Upper Body Alternatives to Your Favorite Gym Machines (Plus Free Workout!)

Roger “Rock” Lockridge
Written By: Roger “Rock” Lockridge
February 22nd, 2021
Categories: Articles Training
7.8K Reads
Muscular man doing barbell rows in gym setting.
Don't have access to your favorite upper body gym machines but still want to hit your favorite upper body workout? Check out these band, barbell, and dumbbell alternatives!

Getting the motivation to train at home can be tricky. You’re not at the gym surrounded by other people training with the machines that you like to use. As a result, you might need to take extra time to talk yourself into going through with the workout with the options you have available.

You should reconsider this mindset. The same people may not be there, but you can put on your music and create the environment you want to train in. As for the machines, you aren’t as limited as you think you are. The machines may not be in your training space, but you can create substitutions with either barbells, dumbbells, or bands. Some of these may require a bench or chair as well.

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Don’t believe me? Then go check out the lower body alternatives to your favorite gym exercises that were shared here on M&S. For further evidence, we’ve done the same with the upper body. What follows here are six alternatives to some of the more popular machines that may reside in your local fitness center. As an added bonus, there is even be a sample workout for you to take these exercises for a test spin.

Chest – Seated Chest Press Machine

Doing chest presses from a seated position can help you isolate the pecs and minimize the use of the delts since you’re pressing horizontally. The squeeze at the top with the stretch at the bottom allows you to achieve a good pump in the pecs immediately.

Substitution: Seated Banded Chest Press

For the seated banded chest press, sit on a bench with the seat vertical or on a chair. Take the band and wrap it around the back of the seat you’re sitting in. Hold an end of the band in each hand. While sitting upright, stick your chest out. Press the ends of the band straight out in front of you, contracting the pecs. Squeeze the pecs at the top. Slowly bring your hands back in to the starting position.

The band will expand as you press, making your chest work harder. As you lower your hands, the band will decrease in tension, resulting in less pressure on your shoulder.

Back – Seated Low Cable Row

This seated cable row has you sitting on the seat leaning forward slightly with the handles in a lower position. As you grab the handles and pull in, the muscles in the upper back contract. If you have a pair of dumbbells and an adjustable bench, you have your alternative.

Substitution: Incline Bench Two Arm Row

For the incline bench two arm row, set the angle of your bench to a 45 degree position. Place your chest on the bench with your feet behind you on the floor. You should be holding a dumbbell in each hand. Have your arms down in front of you. This is the starting position.

Now you get a choice. You can either pull one arm up or both at the same time. Either way, squeeze the upper back as hard as you can once you row the weights up. Slowly lower the weight and return to the starting position. You should be able to stretch the back at the bottom of the movement.

You can either alternate arms, perform all of them on one side before the other, or go with both simultaneously. Going one at a time allows for greater isolation while using both sides can help you save time.

Shoulders – Face Pull

The face pull has become one of the most popular cable movements for the rear delts because of how well you can contract the muscles without placing unnecessary stress on the shoulder joint. For this movement, we have two substitutions for you to consider.

Substitution #1: Bent-Over Rear Delt Barbell Row

This one requires a barbell. Place it on the floor in front of you. For the bent-over rear delt barbell row, bend over at a 90-degree angle and place your hands on the bar a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Row the barbell up like you would a traditional barbell row, but pull it up to your chest instead of your belly-button or waist. Doing this can help place more emphasis on the rear delts. Lower the bar under control back to the floor and repeat.

Substitution #2: Single Arm Banded Face Pull

This movement is similar to the banded face pull, but you'll only be using one arm at a time. Wrap a band around the top of a rack or solid object. Feed one end of the band into the loop of the other end. Take the long end of the band in your right hand and step back until the band stretches. Pull your hand back towards your face and behind your head as far as you can while keeping your elbow elevated. Squeeze the rear delt as hard as you can. Return to the starting position. This is one rep. Repeat for the desired reps, and do the same for the other side.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Face Pulls: How, When & Why to Perform Them

Biceps – Preacher Curl Machine

Modern preacher curl machines allow you to focus on using one arm at a time to target each side. Some of them even allow the handle to turn so it can mimic a concentration curl. The substitution for this one is an old-school favorite.

Substitution: Dumbbell Preacher Curl

For the dumbbell preacher curl, hold a dumbbell in your hand and stand at an angled bench with your upper arm lying on the bench. Lower the dumbbell so your arm straightens. Using the biceps, curl the weight up until the bicep flexes. Slightly turn the dumbbell so your pinky finger is higher than your thumb. This places an extra twist on the contraction. This is one rep. Lower the dumbbell again slowly and repeat for the desired reps. Do the same reps with the other arm.

Want even more tension? Place one end of a band around a heavy dumbbell or solid object. Hold the other in your hand along with the dumbbell. Now the band will add tension as you curl the dumbbell. This can be a way to add resistance if you only have light dumbbells.

Triceps – Overhead Rope Extension

The perk to the overhead tricep extension is that you have the rope that can be pulled apart for a greater contraction at the top of the exercise. You also can achieve a better stretch when the arms go back. The dumbbells and a flat bench will serve you well here.

Substitution: Twisted Lying Dumbbell Extensions

For the twisted lying dumbbell extensions, lie back on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Your head should be at the end of the bench. Bend the elbows and lower the dumbbells as far behind your head as you safely can. Turn your hands outward as the weights go behind your head.

Slowly press the dumbbells back up until your arms are completely vertical. Turn your hands the opposite way while doing so. At the top, your palms should be facing away from you and your triceps should be completely contracted. This is one rep. Repeat for your desired number of reps.

Sample Upper Body Workout

You can use this workout as a test drive for each of these movements until you’re well-acquainted with them. Once you feel good about using them, you can plug them into your routine as you see fit.

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
Bent-Over Rear Delt Barbell Row or Single Arm Banded Face Pull 3 12-15 45-60 seconds
Seated Banded Chest Press 3 12-15 45-60 seconds
Incline Bench Two Arm Row 3 12-15 45-60 seconds
Twisted Lying Dumbbell Extensions 3 12-15 45-60 seconds
Dumbbell Preacher Curl 3 12-15 45-60 seconds