The barbell bench press is two things: Very popular and very unforgiving.
We all know that it’s the most glamourized movement in the entire weight room. And no matter what happens to revolutionize the industry, we can rest assured that it’s not going anywhere as far as popularity is concerned.
With that said, it’s worthwhile to acknowledge that everyone’s not built for the movement.
Thanks to constantly force-feeding the pattern to joints that can’t quite handle it, many lifters develop a host of shoulder, elbow and wrist issues that they can’t seem to overcome.
The trick is to find a way to treat your joints better while bearing load and training the chest and triceps.
For many, the barbell bench press may be a tough exercise to part ways with - due to the emotional attachment one has created with the movement.
However, these alternative options can deliver just as great a pump and increase strength just as much, with few compromises.
1. Pin Press
Stopping just shy of full range of motion can be a massive shoulder-saver since bottom end ranges are often a place where shoulders slide out of position under load and endure the most stress.
That’s what makes the pin press such an effective movement. On top of this, letting the bar fall to pins allows you to increase your training volume since you can let go of the negative rep and let the bar come down hard.
Eliminating the eccentric rep will keep you fresher for more heavy concentric efforts.
2. Floor Press
Similar to the pin press, floor press allows you to use dumbbells and a neutral grip if desired.
This time, however, the negative rep is still regarded, due to the fact that the elbows travel all the way to the floor first, and the dumbbells have no place to “rest”.
There’s still a measure of wrist stability that needs to be acknowledged, so as to avoid the weights crashing down laterally or medially.
3. Dumbbell Press
Speaking of dumbbells, it goes without saying that doing dumbbell presses, especially on a low incline, can be a saving grace for both the shoulder and elbow joints.
The reason why is because they allow you to manipulate your elbow and wrist position to find the humeral angle that best suits your anthropometry.
Movements like the Key Press are so effective because the full turn that the hands make with the dumbbells allow the head of the humerus to rotate behind the collarbone, where it belongs. Though not as severe, basic dumbbell presses allow for the same thing to be achieved.
4. Football Bar Press
If you’re still a die-hard for using a bar of some sort, then get your hands on a football bar, which has a variety of neutral grip setups to choose from, ranging from narrow to standard width.
Despite being a few pounds heavier than a conventional Olympic bar, it’s a worthy trade-off when considering the amount of shoulder stress you’ve just salvaged by making the switch. If you’re fortunate enough to belong to a gym that has these, take advantage of them, and your shoulders will thank you again and again.
5. Smith Machine Press
We’ve talked about changing the hand and elbow position a lot so far, but there’s a hack that is worth mentioning here that we haven’t mentioned: Instead of messing with the arms or hands, fix the bar path.
A traditional barbell bench press involves plenty of stabilizing muscles to enter the picture to steady the bar. That makes the rotator cuff work overtime and is completely contingent on a strong upper back and scapular musculature.
Using a Smith machine to do your presses drastically reduces the amount of reliance on the rotator cuff, and therefore allows the chest and triceps to work harder, and repeatedly taps into the same motor units to boot, due to the fixed nature of the lift.
If you’re after hypertrophy, this is a smart call to add to your workout routines – whether you’re injured or not.
6. Weighted Dips
Now we’re talking.
I consider this one of the kings of upper body movement patterns that is sorely underappreciated. Weighted dips take advantage of a neutral grip for safe shoulders, are not compressive on the spine, and absolutely hammer the chest and triceps when done correctly and with full range of motion.
If you’re looking to depart from bench press variations altogether, then this would be my first recommendation as a worthy substitute. As a bonus, dips involve much more of the body than any of the above movements, including your core and upper back. If you want to turn into a beast, it’s imperative you become good at this movement.
7. Ring Push Ups
I made sure to include push up variations to the list, due to a very important distinction: Scapular mobility. This gets detailed, but it’s a science lesson you need to hear.
A healthy shoulder girdle requires good scapulohumeral rhythm. That’s a fancy word that simply means that in a relative sense, your shoulder blade needs to move when your upper arm moves. If it stays still while your arm moves, you’re going to run into shoulder problems, guaranteed.
Since you’re lying on your back during a bench press (and ideally pinning your shoulder blades together for a safe pattern), your shoulder blades don’t have the chance to move at all as the body goes through the lift. Not too healthy.
Turning to face down while doing push ups solves this problem completely since the shoulder blades can move forward, around the ribcage as the push up nears completion. This activates the serratus muscles which are a key player in that same scapular mobility.
Adding rings or a TRX to the picture also creates another layer, as now a lifter can play with elbow and hand position just like s/he would be able to during dumbbell presses. That’s what I call bang for your buck.
It’s ok if the bench press isn’t in your program in its conventional, meathead bro form. As long as you’re not a competing powerlifter, you won’t lose points for taking a break from it to spare your shoulders any more stress before they explode.
Try one of these alternatives for the short term or the long term. It could be exactly what the doctor ordered to keep your training sustainable, and more importantly, to help you see long-term gains.