5 Exercises That Beat the Basic Bench Press

No-Pain Variations for Hypertrophy & Strength

Does bench pressing bang up your shoulders, wrists, and elbows? Try these moves, build your chest, and increase upper-body strength.


If something causes your shoulders to scream in pain, leaves your wrists hurting, or makes your elbows ache for days, it’s probably not the best thing to do. If the bench press leaves you banged up, you’re in luck. These alternatives hit your chest just as well, if not better.

1. Bench Press with a Shoulder-Saver Pad

Not gonna give up the straight bar? A “shoulder saver” pad makes the lift similar to board pressing, but it’s a lot easier to use if you train alone.

The pad reduces the range of motion and the stress placed on your shoulders. It’s an extremely valuable tool that allows you to bench press without pain. The bottom portion of the bench press is the most stressful position for the shoulders. You’ll never reach this tricky range by placing a pad on the bar.

Pressing from a reduced range of motion in a power rack (pin press) is a similar variation, but the dead stop with “metal on metal” is more aggressive on the joints. I recommend the pad over the pin press.

Technique Notes

  • Use your regular bench press setup.
  • Keep your shoulder blades in a packed position – retracted and slightly depressed.
  • Don’t let the pad sink into your chest, and don’t relax your upper body. Do not “bounce” from the chest. Treat it like a regular bench press, either with a pause or a touch-and-go.

2. Neutral-Grip Bench Press

Use a Swiss bar when your limiting factor is internal shoulder rotation. With a good bench press setup – upper back tight and shoulder blades creating a stable base from which to press – your shoulders internally rotate when the bar reaches the chest.

Lack of internal rotation in the shoulders (or upper-body mobility in general) can be the reason for painful pressing. Working to increase internal rotation is one solution. Another is to work with and around the limitation by adjusting the grip/barbell type. The neutral-grip bar allows more external rotation and “opens up” the shoulders.

Technique Notes

  • Use your regular bench press setup.
  • The neutral grip reduces the potential for torque creation, often called “breaking the bar.” You have to focus more on upper-back activation to keep the shoulders stable during the lift.
  • For most people, a wide grip is the least stressful on the shoulders.

3. Suspended Push-Up

Do these when your shoulders need more freedom. Bench pressing with a straight bar locks the shoulders in place, which might lead to problems. With restricted movement capacity, you might end up compensating. Since bench pressing doesn’t allow much wiggle room for technical errors, this can be a big problem.

The tighter the shoulders and upper body are, the more you’ll overcompensate. Doing suspended push-ups (from rings or TRX straps) create more freedom and natural movement for the shoulders. The shoulder blades move more freely on the ribcage, which can reduce or eliminate pain.

Many consider push-ups more functional than the bench press. If you load this exercise, there’s no reason you “have” to continue bench pressing if it hurts.

For proper push-ups, avoid spinal/lumbar hyperextension. Your abs need to be ON during push-ups, so this exercise can potentially replace your regular plank/anti-extension training, too.

Technique Notes

  • Keep a straight spine in the starting position.
  • Activate the abs by pulling the ribs down and tilting the pelvis posteriorly.
  • Open the chest by activating the upper back. Avoid too much rounding.
  • Choose a wide hand placement (similar to a bench press) if you’re working around shoulder issues or if you need to avoid excessive shoulder rotation in the bottom position.

4. Chain Press

This is the alternative to do when your shoulders don’t tolerate being loaded in the bottom position. When you remove the bar and switch to chains only, you remove the constant resistance from the equation. Doing this gives you way less resistance in the most vulnerable shoulder position.

Then, right after you’ve pressed past your weak area, the resistance will kick in HARD as the chains rise and add weight. You’ll feel this in your chest and triceps if you use heavy chains. Besides being a great alternative to the bench to build muscle, it’s also a great accessory exercise to build the foundation for better bench pressing. Win-win.

Just attach chains to a pair of rings or grip handles. If your shoulders are really messed up, you can even attach EZ-straps to adjust the chains so they don’t kick in before you’re above the stressful position.

