It’s upper body push day, but all the bench press stations are taken. Will you be depriving yourself of gains if you forsake the barbell and take a pair of dumbbells off the rack instead? When you’re heading into the gym, it helps to have a solid understanding of which bench press variations are best for you.
Barbell and dumbbell bench presses are both crucial components of chest training. Barbells allow lifters to load maximal amounts of weight or, if they practice powerlifting, train specifically for competition. Dumbbells, on the other hand, offer a lifter access to the immense benefits of unilateral training, which can be uniquely beneficial to performance.
When it’s time to program your upper body workouts, how do you know whether to use the barbell or dumbbell bench press? This article will help you navigate the differences and similarities between them, and help you figure out which is best to use according to your goals.
Differences Between the Barbell and Dumbbell Bench Press
Sure, they’re both fundamental upper body exercises — but the barbell and dumbbell versions of the bench press do have different benefits. Considering your training goals, athletic history, and bodily limitations are also important when distinguishing which suits you best.
Since you can move more weight with a barbell than you can with dumbbells, you are likely to build more strength with the barbell bench press. A key aspect of any exercise’s strength-gain potential is the ability to load it with more weight, and that barbells typically allow for more fine-tuned loading than dumbbells.
Both versions of the bench press can help with muscle growth. Depending on how you program your lifts, you can use either version for hypertrophy. That said, the dumbbell variation can allow lifters to achieve a longer range of motion, which can result in more muscle activation.
Muscular Imbalances and Asymmetries
There’s not always a clear-cut “winner” when it comes to exercise selection. But if you’re accounting for asymmetries — trying to address a physique imbalance — the dumbbell bench press comes out ahead. The independent loading allows for more direct targeting of bodily weaknesses, balancing out your body and training all at once.
Similarities Between the Barbell and Dumbbell Bench Press
As they are close cousins, barbell and dumbbell bench presses have some basic fundamentals in common. Either move can make for a suitable centerpiece in your upper body workout plan.
Any variation of bench pressing, performed correctly, can help develop your chest strength and spur muscle growth. But that’s not all these lifts do. Your shoulders and triceps — and even your lats, to a degree — will experience strength boosts and potential growth from barbell and dumbbell bench pressing.
Upper Body Push Movement
Much like the overhead press, the bench press — with either the barbell or a pair of dumbbells — is a cornerstone of a good upper body push workout. Both variations stimulate the anterior flexors to a high degree, making either a nearly-essential inclusion into a training program.
Barbell Bench Press Vs. Dumbbell Bench Press Technique
The way you move with a barbell in your hands can be pretty different from how your body moves while holding dumbbells. Each exercise has its own technique boxes that need to be checked in order to be truly effective.
The barbell bench press is a bilateral movement — meaning both limbs are engaged in unison. Bilateral exercises are more stable by nature, due to only moving one implement.
As a result, the extra stability means you can better account for unexpected errors in your performance. Since the path of the barbell is more locked in, and you’re using more of your total muscle mass to guide it, you can generally lift more weight safely on a bilateral exercise.
Although you may be able to move more weight bilaterally, unilateral movements like dumbbell bench presses will allow you to isolate each side of the body more effectively. You may be forced to pay more attention to technique since you have to guide more than one individual weight at a time.
Unilateral work can help to correct muscular imbalances and potentially prevent injury by forcing both sides to put in the same amount of work on their own. With a barbell press, your dominant side can easily take over without you noticing.
Set Up and Positioning
When you’re working with dumbbells, you’re not just unracking a bar from a station. You have to get your weights off the floor and into the starting position first. While that’s not technically part of your lift, remember that the setup for the lift itself requires technique and can be taxing (especially as the weights get heavier).
How to Do the Barbell Bench Press
Make sure you set up for the barbell bench press visualizing your entire body — particularly your upper back — as a part of the lift. Lie on the flat bench with your eyes aligned with the barbell and plant your heels firmly on the floor.
Squeeze your shoulder blades together to prepare to take the weight once you’ve set your grip (depending on your arm length, a little farther than shoulder-width apart makes for a good benchmark). Once you unrack the bar, tighten your torso and contract the lats.
