Let’s start with the bench press. You can certainly build a very good chest without the barbell bench press, but you will need to use dumbbells. It’s often said that dumbbells are actually the superior choice, but even though my chest training over the past 20-plus years would seem to suggest that I agree with that, I would have to say, not necessarily. Many trainees have a tough time getting their pecs to do the work when pressing with a barbell because their shoulders and triceps take over. Switching to dumbbells often makes a real difference, and at last they are able to isolate and activate their pecs.
If barbell flat- and incline-bench presses work well for you, by all means do them. A pretty strong argument can be made that barbells do seem to work very well for many trainees. One thing longtime fans of pro bodybuilding will tell you is that back in the “Pumping Iron” days, none of the guys had weak chests. Think about the pectoral development of the top stars of that era: Arnold, Lou Ferrigno, Franco Columbu, Serge Nubret, Mike Katz, Robby Robinson and Ed Corney all had excellent chests, better than what you see on average these days, even though today’s pros are far more massive in general. Why is that?
One very likely cause is that back in the ’70s everybody did barbell and dumbbell bench presses. Today we have far more options, such as Hammer Strength chest machines and the Smith machine, among others, and they are popular. I’m sure lots of guys still do plenty of pressing with free weights, but somehow we are seeing many more chests that are lagging in development than we did 30 to 40 years ago. Certainly, today’s bodybuilders have much better development in other areas, like the legs and back—so the only explanation I can think of is that they are doing less hard work on free-weight bench pressing.
I recommend that you start every chest workout with a barbell or a dumbbell press. After that it’s fine to use a machine. If you go flat on one, go incline on the other; and be sure to rotate that from workout to workout so that you get the advantages of the free-weight press for either the overall or upper chest each week. The majority of my chest workouts over the past two decades have consisted of a free-weight press, a machine press and a cable or machine flye. Some people may be able to build thick pecs without free-weight pressing—the only one who comes to mind is David Henry—but for most of us they are a must.
Even more frequently than the bench press question, I am asked whether squats are necessary for building great legs. They’re not necessary, but you build them much faster with squats, in my opinion. The only man I can think of who developed great legs without squatting was six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates. Dorian had a tear in the muscle fascia near his hip before he even turned pro, and he decided to stop squatting, as he felt his structure wasn’t suited for it. Everybody else I can think of who has (or had) great legs—Tom Platz, Branch Warren, Kai Greene, Jay Cutler, Ben Pakulski and Erik Fankhouser come to mind—built those legs with tons and tons of squats.
Getting back to Dorian’s situation, not everyone can do squats safely. From my observations, the longer your legs and the more narrow your hips, the less natural deep squats will be for you. I lucked out in that regard, I suppose. My legs are fairly short, and my hips are wide. Rock-bottom squats felt natural from the first time I tried them. My knees have never given me trouble. The reason I can’t use more than 405 safely anymore is a long history of lower-back pain—and much of that damage was done during a one-year period when I specialized in half-rep squats done with far too much weight. At one point I was squatting 725 pounds for a few of those stupid half reps. The last time I did that, in late 1997, I felt a sharp, agonizing sensation—as if I had been shot in the lower back—while coming up for a rep.
If you can squat, you should. Deep squats will build your quads, glutes, hams, and even calves to some extent. I didn’t do squats for three to four years after my lower-back episode. In that time I did a lot of heavy leg presses and hack squats. My legs continued to grow, but then again, they have always grown as long as I’ve worked them hard. Hacks, leg presses and Smith-machine squats can be effective, but from my personal experience and that of many others, nothing is quite like the barbell squat. Consider them the Ferrari of leg exercises, and all others are Honda Accords. Can you get to where you want to go in either one? Sure. But you can get there a whole lot sooner in the Ferrari!
Editor’s note: Ron Harris is the author of Real Bodybuilding—Muscle Truth From 25 Years In the Trenches, available at www.RonHarrisMuscle.com.