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Dumbbell Bench Press Vs Barbell Bench Press

When comparing the Dumbbell Bench Press vs. Barbell Bench Press, it is important to understand which is the best choice for optimal gains in both size and strength. 

Knowing why and how to use each exercise will improve your ability to progress toward your goals much more quickly. Simply opting to choose one over the other all of the time will negatively affect how much both strength and size you inevitably end up generating. 

Table of Contents

The Difference Between The Dumbbell And Barbell Bench Press

The difference between the dumbbell bench press and the barbell bench press lies in the type of weight being lifted and the muscle activation during the exercise. In a dumbbell bench press, each arm lifts a separate weight, allowing for a greater range of motion and balanced muscle activation.

On the other hand, the barbell bench press utilises a barbell loaded with weight plates, leading to a more stable lift and increased weight capability. Both exercises can be effective for building upper body strength, but the specific muscle activation and weight-lifting capabilities will vary.

Pros Of Dumbbell Bench Press

When considering the nuances of upper body strength training, selecting the appropriate exercises holds the key to optimising your progress. The bench press, a cornerstone of many workout routines, offers two prominent variations: the dumbbell bench press and the barbell bench press.

While both share the common goal of enhancing chest, shoulder, and triceps strength, they diverge in their mechanics and the specific advantages they bring to the table. Delving into the advantages of the dumbbell bench press over its barbell counterpart reveals a range of benefits that can greatly influence your fitness journey.

Here are the main benefits of the dumbbell bench press:

  • Individual muscle emphasis
  • Enhanced range of motion
  • Increased hypertrophy
  • Safer to train alone 
  • Reduced shoulder and wrist strain 

In the sections below we will take a closer look at these benefits in more detail. 

Individual Muscle Emphasis

The dumbbell bench press requires you to lift two separate weights simultaneously from start to finish. As you can imagine this requires more isolation on each side of the body. Therefore, it will show up any recognisable differences in strength pretty quickly.

It is not rare for an individual to be more dominant on one side of their body than the other.

This is usually down to being more naturally dominant on one side than the other, such as being right or left-handed. This imbalance could also be due to injury in one side of the body, leading to it becoming more untrained than the other whilst recovering. 

Dumbbells will allow the less dominant side of the body, which is falling behind, to get up to speed with the other. In this case, both dumbbells should be lowered in weight until both sides of the chest can perform the exercise equally. 

Enhanced Range Of Motion

The free movement provided by dumbbells allows for an extended range of motion during the bench press. This becomes evident at the bottom of the movement when the dumbbells can be lowered further than a barbell.

A result of this is a deeper stretch in the pectoral muscles, which can enhance muscle activation and contribute to a more thorough muscle fibre recruitment. This increased stretch has been associated with improved muscle growth and overall flexibility.

An enhanced range of motion in the dumbbell bench press isn’t merely confined to the gym setting. The flexibility gained through the increased stretch can translate to improved functional mobility in everyday life. This can be especially beneficial for activities that require reaching, pushing, or pulling motions.

The versatility of the dumbbell press, therefore, extends beyond muscle development to contribute to better overall movement quality.

Increased Hypertrophy

The dumbbell bench press offers a unique advantage when it comes to promoting muscle hypertrophy. By allowing for independent movement and a greater range of motion, it engages muscle fibers from different angles.

This multi-dimensional activation places varying levels of tension on muscle fibers, stimulating a more comprehensive hypertrophic response. This aspect of the dumbbell press can lead to improved muscle development across different regions of the chest, shoulders, and triceps.

One study from the Journal Of Strength And Conditioning suggests that the dumbbell bench press activates the pectoral muscles more than the Barbell Chest Press.1 Therefore this leads to a higher likelihood of hypertrophy, provided you are applying progressive overload.

This targeted activation of different fiber types can lead to well-rounded and fuller muscle development. The versatility of the dumbbell press, therefore, provides a strategic approach to hypertrophy training.

Safer To Train Alone

One of the standout safety advantages of the dumbbell bench press is its suitability for solo training sessions. When lifting heavy weights, there’s always a concern about getting stuck under the bar.

