Some lifters may be forced to do home workouts and don’t have access to a bench press.
Other lifters may be injured and can’t perform a bench press while rehabbing.
If you’re one of these types of lifters, you might wonder whether you can increase your bench press without doing the bench press exercise?
While a traditional bench press will work best for increasing strength, a person can increase their bench press without bench pressing by improving their overall strength in other exercises, increasing muscle mass in the muscles used in the bench press, and by performing movements similar to the bench press.
Why Are You Wanting To Increase Your Bench Without Benching?
You can absolutely increase your bench press without benching. The important thing to consider is why you would want to increase your bench press without benching.
You may have this question for a few reasons.
- Maybe you have an injury that keeps you from training a standard bench press but can still train your arms and chest in other ways.
- Maybe you don’t have access to equipment to regularly train bench press, but want to keep improving.
- Maybe you are fully healthy, have access to the right equipment, but want to find other ways you can increase your bench press.
Whatever your motive, knowing your reasoning will help guide you to the best solution.
Below we’ll break down the three ways you can increase your bench, whether you just apply one method or a blend of the three.
3 Methods to Increase your Bench Without Benching
The 3 ways you can increase your bench press without benching are:
- Increase muscle mass
- Increase overall strength
- Train carryover movements
1. Increase Muscle Mass
Here’s the most obvious solution to our problem – build more muscle.
The bench press is not the only chest/triceps/shoulder/back exercise we can do, so we can remove the bench press from a program and still get lots of work in growing those muscles through other exercises.
With the right rep ranges and caloric intake, you can grow your chest, triceps, shoulders, and back muscles with isolated resistance exercises.
Check out our article on the muscles used in the bench press so you know which ones you can specifically train for hypertrophy.
Start training like a bodybuilder and be thinking about every muscle used in your bench press and train it in an isolated way.
Over time, the new muscle mass will be ready to activate and recruit when you reintroduce bench press back into your program.
This is not a new or novel idea. Powerlifters and strength athletes usually have blocks of hypertrophy after maxing out their lifts to start a new program to improve the numbers they just hit. They know that a great way to move more weight is to build more muscle.
2. Increase Overall Strength
The second way to improve your bench press without benching is to get stronger in some other lift. Seems backward, right? But there’s science behind this method.
Strength is much more than a question of how much muscle mass you have to move the weight. That’s why the bodybuilders that win Mr. Olympia are not the same guys that win powerlifting or strongman competitions, even if they compete at the same body weight.
Strength is also a function of how well your Central Nervous System can pass messages from your brain throughout your body to move the weight. And research has proven that you can train your CNS to help you in any strength activity.
Training Other Movements Outside The Bench Press Is Key
Nathaniel Jenkins at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln published a study that demonstrated the impact of heavy-load training on the CNS.
What they found was that high-load training conditioned the CNS to better transmit messages to the muscles so that the muscles could produce more force than subjects who trained with low-load.
What I love about this study is that both test groups performed the same exercises (leg extensions). But one group did low load, performing reps to failure three times a week for six weeks, the other group used a high load to perform reps to failure for the same period.
In both scenarios, reaching muscular failure was not the difference – it was the load.
And Jenkins and his team found that the CNS does a better job activating or exciting motor neurons after being trained with heavy loads.
The two subjects can build the same or a similar amount of new muscle, but the ones that trained with heavy load had a vastly improved ability to generate force.
Now back to your bench press.
Prime Your Nervous System To Handle Heavy Loads
This means you can train the squat or deadlift (or any other compound lift) with high load to train your CNS, and the next time you bench, your CNS will be better prepared to fire more neurons (or better activate the same neurons) even with a lift that’s different from the one you trained.
Again, this is not a new, or novel idea.
Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell often talks about how the Soviet weightlifting teams of the 20th century required all their potential athletes to train with basic strength exercises for three years before they were allowed to train something as specific as the squat, bench, deadlift, clean, and jerk, or snatch.
By developing general strength through GPP and unskilled strength exercises, they demonstrated an ability to handle the intensity of the training required by the Soviet coaches. With their CNS primed and a good base of muscle built, these lifters were able to smoothly transition into the specificity of training for Olympic lifting and powerlifting.
Check out our article on GPP Training to learn more about how general movements can improve overall strength.
3. Train Carryover Movements
The final method to improving your bench without benching is to train similar movements that have a carryover effect on your bench press.
We’ll provide a full list of these exercises below, but the idea behind this method is to acclimate your muscles and body to performing similar movements to the lift you are trying to ultimately improve.
For example, an overhead press or log press is commonly used to improve the overall bench press, because they are both pressing movements of the upper body. Push-ups and inverted rows use similar mechanics to the bench press and can improve your bench press by training them regularly, as well.
Powerlifters and strength athletes use this tactic all the time to emphasize one area or another in their lift. For example, a lifter with lower back weaknesses that prevent their squat or deadlift from improving can incorporate sets of Good Mornings or Lower Back Extensions to emphasize that area and strengthen it.
Having a library of variation movements will always be a good resource to lifters, whether you need to select a lift variation due to injury limitations, to address a specific weakness in your lift, or just to add variety to your program.
