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Building your presses

Without the use of barbells

After blabbering on about the importance of movement in these trying times and why it's a good idea to treat yourself to some equipment, it is time to get to the heart of it. Moving for fitness is easy, but going a step further and turning a situation with limited equipment into serious strength training is a challenge. Especially when improving your bench or shoulder press is on your wishlist. But it can be done. I'll explain what is important to consider when looking for alternative exercises in pursuit of pressing gains, and provide you with a way to build your own program.

photo by @wearebru

In order to be able to get stronger you need two things: a specific movement pattern, and the ability to gradually increase resistance within that pattern. Barbells allow you to pretty much think up any movement and then vary resistance to the tiniest amount, hence them normally being the preferred weapons of choice. However, due to the current closed-gym-situation the focus of this article will be on exercises that can be performed in a homely setting. Enter bodyweight movements.

In theory, bodyweight exercises like push-ups can be just as effective for strength building as their barbell counterparts. The problem however is that the weight in bodyweight movements is obviously fixed, which makes it difficult to hit the required intensity levels (as in % of maximal strength) and repetition ranges for optimal strength gains. Just doing more reps each time, or switching to more difficult positions (like elevating the feet in a push-up) are okay means for making things more difficult, but fall short when it comes to longer-term strength improvements. This is why it's imperative that you invest in means that allow you to scale body weight driven exercises, like elastic bands, a weight vest, or a dip/chin-up belt.

One rep max HSPU? No problem.

If you're wondering how to decide on what movements to put in your program, it's important to decide on a rough programming structure first. I recommend starting by deciding on a primary pressing movement, which will be your heavy low-rep strength movement (5 sets of 1-5 reps). Then pick one or two technically related movements to be performed for moderate repetitions (4 sets of 6-12 reps), and top it off with a few higher repetition accessory movements (3 sets of 12-30 reps) that will help build up the individual pressing muscles.

With a structure laid out, you are now ready to pick movements. I have attached a list of highly effective exercises for both the shoulder press and bench press below:

Building the shoulder press

Primary exercise: Handstand push-up (scaled if necessary)

Secondary exercises: kettlebell/dumbbell overhead press, pike push-up, feet elevated push-up, (ring) dips, overhead band press

Accessory exercises: face pull with bands/rings/TRX, triceps extension with bands/rings/TRX/dumbbells, front or side raise with bands/dumbbells, band overhead press, yoga push-up

Building the bench press

Primary exercise: weighted dip or TRX/ring push-up (add bands or weights if required)

Secondary exercises: (ring) dips, (bottom paused) push-up, feet elevated push-up, dumbbell (floor) press

Accessory exercises: face pull with bands/rings/TRX, triceps extension with bands/rings/TRX/dumbbells, front or side raise with bands or dumbbells, fly with rings or dumbbells

Add weights and bands until you reach target intensity

Regarding training frequency, most will fare best with about two pressing sessions per week. That said, my experience is that beginners are often able to handle slightly higher training frequencies, while seasoned trainees usually have to limit the very heavy work to just once a week. I however encourage you to experiment. Just don't forget about the basics like your warmup, not skipping PR's, and taking proper rest breaks, and you will be well on your way to returning to the gym with a much stronger press than before.

Good luck!

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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