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Why Top Athletes Prefer Dumbbell Bench Press Over Barbell (But Only When Done Right)

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

The Dumbbell Bench Press is a compelling alternative to the traditional barbell bench press. 

Discover how the dumbbell version enhances muscle activation, provides a greater range of motion, and reduces joint stress – key elements for more effective gains on the bench.

Dumbbell Bench Press
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Whether you’re looking to refine your technique or seeking a fresh approach to your fitness regimen, this guide offers insights into making the most of your upper body workouts with the dumbbell bench press.

Dumbbell vs Barbell Bench Press

When it comes to chest workouts, both dumbbell bench press and barbell bench press are popular choices. This section aims to help you understand the differences between these two exercises and how they can benefit your training.

Firstly, the dumbbell bench press allows for a greater range of motion compared to the barbell bench press. With dumbbells, you have the freedom to lower the weights further down, resulting in a deeper stretch in your chest muscles. This increased range of motion can lead to better muscle activation and growth (source).

In contrast, the barbell bench press allows you to lift heavier weights, which can result in greater overall strength gains. This is because the barbell provides more stability, enabling you to focus more on pushing heavier loads. However, it is important to note that barbell bench press involves less activation of stabilizer muscles, since the barbell itself offers more balance and support.

Another key difference between the two exercises is muscle activation. A study found that dumbbell bench press resulted in similar muscle activation to barbell bench press in prime movers, but with higher activation in stabilizing muscles. This suggests that, while both exercises effectively target the chest, dumbbell bench press may also strengthen supportive muscles more effectively.

Here are some key points to consider when deciding which exercise to incorporate into your routine:

Dumbbell bench press

  • Greater range of motion, resulting in better muscle activation and growth.
  • Increased activation of stabilizing muscles.
  • Allows for unilateral training, which can help identify and fix imbalances between the left and right sides of the body.

Barbell bench press

  • Allows you to lift heavier weights, potentially leading to greater overall strength gains.
  • Provides more stability, making it easier to focus on pushing heavier loads.
  • Preferred choice for powerlifting and strength-based training programs.

Equipment and Setup

Choosing the Right Dumbbells

Selecting appropriate dumbbells is crucial for executing the dumbbell bench press effectively. You should choose a weight that is challenging but allows you to maintain proper form throughout the exercise. To ensure progression, consider starting with a lighter weight and gradually increasing it as your strength improves.

Here’s a simple chart to help you choose the right dumbbell weight:

LevelWeight Range
Beginner5-25 lbs
Intermediate25-50 lbs
Advanced50 lbs and up

Bench Selection and Positioning

Inclined bench
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Selecting a sturdy and stable bench is essential. An adjustable bench is highly recommended, as it allows for variation in the incline and targets different areas of the chest muscles.

To set up the bench, adjust the backrest to a flat position and ensure that the bench is level. Position the bench in a clear space with enough room for you to safely lift and lower the dumbbells.

How to Do Barbell Bench Presses

Starting Position

Before beginning the exercise, establish your starting position by sitting on the bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Use a neutral grip by holding the dumbbells with your palms facing each other and your thumbs wrapped around the handles.

Lie back on the bench, keeping your feet flat on the floor, and bring the dumbbells to shoulder height with your elbows bent at a 90-degree angle. Ensure your head, shoulders, and glutes are in contact with the bench throughout the exercise.

Hand and Arm Positioning

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To ensure proper form while performing the dumbbell bench press, it’s crucial to focus on your hand and arm positioning. First, grip the dumbbells with your palms facing away from your torso. Make sure you have a firm grasp on the dumbbells to prevent any slipping and maintain stability during the exercise.

Position your arms at a 45-degree angle from your body, which can help ensure a natural range of motion and minimize the risk of shoulder injuries. Your shoulder blades should be retracted and pressed into the bench, creating a strong and stable base for effective and safe lifting.

Breathing and Lifting Control

Proper control and breathing technique play vital roles in maximizing the benefits and safety of the dumbbell bench press. Before lifting, take a deep breath and brace your core to protect your spine and provide additional stability throughout the movement.

As you begin to lower the dumbbells, exhale slowly and maintain control of the weights, focusing on a smooth and steady descent. Once the dumbbells have reached chest-level, inhale deeply again while simultaneously pushing the weights upward in a controlled and powerful motion. Remember to keep your shoulder blades anchored to the bench during both the lowering and lifting phases. This technique helps maintain proper form and ensures that you are engaging the correct muscles.

In summary, the key aspects of executing a successful dumbbell bench press include:

  • Gripping dumbbells firmly with palms facing away from the torso.
  • Placing arms at a 45-degree angle from the body.
  • Retracting and pressing shoulder blades into the bench.
  • Taking a deep breath before lifting and maintaining control throughout the movement.

Increasing Challenge and Intensity

Progressing with Weights

Start with a weight that allows you to perform the exercise with proper form for at least 8-12 reps. As you get stronger, you can increase the weight to maintain the intensity and further challenge your muscles.

Some key points to consider when progressing with weights:

  • Be patient: Strength gains take time and you shouldn’t rush the process to avoid injuries.
  • Progression: Incrementally add weight as you become comfortable with your current weight.
  • Monitor form: Always prioritize maintaining proper form over lifting heavier weights.

Unilateral Variations

Incorporating unilateral variations of the dumbbell bench press is an excellent way to challenge your body and improve unilateral strength. Exercises like the single-arm dumbbell bench press target each side independently, helping to balance any potential strength imbalances.

