93 Exercise Swaps for 31 Popular Bodybuilding Exercises
Have you been eager to start a routine only to find that you don’t have access to the proper equipment? Worry not! The purpose of this article is to provide you with an extensive guide on bodybuilding exercise substitutions you can make if you don’t have access to specific gym equipment.
In this feature I provide muscle building exercise swaps based on body part. For each exercise, you will be presented with three exercise alternatives and an explanation as needed.
9 Lats/General Back Exercise Swaps
- Inverted row – focus on pulling your lower chest/sternum towards the bar.
- Wide Grip Lat Pulldown – focus on retracting the shoulder blades.
- Pullover – using a dumbbell or barbell; hold the stretched position for a second or two before pulling back to the starting position at mid chest.
Chest Supported Row alternatives:
- T-Bar Row – if you don’t have the proper equipment place a barbell in the corner of the gym and use a handle of your choosing.
- Barbell Row – pause at the top of the rep to increase intensity and contraction of the muscle.
- Wide Grip Cable Row
Note: for all of these variations use the same grip you intended to use on chest supported row.
Cable Row alternatives:
- Dumbbell Row – pause at the top of the rep to increase intensity and contraction of the muscle.
- Hammer Strength Horizontal Row
- Close Grip Lat Pulldown
9 Chest Exercise Swaps
Cable Crossover/Chest Fly Machine alternatives:
- Flat Dumbbell Fly – pause at the bottom of the rep to increase intensity and contraction of the muscle.
- Parallel Bar Dips – lean forward to emphasis the chest.
- DB Pullover – using a dumbbell or barbell; hold the stretched position for a second or two before pulling back to the starting position at mid chest.
Hammer Strength Incline Press alternatives:
- Landmine Press – placing the barbell in the corner and yoga mat near the end facing out, add 25 pounds of weight plates to the open end. Kneel down so that both knees are on the floor and lift the barbell up using both hands, the barbell resting in the base of both palms so that the open end is starting at upper chest level. With your spine neutral and chest up, push through the palms of your hands until your arms are fully extending; hold for a second and then lower. This is one rep.
- Incline Dumbbell/Barbell Press
- Incline Dumbbell Fly
Parallel Bar Dip (Chest Emphasis) alternatives:
- Cable Crossover/Chest Fly Machine – use a form that places your hands below your mid chest at the bottom of the movement/contracted position.
- Decline push-up – place your feet on a flat bench; increase intensity by increasing the height of your feet or adding weight via weighted vest or a weight plate.
- Decline Dumbbell/Barbell Bench Press
9 Shoulders (Anterior and Lateral Deltoid dominant) Exercise Swaps
Hammer Strength Shoulder Press alternatives
- Seated Dumbbell/Barbell Overhead Press
- Handstand Shoulder Press
- Behind the Neck Press – take a wider grip than your traditional overhead press and bring the bar down behind your head until it reaches ear level (or as deep as you can go without discomfort) before pressing the bar upward.
Cable Lateral Raise alternatives:
- Bulldozer Laterals – inspired by Steve Shaw these are “explosive, provide better leverages, allow you to use more weight and they provide a better feel and contraction. Before each rep start with the dumbbell on the opposite leg, holding it into place. Release the dumbbell and explode it up, as if you were drawing a sword.”
- Upright Row – avoid taking a narrow grip as this may cause shoulder impingement and discomfort.
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise – when raising the dumbbells ensure your elbows are always higher than your wrists and that your wrists are tilted slightly so that your pinky is facing more upward than your thumb, like you’re pouring a glass of water.
Cable Front Raise alternatives:
- Front Raise – using a barbell or dumbbell.
- Dumbbell Arnold Press
- Neutral Grip Dumbbell Overhead Press – instead of holding the dumbbells so that your wrists are facing out, twist your wrists so that your palm is facing towards your ears.
