Switch to the Dumbbell Bench Press to Grow Your Pecs & Bench Better

Build bigger pecs, stronger shoulders, and switch up your training with this classic chest exercise.

The dumbbell bench press is the cousin of many people’s favorite compound movement — the barbell bench press. Generally, lifters will have an easier time setting up and controlling two relatively lighter weights.

That said, gymgoers of all skill levels can benefit from this move. It builds strength and muscle in the entire torso, can improve your barbell bench press, and may even help you grow more muscle across your chest as well.

Below, we go over each step of the lift to help you execute a pristine dumbbell bench press, variations of the movement, the anatomy of the muscles worked, and variations. Here’s what else we’ll cover:

Dumbbell Bench Press Video Guide

The dumbbell bench press is an excellent move for any lifter of any skill level. Check out our video guide for even more information on how to execute this pec-builder flawlessly. 

How to Do the Dumbbell Bench Press

Here’s an in-depth, step-by-step breakdown of how to do the dumbbell bench press optimally. 

Step 1 — Get Set

The dumbbell bench press pre set

Before you even initiate the press, you need to get the weights ready. Ideally, a friend would hand you the weights once you’re already lying down on the bench. However, that’s not always practical. If you’re using light to moderate weight, your best bet is to lift them from the floor to your knees.

Grip each dumbbell firmly, and then squeeze your shoulder blades together. Kick one knee up to drive a dumbbell to your shoulder. Then, drive the other knee up. (Be careful not to launch the dumbbells too hard and risk hitting your head.) As you drive the last dumbbell up, lay back down on the bench. You should start with both dumbbells over your chest, with your arms fully extended.

Form Tip: Be sure to lay back slowly with the weight. 

Step 2 —  Set Your Back

Dumbbell Bench Press set up

Once your back is on the bench, you want to squeeze your shoulder blades together. Also, make sure your feet are actively pressing into the floor. Doing so will help recruit more muscles in your body to help with the lift. Think of the back muscles as the base of this lift.

By squeezing your scapulas together, you’re tensing your back and engaging those muscles. As you pull the weight down, you’ll feel your lats tighten, almost as if they’re springs ready to explode upwards. 

Form Tip: The elbows should be directly underneath the wrist, as this will help keep the shoulder joint in proper positioning and allow for maximal back tension.

Step 3 — Lower the Dumbbells

Dumbbell Bench Press Lowering Dumbbells

Slowly lower the dumbbells down toward your chest. The weights should fall both down and out to the sides. Lower until your upper arm is parallel (or lower) to the floor, or the weights themselves come to chest height. Keep your elbows under your wrists at all times. 

Form Tip: Think about pressing yourself deeper into the bench and pulling the dumbbells to you.

Step 4 — Press the Dumbbells

Dumbbell Press

Once your back is tight, and the weight is sitting at chest level, drive the dumbbells up and inward. Your hands should end up back on top of your shoulders. 

Form Tip: Keep your feet pressed into the floor. This extra leg engagement will help you push even more weight, especially as you lift heavier dumbbells.

Dumbbell Bench Press Sets and Reps

What exercises you choose to do in the gym is important, but how you go about performing them from a programming perspective is what really drives progress. Here are some set-and-rep options for the dumbbell bench press to help you make the kind of gains you want. 

Since dumbbells lack the fine-tuned loading potential of the barbell, you may find it difficult to progress your strength with them in the same way. That said, you can still ensure you’re working in the right rep ranges

  • For Muscle Mass3 to 5 sets of 7 to 12 reps, leaving 1-2 reps in the tank each set.
  • For Strength Gains: 4 to 6 sets of 5 to 8 reps with at least two minutes’ rest. 
  • For Beginners3 sets of 10 reps with a light to moderate weight. 

Common Dumbbell Bench Press Mistakes

It may not be as intricate as the snatch, or even a powerlifter’s bench press, but things can still go sideways with dumbbell work. Here are a couple of common errors to avoid when performing the dumbbell bench press. 

Starting Too Heavy

Since you’re working with two separate implements at once, dumbbell exercises come with a larger stability demand. If you start off trying to match your barbell bench press weight (two 90-pound dumbbells if you bench 180 pounds, for instance) you might be surprised at how hard it is to control.

