by Ben Bruno T-Nation
The bench press can be a good exercise for building upper body size and strength for the lifter with healthy shoulders, but it's not so great for the lifter with jacked-up shoulders.
If you fall into the latter category, you'd be wise to avoid the bench and choose more shoulder-friendly pressing exercises instead.
Similarly, even if you tolerate the bench press well and enjoy doing it, it's still prudent to employ different exercises from time to time to add variety to your program and give your shoulders a break and keep them healthy for the long haul.
Here are seven pressing variations for you to enjoy.
1. Dumbbell Floor Press/Glute Bridge Combo
I'm not very creative when it comes to naming exercises, so this is exactly what it sounds like: a dumbbell floor press combined with a glute bridge.
I like combination exercises as they give you more bang for your buck, but what I don't like is that they often require using significantly less weight than you'd otherwise be able to if you did the exercises separately, making them a poor choice for building strength.
With this exercise though, you can actually use just as much weight as you can during a regular dumbbell floor press, if not more – and get the added benefit of working your glutes in the process.
The bridge is a way to get additional leg drive – similar to cheating on the bench press by letting your butt come up and excessively arching your back.
The difference is that when you cheat the bench press, you're getting lumbar extension as opposed to hip extension. With the bridge, you're getting hip extension, which is safer and more powerful.
The key is to keep your arms in sync with your hips so that the dumbbells reach lockout at the same time your hips reach their peak position, and both your elbows and glutes touch down on the ground in unison. This synchronicity will help develop rhythm and allow you to take advantage of the added hip drive to make for a stronger press.
At the top of the movement, you want a straight line going from shoulders to knees. It may help to hold each rep for a second at the top to enhance the glute contraction and settle into a good cadence.
Use whatever grip is most comfortable. I like to start with a neutral grip and pronate as I press because it feels good on my shoulders and gives a nice chest contraction.
It may feel a little awkward at first, so start light until you get the hang of it, but it shouldn't take long before you're slinging some sizeable weights.
2. Neutral Grip Floor Press
Dumbbell floor presses are great because they allow you to use a neutral hand position. However, the dumbbells can be a huge pain to hoist into position, especially if you don't have a training partner, and that's assuming your gym even has big enough dumbbells to accommodate you!
The football bar (or Swiss bar, depending on the manufacturer) is an awesome alternative that lets you use a neutral grip while allowing for greater loading potential.
It can be a bit awkward unracking the bar as it has a tendency to want to tip on you, but it's certainly easier than finagling heavy dumbbells.
Jim Wendler wrote a great article discussing the merits of the football bar – I'd just add that I like it best for floor presses because being able to touch your triceps to the floor seems to help stabilize the bar, along with making it a lot easier for your partner to give you a lift-off.
3. Reverse Grip Floor Press
The obvious drawback to using the football bar is that your gym has to have one. This isn't the case for many.
I have a dream, though – that one day, commercial gym owners will spend their money on specialty bars rather than wasting it on a good girl/bad girl machine or a pec dec.
But until that dream comes to fruition, you're stuck with what you've got. If that means no football bar, you might want to try reverse grip presses.
Using a supinated grip externally rotates the humerus, which many will find to be more shoulder-friendly than using a standard pronated grip.
Before you attempt this exercise, get a competent spotter. You should be using a spotter already for any barbell bench pressing, but it's imperative here if you want to keep your teeth intact and avoid decapitating yourself as you un-rack and re-rack the bar.
It also helps to set up farther underneath the bar than you would for a normal bench press to minimize how far you have to reach behind you. Don't worry about hitting the j-hooks as you press – you'll want to bring the bar to your lower chest and press straight up as opposed to back over your face as you would in a regular bench press.
Start very light as it will assuredly take some getting used to. I prefer to use this as a higher-rep assistance exercise because going overly heavy bothers my wrists and just feels like an accident waiting to happen.
It's not for everyone, so see how it feels before getting ambitious.
4. Reverse Grip Squeeze Press
If heavy reverse grip benching doesn't jive with you, this might be up your alley.
I first learned about squeeze presses from Christian Thibaudeau here and liked them from the first time I tried them.
I certainly wouldn't classify them as a strength builder, but if you're looking to get a pump at the end of your workout or a way to hit your pecs without subjecting your shoulders and elbows to a heavy beating (such as during a de-load period), they're great.
Using a supinated grip, squeeze the ends of the dumbbells together as you press up. When you can no longer maintain a supinated grip, rotate to a neutral hand position, but be sure to keep the dumbbells squeezed together. Return to the supinated grip position as you lower the dumbbells.
Hex dumbbells work best, but make do with what you've got.
