5 Exercise Swaps to Build Strength and Size

Bodybuilding workout

Adapting Strength Training

There may be times in the gym where you have to find alternative exercises to adjust training to cater for specific situations.

One of the most common issues is injury. Often when injury strikes, training ceases entirely. However, this does not have to be the case as often it is possible to work around the injured site.

It is also not uncommon to attend the gym with the session all planned out, only to find that the gym is extremely busy and the equipment you need is being used.

Instead of just skipping over the exercise, look to replace it with another effective exercise that will work the same muscle groups and movements.

The 5 Muscle Building Replacements

The following 5 exercises have been designed to allow you to continue training and build muscle size, no matter what scenario you are faced with.

Whether you are looking for some exercise variations or are restricted through injury, the following 5 exercises can simply and easily be swapped into the majority of training programs.

1) Reverse Grip Bench Press (Swapped for Incline Bench Press)

When it comes to bench pressing, a very common mistake is to allow the elbows to flare out and consequently place the shoulders in a compromised position.

An underhand grip prevents the elbows from flaring out to the sides and as a result, reduces the chances of sustaining an injury (1).

In addition to increasing the risk of shoulder injury, this error also fails to effectively activate the upper pectorals, thus reducing the effectiveness of the exercise.

While the incline bench has been found to increase activation of the upper pecs by 10%, an underhand grip has been found to increase this even further – by as much as 30%!

Therefore, those looking to promote shoulder health and improve the strength and size of the upper pecs should utilize an underhand grip when benching.

Coaching Points:

  • Lie back on the flat bench and initially lift the bar from the rack using an overhand grip
  • In a controlled manner bring the bar over the chest and drop it down to the lower portion of the pecs
  • Let the bar rest on the chest and carefully switch from your overhand grip to an underhand grip ensuring that hands are slightly wider than shoulder-width
  • For every rep, ensure that the bar starts over the face and is dropped to the lower chest
  • Once contact is made with the chest, drive it back up in a slight arc so it returns to over the face


2) Barbell Power Row (Swapped for Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows)

Single-arm dumbbell rows are excellent for developing single limb strength and stability. However, when short on time, consider using a barbell to simultaneously work both sides.

Using a barbell will also allow you to lift a heavier load than the dumbbell will due to the improved stability associated with the barbell.

Lifting a heavier load will place greater stress on the back and therefore cause it to adapt at a greater rate.

The dumbbell row is often utilized as it does not place the same kind of stress on the lower back that the barbell row does (2).

However, in the same way that a bench is often used to stabilize the spine in a dumbbell row, consider using a power rack during the barbell row to reduce lower back stress.

Simply place the barbell on the rack after each rep to promote back health and reduce the risk of injury.

Coaching Points:

  • Set the pins slightly below the knees and start with the loaded barbell resting on the pins
  • Tip forward and grip the bar with an overhand grip that is shoulder-width apart
  • Brace the core and drive the chest up to protect the spine
  • Rip the bar into the waist while preventing the elbows from flaring and then return to the pins

3) Bent-Over Dumbbell Lateral Raise (Swapped for Cable Rear Delt Flies)

One of the biggest benefits of using the cables is that they effectively maintain tension on the working muscles throughout the duration of the exercise.

However, if the cable machine is being used, it is possible to work the rear delts using dumbbells instead.

One of the advantages of using dumbbells is that unlike the cable or rear dealt fly machine, they are portable and can be performed practically anywhere.

Another positive is that heavy dumbbells are not required for this exercise; light loads will effectively get the rear delts firing. This makes it a perfect “at-home” exercise.

Coaching Points:

  • Pick up a pair of dumbbells and stand tall before gently pushing the hips back to cause the trunk to lean forward
  • Keeping the arms extended, let the weight hang down with the palms facing each other
  • Engage the rear delts and squeeze between the shoulder blades to drive straight arms out to the sides of the body until approximately parallel with the floor
  • Hold the contraction for a moment before lowering the dumbbells under control
  • This exercise can also be performed while seated on a bench.

step up

4) Step-Up (Swapped for Squats)

Although the squat should form a vital part of the majority of training programs, there may be times that it may have to be avoided or replaced with an alternative.

On this note, it is important to recognize that the leg press is not a like-for-like swap for the squat considering that biomechanical differences that exist between the two (3).

The squat tends to activate the hamstrings and glutes to a large extent whereas the leg press tends to limit the involvement of both of these muscle groups.

A more suitable alternative is the step-up – which is practically a one-legged squat. Either barbells or dumbbells can be used for this exercise.

When executing the step-up, ensure that the box or bench you select places the thigh in a position that is parallel with the floor. Any higher than parallel will fail to properly engage the glutes, quads, and hamstrings.

Coaching Points:

  • Stand in front of the box with either a bar on the back or dumbbells in hand
  • Keeping the chest up and core tight, place the foot on the box and drive through the heel powerfully to rise up
  • Step onto the box with the other foot and then reverse the entire movement back to the floor

5) Cable Leg Raise (Swapped for Leg Extensions)

While the leg extension is a powerful isolation exercise for the rectus femoris (quad muscle), it may place undue stress on structures around the knee (4).

Considering the fact that the rectus femoris muscle encompasses both the knee and hip joint, the cable leg raise may be a more effective alternative.

The main difference between the two exercises is that the leg remains entirely straight during the cable leg raise, rather than hinging the knee in the leg extensions.

Coaching Points:

  • Set a cable pulley to the lowest point, attach an ankle strap and secure the strap around the ankle
  • Standing tall and straight, engage the muscles of the legs to raise the leg out in front of the body until it reaches parallel with the floor
  • In a controlled manner, lower the leg until the foot touches the floor slightly behind the standing foot

Final Word

There is no reason to be stuck when injury strikes or when your favorite piece of gym equipment is being used. Instead, consider adopting a number of the aforementioned exercises to allow to exercise to continue.


1-Bhatia, Deepak N.; de Beer, Joe F.; van Rooyen, Karin S.; Lam, Francis; du Toit, Donald F. (2007-8). “The “bench-presser’s shoulder”: an overuse insertional tendinopathy of the pectoralis minor muscle”. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 41 (8): e11. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2006.032383. ISSN 1473-0480. PMC 2465431. PMID 17138640.

2-Fenwick, Chad M. J.; Brown, Stephen H. M.; McGill, Stuart M. (2009-3). “Comparison of different rowing exercises: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load, and stiffness”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 23 (2): 350–358. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181942019. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 19197209.

3-Escamilla, R. F.; Fleisig, G. S.; Zheng, N.; Lander, J. E.; Barrentine, S. W.; Andrews, J. R.; Bergemann, B. W.; Moorman, C. T. (2001-9). “Effects of technique variations on knee biomechanics during the squat and leg press”. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 33 (9): 1552–1566. doi:10.1097/00005768-200109000-00020. ISSN 0195-9131. PMID 11528346.

4-D’Lima, Darryl D.; Fregly, Benjamin J.; Patil, Shantanu; Steklov, Nikolai; Colwell, Clifford W. (2012-2). “Knee joint forces: prediction, measurement, and significance”. Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Part H, Journal of Engineering in Medicine. 226 (2): 95–102. ISSN 0954-4119. PMC 3324308. PMID 22468461.

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