With dumbbells, this concern is largely mitigated. In the event of muscle failure or fatigue, you can simply drop the dumbbells to your sides, eliminating the risk of being trapped under a heavy load. This feature provides peace of mind and independence in training.

The safety measure of being able to drop the weights during a failed rep is particularly relevant during heavy lifts. Unlike the barbell, where a failed rep might require assistance to rack the weight safely, the dumbbell press allows for a more immediate and controlled release.

This contributes to a more secure and less intimidating training experience, fostering a sense of confidence, especially when training alone.

Reduced Shoulder And Wrist Strain

The ergonomic advantage of a dumbbell grip can’t be understated. The neutral grip position that dumbbells offer can be gentler on the shoulders and wrists, particularly for individuals with pre-existing joint issues. The more natural alignment of the wrists and shoulders reduces strain and minimizes discomfort during the movement.

This can lead to a more sustainable and comfortable training experience, especially for those prone to shoulder or wrist discomfort. The reduced strain on shoulders and wrists has implications beyond immediate training sessions. By minimizing wear and tear on these joints, the dumbbell bench press can contribute to sustained training efforts over the long term.

Incorporating the benefits of the dumbbell bench press into your workout routine can be an effective way to enhance muscle development while prioritising safety and comfort.

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Cons Of Dumbbell Bench Press

If you are focusing on improving your overall strength, then the dumbbell bench press is inferior to the barbell.

Assume that your 1RM on a barbell bench press is 100kg. Your 1RM on the dumbbell bench press is very unlikely to be 50kg Dumbbells on each side. It is usually around 15-25% less for most people. There are a few reasons for this:

  • The weight is unevenly spread so your stronger arm can not compensate for your weaker side as it would on a barbell
  • The stabiliser muscles in each plane of motion are much less effective as they are being swayed side to side by the dumbbells rather than focusing on one thing (the bar) to stabilise – Think see-saw at a playground
  • The range of motion is much different. When dumbbells are used, you usually bring them down much lower. You also squeeze them together at the top, so the range of motion is significantly different at the top and the bottom of the exercise.

You might have difficulty getting them into position from the floor up to above your chest without a spotter, even though you are capable of doing a good amount of repetitions. But you can overcome this by using the knee flick technique shown in the video below. 

Muscles Used During Dumbbell Bench Press

The dumbbell bench press is globally recognised as an exercise which builds the chest. But it can offer far more benefits than simply helping to build muscles and strength only in the pecs. 

Other muscles that are stimulated during the dumbbell bench press include:

  • Triceps (Long & Short Head)
  • Shoulders (Anterior & Rear Deltoid) 
  • Lats
  • Trapezius
  • Rhomboids
  • Short Head Of The Biceps 
  • Forearms (Grip Strength Is Also Improved) 

The multidimensional engagement of these muscle groups underscores the effectiveness of the dumbbell bench press as a compound exercise that goes beyond chest development. Understanding the broader impact of this exercise can help you appreciate its contribution to a well-rounded upper body strength training routine.

How To Perform Dumbbell Bench Press Correctly

A major difference when comparing the dumbbell bench press vs barbell bench press is in the technique. Making sure your technique is correct is much more important than the amount of weight being pressed. Learning to perform the dumbbell bench press correctly will optimise gains, and strength and reduce the risk of injury.

Here’s a written version of how to perform the dumbbell bench press most effectively: 

  • The start of the movement depends on whether or not you are training alone or with someone else. If you can get someone to pass the dumbbells to you, then saves the strain of trying to get them into position. If not, then you will need to use the ‘knee flick‘ technique.
  • The starting position should have the dumbbells directly over the chest, with arms locked out and wrists facing towards the lower body. Your upper and lower back should be flat against the bench. 
  • To start the movement, squeeze the shoulder blades together and press your feet into the ground to help with momentum when pushing up. 
  • Lower the dumbbells down slowly until the elbows reach a 90-degree angle, with the forearm remaining in a straight line up to the wrists. Be sure to keep your elbows under the wrist at all times! 
  • Try to avoid lowering the dumbbells too low beyond 90 degrees (Elbow going below in line with the shoulder) as this causes unnecessary strain on the shoulder. This can lead to serious injury and potential damage to ligaments and tendons within the shoulder joint.  
  • Once the dumbbells have been lowered to just below the 90-degree angle, start to drive the dumbbells back up to where they came from by pushing with as much force as necessary. 
  • Return the dumbbells to the start position to complete 1 full rep

Pros Of Barbell Bench Press

While both the dumbbell and barbell chest press aim to strengthen the chest, these exercises do diverge in mechanics and the specific benefits they offer.

