No Bench, No Problem: Build Bigger Pecs with Little to No Equipment

by Joseph Giandonato, MBA, MS, CSCS

Don’t let a busy gym, packed schedule, or limited equipment derail your pec-building pursuits. 

Sometimes a crowded gym reminiscent of an early 90s Monday night battle royale. But instead of androgen engorged hulking men in fluorescent colored spandex, social media influencer-wannabes are occupying the fitness floors, nearly trampling over one another to capture video footage of a gimmicky pull-up with an adjustable bench chained around their waist or poorly articulated “bro science” explicating the reasons to banish carbs from your diet (a big NO-NO!) or how heavy rack pulls directly translate to a bigger deadlift (THEY DON’T!). 

While this circus of idiocy and self-absorption may prevent you from claiming a bench or your favorite piece of equipment, do not fret, since you will be presented with a host of palatable and evidence-based alternatives.

And these alternatives are worthy for inclusion within the programming of those who have a packed schedule, travel often, or who, like me, are relegated to small corner of dimly lit basement with few equipment options as I am nearly engulfed by masses of children’s toys and holiday decorations.

Anatomy Briefer

To fully grasp the rationale behind some of the exercises introduced in this article, let’s briefly review the structure and function of the pectoralis major. 

The pectoralis major is a large fan-shaped muscle and among the largest of the torso which is regionalized into three interconnected aspects: the sternocostal head, the clavicular head, and the abdominal head (Bryant et al., 2019).

The sternocostal head and its horizontally oriented fibers originate from the sternum and cartilage of the upper six ribs with a fibrous attachment to the medial clavicle, or collarbone. 

The clavicular head and its downwardly oriented fibers originate from the medial edge of the collarbone.

The abdominal head and its diagonally oriented fibers originate from a tendinous sheath embedded within the superior edge of the external oblique and runs below and lateral to the sternocostal and clavicular heads.

Fibers from all three heads insert on the lateral lip, or bony prominence, of the bicipital groove of the humerus, or shoulder.

Collectively, they are responsible for shoulder flexion, adduction, and internal rotation with the sternocostal head capable of extending the shoulder from a flexed position and the abdominal head drawing the shoulder towards the abdomen.

In consideration of the fiber arrangement of the three aspects of the pectoralis major, movements involving adduction from a flat position are best suited to activate the fibers of its sternocostal head, whereas shoulder flexion and movements performed in which the body is inclined in a supine position or torso inverted in a prone position are best suited to activate the fibers of the clavicular head, and movements that draw the shoulders together closer to the abdomen, or when the body is declined in a supine position or torso elevated in a prone position are best suited to activate the fibers of its abdominal head.

  1. Fall Push-up

The fall push-up is an ideal warm up movement as it has been shown to recruit high threshold motor units and is safer than traditional plyometric push-up varieties. The fall push-up demonstrated motor unit recruitment patterns comparable to countermovement and clapping push-ups (García-Massó et al., 2011).

  • Assume a tall kneeling position.
  • Cross your lower legs and interlock feet behind you.
  • Place your arms at sides at shoulder-width distance slightly in front of your torso.
  • Keeping your core tight and chest out, fall to the floor, catching yourself with your outstretched hands in the starting position of a push-up.
  • Return to starting position.
  • Complete 2-3 sets of 3-5 repetitions.
  • Floor Dumbbell Flye

The floor dumbbell flye has long been lauded by coaches and powerlifters “in the know” for its contribution to mid-range strength on the bench press. However, it offers an added benefit to upholding shoulder health since the shoulders do not travel beyond the torso as they do during traditional dumbbell flyes. There is evidence to suggest that dumbbell flyes evoke similar recruitment of pectoralis major fibers in comparison to both barbell bench press (Solstad et al., 2020) and dumbbell bench press exercises (Welsch et al., 2005), with an added benefit of recruiting the biceps brachii which stabilizes both the shoulder and elbow in a fixed position throughout the movement.

  • Assume a supine or “belly up” position on the floor.
  • Extend your hips and knees and rest them against the ground OR flex your hips and knees and place your feet firmly on floor.
  • Begin movement with your palms facing one another and initiating eccentric or lowering phase until the back of your arms graze or gently rest on the ground below.
  • Return to starting position by contracting your pecs to draw your shoulders towards one another. Imagine pushing the chest out “big” during the concentric phase.
  • Perform 2-3 sets of 8-15 repetitions.
  • Floor Dumbbell Pullover

The floor dumbbell pullover is adapted from its common bench-supported variety. Traditionally accepted as a lat builder, the pullover exercise has demonstrated promise as a pec builder as research has shown preferential recruitment of the pectoralis major in comparison the latissimus dorsi when performing pullovers with 30% of bodyweight (Marchetti et al., 2011). As the case with exercise science research: much is learned in the gym before research validates its practice. Bodybuilding great Kevin Levrone was known to favor pullovers and would perform them during chest workouts. To lengthen the range of motion on the floor, dumbbells held sideways, or barbells affixed with smaller diameters –- five and ten pounders – are recommended. 

