There's no excuse for pushing through pain and force-feeding movement patterns that don't agree with your body type. Even so, relegating an exercise to pasture should only come through a fair share of trial and error.
Moreover, it may take alternate exercises or some key modifications to existing movements to keep joints like the knees and shoulders happy, while possibly even giving the muscle in question an even better hit.
So before you give up on bench presses, squats, or shoulder presses, try some of these joint-saving variations.
1 – Banded Chest Press
Joint Saved: Shoulders
When people experience shoulder pain while doing bench presses, the pain most often hits at the bottom of the range of motion, even when they're using good form.
Switching to dumbbells so the shoulder position can have some "play" can help the problem, but for some it's not enough. Adding bands, though, can be a game changer. You end up reducing tension a bit while still creating a reasonable challenge. More importantly, you won't aggravate the joint.
The best way to make this work is by setting the bands up at the base of a squat cage or power rack and then creating "handles" by stringing them through fat grips. Adjust the height of the bench accordingly to keep some tension at the bottom.
2 – Kang Squat
Joint Saved: Knees
You've heard experts like John Meadows talking about pre-exhausting a muscle group to serve a certain noble purpose. In particular, he likes pre-exhausting the hamstrings to prepare for squats. The Kang squat employs the same philosophy and is a great way to prep for lower-body training.
The first part of the movement activates the hamstrings, which are a key posterior stabilizer for the knee joint. Being able to achieve maximal hip flexion without entering into too much knee flexion is a good way to groove the pattern for squat mobility. It's the cornerstone for many mobility drills that have that exact intent.
And thanks to the fact that the pattern is basically reversed on the way back up, the knees take less overall stress since the shins get to remain vertical for a much greater duration of each lift (compared to a typical squat).
If you're looking for a way to light up the hamstrings and squat deeper, it's a smart add.
3 – Scrape-the-Rack Press
Joint Saved: Shoulders
Standing or kneeling, scrape-the-rack presses are unusual and beneficial. They use two directions of force at the same time: pressing UP against the weight and pressing IN against the rack.
The lift also helps optimize joint centration because you end up putting traction on the joint throughout the movement. Bottom line, if you have shoulder issues this variation may alleviate many of the common symptoms you tend to experience during conventional pressing patterns.
Since you get to angle your torso inward, the downward force of the weight doesn't directly affect your shoulders (similar to the effect a landmine press would have). By the way, the overall constant tension also creates a scream of a burn for the mid delts.
And no, these wouldn't be quite as effective when done on a Smith machine despite the fact that you get to work on a bar that's travelling on a fixed track. Chances are you'll let up on the inward tension since the fixed bar gives you a pass on that. Stick with free bar.
4 – Banded Target Squat
Joint Saved: Knees
Using bands to help sling you out of the bottom position of a squat is a helpful tool. It's usually accomplished by using a "reverse band" method where you attach the bands to the bar via overhead hooks.
The trouble is, many racks don't have such hooks Even then, it's kind of a hassle to set them up. In either case, this variation can bridge the gap and provide an additional benefit in the process.
Whether you're working with weight that you're not as confident with, or you just need a little assistance in the place where you experience the most compression, the band-assist under the butt can provide you with a tiny bit of help (maybe an assist of 5 or 10 percent) that can make all the difference. It also gives you a depth target so your squats can have some integrity.
Lastly, it can be a real knee saver since the part of the movement with the most assistance – the transitional phase between eccentric and concentric – is also the part where most lifters will feel the most discomfort in the knees.
5 – Banded Kettlebell Swing
Joint Saved: Lumbar Spine
A smart way to spare the lower back from the aggravation caused by doing deadlifts with unforgiving leverages is to do kettlebell swings. Simply add bands to keep the absolute load lighter while making the end ranges more challenging.
Since the KB swing frees you from deep hip flexion and possible lumbar flexion, you can instead focus on the glutes and hamstrings' role in hip extension. Sure, this won't be a perfect substitute, but having band-resisted swings occasionally stand in for deadlifting can still torch the posterior chain while making a light weight feel heavier in the right places of the force curve.
6 – Banded-Wrist Shoulder Press
Joint Saved: Shoulders
These can act as a great prehab movement, a great workout exercise, or a great finisher for the shoulders.
By pressing OUT while also pressing IN, you help promote mid and rear deltoid activation, proper scapular movement, and joint centration. This differs from a conventional cable press because, just like the scrape-the-rack press, you're required to exert force in two planes of force simultaneously.
As long as you're strict with the execution, it won't take much weight to really get a good hit. Likewise, don't underestimate the tension of the band. Using the heaviest, strongest band will make both patterns suffer. Keep the band resistance moderate as you'll struggle to maintain good form after a couple of sets.
7 – Fat-Grip Bench Press
Joint Saved: Elbows, Shoulders
Most people who are advocates of thick grips use them as a grip-strength developer, and they certainly give your forearms a run for their money.
However, I've found them even more useful for doing presses, especially for taller or longer-limbed lifters. Adding surface area to the bar means a better and more dispersed distribution of load across the hands, which can create a domino effect and more democratically distribute pressure on the elbows and shoulders during exercises like dips, bench presses, and strict presses.