9 Traps/Upper Back/Posterior Deltoid Exercise Swaps
Rear Deltoid Fly Machine alternatives:
- Cable Face-pull
- Chest Support Reverse Fly – while holding the dumbbell ensure the pinky-side of your hand is facing outward and upward towards the ceiling at the top of the movement.
- Rear Deltoid Row – load a barbell or pick two dumbbells of the same weight; place your forehead on an incline bench and perform a row movement in which your elbows stay flared and at the top of the movement the barbell or dumbbells are in line with your clavicle.
Hammer Strength (Plate-Loaded) Shrug alternatives:
- DB Shrugs – hold at the top of the movement to increase intensity and contraction of the muscle; use straps if necessary because this is a trapezius and not a grip movement.
- Power Shrug Hell – inspired by Steve Shaw this movement combines a high rack pull and power shrug. “Set your bar height to right above the knee cap. You want to make each rep explosive, but also controlled using good form. Initiate the lift with a rack pull and finish with an explosive power shrug. This combination should be performed using one fluid motion. After each rep set the bar down completely. Reset your hips, take a deep breath and immediately perform another rep.” – Source
- Hang High Pulls – use straps if necessary and take an overhand grip slightly outside shoulder-width. With your back arched tightly bend at the hips until the bar slides down your thighs, right above your knees. Drive your hips through while simultaneous trying to pull the bar as high as possible, leading with you elbows.
Cable Reverse Fly alternatives:
- Inverted Row – take a wide grip and pull the bar to your upper chest/clavicles.
- Incline Dumbbell Reverse Fly – pick two dumbbells of equal weight and set the bench to an angle typically used for incline movements. Place your chest on the bench and brace your abdominals and perform a reverse fly movement.
- Dumbbell/Barbell Hang Clean – these will build not only your rear deltoid muscles but also your traps.
6 Biceps Exercise Swaps
Cable Bicep Curl alternatives:
- Incline Dumbbell Curl – set the seat height to a setting commonly used for incline movements.
- Barbell Drag Curl – take a shoulder-width underhand grip and move your elbows back as necessary to “drag” drag the bar up your torso. Hold at the top of the movement for increased intensity and contraction of the muscle.
- Close Grip Chin Up – use a supinated grip and focus on pulling with your arms instead of your lats.
Preacher Curl Machine alternatives
- Dumbbell Concentration Curl
- Prone Incline Curl – take two dumbbells of equal weight and select a bench angle typically used for incline exercises. Place your chest on the bench and allow your arms to go to either side of the bench with palms facing forward. Curl upwards using proper form and ensure your shoulder does not take over during the movement.
- Standing Barbell/Dumbbell Curl
6 Triceps Exercise Swaps
Parallel Bar Dips (Tricep Emphasis) alternatives:
- Close Grip Bench Press
- Skullcrushers – use an EZ bar and bring the bar slightly behind your head as opposed to your forehead to take pressure off the elbows and
- Rope Pushdowns – focus on pushing down and outward at the bottom of the movement for maximum contraction.
Rope Pushdowns alternatives
- Seated Overhead Tricep Extensions – you can use a traditional barbell, but I find an EZ-bar takes stress off the elbows without taking stress off of the triceps.
- Hammer Strength Tricep Dip
- Close Grip Push-up – place your feet on a bench to increase exercise intensity.
6 Forearms Exercise Swaps
Reverse Cable Curl alternatives:
- Dumbbell Hammer Curl
- Farmer’s Walk – use a hex bar or dumbbells; progress by walking a further total distance using the same weight or adding weight; avoid the use of straps.
- Static Barbell Hold – set the safety pins slightly above knee level; load the bar with the desired weight a pick up using a double overhand grip. Hold the barbell for as long as possible with good form Progress by adding weight to the bar and holding for the same duration or holding the same weight for an increased duration. Avoid using straps on this exercise.
Wrist Roller alternatives
- Barbell/Dumbbell (Reverse) Wrist Curl – place your forearms on your thighs or a flat bench to act as support while allowing your wrist and the weight to move freely.
