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No Barbell, No Problem: Training the Upper Body

Last week, we talked about training the lower body, even if there isn’t a barbell available. It’s the same for the upper body! Here are three exercises you can use in place of common barbell movements.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press

Did you know that the dumbbell bench press is technically a progression from the traditional barbell bench press? Yes, it’s actually more difficult due to the necessary recruitment of the shoulder stabilizers that isn’t as prominent during the traditional barbell bench press. This leads to increased strength progress over time. By moving this to single arm, it increases the core stability required and allows you to focus your attention solely on that arm.

The Set Up

Sit on the end of the bench with a single dumbbell in one hand. Using your knee, hoist the dumbbell to your chest as you lay back on the bench. Use both hands to move the dumbbell over your chest and leave the hand without the dumbbell in the air. This will keep your shoulder blade in the correct position during the lift. Lower the dumbbell to your chest so that your elbow is at a 45-degree angle with your body. Return to the top of the lift. Perform 3-4 sets of 8-10 repetitions.

If you’re looking for hypertrophy (muscle growth), I would recommend a tempo bench press or plyometric pushup!

Eccentric Pull-Ups

Perhaps one of the biggest bang for your buck movements, pull-ups are an amazing way to build total back, core, and upper body strength without a barbell for bent rows or heavy deadlifts. By slowing down the lowering phase, you increase the time under tension and, as a result, the amount of time the muscle has to work.

The Set Up

For a traditional pull-up, set up with your hands just wider than shoulder width and palms facing away from you. Perform a pull-up. Making sure your core is braced and you lead the movement beginning with tucking your shoulder blades down and back. On the down, or eccentric portion of the lift, control your descent as slow as possible. The key is to NOT just let your body drop to the bottom. Perform 3-4 sets of AMRAP (as many reps as possible).

Explosive Incline Chest Press

A powerful muscle is a strong muscle! By utilizing explosive speed in lifts such as the incline bench press, we increase these explosive properties of the muscle and therefore increase strength and hypertrophy.

For this exercise, we can use either the plate loaded machine or the dumbbells. Personally, I like the plate loaded machine because as you fatigue, there are the built-in safeties. In addition, there is added stability so we can truly focus on the chest without needing as much recruitment of the shoulder stabilizers, as we talked about with the single-arm dumbbell bench press.

The Set Up

We want to think of this movement as “down to up”, so when we begin we’ll press the arms out away from the body before beginning the first rep. Slowly control the descent, as we did with the pull-up. When you reach the bottom, immediately explode out and push the weights away as quickly as possible. By slowly controlling the down phase, you’re loading the muscle to explode out as powerfully as possible. Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 repetitions.

There are countless more variations that we can use in place of the barbell; it just takes a little creativity and thinking outside the box. That’s why the trainers are here! Don’t be afraid to ask them for their opinion on what you should do, variations for exercises, or to check your form. We all went to school for Exercise and Sports Science and many of us are certified personal trainers!


Key Word: Press

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