Here's what you need to know...
- If your chest, shoulders, and triceps have stopped responding, switch to new assistance exercises.
- The landmine, floor sliders, and the Dead-Squat bar are very effective tools.
- You don't have to ditch your main lifts. Keep the core lifts the same while trying new assistance lifts.
If your pushing exercises have stagnated or they're giving you pain, here are seven new ones designed to pack some muscle onto your upper body.
1. One-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press with Iso-Hold
Single-arm dumbbell bench press variations are typically done in one of two ways. Either you use just one dumbbell and do all the reps on one side before switching to the other side, or you grab two dumbbells and do the reps in alternating fashion: right, left, right, left, etc.
While both versions work, for a little extra pec demolition, try holding two dumbbells and pressing with one arm while holding the other arm at approximately a 90-degree angle, and then repeating in reverse on the other side in one continuous set.
You want the non-pressing arm to be bent approximately 90 degrees, which puts the dumbbell a few inches off the chest, forcing the pec on that side to contract hard the whole time. I prefer a neutral grip.
Do these after you've finished your other pressing for the day: 1-2 sets of 5-8 reps each side. Lower reps tend to work better because otherwise it requires dropping the weight to embarrassingly low levels, which studies have shown can be extremely detrimental to the ego.
As a bonus, there's also a substantial demand on the core to keep your torso steady, so you don't want to get greedy by going too heavy and end up flopping off the bench.
2. Plate-Resisted Sliding Chest Flyes
Sliding chest flyes are among my favorite chest exercises. I used to progress them by wearing a weighted vest, but heavier vests make me feel it more in my shoulders, and not in a good way. So now I've started placing small weight plates on top of the sliders instead.
Doing it in this manner, you'll feel it even more in your chest – which is saying something given that this is a complete chest-torcher to begin with – with a lot less stress on the shoulders.
A little weight goes a long way, so don't be afraid to bust out those dinky 2.5's that you're usually too proud to touch.
3. Eccentric Sliding Chest Flyes
Frankly, the regular version of the sliding chest flye is too difficult for most people.
If that's the case, try doing the eccentric portion only. Start in push-up position with your hands on the sliders and slowly reach your arms out of the sides, making sure to keep a slight bend in your elbows to keep the stress on your chest and off your shoulders.
Initially, lower yourself down until your stomach touches the floor, touch your knees down, deload your body, and bring yourself back up to the starting position.
Once you've got that down, lower down in a flye pattern and then bring your hands in close under your shoulders and push yourself back up without touching your torso to the floor.
You can also do them from the knees if needed.
Don't think of it as a wussy exercise. It's a lot harder than it looks.
4. Neutral Grip "Squeeze" Floor Press
The neutral-grip barbell floor press – either with the Swiss bar, football bar, Dead-Squat™ Bar, or something similar – is a great pressing alternative for people whose shoulders don't tolerate the bench press.
If you tweak the technique and turn it into more of a "squeeze" press, it can also be one hell of a chest blaster.
It's going to look like a regular floor press with a few key differences. The devil is in the details.
With a traditional floor press, you set up with your chest up, your shoulders pulled back, and a slight arch in the lower back, and on the eccentric you think about tucking your elbows and using your lats to pull the bar down to your chest. To facilitate that, a common cue is to think about "breaking the bar apart."
That's good for strength purposes, but it actually takes stress off the pecs and puts it on the lats. With the "squeeze" version, you want to set up with your lower back flat on the floor and try to purposely sink your chest down rather than puff it up.
After you un-rack the bar, bend your elbows slightly and flare them out. Then on the descent, rather than think about breaking the bar apart, think about squeezing your arms together, like you're giving someone a hug.
You won't be able to bring your arms together unless you possess superhero strength to bend metal, but the act of trying creates massive tension in the pecs. Keep that slight bend in your elbows and don't come all the way up at the top to keep constant tension on the pecs.
It feels similar to a dumbbell squeeze press, just with a wider grip and far greater loading potential, although the wider grip seems to hit the chest a bit harder.
And when you use the semi-supinated grip on the Dead-Squat bar, it feels awesome on the chest – almost like a reverse grip bench press – while also being very shoulder-friendly.
If you're using a Swiss bar or a football bar, use the handles that allow for a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. If you're doing it right, you'll get a big pump with just the bar.
5. Banded Landmine Lateral Raises
A while back, I introduced you to one of my favorite shoulder exercises, the landmine lateral raise:
It only takes a few sets to know this exercises is a keeper. The arc of the landmine really makes it a front raise, lateral raise, and rear delt raise all in one – and it absolutely smokes the shoulders.
For those who want to up the ante even further, try doing them with band resistance to blow up your shoulders in a way you've never felt before.
Stand perpendicular to the landmine (or just put a barbell in a corner) with the bar in your right hand and position your right hand even with your left pocket. Next, attach a band around the sleeve of the barbell and stand on the other end with your left foot.
From there, keep your arm straight and perform a lateral raise-type movement.
The band resistance works perfectly with the arc of the barbell to create a cross-body diagonal pull that feels really good.
To get the full benefit of the band resistance, keep your arms straight on both the concentric and eccentric, and be sure to control both phases of the rep as well. There will be a tendency to bend your arm and rush the eccentric, but that'll only serve to take the tension out of the band, which you don't want.
As of point of reference, a mini-band feels approximately equivalent to having 12 additional pounds on the bar, which for this exercise is a lot. So if the band is too much at first, start with the bar and work your way up.
6. Half-Kneeling Overhead Press
If the overhead press bothers your lower back, or if you have a tendency to lean way back when you do them, try doing them from the half-kneeling position.
If you have a power rack, it works best to do them from the pins. I suggest doing them with the Dead-Squat bar because you can position yourself right inside the bar and it allows for a neutral grip. A regular barbell works, too.
While you won't have to drop the weight as much as you might think, I still find that these work better when done as a secondary pressing exercise later in the workout after you've already done your heavier work.
It also challenges hip and core stability, so from a programming standpoint, you have a little leeway. If you're looking to increase your overhead pressing strength or bring up your shoulders, you could even program them as a core exercise to give your shoulders some extra work.
7. Sliding Bodyweight Triceps Extensions
One of my clients was dealing with persistent elbow pain that prevented him from doing any real direct triceps work, especially extension-type movements like skull crushers. This exercise was the solution.
I've found that the exercises that piss the triceps off the most are the ones where there's a high degree of elbow flexion, and the ones where the grip plays a major role. So I started thinking of a way to eliminate the grip and minimize elbow flexion, and voila, sliding bodyweight triceps extensions.
By adding in the sliders, you can slide your hands forward on the eccentric so the arm doesn't flex past 90 degrees.
Start with your feet on the floor in push-up position with your hands on a pair of sliders. From there, maintain a plank-like position with your torso and slide your hands out until your forearms touch the floor.
Pause for a second and return to the starting position. If you need more of a challenge, elevate your feet and/or add a weight vest.
Start conservatively. These have a tendency to make your triceps brutally sore.
You'll really feel these in the abs as well, which makes sense because from a core standpoint, it functions similarly to an ab wheel rollout or bodysaw-type movement.
The farther out you slide, the more it'll involve the core and the more you'll limit elbow flexion, but don't go so far that you start to arch your lower back excessively. If you feel them in your back, you've gone too far.
Give some of these exercise variations a shot and push your upper body development to new levels.