You don’t have weights at home and you’re getting pretty tired of regular push-ups — but one of your biggest anxieties about being away from the gym for so long is your bench press suffering. Figuring out how to not just maintain, but improve your bench press without weights can be tricky, but it’s not impossible.
Sure, there’s nothing quite like the muscle stimulation you get from a heavy barbell, but weight is not the only thing involved in a bench press (or any lift, for that matter). Your shoulder stability — not to mention your tricep strength for lockout — need to be on point for busting out a bench PR. You also need solid core strength and the ability to engage your lats on command. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to develop these crucial bench press strengths without weights.
Yep, there are some push-ups that you’re just going to have to do — without weights, the ability to control your body weight up and down from the ground is just a phenomenally powerful way to develop and maintain upper body strength. But endless sets of regular old push-ups aren’t the only thing you’ll need to give your bench press numbers a boost.
You don’t need a kettlebell or dumbbell for Turkish get-ups to strengthen the heck out of your shoulder stability and your core. Not only that, but this full-body move is incredible for developing kinesthetic awareness, which is going to help phenomenally with the way you’re able to set up your bench, position your legs, improve your arch, etc.
When you begin your get-up, make sure to pack the shoulder of your weighted arm (you’re imagining holding a weight if you don’t have one, which includes holding tension in your forearm and keeping a tight fist). Exhale each time you transition to a new segment of the move — AKA, exhale when you peel up onto your forearm, again when you rise onto your hand, again when you raise your hips to the ceiling, etc. Keep your shoulder packed the whole time, and keep eye contact with your fist to maintain full-body awareness and integrity.
Once you’ve gone through a few solid reps on each side, set up again and grab a yoga block. Balance it on top of your fist as a replacement for a weight (it won’t hurt you too much if and when it falls). Don’t have a yoga block? Use a stuffed animal or a pillow — I’m serious. It might look and feel silly, but you don’t want to use a textbook here. (It will fall on your face at some point, and nobody wants that.)
The point isn’t about adding weight to the movement — the point is about maintaining the integrity of your shoulder position. Adding a balance component will keep your form neat and do wonders for your shoulder stability — a crucial component for improving shoulder health and bench press numbers.
Training Recommendation: 5 sets of 5 slow, deliberate reps per side (with a yoga block or pillow for balance on your fist), resting as needed between sets
[Learn more in our complete guide to the Turkish get-up]
Find some empty wall space and make sure your feet are clean (no one’s going to appreciate your dirty footprints on your wall… unless that’s the aesthetic you’re going for, I guess).
Stand facing away from the wall, brace your core, and get into a high plank position with your heels near the wall. Keeping your core engaged and a soft bend in your knees, walk backward up the wall.
As your feet get higher, walk your hands closer to the wall. If you’re not used to inverted positions, take it extra slow and don’t pressure yourself to walk your hands closer to the wall than feels comfortable for today. Make sure you’re breathing, and keep your shoulders packed away from your ears.
When you’ve reached your peak, slowly reverse the movement, walking your hands forward as your feet walk back down the wall. These walk-ups are great for developing overall upper body strength and stability, which is going to be crucial when you get back under the bar.
Training Recommendation: 4 sets of 4, resting as needed between sets
[Related: 5 ways to work out with a wall]
Prone Shoulder Presses
Sure, they’ve got “press” in the name, but you don’t need weights here (unless you want to grab a couple of soup cans — but the point is stability here, so your focus should be on movement quality).
Lie in a prone position with your feet untucked, your hands beside your shoulders, and your forehead resting on your yoga mat or a towel. Squeeze your glutes and quads as you raise your chest off the ground, maintaining length through the top of your head.
Your hands should raise along with the rest of your upper body. When you’ve reached the edge of your mobility, exhale and superman your arms forward, like you’re about to take flight. Keep your glutes and quads engaged, pressing the tops of your feet down into the ground as you do your simulated overhead presses.
Really focus on every contraction happening in your body as you bring your hands back to your shoulders, pulling your elbows back toward your rib cage. Sink back down to the ground, let your body relax for a quick moment, then repeat.
Training Recommendation: 4 sets of 12, 30-second rest
I know, I know — you’re sick of push-ups. But there are some variations that are really too good to pass up. Because they all place emphasis on different parts of your upper body, it’ll be hard to get bored with all the variety.
Diamond push-ups are going to force you to engage your triceps and upper chest more than you would with a regular push-up, and you’ll have to fight harder to keep your entire body locked into a plank. What’s more, your shoulders aren’t going to be working from a compromised position — and the healthier you keep those shoulders, the better your bench press is going to be.
