Train Your Chest Without Machines

Does the absence of the bench press in your programming spell certain doom regarding your “gains?”

When you hear the local gym bros talking about training, one question invariably comes up: How much ya bench? The chest has become synonymous with muscle building and the unofficial measure of strength. The bench press is a seemingly timeless staple of gymdom. It’s stood the ages in almost all sports and modes of training. But is it a necessity? Does the absence of the bench press in your programming spell certain doom regarding your “gains?”

Enter bodyweight training. Does that term scare you away? Does it instantly conjure up images of skinny, wiry types who lack the amount of muscle you want?

Bodyweight training offers so many advantages and training your chest in this way is no exception. Total body awareness and manipulation, a sense of true strength, as well as strength and stability transfer to other muscle groups, are just a few. The trick is to know how to program an effective and efficient routine to satisfy your own personal needs.

Below are five simple, basic, but highly effective bodyweight chest builders sans the barbell or dumbbell. Plus, you’ll find ways to intensify and challenge yourself to keep the gains coming.

Plyo Push Up

Before you stop reading altogether hear me out. I know that the word plyo (short for plyometrics) may have you running for the hills and asking why it is mentioned in the same room as muscle building, but let me explain. Plyometrics is the act of manipulating the stretch-reflex reaction of a targeted muscle group to elicit more power and strength than you would normally generate through traditional resistance training.

The eccentric, amortization, and concentric portions of the movements create an optimal environment to recruit more muscle fibers and stimulate more muscle growth. Take a look at a sprinter’s legs. Sprinters possess some of the most muscular lower bodies of any sport because they are subjected to repeated bouts of plyometric exercise.

Most lifters will think of clapping push ups and the like, but there are several other variations that can be even more challenging. Uneven hand placement, such as on a medicine ball with feet slightly elevated, going from a diamond hand position to a wide position for each rep, and going from an elevated step to the floor with each rep are just a few ways to spice up your plyo chest workout.

Scapula Push

You are more than likely familiar with the scapula pull; the movement that has you manipulate your shoulder girdle in such a way where you shrug your shoulders up and down to stimulate your lats without having to bend at the elbows. With a scapula push much of the same principles apply.

With pushes you’ll keep your elbows rigid as you lower your body toward the floor in a pushup position. Once you’ve “shrugged up,” reverse the direction and press back up, keeping your elbows rigid.

After you’ve mastered this move and can handle more, have a training partner place a weight plate on your back for added resistance. There isn’t much to this movement, but once you can effectively target your chest you’ll start to reap big reward and increase shoulder stability, thus helping thwart injury down the road.

TRX Push Up/Fly

Okay, so this one isn’t really without equipment, but it still qualifies as an effective bodyweight chest stimulator. Touted as one of the most versatile pieces of equipment known in the exercise realm, the TRX suspension trainer is a perfect tool to add to your chest arsenal.

Whether you’re performing a press (as in push up) or a fly motion, the key to adjusting difficulty is all in where your feet are as you perform the movement. The more you place your feet toward the origination point of the suspension trainers, the more difficult the movement. This will decrease the angle of your body to the ground displacing more weight toward your upper body, thus stressing your pecs, shoulders, and triceps more.

Push Up

As a staple to any exercise program the push up can’t be beat—all you need is a flat surface. As timeless as it is, too many lifters forget its effectiveness. I mentioned whole body strength earlier and the importance of having a sense of real world strength. So, why isn’t it practiced more?

A possibility most likely is the challenge of making the push up more difficult for muscle building purposes. Try different variations such as feet elevated, feet crossed, hands elevated where you’ll dip your upper body between two boxes or steps, a staggered hand placement, push ups on a medicine ball or two medicine balls (a hand on each one), or try placing your hands on paralletes. All of these will help increase resistance and, in turn, crank up the intensity.

Parallel Bar Dip

It’s not rocket science that the dip is one powerful chest-building tool. Done properly, with a forward lean and elbows slightly out, it stimulates the chest in a very unique way. Plus, it’s one of the quintessential bodyweight moves that also hits your shoulders, triceps, and other stabilizers, such as traps.

Once you’ve mastered proper form specifically for the chest, there are a few things you can do to up the intensity factor. First, the obvious, is to add weight. Either wear a weight belt to hang a weight plate between your legs or you can simply hold a dumbbell with your feet. Another technique is to perform one-and-a-half reps.

From the bottom position lift up to full extension, lower down to an approximate halfway point, press back up to the full extension once again before returning to the bottom. That is one rep.

Put It to Work

It goes without saying that you can build an appreciable amount of muscle with just your bodyweight.

This isn’t homage for the avoidance of using free weights or machines; it’s just a quick primer on the sometimes unseen advantages of different methods and techniques to build muscle. Remember, there isn’t only one way. Open and expand your perspective about training.

The Bodyweight Chest Workout

Below is a bodyweight only chest program that you can perform twice per week. Run it in a circuit fashion of three to five rounds of as many reps as possible with a two to three minute rest after each round.

  • Scapula push
  • Plyo push up or feet elevated push up
  • Suspension trainer fly or press
  • Parallel bar dip

Check out more fun workouts and simple exercises to do when stuck at home.

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