When thinking of bench press, almost everyone immediately thinks of bench press with a barbell. However, the bench press can be performed just as well with a set of dumbbells as with a bar. In fact, it is just one of the many variations that exist in the bench press. Which one do we prefer? Neither of the two; both belong in every chest workout as far as we’re concerned.
THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
In the choice for bench press with a barbell or with dumbbells, most blindly choose the former. Wrongly, because the exercises both have their unique advantages.
The question of which exercise is ‘better’ – barbell or dumbbells – makes sense (at most) if you link it to a training goal: strength or muscle growth, for example. We dare to say with caution that the barbell variant is the best exercise for strength training and the one with dumbbells if you are a bodybuilder and therefore aspire to pure muscle growth (you can read why in the next paragraph).
But such a question always sounds like you have to choose between the exercises. And fortunately that is not necessary. In fact, as a bodybuilder you benefit from a variety of exercises and you can easily alternate the dumbbell bench press (also called ‘dumbbell chest press’) with the barbell bench press and include both in your schedule.
For example, on day 1, you can do a flat bench press with a barbell and incline bench press with dumbbells (in that order) and on day 2, you can flat bench press with dumbbells and incline bench press with a barbell (in the order of your preference). Another idea is to bench press both flat and incline with a barbell on day 1, and with dumbbells on day 2. What you want. This way you spread your attention over the middle and top of your chest, and you take advantage of the benefits of both barbell and dumbbell bench presses.
SIMILARITIES, DIFFERENCES AND BENEFITS
There are many, often obvious, similarities between barbell and dumbbell bench presses. Both are basic chest exercises and target the same muscle groups – primary chest, secondary shoulders and triceps, with the biceps acting as dynamic stabilizers. While similar, dumbbell bench press and barbell bench press are not the same exercises; there are some clear differences, both in the set-up and execution as well as in the effect of the exercise.
DIFFERENCE 1: WITH A BARBELL YOU PRESS HEAVIER
Every experienced strength athlete knows that you can press harder with a barbell than with dumbbells. The explanation is simple: the lack of synergy when pressing with dumbbells; your left and right arms work separately, where they work together when pressing with a barbell. With barbell bench presses, one plus one equals three, with dumbbell bench presses ‘just’ two. This individual functioning of the arms in the dumbbell press has the advantage that a relative weakness on one side cannot be compensated for by the other side.
DIFFERENCE 2: WITH DUMBBELLS YOU ACTIVATE THE STABILIZERS MORE
Also, the dumbbell bench press makes a greater use of the stabilizers than the barbell bench press, making it a particularly functional exercise.
DIFFERENCE 3: WITH DUMBBELLS YOU HAVE A BIGGER ROM
A third major difference is the range of motion, or ROM for short. In the barbell bench press, your hands are fixed and follow a straight line, while dumbbells follow an arc pattern. When pushing out, the dumbbells move from the outside in, from slightly narrower than elbow-width at chest height to shoulder-width at the top. As a result, there is more muscle contraction at the top than with a conventional bench press, resulting in more muscle building. You can also lower the dumbbells a fraction deeper than is possible with a barbell. You can even increase the ROM a bit by positioning your elbows wider, but this can compromise the safety of the exercise.
Although you can use more weight with the barbell bench press, the dumbbell press has an advantage with bodybuilders because of the larger ROM. See also this article on T Nation.
DIFFERENCE 4: WITH DUMBBELLS YOU ACTIVATE THE BICEPS A LITTLE MORE AND THE TRICEPS A LITTLE LESS
We report this difference for the sake of completeness, citing this research on the differences between the barbell bench press, the smith machine press and the dumbbell press. The differences between barbell and dumbbell in the activation of the muscles involved are generally small.
DIFFERENCE 5: THE STARTING POSITION
A fifth difference is that after lifting the barbell you are immediately in the starting position, while taking up the starting position with the dumbbell bench press requires some practice. More about the set-up later. It should also be clear that your barbell bench press starts from a top position and a dumbbell bench press from a bottom position.
