How to Do the Dumbbell Bench Press

Build bigger pecs, stronger (and safer) shoulders, and switch up your training with this classic move.

The dumbbell bench press is like the younger brother of the barbell bench press. Generally, lifters will have an easier time setting up and controlling two relatively lighter weights. That said all athletes 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 is a better option for lifters who experience joint pain.

Below, we go over each step of the lift in detail 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 a great move for any lifter of any skill level. Check out our video guide for even more information on how to execute this pec-builder perfectly. 

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 laying down on the bench. However, that’s not 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. From there, 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 the 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 create more 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 tgether, you’re tensing the back and engaging those muscles. As you pull the weight down, you’ll feel your lats tigthen, 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 With Control

Dumbbell Bench Press Lowering Dumbbells

Keep your elbows pointed at 45 degrees, and begin to lower the weight. Avoid letting your arms waver from your pressing path. Pretend that the middle of the dumbbell handle is on a set line, and that your goal is to keep it on that line. Lower the weights until both dumbbells are at your chest. At the bottom of the press, the weights should be slightly outside the torso. Also, the shoulder blades retracted and depressed (down towards the hips) to help maintain upper back stability.

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 over your chest. Be sure to keep your elbows tucked in at 45 degrees throughout the lift to maintain proper pressing mechanics.

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

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 for most strength, power, and fitness sports. 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 increaseed 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 positon, dumbbells grant a lifter the ability adjust their grip. Some lifters may experience may pain if their elbows are rotated at a certain anle (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 join 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. 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

A 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 also take your shoulder joints through a longer 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. 

Development of Stabilization Muscles

Due to the dumbbells being independent of one another (unlike the barbell bench press), the body must work to properly stabilize the load unilaterally. The payoff is that the lifter can then strengthen and challenge joint stabilization and train dormant muscle groups to increase control and firing rates, which can then be applied to competitive bench pressing or other exercises.

Muscles Worked

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 key muscles stressed during the dumbbell bench press.

man flexing chest
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Pectorals (Chest)

The pectoral muscles (chest) are the primary muscle groups involved in the force production needed to perform the dumbbell bench press. With dumbbells, some lifters may find that they can go into deeper ranges of motion during the eccentric aspect of the lift, fighting the demands placed upon the chest muscles. 

Triceps

The triceps are involved in the stability of the elbow and responsible for the final extension of the elbow to lockout the bench press. Depending on the angle of the upper body and wrist, lifters can manipulate the movement to increase triceps demands as well (close grip dumbbell bench press).

Deltoids (Shoulders)

The deltoids are what move the ball-and-socket shoulder joint so your arms are able to reach in all directions. This is obviously important when it comes to 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. 

Who Should Do Dumbbell Bench Presses?

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

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. If lifters can maintain shoulder mobility and increase chest, triceps, and shoulders strength and muscle mass, there is a high probability they will have better results in overhead lifts.

Bodybuilders

Bodybuilders have two main goals: to build muscles and burn fat. They typically target one to two muscles per workout. For them, the dumbbell bench press is a great exercise to stress the chest in an extended range of motion. A greater stretch can mean a greater pump, which is when nutrient-rich blood rushes to the area. 

Dumbbell Bench Press Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations

Below are three primary training goals and programming recommendations when utilizing the dumbbell bench press in specific programs. Note, that these are general guidelines, and by no means should be used as the only way to program dumbbell bench press.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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To Build Muscle

To build muscle using the dumbbell bench press, you want to make sure to lift in the full range of motion, control the eccentric aspects of the movement (lowering phase), and feel a deep chest stretch at the bottom of the press. Most individuals will benefit from training the dumbbell bench press in either the five to 10 rep range of the eight to 15 rep range, resting as needed. Start by doing three to five sets of eight to 15 repetitions for muscle growth, training to near failure. Rest 60 seconds between sets.

To Gain Strength 

For strength building sets, athletes can perform lower repetition ranges for more sets. The tempos and range of motion should still take place in a similar fashion to hypertrophy training, however, some athletes can manipulate speeds and ranges of motion to better suit their positional strength needs. To start, perform three to five sets of five to eight reps using a heavy load. Rest 90 seconds between sets

To Improve Muscular Endurance

Some lifters may want to train greater muscle endurance (for sport), in which higher repetition ranges and/or shorter rest periods are recommended. This is also a great way to establish muscular endurance for sports the require an athlete to produce force repetitively with short periods of rest. Do two to three sets of 12 to 20 repetitions, resting 45-60 seconds between sets.

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 individuals establish a deeper understanding of how to stabilize the upper back during the movement.

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/events.

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

Below are three dumbbell bench press alternatives coaches and athletes can use to increase chest and triceps strength and muscle size.

Overhead Press

The overhead press is a movement that targets the shoulders, triceps, and upper chest, and can have a significant impact on total body strength. Lifters who are looking to increase bench press strength and upper body mass can build in overhead pressing to diversify their pressing strength and better balance out upper body training programs.

Barbell Bench Press

The barbell bench press can be done to increase sport-specific strength (powerlifting) 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. Check out this article where we go over the differences between the barbell and dumbbell bench press and determine which one is best for you.

Axle/Fat Bar Bench Press

The axle/fat bar bench press can be done to add variety to the bench press training and to reinforce proper position in the press. The axle bar bench press can enhance wrist stability and help lifters establish better elbow positioning in the bottom position of the press (due to the necessity to actually pull the weight into the body and squeeze the fatter bar).

Frequently Asked Questions

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.

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