Dumbbell Bench Press – Introduction
How to Bench Press with Dumbbells: Chest Exercise Guide + Workout
The barbell bench press is a classic move and one of the world’s favorite free-weight exercises.
Almost everyone who lifts weights has done the bench press, and many have an emotional connection with this popular chest builder.
Get any two gym goers together, and invariably one of them will ask, “So, how much do you bench?”
A big bench press can earn you serious bragging rights!
While there is no denying the universal appeal of the traditional bench press, it’s not without disadvantages.
For example, to do it safely, especially if you train to failure, you’ll need a power rack or a component spotter.
Getting stuck with a heavy weight on your chest is no laughing matter and can cause severe injury.
Also, the barbell bench press can be hard on the shoulders, especially for lifters with long arms and/or shallow chests.
Finally, like any lift, if you do it too often, the bench press can lose some of its potency.
Eventually, your body will adapt to the barbell bench press, and your progress will stall, limiting increases in strength and hypertrophy.
The good news is that switching to the bench press with dumbbells can save your shoulders and make your workouts more productive.
In this article, we tell you all you need to know about this effective upper body pushing exercise.
Bench Press with Dumbbells – Muscles Worked
The bench press with dumbbells, or dumbbell bench press as it’s more commonly known, is a fantastic compound exercise for building upper body strength.
That means it involves two or more joints and several muscles working together.
The primary muscles trained during the dumbbell bench press are:
Known as the pecs for short, these are your most prominent chest muscles.
The pectoral muscles are responsible for horizontal shoulder flexion, adduction, and medial rotation.
Pectoralis major chest muscle
The deltoids are your shoulder muscles.
There are three sets of muscle fibers, which are called heads: anterior (front), medial (middle), and posterior (rear).
All three heads are engaged during dumbbell bench presses, but the anterior head is most active.
Usually just called the triceps for short, this muscle is located on the back of your upper arm.
Its functions are elbow extension and shoulder extension.
Triceps brachii muscles worked
How to do Bench Presses with Dumbbells
There are two ways to do any exercise – the right way and the wrong way.
The right way places tension on the target muscles while being kind to your joints.
The wrong way is usually less effective and more likely to cause injury.
This is how to do bench presses for best results and maximum safety.
- Sit on a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand and your feet flat on the floor.
- Rest the ends of your dumbbells on your thighs.
- Brace your abs, pull your shoulders down and back, and tense your biceps.
- Next, lean back and use your legs and arms to position the weights over your chest.
- Your arms should be straight and vertical with your palms facing down your body, i.e., a pronated grip.
- From this position, inhale, bend your arms, and lower the dumbbells down and out to lightly touch the outside of your shoulders.
- Descend as far as your flexibility allows without hyperextending your shoulders.
- Drive the weights back up and in, returning to the starting position.
- Exhale as you press the dumbbells up.
- That’s one rep – keep going!
Shoulder-saving tips for pain-free bench presses with dumbbells
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Dumbbell Bench Press – Pros
Not convinced that the dumbbell bench press is the best exercise for you?
Consider these benefits of the dumbbell bench press and disadvantages, and then decide!
Training to failure is safer with dumbbells than with a barbell.
If you cannot complete a rep, all you need to do is lower the dumbbells out to the side and lower or drop them to the floor.
The dumbbell bench press is a safe exercise for home lifters.
Dumbbell bench presses allow you to rotate your hands, elbows, and shoulders as you train, which takes stress off your joints.
In contrast, using a barbell locks your hands into one position, which is why they’re often associated with shoulder pain.
If barbell bench presses bother your shoulders, switching to dumbbells could help.
Full range of motion
When you do barbell bench presses, your range of motion is limited by the bar touching your chest.
When you do bench presses with dumbbells, there is no such restriction, so you can lower the weights further and get a deeper stretch in your pecs.
This is good for your flexibility and mobility and may even enhance muscle hypertrophy and strength by making each rep more demanding.
Even development from left to right
Doing bench presses with dumbbells will allow you to identify and fix left-to-right strength imbalances.
It’s pretty normal to have one arm stronger than the other.
Still, significant strength differences could lead to chronic shoulder injuries and affect how you look.