  • Assume supine or “belly up” position on the floor.
  • Extend your hips and knees and rest them against the ground or flex your hips and knees and place feet firmly on floor.
  • Begin movement with your palms firmly grasping each end of a dumbbell or positioned at shoulder width or slightly wider on a barbell with a pronated grip and descend until dumbbell or barbell plates make contact with floor.
  • Return to starting position by contracting your pecs to extend your shoulders towards your torso. Think about driving the movement with the fixed elbows as they are positioned beneath the bar. Where the elbows go, the dumbbell or barbell will follow.
  • Perform 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions.
  • Dumbbell Floor Press with Supinated Grip

Flip your grip to recruit more pectoralis major fibers. Lehman (2005) conducted electromyographical (EMG) analysis to determine how hand placement alters muscular recruitment patterns and found that a supinated grip tapped more clavicular fibers in comparison to oft-used pronated grips. This is great to know, especially if you don’t have an incline or adjustable bench at your disposal.

  • Assume supine or “belly up” position on the floor.
  • Extend your hips and your knees and rest them against the ground or flex your hips and knees and place your feet firmly on floor.
  • Begin movement with your palms facing up and initiating eccentric or lowering phase until the back of your arms graze or gently rest on the ground below.
  • Return to starting position by contracting your pecs to flex and adduct the shoulders. Think about squeezing the chest on the ascent. If performed correctly, there will be no need to adduct at the top of the movement.
  • Perform 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions.
  • Accentuated Eccentric Push-up with 5-0-2 Tempo

Long considered a staple exercise to improve muscular endurance as countless law enforcement and military academies use them to serve as the foundation for physical training of trainees and to evaluate the muscular endurance of entrants, they can amply stimulate muscular hypertrophy if executed properly by emphasizing time under tension, TUT. Stretching tension during the eccentric of lowering phase of a repetition has been shown to activate signaling pathways, specifically mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) that are responsible for muscular growth (Tringali et al., 2017).

Push-ups with lengthened eccentric or lowering phases have been shown to evoke greater recruitment of biceps brachii, triceps brachii, and posterior deltoids (Hsu et al., 2011). Hand placement at shoulder width or slightly wider than shoulder width demonstrated greater pectoralis major activity (Gouvali et al., 2005).

And for those with cranky elbows, tempoed pushups have been found to reduce posterior shearing force and extension moment at the elbow.

Bridged floor presses are an ideal substitute for decline presses since they require no equipment and if performed with dumbbells, they are easier to set up than their decline bench counterpart. As an added bonus, bridged dumbbell floor presses also recruit the core and posterior chain musculature — which are vital to establishing stability during heavily loaded pressing exercises (Shinkle et al., 2012). 

Often recommended for individuals with lower relative strength, or less proficiency with their body weight, incline push-ups, if performed correctly, can target the abdominal head of the pectoralis major. 

Feet elevated push-ups were superior to push-ups performed from the floor in evoking greater clavicular head activity (Uhl et al., 2003). Additionally, feet elevated push-ups elicited greater activation of the anterior and posterior deltoids and rotator cuff musculature, meaning that they could provide bigger bang for the buck than traditional push-ups in terms of hypertrophy and shoulder health.

While the final two movements haven’t been studied extensively, they tap into the various functions of the pectoralis major, specifically flexion and adduction movements.

  • Plate Adduction Raise

The plate adduction raise is premised on performing shoulder flexion under continuous tension from adduction differing it from a front raise — though front raises have been shown to elicit pectoralis major activity (Coratella et al., 2020).

The side lying adduction can be performed with either a dumbbell or smaller plate (5-to-10 pounder) and is best performed as a finishing movement, with many repetitions, performed for time, or perhaps taken to failure. The objective is to squeeze the working pec as hard as possible during the concentric or upward movement.

