When you join a big commercial gym, you’re essentially renting the equipment and space with a bunch of other people who couldn’t care less about you or your workouts.
They’re going to do what they want, whether or not it disrupts your workout. All you can control is what you’ll do with your time there. So it’s up to you to get a killer training session regardless.
So, when the equipment you want to use is taken, and it’s supposed to be your chest and back day, what are you going to do? Here’s what to do to maximize your workout… especially during the busiest gym times.
Substitute Equivalent Exercises
Sure, there are exercises you’d like to use, but there are no specific exercises you NEED to use to make gains. All you need to do to build muscle is put force across tissues and joints – that’s all strength training is! And there are lots of exercise variations available to help you train any movement pattern or muscles group just as effectively.
Note: The exception to this is if you’re training for competition. In that case, there are certain exercises you have to do because you’ve got to practice your specific lifts. In that case, you’re best off finding a gym that caters to competitive lifters.
Here’s a list of the top alternatives to chest and back exercises.
Barbell and Dumbbell Bench Press Alternatives
When the barbell bench press or a chest press machine are taken, you can default to a dumbbell bench press. However, when that option is also unavailable, you can use the BOSU as a bench for doing a dumbbell press.
Here’s how to set it up so you’re not having to deal with any instability, which can interfere with your mechanical tension.
While it’s trendy to hate on the lowly BOSU, this variation still hits all the muscles you’re wanting to hit on chest day. This is much safer than doing dumbbell presses while laying on a stability ball because if the ball pops, you’re likely going to get injured.
The other option is the band resisted push-up. If you find these awkward, here’s a much better way to set up with the band.
You can do all these band exercises using a Superband, but I’m using an NT Loop because it’s specifically designed to be more comfortable and stable to put around your body.
Fun fact: Research has shown that band push-ups provide similar strength gains to the barbell bench press (1) so it’s a legit alternative.
Incline Barbell and Dumbbell Bench Press Alternatives
When the incline bench or incline chest press machines are taken, you can do incline dumbbell presses. And, when that option is off the table, you can also use the BOSU ball for incline dumbbell presses. Here are a few important tips:
If that’s not your speed, you can also do either an angled barbell one-arm press or an angled barbell shoulder-to-shoulder press, which both offer a similar diagonal pressing pattern.
Lastly, if all you have is a band, try push-back push-ups:
I developed this exercise as a push-up variation that’s more like an incline dumbbell press than a flat dumbbell press. This is because the motion of the band push-back push-up involves driving your body back using a similar push angle to an incline press.
I provided all the coaching cues for how to properly set up and perform this awesome move in my article on the Top 7 Advanced Home Exercises.
Pec Deck Machine Alternative
If the pec deck machine is occupied, this NT Loop pec deck exercise is just what the doctor ordered.
Lat Pulldown Machine Alternatives
The obvious alternative is pull-ups or chin-ups. But what if all the pull-up bars are occupied too? No problem! Here are a few great vertical pulling alternatives.
Cable Fighter’s Lat Pulldown
You can do this exercise with both arms moving simultaneously, but adding an alternate-arm action really helps you squeeze and concentrate on the concentric of each rep.
Make sure you position your body underneath the cable, so you’re pulling them vertically to match a lat pulldown action. If you set up slightly behind the cables, you’ll be pulling them diagonally.
One-Arm Cable Motorcycle Row
I’ve been doing these with both bands and cables, using one arm and two-arm variations for years.
Barbell Bent-Over or Seated Row Alternative
The obvious exercise alternative to the barbell bent-over row is the seated row. They’re both double-arm horizontal pulling actions where your lower back, hips, and legs have to maintain your body position while you perform the reps.
That said, in cases where neither option is available, doing a two-arm dumbbell bent-over row is an awesome alternative:
It’s funny because you always see people in the gym doing single-arm dumbbell rows on the bench but, as basic as it is, it’s not as common for folks do two-arm bent-over rows with dumbbells. But using dumbbells allows you more freedom of movement at your wrists, which make them more comfortable and also helps increase your range of motion at the top of each rep.
A great horizontal rowing option (that also hits your posterior chain) is to do what I call “band-enhanced suspension rows.”
Chest-Supported Row Machine Alternative
In cases where the chest-supported row machine (selectorized or plate-loaded) machine is taken, just opt for dumbbell SEAL rows.
There’s one thing I’ve never understood about this exercise though. Many people will position themselves with their face against the bench. Yes, where dirty, sweaty people have sat! Simply position your head above the top of the bench to avoid this. It’ll make the exercise more comfortable anyway.
- Calatayud J, Borreani S, Colado JC, Martin F, Tella V, Andersen LL. Bench press and push-up at comparable levels of muscle activity results in similar strength gains. J Strength Cond Res.2015;29(1):246-253. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000589