thick, fan-shaped muscle located on the upper part of your chest. Its name comes from the word pectus, which is the Latin word for breast. This muscle makes up the bulk of your chest mass.
The underlying muscle, pectoralis minor, is much thinner and doesn’t contribute much to your chest size. Subsequently, the focus of this article is the pec major.
The pectoralis major is a convergent muscle with three broad attachment sites that come together at a single insertion point. It can be divided into two sections or heads – the clavicular or upper head and the sternal or lower head. The sternal head is also known as the abdominal head (1).
The functions of the pectoralis major are…
The Clavicular head:
- Shoulder flexion
- Horizontal adduction
- Internal rotation
The Sternal head:
- Shoulder extension
- Horizontal adduction
- Internal rotation
The clavicular head of the pectoralis major, often just called the upper pecs, is more active during incline chest exercises, while the sternal head, or lower pecs, is more active during decline movements (2). Because of this, you must train your pecs from multiple angles to develop them fully.
Do you need to be an expert in pec anatomy to build a chest to be proud of?
But it is often helpful to understand these basics so you can choose the best exercise for sculpting the chest of your dreams.
6 Exercises That May Be Better Than Barbell Bench Press
Giving up the barbell bench press, even temporarily, can leave a gaping hole in your workouts. After all, it’s a big part of most chest training programs. Don’t worry, though. There are plenty of exercises that are potentially better chest builders, and that won’t aggravate your shoulders.
1. Floor Press
The floor press is how old-school lifters used to bench press before benches were invented! Doing your presses on the floor means that you cannot descend too far, taking stress off your shoulder joints. However, you can still lift heavy weights to build strength and muscle size.
You can do floor presses with a barbell, but dumbbells are the way to go for an even more shoulder-friendly workout.
2. Chest Dips
There are two ways to do dips – with an upright torso to target your triceps and with more forward lean to work your chest. This is another old-school exercise that predates the bench press by a considerable margin. Dips work your entire chest with an emphasis on the lower pecs.
While the chest dip has a reputation for being hard on the shoulders, that doesn’t have to be the case. You can easily take the stress off your joints by avoiding descending too far. In fact, because your shoulders aren’t restricted by a bench and are free to move naturally, you may even find that dips are more shoulder-friendly than the barbell bench press.
You’ll just have to try them and see!
How to do it:
- Use dipping bars that are wider than shoulder-width apart. The narrower your grip, the less chest engagement there will be.
- Place your hands on the bars with your palms turned inward. Support your weight on straight arms.
- Bend your knees and push your legs and hips as far back as you can. The greater the incline, the more pec activation there will be.
- Bend your arms and descend as far as you can without hurting your shoulders. Get a good stretch in your pecs. Allow your upper arms and elbows to flare outward.
- Extend your elbows and push yourself upward, stopping just short of lockout to keep the tension on your pecs. Push inward as well as downward to maximize pec engagement.
- Descend and repeat.
3. Dumbbell Bench Press
One of the problems with barbell bench presses is that they fix your hands into a pronated or palms-down position, and that can result in increased shoulder stress. Using a neutral grip “football bar” can help, but not all gyms have one, and your hands are still locked into a fixed position.
Using dumbbells instead of a barbell means you can rotate your hands and adjust your range of movement and the travel of the weights according to your biomechanical needs. This makes for a much more shoulder-friendly workout.
And yet, despite these benefits, the dumbbell bench press is still a potent chest builder. Because you need to control two weights instead of one, there’s lots of pec engagement, and you can also do flat, incline, or decline dumbbell bench presses to hit all parts of your chest.
The only real downside to using dumbbells instead of a barbell is getting the weights into the correct starting position. But, with practice, you should find you can pull this off with weights that are plenty heavy enough to build muscle.
Here’s one way to do it:
The great thing about push-ups is, with no bench behind your shoulders, your scapulae are free to move naturally, eliminating one of the main sources of bench press shoulder pain.
A lot of bodybuilders think they’ve outgrown push-ups. But even very strong lifters can get a great chest workout from this exercise.
Simply using a slower tempo, adding mid-rep pauses, raising your feet, wearing a weighted vest, or holding a resistance band behind your back will make push-ups challenging enough to build serious muscle.
You can also progress to doing push-ups with a suspension trainer or gymnastic rings.