Sample Training Session: Novice

ExerciseSets x RepsSets x RepsRest
 Hypertrophy FocusStrength FocusRest
Accentuated Eccentric Push-up3 x 105 x 51:30
Floor Dumbbell Flye3 x 153 x 81:30
Incline Push-up3 x 105 x 81:30

Sample Training Session: Intermediate

ExerciseSets x RepsSets x RepsRest
 Hypertrophy FocusStrength FocusRest
Fall Push-up2 x 52 x 51:15
Floor Dumbbell Pullover3 x 104 x 81:15
Dumbbell Floor Press with Supinated Grip3 x 105 x 81:15
Bridged Dumbbell Floor Press (aka “DIY Decline Press”)3 x 124 x 101:15
Accentuated Eccentric Push-up3 x 105 x 51:15

Sample Training Session: Advanced

ExerciseSets x RepsSets x RepsRest
 Hypertrophy FocusStrength FocusRest
Fall Push-up3 x 53 x 31:00
Dumbbell Floor Press with Supinated Grip4 x 105 x 51:00
Feet Elevated Push-ups3 x 85 x 51:00
Accentuated Eccentric Push-up3 x 105 x 51:00
Plate Adduction Raise OR Side Lying Adduction2-3 x 15-202-3 x 15-201:00


Simplifying your training by gaining a basic understanding of key muscle functions can help you gain independence from crowded gyms and niche equipment, helping you sustain a training stimulus that will help you build muscle and get stronger.

The movements we visited can be stored in your muscle building toolbox and tapped when needed — whether in a time pinch, or if variety is desired.

And best of all, perhaps one of those fitness influencer wannabes hogging the bench might want to pick your brain about some of these movements so they can feature it within their next social media post. Just make sure they give you credit.


Bryant, J. & Giandonato, J. (2019, October 9). The science of training: Pectoralis. Josh Strength.

Coratella, G., Tornatore, G., Longo, S., Esposito, F., & Cé, E. (2020). An electromyographic analysis of lateral raise variations in frontal raise in competitive bodybuilders. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17 (17): 6015.

García-Massó, X., Colado, J.C., González, L.M., Salvá, P., Alves, J., Tella, V., & Triplett, N.T. (2011). Myoelectric activation and kinetics of different plyometric push-up exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25 (7): 2040-2047.

Gouvali, M.K. & Boudolos, K. (2005). Dynamic and electromyographical analysis in variants of the push-up exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19 (1): 146-151.

Hsu, H.H., Chou, Y.L., Huang, Y., Huang, M.J., Lou, S., & Chou, P.P. (2011). Effect of push-up speed on upper extremity training until fatigue. Journal of Medical and Biological Engineering, 31 (3): 161-168.

Lehman, G.J. (2005). The influence of grip width and forearm pronation/supination on upper-body myoelectric activity during the flat bench press. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19 (3): 587-591.

Marchetti, P.H. & Uchida, M.C. (2011). Effects of the pullover exercise on the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi muscles as evaluated by EMG. Journal of Applied Biomechanics, 27 (4): 380-384.

Shinkle, J., Nesser, T.W., Demchak, T.J., & McMannus, David, M. (2012). Effect of core strength on the measure of power in the extremities. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26 (2): 373-380.

Solstad, T.E., Andersen, V., Shaw, M., Mogstad Hoel, E., Vonheim, A., Saeterbakken, A.H. (2020). A comparison of muscle activation between barbell bench press and dumbbell flyes in resistance-trained males. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 19 (1): 645-651.

Tringali, V.M. & Giandonato, J.G. (2017). The influence of static stretching on resistance training performance and muscle hypertrophy. NSCA Coach, 4 (2): 10-13.

Uhl, T.L., Carver, T.J., Mattacola, C.G., Mair, S.D., & Nitz, A.J. (2003). Shoulder musculature activation during upper extremity weight-bearing exercise. Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, 33 (3): 109-117.

Welsch, E.A., Bird, M., & Mayhew, J.L. (2005). Electromyographic activity of the pectoralis major and anterior deltoid muscles during three upper body lifts. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19 (2): 449-452.


Joseph Giandonato

Joseph Giandonato, MBA, MS, CSCS, is an employee wellness professional with extensive experience in the fitness industry, having served as a campus recreation administrator, fitness director, and collegiate strength coach. Giandonato has supported a wide continuum of clients, ranging from youth athletes to NBA players during his career. Giandonato holds graduate degrees in business and exercise science and is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. Giandonato teaches personal training certification courses through the World Instructor Training Schools and maintains several adjunct faculty appointments at institutions in the greater Philadelphia area. Presently, he is pursuing doctoral studies in exercise science.