Taking a closer look at the advantages of the barbell bench press over the dumbbell variation reveals a range of potential benefits that could significantly impact your fitness journey.

Here are the main benefits of the barbell bench press: 

  • Stability and heavier loads 
  • Overall upper body strength 
  • Symmetrical movement pattern
  • Efficent load management 
  • Ease of spotting 

In the sections below we will look at each of these benefits in more detail. 

Stability And Heavier Loads

The barbell bench press is renowned for providing a stable lifting platform due to its fixed movement path. Unlike the dynamic nature of dumbbells, the barbell’s unchanging trajectory allows you to focus entirely on the lift itself.

This stability not only promotes proper form but also enables you to lift heavier weights with confidence. The controlled movement offered by the barbell bench press is advantageous when handling substantial loads, facilitating a safer and more effective lifting experience.

With its stability comes the inherent ability of the barbell bench press to accommodate heavier loads. This is crucial for promoting progressive overload, a fundamental principle of strength training. As your strength increases, you can incrementally add more weight to the barbell. Therefore continuously challenging your muscles and driving muscular adaptations.

The stability of the barbell also minimises the risk of wobbling or imbalance, allowing you to push your limits safely and effectively.

Overall Upper Body Strength

The barbell bench press stands as a quintessential upper-body compound exercise. This means that it engages multiple muscle groups simultaneously. While it primarily targets the chest, shoulders, and triceps, it also activates stabiliser muscles in the core and upper back to maintain balance and control.

This comprehensive muscle engagement fosters overall upper body strength, promoting muscle development and functional capacity across a broader spectrum of muscle groups.

The barbell bench press also requires coordination and synchronisation among various upper-body muscles. The controlled and unified movement pattern challenges your muscles to work together harmoniously, enhancing neuromuscular coordination. This not only improves the efficiency of the movement but also cultivates a more connected and capable upper body.

The benefits of the barbell bench press extend beyond the chest and arms. The compound nature of the exercise encourages the integration of your entire body to generate force. This integrated power is essential for everyday activities that demand coordinated upper body strength, such as pushing, lifting, and carrying objects.

As a result, the barbell bench press contributes to functional strength that translates to real-world tasks.

Symmetrical Movement Pattern

The barbell bench press’s fixed movement path offers a straightforward and predictable motion. This consistent trajectory eliminates the need to manage individual dumbbells, simplifying the movement pattern. It can therefore be especially advantageous for beginners who are still mastering proper lifting techniques.

The fixed path reduces the complexity of the exercise, allowing you to focus more on form and muscle engagement.

So then, building on its symmetrical nature, the barbell bench press assists in addressing muscle imbalances. By engaging both sides of the body simultaneously, it minimizes the risk of one side compensating for the other. Over time, this promotes a more balanced and proportionate physique.

The standardised movement pattern of the barbell bench press promotes uniform muscle activation. As both arms move in synchrony, muscle groups on both sides of the body are engaged proportionately.

Efficient Load Management

The barbell bench press offers efficiency in terms of loading and unloading weight plates. This ease of adjustment allows for smooth progression as you increase the weight over time.

Whether you’re adding plates for a heavier lift or adjusting the weight for a particular rep range, the barbell’s straightforward loading mechanism simplifies the process, contributing to a more seamless workout experience.

When incorporating techniques like drop sets or rest-pause training, the ability to swiftly adjust the load is invaluable. The barbell’s design facilitates quick weight changes, enabling you to transition seamlessly between different training intensities. This efficiency lends itself well to training techniques that demand rapid load adjustments.

Ease Of Spotting

One of the notable advantages of the barbell bench press is the straightforward nature of spotting. Since both arms move together, the spotter can provide assistance with a direct upward motion. This makes spotting more effective and intuitive, offering a higher level of safety, especially when attempting challenging lifts.