- Reverse Barbell Curl
- Plate Pinches – take two 45 or 25-pound plates in each hand and hold together for as long as possible; the set terminates when the plates separate. Watch your toes towards the end of the set to ensure you don’t get injured.
9 Quadriceps Exercise Swaps
Leg Extension Machine alternatives:
- Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squats – place one foot on a flat bench and perform a lunge motion; a more narrow stance will emphasis the quadriceps.
- Dumbbell Goblet Squats
- Weighted sled/Prowler pushes/pulls – focus on staying low and initiating with your quads. Experiment with sled pushing and pulling to really toast your quads.
Leg Press alternatives:
- Barbell Front Squat
- Dumbbell/Barbell Lunges – these can be perform in a stationary or walking fashion.
- Dumbbell/Barbell Step-ups – increase intensity by adding weight, increasing the number of reps, or increasing the height of the step.
Hack Squat Machine alternatives:
- Barbell Hack Squat – load the barbell with the desired weight and stand in front of the barbell so your ankles are (nearly) touching the bar; sit backwards and pick up the bar using a double overhand grip. Focus on pushing through the heels and driving your hips so that you’re standing fully erect at the top of the movement; the use of straps is acceptable.
- Weighted Belt Squat – Stand on two boxes or benches, attach a dip belt to your waist and add the selected weight. Squat down until the weight is just about to touch the floor and then squat back up.
- Pistol Squat – perform the squat motion using just one leg and sticking out the other leg so that it doesn’t touch the ground. If you cannot perform a full range pistol squat start by performing pistols on a box/bench, then progress to using no box and a door way/band/counter-weight, and then finally progress to performing unassisted full range pistol squats from a non-elevated surface.
6 Hamstrings Exercise Swaps
Leg Curl Machine (Seated or Standing) alternatives:
- Glute Ham Raise – keep your abdominals braced and glutes flexed so that your body stays rigid; minimize instances of your hips rising before your torso when performing the concentric portion of the exercise.
- Dumbbell Stiff-Legged Deadlift – use a dumbbell or barbell; go down as far as you can without your back rounding or experience pain; ensure you feel a nice stretch in the hamstrings, hold in that position and then move your hips through and lock out the rep.
- Exercise Ball Hamstring Curls – lay flat on your back, bend your knees and place both feet towards the upper-middle portion of the exercise ball. Drive your hips upward so that they’re raised of the ground and slowly unbend your knees until they’re fully extended; at this point your hands and upper back will be on the ground. To complete the rep initiate with the hamstrings and draw your feet back to your hips so that your knees are in the same bent position they started in.
Back Hyperextension (Hamstring Focus) alternatives:
- Barbell Good Morning – keep your midsection braced and lean forward until you feel a nice stretch in the hamstrings. Ensure your lower back does not round.
- Dumbbell/Barbell Romanian Deadlift – lower the barbell or dumbbell until you feel a nice stretch in the hamstrings. Ensure your lower back does not round.
- Bodyweight Superman – Lying flat on the floor raise your arms, chest, and legs off the floor and hold for 1 to 10 seconds.
Glute Ham Raise alternatives:
- Barbell Stiff-Legged Deadlift
- Seated/Lying Leg Curl
- Nordic Ham Curl – have a partner hold your ankles as you kneel on a pad with your torso upright. Keeping your glutes and abdominals braced, slowly lower your hips and torso until you (nearly) reach the floor before engaging your glutes and hamstrings to pull yourself back up to the starting position. If you cannot perform a full rep focus on performing concentric (re: lower portion) negatives at a progressively slower tempo.
6 Hips/Glutes Exercise Swaps
Hip Abductor Machine alternatives:
- Lying Dumbbell Hip Abduction – lie on your side on a yoga mat and hold a dumbbell using the hand on that side so that the dumbbell is on the lowest part of your outside thigh of the leg that’s not touching the ground. Keeping your leg as straight as possible, raise the leg as high as possible. You can use your other hand to support your head.
