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Is the Bench Press Necessary for Bodybuilders?

You may feel conflicted as a lifter between wanting to add as much muscle to your frame and weight onto the bar. These two elements are only correlated as a beginner when you are going from no stimulus to some. But when you reach a point progress stalls and you feel worn out by the same lifts over and over and want something new in your program, you may want to replace certain "necessary" lifts like the bench.

If you're at a point where you're sure you don't want to chase the big three and instead want to focus on putting on size doing movements you like, it's okay to exchange the bench press for another similar lift.

There Are No Necessary Exercises, Only Necessary Movement Patterns

I believe there is a line where a good intention in movement turns to overreliance in specificity, which in turn becomes a dogmatism of exercise selection and hierarchy.

This can mislead new lifters into overly minimalistic programs without leaving them room to discover what lifts they like. In this way, the big three fall flat. The beginner, and even the intermediate, should experiment with variations to understand where they want to go. I feel the narrative of either "the bench, squat and deadlift recruit the most muscles unrestricted by other muscle groups therefore are the best since more weight means muscles and..." or the narrative of "so and so is dangerous so [insert completely inane style of movement with zero carryover] is superior," are all people spout. Or any other narrative that functions as an exact opposite to another, bringing the same problems to the table in different packaging. Without spending so much time on this tangent, the most important thing for a new lifter to learn is that they will find fault/hypocrisy, eventually, in every one they listen to, every program they run, every "way" they go, there's always a contradiction; some issue; some other "better" thing to do.

Even those that contradict the gurus of the "corrupt" fitness industry can portray themselves as a person who knows everything. Don't worry, I'm not going to try to insert a program or philosophy that will make all your lifting or trust issues go away. All I can say is try to follow data and your values, but don't let it be your master. Sometimes you just have to go off the road in lifting. There are so many guidelines I could be talking about. Let me give an example. At one point, I was feeling too stressed in my program by lifts I didn't like (back squat and deadlift). While I had enjoyed the deadlift previously, it was giving me problems. I didn't feel it contributed to my goals at all. So I replaced the back squat with a front squat and a deadlift for an RDL. Now I supersetted them with no problem because the muscles they use are more separated and not limited by the posterior chain, and the glutes can take a lot of indirect volume without fatigue. Besides that, I also took some of the extra volume (neck, calf, ab, low back and forearm exercises) and structured them in on my cardio days. While I also worked abs, low back, and calves directly on lower days, I get additional volume and frequency for those often neglected groups which respond well to more frequency. Now I don't do anything crazy, like weird lifts you might see on Instagram. I believe some can be useful (like Zercher squats and Jefferson deadlifts) but some, like plyometrics or isometrics, only have use for an athlete. In general, a movement is applicable only to the movement itself, or a sport that mimics the movement or variations. A squat, through improved strength in the knee flexion range of motion, will carryover to a leg extension and the leg extension will improve knee tendon strength and quad musculature but will have no influence on squat strength, simply because an exercise requires more skill as more muscle groups are used.

So what? Should we only do the big three because they can move the most weight and improve other lifts? No. Adding more weight gets you more strength to a point. You should focus on your skills and effort (going closer to failure by increasing reps over sessions; then if your technique is good within an adequate RPE range, increase your weight, then overall sets). If you're working hard, intelligently, and painlessly, there's nothing to worry about. And this is the point of lifting, and any hobby. System building. Shift your mind from "I'm going to get super strong because of all these super powerful people move enormous weight in these lifts" to "I'm going to get super strong in these lifts because I enjoy them." Doesn't mean you have to have a smile on your face every rep you do, just that you genuinely value improvement in something you decided, and build something to be proud of.

Man Doing Planche

There are certain criteria I look for when considering an exercise to fill in a movement. 
  1. Difficulty/stress- Should it be placed near the beginning or end?
  2. Muscles worked- This ties into the first criteria. The more muscle groups involved, the more fatiguing.
  3. Painless- Ties into the next one. Can't like it if it's painful or unnecessary.
  4. Likeability- Whether I tolerate or enjoy the movement.
  5. Goal oriented- This kind of also ties into the muscles worked or if it fits into the movement pattern framework I set up for a session. I need to be doing an exercise as much as I need, not as much as I think I need. You can get greedy with exercise and volume too and only hurt yourself.

What's Better: Powerlifting or Bodybuilding?

I won't argue a side here like it's a 10th grade persuasive essay. You pick your label as an individual doing something. Personally, I believe there are some people that are better suited for one or the other. This "powerbuilding" wave is literally just intelligent bodybuilding programming. The only difference between powerlifting and bodybuilding is powerlifters focus on three major movements and all their exercises are tied into a block model of specificity, fatigue management and proper accessories to ensure, with the best efficiency, they can get the highest possible numbers in those three lifts.

Powerlifter Doing Low Bar Squat

Bodybuilding, or at least intelligent bodybuilding, has some specific movements beyond the horizontal plane, hip hinge, and knee flexion. I know powerlifters do pull ups and rows, too. It's just for powerlifters, even frequency of three main movement patterns takes importance over a frequency of sets per muscle group. Bodybuilding is not mainly about the weight moved like powerlifting. 

Man Doing Bench Press

Of course, these two ways of approaching programming are not mutually exclusive by any means. In most ways, a "powerlifting" program is like a traditional bodybuilding program, just with a focus on the specificity of the main three lifts, or one at a time, and maybe more advanced programming fatigue management schemes.