Leave your ego at the door and start extra-conservatively if you’re new to dumbbell training

Alternating Your Arms

Unless you’re prioritizing muscular endurance, there’s no real reason to press with one arm at a time. This will essentially double the amount of time the set takes, but holding a dumbbell aloft at arm’s length does little for muscle growth or absolute strength. 

It might be a fun way to switch things up once in a while, but for most training goals, pressing the weights simultaneously works just fine. Keep it simple.

Pressing Too Shallow

Tactically cutting out a portion of your range of motion can be great for strength gains, but if you’re learning to dumbbell bench press for the first time, there’s no reason to stop short. As long as your mobility and comfort permit, you should lower the weights until they’re roughly around chest level.

Dumbbell Bench Press Variations

Below are three dumbbell bench press variations that can be used by coaches and athletes to keep training varied and progressive.

Dumbbell Floor Press

The dumbbell floor press is a dumbbell bench press variation that is done by lying on the floor rather than a bench. In doing this, you restrict the overall range of motion in the pressing movement, increasing the demands on the triceps to assist in the lockout position. Additionally, it can help you establish a deeper understanding of how to stabilize your upper back.

Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press

This unilateral dumbbell bench press variation has the lifter move one dumbbell at a time, alternating between the left and right sides pressing. This can be done to increase the complexity of a press, increase rotational resistance, and help to increase the overall functionality of the lift for individuals who may be involved in more contact-based sports.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press

The single-arm dumbbell bench press is done by using only one dumbbell (rather than two dumbbells) during the bench press movement. This variation offers athletes and coaches unilateral stability, strength, and can enhance core and glute activation in the bench press movement. Also, you’ll work the core muscles as they work to prevent your torso from rotating too far to one side.

Dumbbell Bench Press Alternatives

If the dumbbell bench just isn’t right for you, don’t fret. Below are three alternatives you can use to increase chest and triceps strength and muscle size.

Overhead Press

The overhead press targets the shoulders, triceps, and upper chest, and can have a significant impact on total-body strength. If you are looking to increase bench press strength and upper body mass, you can build in overhead pressing to diversify your program and better balance out your workout routine.

Barbell Bench Press

The barbell bench press can be done to increase sport-specific strength and is often used to increase overall strength and muscle mass. Unlike the dumbbells, the load is not independently managed, making it easier to use heavy loads and attack maximal strength in the pressing movement. 

Muscles Worked by the Dumbbell Bench Press

The dumbbell bench press is an extremely effective movement for increasing upper body strength and muscle mass for both aesthetics and performance. Below are the critical muscles stressed during the dumbbell bench press.

Pectorals 

The pectoral muscles  are the primary muscle groups involved in the force production needed to perform the dumbbell bench press. 

man flexing chest
Credit: ALL Best Fitness is HERE / Shutterstock

With dumbbells, you may find that you can go into deeper ranges of motion with dumbbells during the eccentric aspect of the lift. More chest engagement means more gains.

Triceps

The triceps are involved in the stability of the elbow and responsible for the final extension of the elbow to lock out the bench press. You can tweak your bench press grip width and style to better isolate your triceps by performing movements like the close-grip bench press

Deltoids

The deltoids are what move the ball-and-socket shoulder joint so your arms can reach in all directions. This is important for bench pressing, as your arms need to be extended in front of your body. While your triceps and chest are doing most of the work, the shoulders are working to stabilize the shoulder joint and assist with the press.

Benefits of the Dumbbell Bench Press

While the bench press is often seen as a “bro-sesh” kind of movement, it can truly develop the upper body strength and muscle mass needed no matter what your goals are in the gym. Here are five benefits to doing the dumbbell bench press.

More Muscle and Strength

Bench pressing in general can create some serious strength and hypertrophy gains. No matter the sport, nearly every lifter could benefit from increased strength and more muscle mass. The bench press, as well as overhead movements, are critical for upper body pushing strength development.

Freedom of Positioning

Compared to barbells, which force your joints into a fixed position, dumbbells grant a lifter the ability to adjust their grip. Some lifters may experience pain if their elbows are rotated at a certain angle (which is dictated by hand position).

During the standard barbell bench press, flared-out elbows can also put the onus on the shoulder joint. A more joint-friendly option is to do the dumbbell bench press with a neutral grip. This will create a more natural and comfortable joint angle from the wrist to the shoulder joint. You can’t do this with a barbell. 