Check out my other article on Does Overhead Press Help Bench Press?
Exercises To Increase Your Bench Press Without Benching
We’ve curated two lists for you to consider as alternatives to bench pressing:
- One list focuses on isolated movements you can do with high reps to increase muscle mass in each of the muscles used in the bench press.
- The other is a list of carryover movements you can perform with a heavy load for 1-5 reps to improve strength.
Hypertrophy Movements in Grow Muscle Size
- Chest Fly (cable or dumbbell)
- Chest Press Machines
- Pec Deck Machine
- Barbell Overhead Press
- Dumbbell Overhead Press
- Lateral Raises
- Front Raises
- Barbell Floor Press
- Dumbbell Floor Press
- Skull Crushers
- Cable Pressdown
- Rope Pulldown
- Overhead Tricep Extension
- Dumbbell French Curl
- Barbell French Curl
- Bent over Row
- Upright Row
- Inverted Row
- Single Arm Row
- Seated Cable Row
Carryover Movements to Build Strength
- Barbell Overhead Press
- Dumbbell Overhead Press
- Barbell Floor Press
- Dumbbell Floor Press
- Inverted Rows
- Bent Over Barbell Rows
- Upright Rows
- Cable Rows
- Dumbbell Rows
How To Increase Your Bench Press With No Weight
If you’re really in a pinch and you need to improve your overall bench press without using anything but bodyweight exercises, you can do that with the following exercises:
Bodyweight Bench Press Exercises
- Push ups
- Pull Ups
- Inverted Rows
If you can’t do dips, then check out my article on the Best Dip Alternatives.
Note that you can perform any of these exercises with variations to make them more difficult. You can also exaggerate the load of your body weight in the following ways:
Perform the exercise with isometric holds instead of reps.
For example, hold yourself in a pullup position with your chin above the bar for as long as you can, or have someone push against the top of your shoulders while you try to perform a dip against it.
Perform 4 holds at the top of a pull-up for 10 seconds or more until you can’t hold it anymore. Each hold is one set of one rep.
Instead of performing your reps with a normal tempo, slow them down during the eccentric part of the movement (lowering a bench press down, lowering a curl down, setting a deadlift down, descending into a squat, etc).
Imagine a pushup that takes you 8 seconds to descend from the top to the point where your chest taps the floor, for example. Perform several sets of 5 reps with that tempo.
Perform reps with a pause. Unlike the isometric variation, this won’t be the entire rep (like a 20 second hold of a pull up), but instead a pause of one second or more during the hardest part of the rep (bottom of a push up, top of a pullup, bottom of a dip, etc) for a set of several reps.
For example, perform dips for several sets of 6 reps with a 3 second pause at the bottom.
Improve Your Bench Press Without Benching (Sample Program)
In this example, we’ll show you four days of training to improve the bench press without doing a standard bench press. This program could be progressed over several weeks by increasing the intensity and load so that the lifter can test their bench press again and measure the improvement.
Two workouts are focused on the upper body. The first incorporates carryover movements to train strength, as well as other exercises for added volume and hypertrophy. The other upper body workout is entirely focused on hypertrophy with higher reps.
Two workouts are standard powerlifting workouts for squat and deadlift. As we emphasized previously, these are important to keep in your program, as the CNS training you get from heavy lifting of any kind will improve your strength in the bench press (and any other compound lift).
Workout 1: Bench Alternative Strength Training
- Barbell Overhead Press – 5×3 @ 80% of max
- Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press – 4×5
- Negative Tempo Push-ups – 5×5, 5 second negative tempo
- Flat Bench Dumbbell Fly – 4×10
- Skull Crushers – 4×10
- Inverted Rows – 4×10
Workout 2: Deadlift Strength Training
- Deadlift – 5×3 at 85% of max
- Paused Deadlift – 5×2 at 78% of max
- Stiff Leg Deadlifts – 4×6 @ 40% of max
- Lower back extensions – 4×10
- Lying Hamstring Curl – 4×10
- Seated Cable Row – 4×10
Workout 3: Upper Body Hypertrophy Training
- Dips (leaning forward) – 4×10-12
- Pec Deck – 4×12
- Chest Press Machine – 4×12
- Dumbbell Floor Press – 4×12
- Dumbbell French Press – 4×12
- Cable Press Down – 4×12
- Arnold Press – 4×12
- Plate Front Raise – 4×12
Workout 4: Squat Strength Training
- Squat – 5×3 at 85% of max
- Pin Squat – 5×4 at 75% of max
- Good Mornings – 4×8
- Goblet Squats – 4×10
- Bulgarian Split Squats 4×10
The bench press is a compound lift that relies on several muscle groups working together. You can improve your overall bench press by individually training and improving each of those muscle groups to add more muscle mass or strength capabilities.
Beyond that, your CNS will improve your overall strength as you train other lifts with intensity under heavy load, so just doing good, heavy squats and deadlifts are a great recipe for improving your bench press, too. Finally, training with similar movements to the bench press will have a carryover effect the next time you bench.
About The Author
Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.