For the second installment of my Barbell Substitutes Series, I am going to cover exercises to substitute in if you do not have access to a barbell to do a bench press, or maybe you aren’t comfortable laying under a bar without a spotter. If you haven’t read the first edition of the Barbell Substitute Series you can check it out here.
The bench press is a big compound lift that uses a lot of muscles to perform, the main muscles used to push the bar in the vertical plane of motion are the Pectoralis Major (chest muscle made up of the upper clavicular head, and the middle sternocostal head), Pectoralis Minor (thin triangular muscle making up the lower portion of the chest), Deltoids (shoulder muscles) and Triceps. Other muscles used to stabilize the bar are the Erector Spinae (a group of muscles running the length of the spine), Latissimus Dorsi (large muscles of the back running from the back of the shoulder to the hip) and Rotator Cuff (muscles and tendons that keep the ball of the arm bone in the shoulder socket).
So as you can see the bench press works a lot of your upper body muscles, that is why it is one of the most important weight training exercises that you can do. So are you going to miss out if you don’t have a barbell and a rack to put the bar on?
Not at all, with these barbell substitutes you can get the same results as a traditional bench press and in some cases you will feel more of a contraction in the chest muscles, which is the main area most people are targeting with a bench press.
Dumbbell Bench Press
The most obvious choice for a barbell substitute to the bench press is performing the exercise with dumbbells, kettlebells or even resistance bands anchored under the bench or under your back on the floor.
When performing the bench press lay on your back with your feet still planted on the floor, have a slight arch in your lower back with your shoulder blades pulled down. Don’t shrug your shoulder up and don’t lift your butt off the bench. Hold the weight straight above your collar bone, keep your core and chest engaged, slowly lower the weights at the same time while keeping the chest engaged. Your elbows shouldn’t be pointing perpendicular to your torso, they should be pointing a little toward your feet from perpendicular to prevent rotator cuff injury. At the bottom of the exercise the weights should be lower on your body, closer to your lower chest, pause once your arms are just below a 90 degree angle, do not rest the dumbbells on your chest. Squeeze your chest muscles to drive the weight back up to the starting position.
To get an even better contraction in the chest do a single arm version and when you press the weight up bring it as far across your body as possible, toward the opposite shoulder. This will give you a way stronger contraction than just pressing the weight straight up.
Cable Chest Press
The Cable Chest Press can be performed using a cable machine, resistance bands or a suspension trainer. Stand facing away from the cable machine with a handle in either hand at your side. The pulley should be chest height, bring your arms straight up at your sides with elbows bent and palms facing down. The movement should be executed the same as the dumbbell variation. To do this with a suspension trainer lean forward and move your feet back.
The cable chest press can also be performed as a single arm exercise like the dumbbell variation. To change the focus of this exercise on your chest areas, change the pulley from middle to high to low and move your arms to the opposite height in front of your body.
Cable Chest Flyes
Very similar to the Cable Chest Press setup but this time have your arms straight out to your sides. Keeping the same bend in your elbows and your core engaged through the entire movement. Next squeeze your chest to pull the handles toward each other in front of your body crossing them over as much as possible while flexing the chest muscles. Pause and then in a controlled manner bring your arms back out to your sides, do not allow the weight to pull your arm too far back and cause shoulder pain.
These can also be performed using dumbbells either laying on the floor or on a bench. If doing them on a bench ensure you don’t go so heavy that you can’t lift the weight back up, you can create shoulder pain by going too far down.
The dumbbell pullover is a widely used resistance exercise that primarily strengthens the muscles in the chest and the lats which make it a really good barbell substitute for the bench press.
Lay perpendicular to a bench with your shoulders on the bench and feet planted on the ground in a bridge position. Hold a weight in both hands palms facing up, you can also do this with a resistance band mounted behind you to a low anchor point.
To make the main target the chest, you’ll want to keep your elbows in and your arms as straight as possible during the movement. Lower the weight down as far as you can overhead. Then, reverse the movement by engaging your chest and bringing the weight back up and really flex your chest at the top of the exercise.
Pushups are a great calisthenics body workout that can be done anywhere. You can also change the area of the chest being targeted by either putting your feet up on a bench; or chair, or by putting your hands on the bench with your feet on the ground.
To perform a proper pushup put your hands about shoulder width apart directly under your shoulders in a plank position. Keep your core and leg muscles tight and as you lower your body down to just above the floor allow your body to move forward a bit so your chest ends up next to your hands. Just like the dumbbell press keep your elbows in a bit from perpendicular to your body. When you press back up engage the chest by imagining you are trying to squeeze your hands together, flex your chest at the top.
Dips can be used to target the triceps or the chest depending on your body position and how you allow your elbows to flare during the exercise. For this barbell substitute series we are focusing more toward the chest so I will cover that version, if you are interested in how to change it up to shift the focus to the triceps throw it in the comments below and I would be happy to walk you through it.
Get on to the dip bars with arms fully extended, don’t allow your shoulders to shrug, keep your shoulder blades pulled down. Now keeping your legs straight and feet slightly ahead of your body, bend your torso forward. As you lower your body down allow your elbows to flare outward and not behind you, keep your core tight and torso angled forward throughout the movement. Go down until your elbows are 90 degrees, pause and engage the chest to push yourself back up to the start.
If you don’t have a dip station you could use two taller stools or even two counter tops in the kitchen that are close together. For beginners that may not be able to do many dips a resistance band can be used anchored to the dip station and then to your feet.
Dumbbell Crush Press
A crush press can be done with one or two dumbbells depending on what is available. Lay on a bench or on the floor with the weights in your hands directly above your chest, with two dumbbells keep your palms facing and the dumbbells touching, for a single weight, grip it on the ends with palms facing.
As you lower the weight to your chest keep your shoulders down and together and your core tight. Bring the weight to just above your chest at mid-chest level, now engage the chest and press the weight back up to the starting position. Imagine you are trying to crush the dumbbell with your palms as you press it up and flex the chest as hard as you can at the top.
The crush press is a great barbell substitute finisher exercise, meaning you do this at the end of your chest workout as an isolation exercise to really target the chest.
What are your favourite bench press substitute exercises?
Comment below what you would like to see me cover in the next installment of the barbell substitute series!