Sunday, March 11, 2007

Low Budget Warrior Tip No. 102: No Bench Required

When the subject of lifting weights for exercise comes up, one of the first exercises people think of is the bench press. The bench press is one of the signature exercises of the modern bodybuilding culture. To be fair, the bench press is an efficient way to build strength and size in the pectoralis muscles of the chest. However, it is not the only way to do so and other exercises build functional chest strength better. After all, how often do you find yourself lying on your back and pressing something off your chest?

The pectoralis muscles are important to functional strength. They play a key role in punching, overhead lifting, holding and carrying large objects and similar motions. They also assist in maintaining structure and alignment of the shoulders, providing counter force to the trapezius and other muscles of the upper back. Because of the importance of the pectoralis muscles, we want to be sure to include them in our strength training program. But if you don’t want to spend money on a bench or don’t want to clutter your home with exercise equipment, we need to have ways to train those muscles without a weightlifting bench.

Obviously, pushups are the simplest substitute for the bench press, but it won’t be long before you have stopped gaining strength and are just increasing muscular endurance by doing more and more repetitions. Some solutions to this are to increase resistance by doing one of the following:

  1. Incline pushups—elevate your feet. The higher your feet, the more difficult the pushup becomes.
    Drawback: eventually you’ll get your feet high enough that you are working the anterior deltoid (shoulder muscle) more than the pectoralis muscles.
  2. One-arm pushups—Not only are you lifting the same weight with one hand that you previously did with two, but the leverage of the exercise effectively multiplies the weight. It is unlikely that you will be able to do one-arm pushups from the floor correctly the first time you attempt them. Start by placing your hand on an elevated surface with your feet on the floor. This shifts your center of gravity toward your feet and effectively reduces the weight you are pushing up. Work your way toward the floor over weeks and months until you can pushup off the floor.
    Drawbacks: Requires tremendous muscular control and balance to execute and thoroughly exhausts the Central Nervous System.
    Resource: Best instruction I’ve ever seen on performing a one-arm pushup is in Pavel Tsatsouline's book The Naked Warrior. Check it out.
  3. Add resistance with bands—stretch them across your shoulders and upper back and pin the ends to the floor with your hands.
    Drawback: resistance increases as the bands are stretched and decreases as the bands contract. To apply more resistance on the bottom of the pushup, shorten the bands and do half pushups.
  4. Add resistance with weights—put weights (either barbell plates, sand bags or other heavy objects) in a backpack and put the backpack on. Do pushups as usual.
    Drawbacks: You can only get so much weight in a back pack and it can be awkward to get on and off when its heavy.
  5. Have a partner add resistance—partner stands either in front of you or straddles your waist and places hands on the trapezius between the shoulder blades. Partner applies just enough resistance to make the pushups challenging. Drawbacks: Requires a partner, so you can’t do it alone, and the partner must be attuned to your needs so that the resistance applied is neither too great nor too little.

    Next week we’ll discuss several ways to use dumbbells, kettlebells and barbells to exercise the chest without a bench.

    Stay strong, live well.

    John Fike

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