5. Close Grip Dumbbell Bench Press
While you are undoubtedly familiar with close grip barbell bench presses, you may not have seen or heard of the dumbbell variation. When you do close grip dumbbell bench presses, you push the weights together, which increases pec engagement. It also puts your shoulders in a very joint-friendly position.
Also known as a squeeze press, this exercise can be done on a flat, incline, or decline bench to work your mid, upper, or lower chest as needed.
6. Cable Crossovers
Cable crossovers are often viewed as a pec-shaping exercise best done near the end of your chest workout. However, the reality is that crossovers can also be an effective and shoulder-friendly muscle builder.
With cable crossovers, you can take your shoulders through an extensive but comfortable range of movement, and your scapulae are free to move naturally. Also, you can adjust the angle of your arms to hit your upper, mid, or lower chest as required.
The No-Bench Press Workout for a Bigger Chest
While you could just do a few of these exercises and hope your chest grows, you’ll get better results if you follow a more structured workout. To save you from writing your own bodybuilding, no-bench press chest workout, here’s a ready-made one to try.
Do it once a week if you are mostly happy with your chest development, or double up and do it twice a week if your pecs need a boost. If you do decide to train your chest twice weekly, do so on non-consecutive days, e.g., Monday and Thursday.
Of course, before you start this or any other workout, make sure you prepare your joints and muscles by warming up. Begin with 5-10 minutes of cardio, preferably with an upper-body component such as rowing or an assault bike, followed by a few dynamic mobility and flexibility exercises for your upper body.
Finish off your warm-up with 50-100 reps of light resistance band pull-aparts to increase shoulder stability.
|Incline dumbbell bench press
|Close grip dumbbell bench press
Get the most from this workout by not just doing each exercise correctly but also following these guidelines…
1. Floor Press
Floor presses are your “go heavy or go home” chest exercise. Sets of 6-8 will build strength and muscle thickness. Do four sets, trying to increase the weight a little each time, e.g.:
- 8 reps 160lbs
- 7 reps 170lbs
- 6 reps 180lbs
- 6 reps 185lbs
Take care to lower the weight under control to avoid bouncing your upper arms off the floor and shock-loading your wrists and forearms.
2. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
Hitting your upper chest, incline dumbbell presses are best done using moderately heavy weights and medium reps. As you are well warmed up, you can use the same weight for all three sets.
Lower the weights slowly, stretch your pecs, and then drive the weights up explosively to maximize muscle engagement.
3a & 3B Cable Crossover/Decline Push-up
The next two exercises are to be done as a superset. This means you do exercise 3a and then immediately do 3b. Rest around 90 seconds and then repeat the pairing twice more to make three supersets. For the push-ups, just do as many reps as you can, designated AMRAP on the workout chart.
Minimize the time it takes to transition from cable crossovers to decline push-ups by taking a bench/step over to the cable crossover machine.
4. Close Grip Dumbbell Bench Press
Your pecs should be feeling pumped and fatigued, so don’t go too heavy with this next exercise. Instead, focus more on pressing the weights together as hard as you can throughout your set. You won’t get much of a pec stretch during this exercise, but that’s more than made up for by the intense pec contraction.
5. Chest Dips
The final exercise in this no-bench press chest workout is dips. But, instead of doing a specific number of sets and reps, your job is to pump out 50 reps in as few sets as possible. Remember to extend your legs out behind you and lean forward to fully engage your pecs.
Saying that the bench press isn’t always the best chest exercise may seem sacrilegious. But, while it can work perfectly well for some people, it may not be the best option for others.
Some lifters simply aren’t built to bench press. And wasting time on an unproductive exercise could end up stalling your gains and may even lead to joint pain and injuries.
The good news is that, unless you are a powerlifter, the bench press is not compulsory, and you can do plenty of other exercises instead.
Of course, if the bench press works for you, there is no need to drop it from your workouts; if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it.
But, if you’ve been spending a lot of time under the bench press bar and have no muscle growth to show for it, it’s time to try something new. After all, the very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result!
1 – Encyclopedia Britannica: Pectoralis muscle https://www.britannica.com/science/pectoralis-muscle
2 – PubMed: An electromyography analysis of 3 muscles surrounding the shoulder joint during the performance of a chest press exercise at several angles https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20512064/