Neither powerlifting nor bodybuilding has to be done to compete, nor should you feel the need to label yourself as one or the other, or anything. The main purpose of the labels is in the general approach. You may want to experiment with one style or the other. But please, please don't try to add insane volume with the already insane frequency of most powerlifting programs. Don't try to mix the two together. For instance, if you have squat and bench on the same day then you're running a powerlifting program. Just do some leg curls and a horizontal pull and call it a day. Bigger biceps won't move more weight. You can add some more accessories if you want, but the more you add to an already extremely fatiguing day, the more you may want to consider picking "bodybuilding." It's cool to lift big numbers. It's cool to look "good" too. They're certainly not mutually exclusive, and I'm not saying they are just to always consider fatigue. But in my experience, you're always less capable than you want to be.

Why the Bench Is Not Enough for the Upper Body

To get full muscle development, there are a few muscles you may want to give more weight to. Muscles like the traps, lats, biceps, middle deltoids, upper chest, abs, quads, and calves are some of the most important for the bodybuilder. That isn't to say you have to work every muscle, like the commonly overlooked neck, tibialis anterior (front calf) and forearms, but that you should consider it.

When people think of the ultimate chest builder, they think of a bench press. Again, if you are at this post, you probably don't like the bench. And that's alright. I think there are better exercises for the chest. My personal favorite is the dip. The dip is fantastic for chest stretch and musculature. 

I really favor calisthenics movements for hypertrophy simply because of the ease of setting up, painless movement and fantastic progression opportunity. I do still perform the bench twice a week because I do find it painless, though it annoys me at times. It's still a good thing that the bench moves so much weight, and I can progress comfortably. I just wouldn't rely on it for chest growth. I use it to carryover to movements that will give me greater hypertrophy, like pushups. I use it for skill, and I perform a heavy bench once a week and a higher rep incline bench in the other session.

Man Doing Push-up

And there lies the key. Strength movements and hypertrophy movements tie in as long as they are in synergy. Specific neurological patterns carryover to, say, "hypertrophy" exercises performed near failure, like bench press to a pushup. If you do both, they will feed off each other, the progression of the bench (which may lack chest and tricep tension) and the more stimulating pushup. We know total tonnage moved does not predict muscle growth. A pushup and bench can produce similar mechanical tension. It really is just about the tension placed on the muscle and how you progress.

4 Best Bench Alternatives

If you don't like the bench and accept that you don't have to do it, here are some of my favorite replacements:

Pushup progression


Pushup progressions are calisthenic oriented movements that are a bodyweight horizontal push. I recommend this excellent guide from startbodyweight.com.

Muscles Worked:

  • Lower traps
  • Triceps
  • Chest
  • Anterior Deltoids
  • Middle Deltoids

Dumbbell Bench


The dumbbell bench is like the hypertrophy version of a bench, just because it requires more stabilization and can go deeper than a barbell. Though you may find it more difficult to progress. I like this exercise more as an accessory rather than a main lift.

Muscles Worked

  • Anterior Deltoids
  • Chest
  • Triceps

Incline Bench


The incline bench could be better suited for a main horizontal push replacement. It places more emphasis on the upper pecs and front deltoids, and is better worked in higher rep ranges because you can't move as much weight.

Muscles Worked

  • Upper Pecs
  • Anterior Deltoids
  • Triceps

Incline Dumbell Bench


If you want to go the dumbbell route, I firmly believe the incline DB bench is superior to the flat one, simply because of how neglected the upper chest often is, and how it's harder to progress in, therefore, easier to keep as a movement, and paradoxically, progress in.

Muscles Worked

  • Upper Chest
  • Triceps
  • Anterior Deltoids

How to Build Upper Body Mass with Bench

Now, if you read this and decide you want to work on your bench and integrate it with other horizontal push variations, whether in more days, or sets per session, good on you. You can do this by following the principle of starting your sessions with either the hardest movement or that you want to feel freshest in. If you run a lower/upper split, start with the bench as your horizontal pull. Superset it with a horizontal pull like an inverted row. After doing your other movements after the superset (vertical push and pull) add in another lighter horizontal push, like a pushup or DB Chest Press. Superset that with a lighter row, like a DB Row. Optionally, after that, add in another pair of vertical push/pulls. Then add in an elbow extension/flexion superset, like a tricep extension and a curl.

This is only one example more geared to lower/upper splits. If you run a PPL, always have the bench first on push days. Then consider adding a vertical push after like a overhead press, or dip. Then add another horizontal press like a pushup, and so on.

For full-body splits, have a upper oriented session where you start with a bench then move down. For instance, you have a bench, then a row, then pistol squats and hamstring curls. Then have a vertical push, then pull. Then add some ab/low back work and throw in a tricep extension/curl superset. For your lower days, start with a knee flexion/hip hinge then throw in a light horizontal push, like a pushup progression paired with a light horizontal pull. Then throw in some calf/tibialis anterior work, and a light vertical push/pull like a lateral raise and seated face pull.

Conclusion

I hope you either decide to keep a bench and work on technique or drop it for a variation or alternative that better suits your needs. Whatever you decide, just remember your program is a reflection of your creativity. Don't hesitate to build your own. Just work from the logical order of movement patterns/movement stress, pick a progression scheme, fill in the exercises and go for it. I will make more guides on programming soon.