To make the movement more challenging, bring your feet together. If you’re just getting used to these fingers-together-under-your-chest push-ups, spread your feet wider to give you a broader base of stability.
Training Recommendation: 4 sets to failure, resting as needed between sets
If you’ve never seen a lizard working out, you really should — it’s extremely good for the soul. Imitating their push-up prowess is also good for the soul (and your bench press).
Settle into a long lunge: put your left knee on the ground behind your hips and plant your right leg into a lunge in front of your shoulders. Of course, you’ll have to adjust your own position depending on how your body is feeling and how mobile you are.
Once you find a comfortable position, lean forward to find stability through your hands. Place both palms on the ground on the left side of your right foot. Then… make like a lizard and sink into a push-up.
Do not expect your chest to get near the ground (or even close) — just focus on preventing your elbows from totally flaring out (this is a lizard push-up, not a chicken wing push-up) and really pushing the ground away with your hands.
These push-ups will help your bench press lockout (tricep power!) and improve your hip flexibility, which will contribute to a more powerful leg drive when you settle onto a bench for a max effort lift.
Training Recommendation: 4 sets to failure per side, resting as needed between sets
Tripod Crab Reach
Sit on your butt with your knees bent and your feet firmly planted on the floor in front of you.
Bring your left hand slightly behind your hips and bring your left palm to the floor, with your fingers facing the wall behind you. Squeeze your glutes and press both feet into the floor, sending your hips up as high as they can go.
As you raise your hips, draw your right hand in a path up past your face. Reach up toward the ceiling and back behind you. If your shoulder and traps allow, you might be able to bring your arm behind you until it reaches parallel to the floor.
Whatever your range of motion is, pause there for a moment. Then, gently bring your right arm and hips back down at the same time. Tuck your right arm between your legs as you let your hips rest briefly, then repeat.
Switch sides to even things out when you’re done with the reps on your right side.
Training Recommendation: 3 sets of 8 per side, 30-second rest
A classic yoga move, good for improving your bench press? Heck yes. Because you’ll be raising your tail bone up toward the ceiling, a lot of your weight is going to be distributed to your hands — and, once again, we arrive at the importance of shoulder stability for improving your bench press.
Start in high plank position and send your hips back, imagining a resistance band above and slightly behind you, pulling your hips up with it. Keep a soft bend in your knees if you need to, and press your heels down toward the floor (no worries if they can’t touch yet).
Settle into the pose, keeping your shoulders packed away from your ears and your fingers spread out, pressing into the ground through your palms and each digit. Breathe easily and deeply, lengthening your body with each inhale and sinking deeper into the pose with each exhale.
Training Recommendation: 4 sets of 30-90 second holds (depending on how long feels long to you when you’re starting out), resting and shaking out your wrists as needed between sets
[Related: 5 yoga poses for a better big 3]
Start in a forearm plank position, keeping your feet close together if you want an extra challenge. Activate your glutes and quads, and try to keep them — as well as your core — tight through the entire movement.
Press your forearms up so that your palms are on the ground and your arm is straight, settling into a regular push-up position . Sink back down onto your forearms.
You’ll be integrating your core and your upper body in a big way with this move (not to mention strengthening your tris and shoulders), and that’s the kind of upper body integrity you’ll need to improve your bench.
Training Recommendation: 4 sets of 8 per side, resting as needed between sets
Set up as you would for a push-up, and… do a push-up. (Doing this move with a closer grip will make it more challenging.)
When you come back to the top of your push-up, press your right hand into the ground and peel your left hand up, windmilling your body into a side plank.
Reach toward the ceiling, following your left hand with your gaze. Balance on your right hand — talk about shoulder stability! — and slowly come back down.
Repeat on the other side.
The extra mobility you’ll build through your T-spine will translate into a better ability to activate your lats on command (very important for the eccentric phase of a bench press), and it’ll keep your shoulders from getting tight while also making them stable and strong.
Training Recommendation: 3 sets of 8 per side, resting as needed between sets
[Related: 4 ways to improve your thoracic mobility]
Get (Not) Benching
To practice your bench press… you’ve got to bench. But benching isn’t the only thing you need to focus on if you want to be a well-balanced lifter, not to mention if you want to crush your next 1RM goal. Keeping your shoulders healthy and your upper body solid and mobile are must-dos for developing powerful bench presses, and happily, you can do so much of that benchwork without weights.
Featured image via Flamingo Images/Shutterstock