Using dumbbells means each arm must work independently and, as such, should help fix any strength and muscular development imbalances.
Coordination and balance
It’s more neurologically demanding to control two weights than one.
As well as pushing the dumbbells upward, you also need to stop them both from falling inward, outward, forward, or backward.
This will improve your coordination, balance, and joint stability.
All this extra work means that dumbbell bench presses are harder than the barbell variation.
When it comes to productive training, harder is almost always better!
Bench Press with Dumbbells – Cons
There are a couple of drawbacks to doing bench presses with dumbbells too…
Difficulty getting the weights into the correct starting position
While doing dumbbell bench presses with light to medium weights is usually no problem, heavy weights can be awkward.
Not least because you’ll need to wrestle them up into the proper position to start your set.
You’ll basically have to master a sort of “seated power clean” if you don’t have a training partner available to help you.
This may limit how much weight you can use in your workouts.
Most people can lift 20-30% more in the barbell bench press than the bench press with dumbbells.
While this is not an issue for muscle growth, it could mean that this exercise is not so good for building brute strength.
Bench Press with Dumbbells – Variations
The flat dumbbell bench press is an excellent exercise.
Still, if that’s all you ever do, your training progress will eventually slow and may even stall.
Thankfully, there is more than one dumbbell bench press variation you can use to keep your training novel and productive.
Incline bench press with dumbbells
Set your bench to 20-30 degrees to target your upper chest a little more.
This variation also increases the recruitment of your anterior deltoids.
Decline bench press
Set your bench to a 10-20 degree decline to emphasize your lower pecs.
Most exercisers find they can lift a little more weight with this variation.
Paused bench press
Lower the dumbbells as usual but then pause for 2-3 seconds at the bottom of each rep.
This reduces the stretch-shortening reflex and makes each rep more challenging.
This is a good option if you are limited to light dumbbells but still want an intense workout.
Close grip bench press with dumbbells
Adopt a neutral grip and press the dumbbells together to increase inner chest engagement and make even lightweight dumbbells feel heavier.
The harder you push the weights together, the more effective this exercise becomes.
You can do this exercise on a flat, incline, or decline bench.
Alternating dumbbell bench press
For this variation, lower one arm at a time while keeping the other arm extended and stationary.
This keeps your muscles under tension for longer, making moderate or even lighter weights feel heavier.
Single-arm dumbbell bench press
Using a single dumbbell means you can concentrate 100% on one arm at a time and address any left-to-right strength imbalances you may have.
Also, this variation works your core more, as you’ll need to use your abs to stabilize your body and prevent twisting.
Dumbbell floor press
Work the same muscle groups by doing your dumbbell presses while lying on the floor.
Lower the weights down until your upper arms touch the ground.
This exercise is very shoulder joint friendly!
Single arm alternating dumbbell floor press
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Bench Press with Dumbbells – Chest Workout
While you could just do a few sets of dumbbell bench presses and hope for the best, you’ll get better results if you follow a more structured training plan.
This workout routine is built around the bench press with dumbbells and a couple of additional dumbbell and bodyweight exercises.
Do the following Fit Apprentice® dumbbell chest workout 1-2 times a week, taking each set to within a couple of reps of failure.
Spend a few minutes warming up before you work out to minimize your risk of injury and ensure that all your muscles are firing correctly.
* Reps are listed for illustration purposes only. If you only have a light pair of dumbbells, continue until your muscles are fatigued, and you cannot do any more reps with proper form.
** These are push-ups with your hands resting on dumbbells so you can work your muscles through a greater range of motion.
Do your push-ups on your toes or knees as preferred.
Alternatively, put your feet on a bench to make this exercise more challenging.
Bench Press with Dumbbells – Wrapping Up
The barbell bench press is a much-loved exercise, but it’s not always practical, especially if you train at home and don’t have a power rack.
The bench press with dumbbells is safer for solo trainers and also offers several additional benefits, which could mean it’s a better option for some people.
That said, for building brute strength and for powerlifting-style training, the barbell bench press is probably your best choice.
But, if you want to build and tone your pecs and aren’t worried about lifting ultra-heavy weights, the bench press with dumbbells could be the ideal pushing exercise for your workouts.
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