Technique Notes

  • The setup for this will be similar to your regular dumbbell bench pressing.
  • Keep the shoulder blades packed and avoid elevation of the shoulders.
  • You can either lock out the elbows for the benefit of the triceps, or you can stop short and keep more constant tension on the pecs. Go for a moderate to high rep range.

5. Dumbbell Floor Press

This is a staple exercise for many lifters. The floor press is simply bench pressing lying on the floor. This reduces the range of motion compared to the regular bench press because the elbows stop when they hit the floor.

This might be a more optimal position to press from since there’s no excessive arching of the spine. Everything is set in a more “neutral” position. If you have trouble with the regular bench press but all is fine during the floor press, the proof in the pudding is right there.

Since the range of motion is reduced and you don’t get a stretch reflex from the chest and shoulders, your triceps will be the main movers.

The floor press is often used in powerlifting systems like Westside because it decreases shoulder stress. And it’s probably easier on your joints than the regular bench press.

A bar is fine, but dumbbells are more practical. Dumbbells also allow more freedom for the shoulders, and you can choose a more neutral grip if you need it.

Technique Notes

  • Start by lying on your back with feet on the floor. You can do it like you would in a glute bridge starting position or with your legs straight. The latter takes out all possible leg drive, but there’s not much leg drive in the floor press anyway.
  • While pressing the dumbbells up, think about pressing the shoulders down toward the ground. This helps you avoid the typical shoulder compensations.
  • Keep the shoulders as stable as possible, but the position doesn’t allow you to pack the shoulders the way you would during a regular bench press. You can create more stability by lying on a yoga mat or similar.

A Note to the Benching Brethren

The bench press is a great exercise for muscle building and upper-body strength. It’s also a big cause of shoulder, elbow, and wrist injuries.

It doesn’t matter whether the reason for this is technical, structural, or functional. If pain is present, choose one or several alternatives to keep getting stronger and keep building muscle. You can always work around a problem, but you can’t always do it with the same strategy that caused the problem in the first place. These lifts can also be used as supplemental/accessory exercises for the bench press.

Take a break from benching, work on lagging muscles and technical issues, and you’ll be on your way to pressing without hurting.

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3 Likes

Neutral grip with a Swiss bar has been a game changer for me when training heavy.

5 Likes

I’ve wanted to try one of these for a while now, but find it hard to justify the $300-$450 for the EliteFTS or Rogue pieces.

I may eventually just pony up the money for the EliteFTS American Press Bar because I like supporting them, but any recommendations on others that don’t break the bank?

Bells of steel Arch Nemesis bar is pretty solid but it has a camber

I don’t have any recommendations unfortunately. My gym has the Rogue bar so I just use that one. Imo the $320 to buy one for a home gym would be worth it. Once I start climbing above 250 it’s almost a must now.

I usually love EFS bars the most, but I prefer the Rogue American press bar for two main reasons on this, which is that the handles have some knurling unlike the EFS bar (making it better for rows as well), and the EFS bar my gym has, each handle is a different size. The further out the grip, the smaller the diameter, and the widest grip/smallest diameter is too close to the frame so my knuckles scrape on presses all the time.

Don’t get me wrong, the EFS bar is still good, but the Rogue bar doesn’t the issues with the grip size variance or the outer grips being a bit too close to the frame.

Roger that. Thanks for the recommendation.

I also like the idea of the narrow version of the Rogue for pressing north of 250. I’ve heard that the wider bars can feel a bit unstable. I’m a smaller guy - 5’8", 175-190 lbs depending on body fat, and don’t have huge hands, so I think it might even be a bigger issue for me.

Appreciate the recommendation - the Rogue I’m looking at has camber as well.

1 Like

What about Dips ?

Love my titan fitness bar best for the price

(https://www.titan.fitness/strength/barbells/specialty/multi-grip-barbell-v3/430327.html)

I had a nagging shoulder for years when I would bench press - overhead pressing, lateral raises, all back work, etc. I had no issue. Best investments I made to press now 90%+ pain free: 1) monolift for my power rack 2) Elite FTS press bar. A neutral grip combined with not going through the annoyance of unracking a few hundred pounds from regular J-cups has made a world of difference.

1 Like