13 Press Variations for a Crazy Strong Upper Body
The bench press is only one way to build a stronger upper body.
How much can you bench? Although the bench press may be a universal benchmark for lifters, it shouldn’t be the sole focus of your upper-body routine. The key is to strike a balance with your upper-body exercises and make sure that you can press horizontally as well as vertically.
Why Is Pressing So Important?
Pressing exercises not only develop your chest, shoulders and triceps, but, depending on the variation, you can also target your core. Using one arm at a time or pressing from various positions will challenge your core stability and strength to a greater degree.
Along with developing strength and musculature, upper-body pressing helps to improve movement of your shoulders and the supporting muscles. Upward rotation of the shoulder blades is critical for shoulder health, and, when performed correctly, upper-body pressing reinforces and strengthens this movement.
For all of the following exercises, which are divided into a strength or stability emphasis, try focusing on allowing your shoulder blades to go up and around the ribcage. This allows for optimal results and injury reduction when pressing.
Envision standing behind someone and placing both of your hands on their shoulder blades. When they’re pressing straight out or overhead, your hands should move apart slightly and your thumbs should rotate downward with their shoulder blades.
Build Upper-Body Strength With These 5 Exercises
For strength-emphasized movements, you’ll press with both hands using a barbell or your own body weight. This decreases the amount of stability necessary to complete the exercise.
While you can go for more repetitions, keeping your reps between four and six will help to develop strength more efficiently. But again, these movements can be used at higher rep counts as well.
To start, let’s cover the standard barbell bench press.
Start with the bench press, and then progress from there.
1. Barbell Bench Press
Lying on a bench, engage your core. Keep your back to the bench as you grasp the barbell with an overhand grip that’s slightly wider than your shoulders.
Keep the elbows at a 45-degree angle to the body as you lower the weight under control to the lower chest. Imagine making an arrow with your head being the tip and your elbows being the two outer points of the arrow. Don’t allow the elbows to pass too far behind the body, as this will result in your shoulder blades tipping forward.
Press the bar away from you, keeping the elbows soft at the top position to prevent them from locking.
Changing the grip changes the muscles targeted.
2. Close-Grip Bench Press
The close-grip bench press is a variation of the standard bench press that targets the triceps. The setup is the same as the standard bench press, but now your grip will be shoulder-width apart (hands will be just outside of the chest).
NOTE: Don’t bring your hands in much closer than shoulder width, as it will likely result in unnecessary stress on the wrists.
Throughout the lowering and pressing of the barbell, keep your elbows close to the body, and don’t allow them to pass too far behind the body.
The incline bench press really hits your upper chest.
3. Incline Bench Press
The incline bench press is used to place more emphasis on the upper chest as well as the shoulders. The setup is the same as the standard bench press, with the exception that the bench is now at an incline.
Still focus on keeping the core engaged as you grasp the barbell with hands your slightly wider than your shoulders. Lower the barbell under control with the elbows at 45 degrees.
Press the bar away from your body, focusing on making it travel in a straight line toward the ceiling. This part is crucial, as you’ll have a tendency to drive the barbell backward over the face instead of directly over your chest and shoulders.
Being seated means you should be able to lift more weight than standing.
4. Seated Shoulder Press
The seated position allows you utilize heavier weight because you won’t have to stabilize through the lower body. However, you’ll still need to use your core to support your upper body. If you lose control of your core, you’ll likely overextend your lumbar spine, placing unwanted stress on your lower back.
From a seated position, grab a barbell with a grip that’s slightly wider than your shoulders. Place the bar on the upper chest and brace your core. Press the bar straight overhead, focusing on bringing the shoulder blades up and around the rib cage. Keep the elbows slightly in front of the body to better align the shoulder joint.
Don’t lean backward or arch your lower back at the top of the press. Lower the weight under control and repeat.
5. Triceps Press (The Dip)
The dip is an exercise that targets the lower chest as well as the triceps. Be sure to only go as low as you can without your shoulder blades tipping forward or the front of your shoulder popping forward. Instead, focus on keeping the shoulder blades tipped back throughout the movement.
In a dip station or on parallel bars, start by bracing yourself on the bars with your weight in your arms. Keep your abs engaged and lean your torso forward slightly. Keep your elbows close to the body as you lower yourself by bending your arms.
Once at the bottom, press the handles away and push yourself toward the ceiling.
Focus on Stability With These 5 Variations
Although many of the following exercises will also help you gain strength, they focus more heavily on stability, as they use single-arm movements and slightly unstable positions (standing and on a Swiss ball). Aim for six to 12 reps of each exercise.
Sure, you can do a standard bench press, but can you do it with just one arm?
1. Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
Start lying and lift one dumbbell to shoulder height. Bring your elbow out from the body to a 45-degree angle. To monitor your core position, place the nonworking hand on your stomach. Your stomach should not pop out nor should your low back arch off the bench, and your hips shouldn’t rotate.
Press the dumbbell toward the ceiling, and then slowly lower the dumbbell back to the starting position, not allowing the elbow to pass too far behind the body. Repeat for reps, and then perform on the other side.
