Ditch the Barbell Bench Press for Chest?

How much do you bench bro? Since the invention of the barbell this ego-measuring question is one that every lifter knows all too well, and the moment you start putting on some size you can expect to answer this question repeatedly. Because of this I was always pressured into putting my bench at the forefront of my lifting resume, making sure that i was always improving. If my PR wasn’t increasing 5 pounds every week I considered it an unsuccessful week. This attitude and focus led to various shoulder issues, and at the very least having to constantly change my workout schedule to cater to my constant soreness and irritation.

I’m not alone here. Ask any lifter who puts up 300+ pounds on the bench and they’ll most likely give you similar stories on struggling shoulder health. If they’re lucky they may have avoided major injuries but I’d estimate that the clear majority have some nagging shoulder pains.

Let’s look at the biomechanics as to why the barbell bench press isn’t the best exercise to do for chest:

The reality is that our shoulders really are not strong enough to support the motion of the bench press at such high weight. Scapular stabilizers are not only too weak comparatively to other muscles being used during the exercise, but the altered, unfamiliar movement leads to augmented joint stress and rotator cuff compression. Put simply, your shoulder is moving in a way it isn’t used to moving, and your rotator cuff is constantly in an awkward position. This obviously leads to increased injury risk, with a potential for tears, impingements, tendinosis, or other injury.

Apart from the obvious distress on the shoulder, how good is the barbell bench for your chest anyway? Most people typically use this as their main chest day movement. However, your chest doesn’t get the activation during the movement that other chest exercises can give. Your anterior delta and triceps end up taking over the bulk of the work throughout the exercise.

Can you bench safely? Obviously. I’m not here to say that no one should ever do it and that it’s a complete detriment to body health. But what it has turned into is an ego lift, where everyone is doing more than is safe for their shoulders because they want to have an impressive number ready when asked how much they bench by that random guy at the bar who sees your biceps peeking out from your Medium polo.

Now there would be no point in talking about how barbell bench can be unsafe if I wasn’t going to give you some other options to replace it with. Dumbbells offer a more natural movement for the shoulders. Try out incline and decline bumbles to hit upper and lower chest. Slow steady form at an appropriate weight should protect the shoulders as well as give great chest activation. You can also throw in the machine fly movement for a good chest stretch and pump.

Get out there, be safe, and grow that chest!