- Standing Cable Hip Abduction – using a low pulley attach the ankle strap to one of your ankles. Keeping your leg as straight as possible raise your leg upward and outward away from the machine. Keep your other foot flat on the floor and use your hand to steady yourself.
- Side Bridge – lie on your side on a yoga mat and position your forearm touching the yoga mat so that it’s under your shoulder and at a right angle. Keep your hips off the ground and raise your upper leg upward and outward away from the lower leg. Repeat on the other side.
Glute Kickback Machine alternatives:
- Cable Pull-through – face a few feet away from the machine using a low pulley setting. Reach between your legs and grab the rope attachment. Initiating with your hips and keeping your arms straight, pull through until your torso is upright and your glutes are fully flexed. Ensure your glutes, not your arms, are performing the movement.
- Hip Thrust/Glute Bridge – a hip thrust starts with your upper back on the floor and a glute bridge starts with your upper back on a flat bench.
- Wide Stance Bulgarian Split Squats – elevate one foot on a flat bench and perform a lunge motion. A wider stance will emphasize the glutes.
6 Calves Exercise Swaps
Plate-Loaded Seated Calf Raise alternatives:
- Dumbbell Seated Calf Raise – sitting on a bench with your toes resting on a slightly elevated box place dumbbells on your knees and perform a seated calf raise with a smooth and controlled motion.
- Smith Machine Seated Calf Raise – sitting on a bench with your toes resting on a slightly elevated box place the smith machine barbell on your knees and perform a seated calf raise with a smooth and controlled motion. Using the smith machine allows you to rack the barbell without requiring a spotter for when you reach technical failure.
- Standing Calf Raise – although these won’t hit the soleus as hard as a seated movement they’re still effective. You can use a barbell, dumbbell, smith machine, or machine.
Donkey Calf Raise alternatives:
- Standing Calf Raise – you can use a barbell, dumbbell, smith machine, or machine.
- Leg Press Calf Raise – sit on the 45 degree or horizontal leg press machine but instead of performing a full leg press repetition use a weight that allows you to perform a calf raise.
- Hack Squat Machine Calf Raise – instead of performing a full hack squat use a weight that allows you to perform a calf raise.
9 Abs Exercise Swaps
Abdominal Crunch Machine alternatives:
- Hanging Leg Raises – keep your legs as straight as possible. Hold a weight in between your feet to increase intensity.
- Kneeling Ab Wheel Rollouts – place a weight plate on your upper back to increase intensity.
- Rope Crunches – focus on initiating with the abdominals at the beginning of each rep and not your arms; place the knobs of the rope on your forehead or at ear-level.
Decline (Weighted) Crunch alternatives:
- Horizontal Plank – hold for the desired length of time and add a weight plate to your back to increase intensity.
- V-up – lay face-up with your back on a yoga mat. Keeping your legs straight, raise both your legs and torso until your hands touch (or get as close as possible to touching) your feet.
- Stability Ball Rollout – kneel on a yoga mat with your torso upright and start with your arms fully extended so that your knuckles are only in-contact with the exercise ball. Lean forward and allow your arms to roll along the exercise ball until your entire forearm and part of your upper arm are on the exercise ball. Initiating with your abdominals, pull yourself back upright until your knuckles are the only part of your body touching the exercise ball.
Cable Chops alternatives:
- Russian Twist – sit upright on yoga mat with your feet facing forward. Raise your legs to form a right angle so that your feet are not touching the ground. Holding a dumbbell, weight plate, or medicine ball in your hands use your oblique to rotate your torso and hands to the left and right; you don’t have to touch the weight to the ground for it to count as a full rep.
- Side Plank – raise the leg that’s not in contact with the ground to increase intensity.
- Side Bend – hold a weight plate or dumbbell in your hand.
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