The Best Chest Exercise – NOT the Bench Press?

When you think of the best chest exercises, the bench press is what usually comes to mind. But what if you don’t have access to a gym OR free weights? Are you forever banished to merely doing hundreds of pushups? (not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

Before we discuss my DIY bench press alternative, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of the bench press.

kourteny kardashian

[Kourtney Kardashian has no use for chest exercises. Photo by SouthFloridaBeachPhotos]

Bench Press For Upper Body Strength

All the best exercises for developing strength and building muscle involve moving HEAVY weights for reasonably low repetitions. The Bench Press is so great for building upper body strength because it allows you engage all your major pushing muscles (including the chest) to move large amounts of weight.

BUT, Is Doing the Barbell Bench Press Asking for a Shoulder Injury?

Unfortunately for many people, the bench press can lead to shoulder injuries.

I can remember being in college, stumbling around the gym once in a while and trying to bench press. Inevitably, I would end up hurting my shoulder! (Warming up with some good rotator cuff exercises would have helped, but…)

The problem is often that using a barbell can force your shoulder into unnatural positions (especially if you lack shoulder flexibility and/or have impingement issues).

Using dumbells is an easy way to limit the strain on your shoulders, as it allows your shoulder to track more naturally as you press. Check out this video of the incline bench press, an excellent upper chest/shoulder exercise:

But if you are a die-hard barbell bench presser, at least take a look at this article on bench pressing safely for keys on proper form that could save your shoulders.

Insatbility, Muscle Activation, and Why Gymnasts are So Buff

Your body will only recruit the minimum number of muscle fibers needed to perform a given movement. Recruiting more muscle fibers will result in strength and muscle gains.

Adding more weight to an exercise is the obvious way to recruit more muscle fibers (we will get to this approach in a little bit), but another way to increase muscle fiber activation is to make the exercise surface/equipment you are using more unstable.

Exercises done on unstable equipment like gymnastics rings are MUCH more difficult than the same exercise done on a stable surface.

Try a pushup, for example. When done on unstable equipment like rings or a DIY suspension trainer, your chest and arms are not only providing the force to push your body up, they (and also your back, shoulders, core, and even legs) are forced to continuously fire to keep your hands from moving up, back, in or out.

Instability = More Muscle Activation = Greater Strength and Muscle Gains

So for starters, try this excellent bench press alternative/shoulder and upper chest exercise – the decline pushup on DIY suspension trainer:

decline pushup suspension trainer

[My posture isn't exactly perfect here, strive for more of a straight spine. Do as I say and not as I do!]

decline pushup suspension trainer 2

This movement is a lot more difficult than just doing decline pushups on the floor. I find that it SERIOUSLY works my core, in addition to my chest, shoulders, and triceps.

Best Rep Range to for Strength and Muscle Gains

There are many opinions on how many reps/sets to do for maximum strength and muscle gains. A good rule of thumb is to aim for between 4-8 reps. This range targets both types of muscle fibers and both types of muscle growth (more on these details here).

I am no bodybuilder, and more interested in getting stronger while maintaining my current body weight, so I like to shoot for the lower end of this range. I keep the difficulty up by adding weight.

Adding Weight is Easy…

Just throw a bag of pea gravel (like your training sandbag) into a backpack, and get after it:

suspension trainer decline pushup 1

[Man, looking at this picture now, it looks like I am getting ready to climb Mount Everest or something. It has been a little chilly here, but you guys back east would probably be laughing if you knew just how 'cold' it's been...]

Don’t Forget to Balance Opposing Muscle Groups

This exercise has been a key part of my strength program the last couple months. I like to  follow each set of this horizontal pushing movement with a horizontal pulling motion (body rows with this same setup work great). This helps to keep muscle gains balanced and prevent muscle imbalances that could lead to injury.

Good Luck!

Give this exercise a try, and let me know how it works for you!

Have a great week,


Other Resources

  • This ‘at home’ bench press alternative was inspired by strength coach Jason Ferrugia’s enthusiasm for this exercise, which he claims is his ‘favorite chest exercise.” I’m not going to argue with him on that point. Check out his site for more great strength and muscle building info.
  • I know I like to push my version of the DIY suspension trainer (hey, I just enjoy tying knots, what can I say…) But if my way doesn’t float your boat, check out Ross Enamait’s blog post on homemade suspension trainers for other ways of making this most useful piece of equipment without paying big bucks.
  • Eric Cressey is an elite trainer to many Major League Baseball players, athletes who are prone to developing shoulder injuries. Check out his thoughts on shoulder injuries and the bench press.
  • If you are adamant about continuing to bench press with a barbell, check out Mehdi’s post at on proper bench press form.
Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Blogplay

10 comments to The Best Chest Exercise – NOT the Bench Press?

  • I like the bench press but worry about shoulder injuries too… I always try to keep my elbows in like a close grip push up but its difficult when trying to lift heavy.
    I lie the idea of straps and will have to get or make a set because I think nothing beats moving your own bodyweight around for a great workout…. interesting article thanks

  • Nice post Ian.

    At the gym inclined benches and inclined dumbbell flyes were the best chest exercises for me. But at home nothing is more physically taxing than doing slow, deep push ups on 4 chairs (2 to the side shoulder width & 2 in the rear to place your feet on) – those decline suspension trainer push ups seem like they’re on the same level.


  • I do a lot of pushup variations to work my chest. Pushups on pushup stands, medicine balls, inclined and declined pushups, stability ball pushups, etc.

    I find that this helps me build more endurance than mass in my chest area. So I’ve started doing weighted pushup variations. I haven’t looked back since.

    Great post.

  • These are some good alternatives to barbell bench press. I still like to do closed grip bench but focus more on DBs, pushups, and dips.

  • Awesome post! I had to stop using the bench due to shoulder injuries which sucked. I think I was over doing it, however I have stopped doing the bench so much now, I do contrast training with the bench every now and again but I tend to use push ups and clap push ups and incline push ups and just add weight!
    Anyways, nice post,
    Train hard!

  • Sam

    I love to work on my chest area by using a variety of exercises. I do agree that bench presses can cause shoulder problems but this can be prevented by not pushing super heavy weight and not bringing the bar too low. Your advice on using exercises that add difficulty by keeping you unstable is definitely helpful as it strengthens muscles you wouldn’t usually work with. like your DIY approach to fitness.

  • Pretty sweet suspension setup man. I trained last summer with a suspended rope. It was killer.


  • From my experience, the reason a lot of people end up with shoulder injuries due to the bench press is simply because they don’t know how to bench press.

    For that, we can certainly take advice from the powerlifters.

    Establishing a good upper back arch and retracting your scapulae while getting into a stable position (w/ your shins perpendicular to the floor, or with your feet below your hips), while making sure to tuck in your elbows instead of flaring them out during the movement, you will find your shoulders feeling a lot better and able to bench press without issues.
    Improve Vertical Joel recently posted..Improve Vertical – The Single Leg Jump GuideMy ComLuv Profile

    • admin


      Thank you for the pointers on bench pressing form.

      I don’t do bench presses (since I don’t have access to a gym), but your advice to tuck the elbows in also helps avoid shoulder injuries during dips, I might add. It took me a few times re-injuring my shoulders while haphazardly doing dips to figure this out!

      Thanks again,


Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

CommentLuv Enabled