Challenge your core strength with single-arm exercises.
2. Single-Arm Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Like the single-arm dumbbell bench press, this variation of the shoulder press challenges your core stability to a greater degree. Not only that, but you’ll be standing, which makes it more difficult to maintain proper position.
With one dumbbell, take an athletic stance so your feet are hip-width apart, your core is engaged, your hips are back slightly and your knees are soft.
Bring the dumbbell to shoulder height utilizing a neutral grip (your knuckles should be toward your face). Press the dumbbell toward the ceiling, focusing on bringing the shoulder blade up and around your rib cage and keeping your elbow pointing forward, not allowing it to go too far away from the body.
Prevent the lower back from arching and the rib cage from popping up at the top of the press. Repeat for reps, and then perform on the other side.
You'll really need to recruit core strength and stability for this one.
3. Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press
Lie flat on a bench while holding a pair of dumbbells at shoulder height. Keep your core engaged to stay firmly attached to the bench.
Press both dumbbells toward the ceiling, keeping the elbows at a 45-degree angle. Lower one dumbbell as you keep the other pressed toward the ceiling, and focus on keeping the lower back from arching and the hips from rotating.
Once at the top position, lower the other dumbbell, keeping the first dumbbell pressed up. Alternate from side to side and repeat for reps.
Even though you're focusing on your upper body, you whole body will feel it after this exercise.
4. Swiss-Ball Dumbbell Bench Press
Along with standing, another way to work from a less stable position is to perform seated exercises on a stability ball. But it’s best utilized when you’re trying to lessen the intensity on the upper body, not when you’re looking to press more weight.
Holding a pair of dumbbells, take a seat on a Swiss ball (make sure the Swiss ball is appropriate for the amount of weight being used). Walk your feet out from the ball as you roll the ball higher onto your back. At the same time, bring the dumbbells to shoulder height. Stop when your upper back is supported by the ball.
Keep your core engaged and squeeze your glutes to achieve a bridge position. With your elbows at 45 degrees, press the dumbbells toward the ceiling. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the bottom, and do not allow your elbows to bounce off the ball as you repeat.
5. Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Kettlebell Press
Using a kettlebell instead of a dumbbell automatically kicks up the stability demand, as the weight of the kettlebell is not evenly distributed. Add in the half-kneeling position, and you not only have a great pressing exercise, but also one that really challenges core stability and postural control.
Start in a half-kneeling position with one knee on the ground and the opposite foot flat on the floor in front of you. Both legs should be at 90 degrees. Hold a kettlebell in the hand of the knee that’s down so that the belly of the kettlebell is resting on the outside of your forearm.
Start with the kettlebell at shoulder height. Keeping the elbow pointing in front of you, press the kettlebell toward the ceiling. Make sure to bring the shoulder blade up and around the ribcage and finish with the hand straight overhead. Lower the kettlebell under control and repeat for reps, then switch sides.
3 Variations That Combine Strength and Stability
Now let’s take the elements of strength from the first set and combine them with the elements of stability from the second.
Master this before attempting the clean and press.
1. Standing Shoulder Press
Before you tackle advanced moves like the clean and press (see below), you must first master the standing shoulder press.
Start with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip on a barbell that’s racked across the front of your shoulders. Keep the core engaged to prevent the lower back from arching as you press the barbell overhead.
Make sure to keep the elbows pointed more toward the front than out to the sides. Continue to focus on bringing the shoulder blades up and around the ribcage as you complete the press. Lower the barbell slowly and begin another rep.
This press variations hits every major muscle group.
2. Clean and Press
A classic power exercise, the clean and press will take your upper-body pressing up a notch or two. The key is that this movement requires good mobility and control to complete and is quite technical. So make sure you’re familiar with the movement pattern before adding weight.
Start holding a barbell so that you hands are just about shoulder-width apart. Push your hips back and keep your back flat, folding over at the hips and stretching your hamstrings. Explosively push your hips forward and pull the bar up to shoulder height using the momentum of the hip drive. Catch the bar so that it’s racked on your shoulders.
Next, make sure your core stays engaged as you press the barbell overhead, bringing the shoulder blades up and around your ribcage. Don’t allow the lower back to arch as you finish the press overhead. Lower the barbell under control and repeat all your reps.
It's a two-for-one exercise!
3. Dumbbell Curl to Press
The dumbbell curl to press is hybrid exercise that is great for pressing, and it also allows you to target the biceps.
Start in a standing position with a pair of dumbbells. Keep the core engaged in order to prevent the hips from tipping forward or the lower back from arching as you curl the dumbbells. Once at the end of the curl, transition to a shoulder press keeping the knuckles pointing inward and the elbows in front of you (neutral grip). Press the dumbbells overhead.
Lower the weight slowly, keeping the core engaged to prevent the lower back from arching. Repeat for reps.
Kyle Arsenault is a performance coach, author and former intern of the renown Cressey Performance. Now working with Momentum PT, he specializes in combining principles of physical therapy with strength and conditioning to enhance overall performance for his competitive athletes as well as his general population athletes.