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.
[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:
- Set up your suspension trainer (click for instructions on how to make your own for around $15) with the handles just an inch or two off the ground.
- Grab a chair to elevate your feet a couple feet off the ground
[My posture isn't exactly perfect here, strive for more of a straight spine. Do as I say and not as I do!]
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:
[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.
Give this exercise a try, and let me know how it works for you!
Have a great week,
- 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 stronglifts.com on proper bench press form.