5. One-Arm Dumbbell Press (Hips Off Bench)
Remember that feeling you got the first time you attempted a one-arm dumbbell bench press?
It looks simple enough, so you arrogantly assume it's easy and decide to use the same weight you use for regular dumbbell presses. You unassumingly lean back onto the bench and whoaaaa, the heavy dumbbell pulls you clear off the side and you topple to the floor like a complete tool.
Hopefully that wasn't just me.
Anyway, picture that feeling times ten – that's what it feels like when you set up with your hips off the bench.
While it's ostensibly a pressing exercise, you'll quickly realize that you need to create tremendous tension throughout your entire body to stabilize yourself and keep from tipping over.
The goal should be to maintain a straight line from your knees to your head, meaning the glutes have to kick into overdrive to keep your hips from sagging.
Make sure you've mastered regular one-arm presses before trying these, and when you do, start light. If you fail to heed that warning, don't blame me when you make a fool of yourself.
Dr. Stuart McGill has a similar variation featured here where you set up with only one side of your body in contact with the bench. Depending on your goal with the exercise, that's another viable option.
With either variation, you won't be able to handle nearly as much weight as you can for a regular one-arm dumbbell press, so you have some freedom as to where to put it in your program.
If you're looking for an easy pressing day, it could function as your pressing exercise. If you're looking for some supplemental pressing work, you could plug it in as a core exercise after your regular heavy pressing work.
You can also try bilateral dumbbell presses with your hips off the bench, but I highly recommend having a partner hand you the dumbbells if you go this route. Trying to get into position on your own with heavy dumbbells can be hairy.
6. Dynamic Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press
In a traditional alternating dumbbell bench press, the lifter starts by holding two dumbbells at lockout and then alternates doing reps with each arm while the other arm remains locked out.
Each rep is performed in a controlled and deliberate manner, and you don't start the next rep with the other arm until the previous rep is competed. This is a great way to ease into unilateral pressing work that doesn't require quite as much core stability as a true one-arm dumbbell press because the opposing dumbbell provides artificial stability.
The dynamic alternating dumbbell press, however, is an entirely different animal. Starting with both dumbbells resting on your shoulders, press with your right hand.
Rather than wait to complete the entire rep, start pressing with the left hand immediately after the right hand reaches lockout, so that the left arm is pushing up while the right arm is lowering down. Continue in this fashion for the duration of the set, making sure to perform the reps fast and explosively.
Confused? Check out this video:
The goal is to keep your torso as still as possible, making the core work extra hard to stabilize against the rotational torques that come from the arms moving independently of one another in opposite directions.
The faster you do the reps, the greater the core demand. Shoot for a goal of one rep per arm per second, so in a 20-second set you should be able to get at least 20 reps on each side.
Moving at such a high rate will require using a lighter weight than you might be used to, but that's fine. Don't see this as a strength builder, but more as a fun finisher that falls in the press/core hybrid category.
Once you spend some time doing these, returning to regular alternating presses or even one-arm presses will feel like a breeze.
7. One Arm "Bottoms Up" Kettlebell Floor Press
If you're well-versed in kettlebells, then "bottoms up" work may not be new to you, but if you're not, well, let's just say you're in for a rude awakening.
I was reluctant to try it at first because my inner meathead usually shuns any exercise that requires significantly dropping the amount of weight you can use, at least initially. Once I broke down and gave them a shot, though, to say I was humbled would be a massive understatement.
I grabbed a 20 kilogram 'bell thinking it'd be a good warm-up set only to realize that I couldn't even get one rep. Sixteen kilograms, same thing. Twelve kilograms was hard and I could only get a couple reps before my wrist gave out. I promptly walked away with my tail between my legs.
After a couple sets it got a little better, but I'm still not even using close to half the weight I can do for dumbbell floor presses.
Because I'm a good sport, the video below shows me struggling with 16 kilograms.
Don't laugh. I'm now up to a whopping 20 kilograms.
Okay, now you can laugh.
Seriously, despite feeling like a massive wuss every time I do them, it's a great exercise to build shoulder stability because it forces the rotator cuff to fire reflexively to keep the 'bell steady. It also helps build grip strength (my forearms are smoked after just a few sets) and when you do them one arm at a time, it challenges the core as well.
I also recommend doing them unilaterally for logistical reasons – you can use the free hand as a self-spot in case something goes awry and you need to protect your face. It will quickly expose any weak links in your press and reveal imbalances between limbs because it doesn't allow for any compensations.
If you can get past your ego, this can be a valuable assistance exercise that will pay big dividends with your other presses.
No discussion of shoulder-friendly training would be complete without mention of the almighty push-up, but that's another article.
I hope you've gotten some ideas to help you keep pressing forward.
Questions or comments? See you in the LiveSpill.