DIFFERENCE 6: WITH DUMBBELLS YOU PRESS MORE SAFELY (IF NO SPOTTER IS PRESENT)
A final noteworthy difference is that dumbbell presses are generally safer than barbell bench presses; If you are unable to complete a repetition, you can simply lower the dumbbells without getting stuck between the bench and (heavy-loaded) bar.
Tools are available that allow you to lift dumbbells in the same way as a barbell. A kind of hook that you can attach to a conventional bench press and start the exercise in the same top position as a barbell bench press. There are even special devices for this.
Usually, however, you simply perform the exercise on a bench. You start by holding the dumbbells in front of you in a neutral grip (palms facing each other), with the plates against your thighs. You sit down and push the dumbbells with your legs one by one towards your shoulders, and lie back. This can cause problems with heavier weights; another way is to sit down in one movement, move both dumbbells and lie back. See also this video on how to handle heavy dumbbells for this exercise.
Once you’re on the bench, squeeze your shoulder blades together and move them down, just like you would with the barbell bench press. Hold this position throughout the exercise.
The dumbbells are now on either side of your chest at chest height. Due to the freedom of movement you have compared to a conventional bench press, your overhand grip (palms away from you) can lean somewhat towards a neutral grip. To put it more simply: your palms are turned slightly inwards.
In the start and end position of a regular dumbbell bench press, the arms (or elbows, if you prefer) are slightly turned in. Your upper arms make an angle of about 60 degrees with your upper body, seen from above. Your elbows are at a 45-degree angle to your upper arms.
Some bodybuilders make a wider angle with their upper arms, up to 90 degrees to the upper body. While you can isolate your pecs more in this position, it’s risky for your shoulders. Sure, you may experiment with wider angles, but listen carefully to what your shoulders are telling you.
From the starting position, press the dumbbells up, moving them (slightly) from the outside in until the arms are fully extended. Now lower the dumbbells back to the top of your chest until the handles are about chest height. As a bodybuilder, you lower the dumbbells a little further, for maximum stretch. At the lowest point of the ROM, your hands will be just below the top of your chest. You often see that people stop as soon as the weight plate of the dumbbell approaches the shoulder. This means that an essential piece of ROM for muscle growth is lost.
Lowering the dumbbells ideally takes twice as long as raising them.
The dumbbells should not touch each other at the top. However, bring them as close together as possible – certainly to within a few centimeters – to achieve maximum ROM. Rotating the dumbbells at the end of the movement (bringing into dumbbell fly position, so to speak) is pointless. See also the explanation in the video below.
Repeat the described movement for the desired number of repetitions. After the last repetition, bring your hands back to a neutral position.
INCLINE DUMBBELL PRESS
There are many variations of the dumbbell bench press. As mentioned, you can also perform it obliquely in addition to flat. With incline dumbbell press, the stimulus is more on the top of the chest.
Do not set the backrest of the bench too high. An angle of 15 to 30 degrees is generally seen as the most effective and safe.
DUMBBELL FLOOR PRESS
Just like the barbell bench press, you can also perform the dumbbell bench press on the floor instead of on a bench, the so-called dumbbell floor press. This exercise strengthens the dead center in your bench press and increases the involvement of the triceps in the exercise, while minimizing the role of the shoulders, which is also beneficial for those with shoulder complaints. This dumbbell floor press can also be performed with an overhand, underhand or neutral grip.
- For bodybuilders, the dumbbell bench press offers significant advantages over the barbell bench press. The exercise provides more muscle contraction at the top and more stretch at the bottom;
- However, no other upper body press will allow you to move more weight than the barbell bench press; it remains undeniably the exercise for strength gain in the upper body;
- Because both exercises have undeniable benefits and the transfer is huge, we recommend that you include them both in your training program;
- The dumbbell bench press is a compound exercise, but bodybuilders sometimes try to eliminate the role of the triceps and shoulders as much as possible. This by using a somewhat wider ROM;
- The ideal position of the elbows does not exist; it differs from person to person. Most people experience a good stimulus from their upper pecs with no discomfort in the shoulders when their elbows point slightly inwards;
- The incline variation of the dumbell bench press is a helpful upper chest exercise.