At Girls Gone Strong, we understand the importance of the basics. Everyone should squat, hinge, push, pull, and integrate single leg or split stance movements and core training at the level that’s appropriate for their abilities.
That being said, occasionally it’s fun to spice things up a bit and try new variations of “vanilla” exercises.
Since you’re visiting this site, I think it’s a pretty solid guess that you have some experience in the gym. If you don’t, that’s OK too — just make sure you’ve mastered the basics before trying more advanced movements.
Today I am showing you 3 variations of the classic Dumbbell Bench Press. The Dumbbell Bench Press is a fantastic exercise that works your whole body (if you’re doing it correctly), but mainly smokes your chest, shoulders, and triceps.
The variations that I am going to show you all add an extra element of instability to the exercise, so they will give your core quite a workout as well.
Before I introduce you to the exercises, here are a few basic tips when performing any variation of the Dumbbell Bench Press:
1. Keep your upper back tight. Squeezing your shoulder blades together and pulling your upper back tight will help protect your shoulders, and keep your whole body nice and stable, so you have a stable platform to press from.
As the saying goes, you can’t shoot a canon from a canoe. So make sure your base is stable.
2. Squeeze your glutes. This will help keep your whole body tight, and again, give you a nice, stable base to press from. It’s also much easier to keep your upper body tight, if your lower body is tight.
Don’t believe me? Try this. Tense up your upper body as much as possible, while trying to keep your lower body very loose and relaxed. Nearly impossible, right? Now, try to tight your upper body, while simultaneously making your lower body stiff and rigid as well. Much easier, huh?
3. Drive through your legs. This may sound funny, but bench pressing is a full body movement. Above, I encouraged you to squeeze your glutes to help keep your body stable. Now I am encouraging you to drive your feet into the ground while you press.
You may have to play around with your foot position a bit to figure out where you can plant your feet to give you the maximum amount of leg drive.
The first time I really used “leg drive” when benching, I literally almost blacked out from the force I was able to produce.
I also watched my training partner, Sarah Martin, take her bench from a max of 135 to 170 lbs. in a single training session when our good friend Jim Laird taught her how to drive through her legs. It’s powerful stuff.
4. Use a palm-in or 45 degree angle when pressing, and tuck your elbows slightly. This is a much more shoulder-friendly way to press, as opposed to a pronated and/or elbows-flared grip.
If you’re not used to this position, you may feel weaker here at first, that’s OK. Your strength will progress quickly as you become accustomed to the new position.
5. Control the descent. It’s never a good idea to let weight crash down towards your body, especially your face. Make sure you stay nice and tight and control the weight on the way down. Once you’re in the bottom, think about exploding the weight back up (but in a controlled manner. Controlled exploding… that makes total sense, right?)
6. Keep your ribs down. This is probably a new cue for you, but often when people bench press, they have a huge arch. While this is a great technique for lifters trying to win a bench press competition, it’s not optimal for the rest of the population.
Some arch is fine, and even inevitable, if you pull your shoulder blades back and down as seen in tip #1, but the arch should come from your thoracic spine (upper back) and not your lumbar spine (lower back).
Keeping your ribs down allows you to brace your core more effectively, and puts less stress on your lumbar spine.
Now that you have the Dumbbell Bench Press Basics down, check out the video below for 3 fun variations.
1. One Arm DB “McGill” Press - If you don’t know Stuart McGill, you should. He is the foremost expert in the world on back pain. At first glance, this exercise may appear to be a standard One Arm DB Bench Press, but when you look more closely, you’ll see than 1/3-1/2 of my body is hanging off of the side of the bench.
Having part of your body hanging off the bench causes you to stiffen your core and fire your glutes like crazy to perform this exercise. It’s fantastic for increasing core stability, which in turn, can keep your back healthier.
Make sure you lighten up the weight significantly on this exercise (30-50% less than your normal pressing weight in the beginning), and make sure that you’ve mastered the One Arm DB Bench Press first.
2. Alternating DB Bench Press - This exercise is exactly what it sounds like. You are performing a DB Bench Press, but you are alternating which arm is pressing the weight. One arm and one dumbbell stays locked out while the other one is being lowered and then pressed, and then you switch.
Not only does holding one dumbbell statically increase the time under tension and difficulty of this exercise in regards to the chest, triceps, and shoulders, but again, you’re forced to stabilize your core more intensely since lowering one dumbbell at a time will throw you off balance.
Definitely decrease the weight on this exercise until you become accustomed to the instability it causes. Decreasing the weight by 25-40% at the beginning should be fine.
3. One Arm KB Floor Press - Floor Presses are one of my absolute favorite pressing exercises. They shorten the range of motion a bit, so they are super shoulder-friendly.
They also remove your lower body from the equation (s I mentioned above, bench press is a full-body movement, and leg drive is a huge component of how much weight you can move), so it forces you to rely on your upper body even more to press the weight.
Doing them with one arm forces you to engage your core more for stability and it will also reveal imbalances in strength levels between your arms.
I am partial to performing them with a kettlebell because the I am a Turkish Getup fanatic, and the pressing from the floor is one of my weak links within that movement.
The One Arm KB Floor Press has really helped me improve my TGU, and now I can do one using a 36 kg/80 lb. kettlebell.
There you have it! 3 Pressing Movements You Haven’t Tried… or have you? Let me know below, and be sure to try these variations and let me know if you like them. Oh, and definitely tell me about your favorite pressing movements.