Performing unilateral exercises may provide some additional benefits:

  • Greater range of motion: Since you’re focusing on one arm at a time, you may be able to achieve a greater range of motion compared to traditional bench press variations.
  • Core engagement: Unilateral exercises require you to stabilize your body more, resulting in increased core activation.
  • Improved balance and coordination: When performing single-arm variations, your body needs to work harder to maintain balance, ultimately improving coordination.

Training Programs Incorporation

For Bodybuilders

Bodybuilders typically focus on hypertrophy (muscle growth), so they prefer high-volume training programs. Adjust the weights, sets, and repetitions accordingly to maximize muscle growth. For instance:

  • Perform 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps with a moderately heavy weight
  • Rest for approximately 60-90 seconds between sets

Keep in mind that consistent progression and variety are essential in your workout. Feel free to explore different grip width and bench incline/decline angles to target specific muscles, like the chest, shoulders, and triceps more effectively.

For Athletes and Powerlifters

While they primarily focus on strength and power development, having muscular balance and stability is crucial. The dumbbell bench press can help you achieve more functional strength that translates better to other sports or exercises.

Here’s an example of a dumbbell bench press progression for athletes and powerlifters:

WeekSetsRepsWeightRest (between sets)
1-2410Moderate90 seconds
3-448Heavy2 minutes
5-656Heavier2-3 minutes

Advanced Techniques and Tips

Below are some tips to help you refine your technique and strengthen key muscles.

1. Strengthen your core and stability: A strong core is crucial for maintaining stability while performing the dumbbell bench press. Engage your core throughout the movement, and consider incorporating exercises such as planks and crunches into your workout routine to build core strength.

2. Focus on your shoulders and lockout: When pressing the dumbbells, concentrate on squeezing your shoulder stabilizers and scapulae, which will improve stability and muscle activation. Ensure a smooth lockout at the top of the movement by extending your arms fully and engaging your triceps.

3. Keep your feet flat on the floor: For optimal stability during the dumbbell bench press, maintain contact with the floor by keeping your feet flat. This stable base allows you to transfer power effectively from your lower body to your upper body and helps maintain proper form.

4. Engage your glutes and legs: Although the primary focus is on your upper body, don’t forget to engage your glutes and legs during the movement. This will provide additional stability and power, especially when pressing heavier weights. In addition, activating your hips and legs can help prevent lower back strain.

5. Maintain proper shoulder positioning: Ensuring your shoulders are stable and well-supported during the movement is crucial for avoiding injury and maximizing strength. Keep your shoulders down and away from your ears, and engage your shoulder stabilizers.

Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Several common mistakes can hinder your progress and potentially lead to injury. By understanding these mistakes and learning how to avoid them, you can properly execute the exercise and reduce the risk of injury.

  1. Incorrect elbow position: Flaring your elbows out at a 90-degree angle from your body puts your shoulders at a higher risk for injury. Instead, keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your body.
  2. Arching your lower back: Excessively arching your lower back can cause strain and discomfort. Maintaining a slight natural arch is ideal, but ensure you engage your core and keep your glutes and lower back firmly against the bench.
  3. Incomplete range of motion: Not lowering the dumbbells all the way down or not fully extending your arms can limit muscle activation and growth. Aim to bring the dumbbells down to your chest, and fully extend your arms at the top of the movement.

To avoid these mistakes, consider the following tips:

  • Perfect your form: Before attempting heavy weights, familiarize yourself with the correct form. This includes keeping your feet flat on the ground, your glutes and upper back in contact with the bench, and employing a controlled, steady motion throughout the exercise.
  • Warm-up properly: Take time to properly warm up your muscles and joints to minimize the risk of injury. This should include a light aerobic activity, dynamic stretches, and a few sets of the dumbbell bench press with a lighter weight.
  • Gradually increase weight: When you’re confident in your form, slowly increase the weight of the dumbbells to avoid overwhelming your muscles or causing undue shoulder pain.

Variations and Alternatives

There are some popular variations and alternatives that you can try during your workout. These options allow you to target different muscle groups and add variety to your routine.

Incline and Decline Variations

The Incline Dumbbell Bench Press targets the upper part of your chest and the front shoulder muscles more effectively than the flat bench version. To perform this exercise, simply adjust the bench to an incline between 30 and 45 degrees, making sure to keep your form intact throughout the movement.

On the other hand, the Decline Dumbbell Bench Press is an effective way to emphasize the lower part of your chest muscles. To do this variation, set the bench at a decline angle of approximately 15 to 30 degrees. Don’t forget to maintain proper form and control during the exercise to avoid injury.

Dumbbell Floor Press

The Dumbbell Floor Press is another excellent alternative that targets the chest, shoulders, and triceps while also providing a unique range of motion. It is an especially useful option for those with limited equipment or space. To perform this variation:

  1. Lie down on the floor with your back flat and knees bent to ease any tension in your lower back.
  2. Hold the dumbbells with a neutral grip (palms facing each other) and position them at shoulder-width apart.
  3. Press the dumbbells upward by extending your arms, making sure not to lock your elbows or let the weights touch each other at the top of the movement.
  4. Lower the dumbbells back to the starting position, allowing your elbows to make contact with the ground but without resting them completely.

Dumbbell Bench Press Muscle Worked

Here are the primary muscles worked in the exercise:

  • Pectoralis major (chest muscles): The primary muscle targeted in the dumbbell bench press.
  • Triceps brachii (back of upper arm muscles): These muscles assist in extending the elbow as you perform the pressing motion.
  • Anterior deltoid (front shoulder muscles): Although not the main target, the anterior deltoids activate to support the chest and triceps in completing the movement.

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