Bench press alternatives and my routine
This is a continuation from the post Why you don’t need to bench press.
In the post above I outlined the reason why despite its status as THE gym exercise you don’t actually need to bench press to get great results.
Sure, you won’t be able to answer the ‘how much do you bench then?’ question but let’s be honest: anyone who asks that question straight up is probably someone who has just started training or a pure gym ‘bro’.
The former will probably be impressed with anything above your bodyweight while nothing short of 315 lbs will impress the latter (and maybe not even that), so if you don’t feel like explaining how the bench press isn’t the only indicator of strength then feel free to just make something up.
Personally I’ve gone from being a bench press disciple to bench pressing very rarely, and pretty much never to failure.
I’ve found that other exercises work just as well or better for me, and in this post I’m going to go through my routine to explain why I think they could play a part in your routines too.
My current routine for pressing
My routine is basically two upper body days, one lower/full body and one lower body day.
The two staples for my upper body pressing movements (so the chest and the front of the upper body) are dips and overhead press.
One day I focus on dips first to emphasis chest, the other day I start with overhead press when I’m fresh to emphasis shoulders. On both days I finish off with some machine presses.
Let’s run through it.
Day 1: Chest emphasis
This is typically Sunday or Monday, depending on the week.
I use the ‘overweighting’ principle that I describe in the article below:
Related article: A ‘trick’ to increase your lifts
I start off with dips, warming up with bodyweight and adding weight with a chain until I get up to my max of around bodyweight + 60-70 kgs. Then I strip the weight to 40 or 50 kgs and do 3 working sets to failure, hopefully getting 6-8 reps each time depending on the day.
The last set I do a drop set: once I’ve maxed out with 40 kgs I’ll take 20 kgs off and immediately do reps to failure, then strip the weight completely and do bodyweight to failure.
So it looks like this:
- Bodyweight (BW) x 15-20
- BW + 20 kgs x 10
- BW + 40 kgs x 8
Conditioning (overweight) sets
- BW + 60 kgs x 5
- BW + 70 kgs x 1-2 (plus 2 negatives)
- 40 kgs to failure (8-10)
- 40 kgs to failure (5 -7)
- 40 kgs to failure (4-5) + drop sets with 20 kgs and then BW, both to failure
In my honest opinion developing dip strength and endurance is a superior exercise to bench press, especially for the overall development of the chest, triceps and shoulder.
a) It’s much safer because you don’t need a spotter
b) You can go as low as your shoulder mobility allows you to (or develop depth and flexibility with practice) so better for the shoulder. Since your body is free hanging you can also follow your natural path as you descend.
c) It promotes the handling of your bodyweight and athleticism in a way the bench press doesn’t.
After dips I move to overhead shoulder press, where pick a weight that I can do for 8-10 and perform 4 sets, emphasising strict control from the bottom position (so no using my legs).
Because this is a chest emphasis day I don’t necessarily do full reps, but concentrate on the initial portion of the lift (from chest to eye level).
I’ve described the benefits of the overhead press extensively in other posts, but I will also add that for me it is perhaps the best pressing movement for overall upper chest/shoulder development, with strength benefits that are transferable to the bench press/push-ups etc.
Related article: Do this and be better at sports
After this I’m usually pretty much done, but I finish off with some machine press/hammer strength to make sure I’m completely done. I go as heavy as I can (which varies depending on how intense the previous two exercises were) for 8 reps for 3 or 4 sets.
Day 2: Shoulder emphasis
This time I start with the overhead press, doing full range reps (so my elbows are locked out).
I use the same over weighting principle as I do for dips, warming and working up to a heavy single or double. I also do negatives by push-pressing a weight higher than my strict max and lowering slowly, to ‘condition’ myself for heavier weight.
Then I follow the working sets method as with the dips.
It might look like this:
- Just the bar x 20
- 30 kgs x 10
- 60 kgs x 5
Conditioning (overweight) sets
- 70 kgs x 3
- 75 kgs x 2 (with 2 or 3 negatives)
- 60 kgs x 8
- 60 kgs x 7-8
- 50-60 kgs x 5-7
All reps are done with control and full range of motion, with no assistance or pushing from the legs (except the negatives).
The emphasis should really be on keeping your chest high and feeling the chest muscle do the initial part of the lift, with the shoulder (anterior deltoid) moving it past your head and the triceps locking it out.
Don’t lean back too much, and once the bar has cleared your head push the head forward so the finishing position is your head directly under the bar. Not only will this help make you stronger in finishing the lift it will also save your lower back from straining.
After this I’ll do some dips with moderate weight and maybe finish off with some more machine presses.
This combination of exercises has worked really well for me in developing and strengthen the entire chest shoulder region, whilst also making me stronger in sporting and athletically transferable ways (such as core strength from standing and balancing and handling my bodyweight).
While lying on your back pushing weight in the air can be impressive and is necessary if you’re a powerlifter, it just doesn’t develop these key aspects of all-round athletic ability.
This is why for most people who aren’t competitive powerlifters, whether they play rugby or perform pole-dance to just want a balanced physique can benefit from doing this routine over the traditional ‘bench press Mondays’.
As always, remember that training is about fulfilling YOUR genetic potential. I can’t say how strong or muscular you’ll get and I am certainly not promising any kind of miracles. Training is also very individual and some may fit these exercises better than others.
What I am saying is that it helps to look outside the hype and do the things other people aren’t doing, and benefitting from.
Increasingly, getting a straight answer to any fitness question is becoming impossible so I hope that I’m helping you out in this regard: I’ve got no financial interest in telling you anything but the truth of what I’ve learned through my own experience of 10 years in the gym.
So give it a try: the best thing may be that you never have to wait for the bench press again.