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The barbell bench press is arguably the most commonly seen exercise done in the gym, but is the chest press machine a valid replacement? Should you be doing one in lieu of the other, or should they be used in complimentary fashion to round out your workout?
The chest press machine is a pretty versatile piece of equipment and using it could be placed in your program a couple ways. One of the best things about this exercise is its safety factor. You can work until absolute failure without a spotter and be completely safe because you don’t have to worry about form really breaking down when you want to push things extra hard.
If you’re a fan of heavy bench pressing, but train alone, then using the chest press machine first in your workout for sets of 5-6 reps (for mainly strength) or 6-8 reps (for strength-based hypertrophy) works well.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you could put it at the very end of your chest workout as a sort of “finisher”. Higher reps would be the better application here. Doing something like 50 total reps in as few sets as possible, 2-3 sets of max reps, or even a set or two of “21s” would all give you a serious “burnout” style pump.
One thing to keep in mind when using the chest press machine is seat height. When doing a barbell bench press, you’re going to be lowering the bar to roughly your nipples, and the machine version should be no different. Setting your seat much higher or lower than this could lead to rotator cuff problems.
One of the problems with the barbell bench press is that it locks you into certain grips, angles, and range of motion. While you change up how wide of a grip you take on the bar, and focus on tucking your elbows instead of letting them flare out wide, you’re still locked in the same basic overall movement pattern.
This is why more advanced lifters with a lot of time under their belt (especially having gone really heavy) can end up with elbow and / or shoulder issues. If you want to switch things up, you may be forced to abandon the barbell for dumbbells for their increased versatility. Of course, they also don’t let you use as much weight.
However, most of the time when using a chest press machine, there will be different grips you can experiment with. Usually there will be both a horizontal grip (i.e. – like a standard barbell), as well as a vertical (i.e. – palms facing each other) option. Many also have a more ergonomic angled grip, too. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to do it. Just play around and see what feels the best to you, allows you to work the pecs the most, and minimizes strain on the elbows and shoulders.
When all is said and done, there’s no need to over-complicate things. Set up your chest press machine to allow proper form, choose which rep range you’re going use, and get to work. You can push each set harder than normal because it’s more safe, and therefore should be able to elicit even more strength and mass gains.