A major concern for all of us big-shot men is how we can bench press when we are training alone. Chest day has always been an important day in the weekly training regimen. It might fall on a Monday, a humpday, or even a Friday, but it is and has always been one of the most exalted workout days of the week for those training with a partner, buddies, or teams.
This is a day when we can walk in the gym with our chests puffed out.
This is a day when we can train those all-important show muscles… the pecs.
This is a day when we can perform the “manliest of exercises”… the bench press!
Let us examine some alternatives to bench pressing flat with a spotter.
(Of course for those of us who already know how to bench press, the bench press is really no big deal. There are about 7 other exercises I’d rather do than bench and at least 5 other goals that are more important to me than having a big chest or a big bench… but I digress… this article is about bench pressing after all.)
Major Concerns When Barbell Benching
When bench pressing, a number of nasty things could happen:
- You could drop the bar forward onto your chest or abdomen.
- You could drop the bar backwards onto your neck.
- You could exhaust yourself and end up pinned to the bench.
- You could lift too much and end up pinned to the bench.
- You could pull, strain, or tear something and be physically unable to lift the weight.
- You could miss the rack at the end of the set and fall sideways off the bench.
- Any other dumb thing could happen to injure you, or make you call someone over for ‘a little help’.
Bench Press Solutions
Some of these solutions are not conducive to lifting maximal weights. Benching in a squat rack or power rack should be fine, but be careful if you have no racks or pins at all. You should also use collars at all times when bench pressing without a spotter.
If you don’t use collars and get pinned, it doesn’t matter if you are using a great workout bench, you will most definitely end up hurting or breaking someone or something when you try to escape. If it comes down to this, please ask for help before trying to escape yourself. Someone will most likely just grab the bar off your neck and rack it for you. I have also provided a plan from escaping when pinned if no one else is around.
Benching With a Spotter
This one is a no-brainer. You will often be lifting with other people around. Simply ask one of them if they would mind spotting you. Otherwise, there are usually people on staff that will assist you if you need a spot. The biggest problem with this solution is that 99% of weight lifters have no clue how to spot or they only feel safe spotting their way rather than your way. Find a spotter that is willing to work with you, or you might as well choose one of the spotter-free solutions listed below.
Things to consider when asking for a spot:
- Does this person look like they can handle the weight I am lifting in case of an emergency?
- I always ask my spotter to please not touch the bar unless it starts heading back down when it should be going up.
- Make sure they only give you enough help to finish the rep, don’t just grab the bar and rack it.
- You might want to walk near the person first to see if they smell rank or not.
- Tell the person if you want a lift-off or not, and tell them when to cue the lift. (ex. on the count of 3)
A bad spotter can ruin a workout just as easy as getting pinned on the bench. The rest of this article will focus on benching without a spotter.
Benching Without a Spotter
Here is how you can still bench when you don’t have a spotter:
Bench in a Power Rack
Power Racks are sweet. It is basically a cage in which you can set 2 horizontal pins at a certain height. The barbell can then be placed upon the pins. The bar can also usually be racked on the typical short racking pins, which are mounted on the vertical bars of the cage and are also adjustable. This applies to flat, incline, and decline barbell bench press.
Steps to setting up for benching in a Power Rack:
- Place a standard flat bench inside a Power Rack, so that the bench runs parallel to the horizontal pins.
- Set the pins about 6-8 inches above the top of the bench.
- Place the empty barbell on cage-mounted racking pins.
- Lying on the bench, assume proper bench pressing form with shoulder blades squeezed together and feet flat on the floor. Unrack the barbell and attempt to perform a press.
- If the pins are too high to allow the barbell to touch your chest, lower them.
- If the pins are too low for you to be able to bail out in an emergency, raise them.
- If necessary you can place plates under the ends of the bench to prop it up an extra inch or two.
Bench in a Squat Rack
Squat Racks are also sweet, but not as sweet as Power Racks. In this case, you can set the bar in the middle of the squat rack and bench off either the lowest pin or the horizontal safety bars. Once in a while, you might find a Squat Rack with adjustable safety bars. This would be ideal.
You will have the most luck benching in a squat rack if you decide to do incline benching. In this case, you can use the regular squat rack pegs to rack and hold the weight.
Build Your Own Rack
What I mean, is to use the equipment at the gym to set up some sort of racking mechanism on either side of your bench. Some gyms have little curling stations that sort of look like a sawhorse. You can carry these things around and rack bars on them without too much trouble.
If you are creative, you will probably be able to put together a rack solution for benching. Be aware that if you get too creative, people will inevitably stare and you, and you will be the guy that people whisper about when you’re not looking. Good luck with that.
Clean The Weight
When I say clean, I mean either hang clean or power clean. If you don’t have any equipment with racks or pins, you can try this. Please be careful. Try this method with very light weight first, so you can get the hang of each transition.
Steps to bench press without any racks or pins:
- Start by cleaning the weight to your shoulders as you normally would when cleaning.
- Then carefully and slowly sit down on the flat, decline, or incline bench.
- Now you will have to carefully lie back, while at the same time transitioning the weight from over your neck to over your chest.
- When your set is over, your struggles really begin because you have to sit up with the weight.
- Using your legs for momentum by first pulling them up, you want to sit up as forcefully and quickly as possible, while also transitioning the weight to the tops of your thighs. At this point, you can just stand up and lower the weight to the floor as you would if you were finishing your power clean.
Even if you don’t have access to any benches or any racks, as long as you have a barbell and some plates, you can still floor press. This is an exercise that is usually performed by powerlifters. It is a 3/4 range of motion exercise that will allow you to use significantly more weight than you would on a normal bench press. At the bottom of the exercise your elbows/triceps will touch the floor, thereby stopping the rep at that point. The bar will still be an inch or two above your chest.
If you miss the last rep, you can just put the weight on the floor and crawl out from under the bar. This is not an exercise that should replace your regular bench press for more than a total of 3-4 months out of the year.
Captain Obvious strikes again! Seriously though, if you can’t barbell bench press because you either don’t have a spotter or don’t have the right equipment, just switch to the dumbbell press. If you can’t finish a rep, you can either sit up with the dumbbells or lower them SLOWLY one-at-a-time to the floor. This is another exercise that shouldn’t replace the barbell press for more than a total of 3-4 months out of the year.
Escaping when you are pinned.
You’ve only got a couple of options if you are already pinned:
- If you are strong enough and can get the weight over your head, you can drop the bar onto the bench behind your head. Just don’t try this if the bar could possibly hit anyone or anything and bounce back onto your face or neck.
- Did you use collars?! If you used collars, you can ease off one side of the bench by dropping that side of the barbell to the floor. With collars, the plates should stay on the bar and you’ll be able to awkwardly maneuver out of the situation once one side in on the floor.
- No collars?! You can drop one side of the bar down, but chances are the weights will fall off, causing the heavy side to jettison the bar through the nearest mirror or window. You better be sure you can handle it if you decide to bench without collars.
No matter which solution you choose, there is always one solution that is NOT OK to choose. Stay away from the smith machine. There is absolutely no reason to bench in a smith machine unless you are a bodybuilder who doesn’t care about repetitive use injuries, muscular imbalances, or ancillary strength.