T Nation

Programming without Bench Press


#1

I’m 6’4", 194lb, and about to turn 33 years old. I’ve been strength training for about 6 months and am in the best shape of my life. My goals are to A) enjoy training by way of short & simple workouts, B) improve my overall fitness level and set a baseline for lifetime fitness, and C) improve my aesthetics (less gut fat, bigger arms and chest). I’m also getting back into tennis, so I would really prefer to not put on more than another 10-15 lbs.

I’m moving to 5/3/1 BBB from Starting Strength. I progressed well on SS (5rm squat from 140ish to 230, press from 50 to 102, and I gained nearly 15 lbs). I could probably stick with it a bit longer, but at the end it started getting really grueling and I wasn’t looking forward to training anymore. Reference goal A above. Also, 5/3/1 BBB’s short sessions, compound movement focus, and strength focus but with some hypertrophy all appeal to me.

The problem is my right AC joint. It won’t let me bench. Even 1x5 with an empty bar will light it up for weeks. I haven’t had a ton of experience incline benching, but the few times I’ve done it I believe it also irritated my shoulder. Overhead pressing, on the other hand, doesn’t bother it at all. I don’t really care that much about not benching. I’ve never liked the lift. I’m happy just overhead pressing. However, while my arms and shoulders are growing, my chest is pretty flat.

So my question is, other than just not worrying about my chest…how would you program 5/3/1 BBB for someone that can’t bench but wants more chest development? Find an alternate lift (e.g., reverse grip bench, weighted dips, weighted pushups, etc.) to replace flat benching? Or just program more chest-focused accessory work such as flyes and pushups on my press days? Or some other approach?


#2

Do you have a neutral grip bar (this website references it as a football bar in an article I think Jim wrote)? That is really a good shoulder saver and I use it for inclines in lieu of a straight bar.


#3

I use a close grip for my bench because of shoulder issues and it works well.


#4

Thanks for the replies.

I do not have a neutral grip/football bar in my home gym, but we just got a family YMCA membership and I was thinking about working out there on Saturdays (doing a combined deadlift/bench-like day). They might have one.

Isn’t close grip much more of a triceps exercise?


#5

Try Floor Presses, Board press, Incline Press (since OHP doesn’t bother it). Elitefts sells a shoulder saver pad, which is basically like a 2 board press when attached to the bar. If all that doesn’t work try DB’s and/or push ups


#6

As stated in the book, which I hope you have, pick another full range barbell exercise.

The program is a performance based program, not about “muscles”. I would recommend you choose another program if that is your goal as there are ones better suited for developing your chest, arms, etc.


#7

Thanks for the response. I have 5/3/1 and Beyond 5/3/1 but don’t see any specific guidance on what to do if you can’t perform one of the prescribed movements. I understand and believe in the philosophy of “Emphasize Big, Multi-Joint Movements.” My understanding is that a focus on press, squat, and deadlift fits within this philosophy. But you also emphasize balance (and in 5/3/1 state that a goal of assistance exercises is to “Provide balance and symmetry to your body and your training.”).

So maybe a better way for me to state my issue is to say that I am content to not bench press, but I want to fix my imbalances (which are primarily in my chest) and avoid creating bigger imbalances in the future.

It seems that the general consensus is to experiment in order to find a suitable alternative that is overloadable and multi-joint. And I guess if I can’t find one that doesn’t hurt my shoulder, I’ll just try to correct the imbalance with assistance work.


#8

[quote]aw82 wrote:
Thanks for the response. I have 5/3/1 and Beyond 5/3/1 but don’t see any specific guidance on what to do if you can’t perform one of the prescribed movements. I understand and believe in the philosophy of “Emphasize Big, Multi-Joint Movements.” My understanding is that a focus on press, squat, and deadlift fits within this philosophy. But you also emphasize balance (and in 5/3/1 state that a goal of assistance exercises is to “Provide balance and symmetry to your body and your training.”).

So maybe a better way for me to state my issue is to say that I am content to not bench press, but I want to fix my imbalances (which are primarily in my chest) and avoid creating bigger imbalances in the future.

It seems that the general consensus is to experiment in order to find a suitable alternative that is overloadable and multi-joint. And I guess if I can’t find one that doesn’t hurt my shoulder, I’ll just try to correct the imbalance with assistance work.
[/quote]

The balance and symmetry is not in relation to muscle size, rather it is more about balance in movement, strength and many times, injury prevention. If you can’t find a suitable full range barbell movement, just press two times. There is nothing wrong with that. And like you said, you can do assistance work as you see fit.


#9

Not sure whether your AC joint problem is a recent injury or a long term issue (which I recommend getting looked at and performing proper therapy for, BTW), and I am no expert on such matters, but I will share my own, possibly similar experience. I strained my AC joint attempting a max bench press, basically due to my own stupidity. I decided to train what was trainable and, similar to you, overhead pressing didn’t seem to bother it nearly as much as bench pressing did. I also found that push-ups (where the scapula aren’t pinned down by the bench and are allowed to move) didn’t bother it much either.

So, I continued running 5/3/1 for the lower body (squat and deadlift) and chose the more pain free options for upper body until such time as I felt ready to try the barbell pressing/bench pressing again.

Based on my own research (thanks T-Nation!), I decided on doing standing neutral grip overhead dumbbell presses on press day, and push-ups on bench press day - both for higher volume and reps/lighter weights but still with progression. Eventually, I was able to graduate to overhead barbell pressing and neutral grip dumbbell bench pressing (I don’t have a neutral grip barbell option, either) - again still using higher volume and reps with lighter weights but still focused on slow, steady progression. Finally, I was able to press and bench press normally 5/3/1 style (starting light, of course).

The process took several months, but I am approaching my pre-injury press numbers, and my bench press is recovering nicely as well. The joint still doesn’t quite feel like it did before, but it feels good enough to continue on this path.

Just my experience - hopefully you are able to resolve this tricky injury.


#10

Thanks for the clarification, Jim, and for all the ideas everyone. I’m not really sure when the AC issue originally popped up. I think it’s just overuse over the years (plus sleeping on it), but there may have been some trauma to it in the past (my memory is not great).

This morning was press day and I did 5x10 of reverse grip bench press at 50% of my overhead press training max. It felt pretty good but a bit awkward at first. No pain in my AC and no clicking (which usually precedes the pain). I really noticed my pecs getting activated. Two nights ago I did a few sets of neutral grip dumbbell bench press (flat bench, mine doesn’t incline) with elbows tucked in and with the same weight and felt no pain. I liked the feeling of the movement a bit better than RGBP, but it seemed to target my triceps much more. I performed both movements with essentially the same grip width and bar arc, so the main difference is the direction of my grip.

I’ll experiment with both for the next two BBB cycles. Hopefully I’ll be able to settle on one by the time I switch to a medium intensity cycle (and then get a swiss/football bar if neutral grip seems better than reverse for me).