Increased Unilateral Strength 

Everyone has a stronger side. People naturally lean more to one side and use one arm more than the other. When performing barbell movements, it’s normal for one side of the body to work harder to lift the combined weight. However, using dumbbells allow each side of the body to work independently.

[Related: The Best Unilateral Exercises for Balancing Out Your Gains]

This will give your left or right chest, shoulder, and triceps muscles a chance to play catch up. Also, that now-stronger side will help you lift more weight on barbell movements

Longer Range of Motion

Because there’s no barbell tapping your chest, you can lower the dumbbells farther than a barbell bench press. This means that you’ll stretch your muscle fibers more (which means more muscular damage and, therefore, growth) and take your shoulder joints through a more extended range of motion.

Your joints want to move, so increasing the shoulder joints’ range of motion will mean you have stronger, more resilient shoulders over time. 

Who Should Do the Dumbbell Bench Press

There’s no one who can’t benefit from doing dumbbell bench presses. However, here’s more detail on how the exercise helps specific strength athletes. Note: all of the benefits mentioned below can apply to any everyday gymgoer.

Powerlifters

Powerlifters can use the dumbbell bench press to add additional training volume to drive muscle growth and unilateral strength for the barbell bench press. Additionally, adding in dumbbell training can help increase scapular stability, improve unilateral asymmetries, and even help load the chest throughout a greater range of motion — which may help with injury prevention.

Strongmen and Strongwomen

While the bench press is not a competition lift for strongman and strongwomen, overhead strength and performance is a large aspect of strongman training. The triceps, shoulder, and chest muscle and strength that is built from doing dumbbell bench presses are built and can be carried over to a variety of pressing angles. 

Weightlifters

Increasing upper body pressing strength and muscle mass is beneficial for weightlifters as they must hoist and support heavy loads overhead in the snatch and clean & jerk.

Additionally, adding muscle mass to the chest, triceps, and anterior deltoids can improve the front rack positioning and provide greater support while in the front rack of the clean, front squat, and jerk. 

Bodybuilders

Bodybuilders have two main goals: to build muscle and burn fat. While the latter is all about caloric expenditure, dumbbell work is stellar for muscle growth because of its personalized range of motion. Dumbbell bench pressing allows your shoulder to move more naturally and should help you line up your structure a bit better. 

Wrapping Up

Dumbbell work isn’t the secret sauce for muscle growth or elite-level strength, but it sure can help. If you need to switch up your chest training routine, heading to the dumbbell rack is always a safe bet.

The dumbbell bench press allows you more freedom of movement than a barbell, has higher loading potential than a kettlebell, and is suitable for nearly any gymgoer with any goal under the sun. All you have to do is master the technique and let the chest gains flow. 

FAQs

If you’ve still got some nagging questions about dumbbell work, look no further. Here are a few common concerns laid to rest. 

How low should I go in the dumbbell bench press?

The depth at which you lower the weights can vary based on goal (attacking sticking points versus maximizing muscular development), shoulder structure, and previous injuries/discomforts. For most individuals, I would suggest lowering the loads so that the sides of the weights touch the sides of the chest. This will often be a deeper range of motion that, which will increase muscle development. If, pain exists in that full range of motion, drop the load and see if the pain goes away. If it doesn’t stop what you’re doing.

How should I dumbbell bench press to minimize shoulder pain and discomfort?

If you are finding the dumbbell bench press causes shoulder pain and discomfort, first you need to review your form and technique. If this is still occurring, make sure you are maintaining back tension in both the eccentric and concentric phase of the movement. If you still have pain and discomfort, you can tuck the elbows more into the body to make the dumbbell bench press more of a neutral grip press. If you still have pain, lower the load. And lastly, if you still have pain, stop doing the dumbbell bench press and consult a medical professional for cleared insight on potential injury.

How heavy should I lift during the dumbbell bench press?

This is all dependent on the goal, which you can review in the above sections. If you are using the dumbbell bench press to support muscle growth and strength specific to the barbell bench press, try using heavy loads that allow you to train in the strength and/or hypertrophy ranges listed above. If you are looking to develop overall strength for the upper body, you can diversify your training intensity to include all rep ranges listed above.