For those who often train without a workout partner, the barbell bench press offers a reassuring advantage. With proper technique, it’s possible to spot yourself to a certain extent, particularly during the concentric (lifting) phase. This self-spotting capability can empower solo lifters to engage in high-intensity training sessions with a reduced concern for safety.

Understanding these benefits of the barbell bench press sheds light on its significance in building overall upper body strength and promoting efficient training sessions.

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Cons Of Barbell Bench Press

Training on the barbell alone is very risky if you are aiming for low reps/high weight and is not advised without a spotter. The bar can end up stuck on your chest, or worse if you can not push it back up.

Related Article – How To Bail From A Failed Chest Press

On the flip side of the coin, it may be easier for you when training alone as you can take the weight from a position where you can control it instantly. Therefore you do not have to prop it into position in the first place. Rather than having to push the weight up into position, which can be uncomfortable, you can now start the set by controlling the weight down. 

Muscle soreness of the elbow extensors also takes a longer time to recover after using a barbell chest press exercise than compared with a dumbbell chest press. 2

The barbell has long been known to cause shoulder pain or injuries to most lifters over time. 

Related Article – How To Fix Shoulder Pain Quickly And Effectively

Muscles Used During Barbell Bench Press

The barbell is predominantly known for building strength and hypertrophy in the chest and anterior deltoids. But it also stimulates a host of other muscles located in the upper body:

  • Triceps (Long & Short Head)
  • Rear Deltoid
  • Lats
  • Trapezius
  • Rhomboids
  • Short Head Of The Biceps 
  • Forearms (Grip Strength Is Also Improved) 

Understanding the diverse array of muscles engaged during barbell exercises underscores their value in cultivating a comprehensive upper-body workout. Beyond their primary muscle-building effects, barbell exercises contribute to overall upper-body stability, strength, and functional performance.

How To Perform Barbell Bench Press Correctly

Making sure your technique is correct is much more important than the amount of weight being pressed. Learning to perform the barbell bench press correctly will optimise gains, and strength and reduce the risk of injury. Many experienced lifters have been injured by overloading the barbell or using the incorrect form, so the technique is vital for the barbell bench press.

 Here’s how to perform the dumbbell bench press adequately: 

  • Lie with your back flat on the bench so that your eyes are directly underneath the barbell. Your hands should be placed just outside of shoulder width apart on the bar
  • As you remove the bar from the rack, it should travel in an inverted J movement so it ends up directly above your shoulders.
  • Make sure your elbows and wrist remain in alignment and inhale as you lower the bar down to your chest. 
  • The bar should lower down until it reaches the chest, and should touch just around the sternum. In this position, the elbows should be just below the shoulders. 
  • Once the bar has reached the chest, drive through your feet and squeeze the shoulder blades together as you push the bar back up to the starting position.
  • Make sure you maintain the fundamentals, by keeping the elbow and wrist in alignment and trying to keep the bar as evenly balanced and straight as possible. 

Summary And Recommendations

If muscle gain is your only focus then the dumbbells should be your go-to exercise. Whereas the barbell would be used predominantly for increasing strength as opposed to hypertrophy.

Both exercises will increase both aspects, but one more so than the other, if done correctly and as part of a consistent routine. Therefore, build up your strength with the barbell. Then revert back to dumbbells to build up more muscle. Once you reach a plateau, go back to the barbell and build more strength.

The most simple comparison to remember when comparing Dumbbell Bench Press vs. Barbell Bench Press:

Dumbbells equate more to hypertrophy. 

The barbell equates to quicker gains in strength.

References

  1. Farias DA, Willardson JM, Paz GA, Bezerra ES, Miranda H. Maximal Strength Performance and Muscle Activation for the Bench Press and Triceps Extension Exercises Adopting Dumbbell, Barbell, and Machine Modalities Over Multiple Sets. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Jul;31
  2. Ferreira DV, Ferreira-Júnior JB, Soares SR, Cadore EL, Izquierdo M, Brown LE, Bottaro M. Chest Press Exercises With Different Stability Requirements Result in Similar Muscle Damage Recovery in Resistance-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Jan;31
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