Keep control of the descent — the bar path should be steady, with the weight coming to gently touch the lower part of your sternum. Keeping your elbows tucked at about 45 degrees will leverage your shoulders and triceps to execute the concentric portion of the repetition.
Coach’s Tip: Keep your core braced throughout the lift.
Benefits of the Barbell Bench Press
- Allows you to press very heavy weights to build upper body strength.
- Teaches you to engage your entire body while maintaining a specific bar path under pressure.
Barbell Bench Press Variations
If you’re a recreational or competitive powerlifter, the standard bench press is a must-have in your training regimen. But if you’re looking to diversify your barbell upper body pressing repertoire, having some bench press variations up your sleeve isn’t a bad idea.
Incline Barbell Bench Press
When folks talk about performing a bench press, they’re typically referring to using a flat bench. If you want to target your upper chest muscles for growth and strength, grab yourself an incline bench and get pressing.
Note that you’ll likely not be able to move as much weight with incline pressing as you can on the flat bench due to the changes in leverage and the allocation of load to the shoulders. Program your volume and intensity accordingly.
Decline Barbell Bench Press
Much like the incline bench targets the upper chest, the decline bench press will target the lower chest. When you want to build a full-looking chest, decline presses can be helpful at giving your pecs a more full look.
If you enjoy training your chest with a barbell and you’re not a powerlifter — and therefore don’t need to do the flat bench press for competition — you might consider prioritizing decline barbell bench presses, as they can be less demanding on the shoulder joints (due to the shoulder angle).
How to Do the Dumbbell Bench Press
When you’re pressing a barbell, it’s already racked. With a dumbbell press, you’ll have to bring the weights with you. Sit on the bench and bring each weight from the floor to your knees. Kick one knee up at a time to drive the dumbbells to your shoulders, lying back slowly with the weights so that your arms are fully extended over your chest.
Once you’re in position, set up just like you do for a barbell bench press. Maintain a 45-degree angle of the upper arm as you bring the dumbbells down slowly. At the bottom of the lift, the dumbbells should be just slightly outside of your torso. Press the weights up and together towards your midline.
Coach’s Tip: Make sure you’re completing the lift with a full range of motion. Avoid the temptation to load up on weights that you can only complete with partial reps.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Bench Press
- Help correct muscle and strength imbalances with unilateral movements.
- Take it easier on your shoulders while building upper body pressing strength.
Dumbbell Bench Press Variations
You don’t have to perform traditional dumbbell bench presses to reap the benefits of unilateral chest training. Dumbbell bench press variations can up the ante of your upper body push programming possibly give you even more of the benefits of unilateral exercises.
Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press
There are a couple of different ways to perform alternating dumbbell bench presses. Some lifters prefer to hold the non-moving hand in the top position while the opposite arm works. Others like to keep the non-moving side positioned low, “paused” at the bottom of the lift.
You can figure out what works for you based on your bench press sticking points. Have trouble with your lockout? Holding the top position might be beneficial. Struggle to get the bar off the chest? The paused bottom position might help you more.
Kettlebell Bench Press
One of the many, many benefits of kettlebell work is that they help you get a lot of bang for your buck when it comes to eliciting a training response. Because kettlebells can be somewhat cumbersome, your body has to work extra hard to perform the same movement that would be easy with a dumbbell or barbell.
You might also find that you’re able to get your shoulders into a more natural position, given the way the kettlebell rests when held correctly.
The Barbell Bench Press Vs. Dumbbell Bench Press — When to Use Each
Only very rarely in strength sports is there a need to strictly choose one exercise over another. It’s not typically about “this move sucks, do only this one instead.” It’s about understanding your specific goals and needs on the platform or in the gym, and how your exercise selection can get you there.
Part of creating a successful training program is evaluating when to perform different moves. When it comes to making progress in the gym, having the right tool for the wrong job — or vice-versa — can be a recipe for disaster.
With barbells, you’re going to be able to lift more weight. Not to mention that you’re more likely to accurately assess your one-rep-max with a barbell than with dumbbells. So, if your goal is max strength, training with barbell bench presses makes more sense.
However, a 2021 study found that — as long as you move equivalent loads — dumbbell and barbell bench pressing can elicit similar strength gains. (1) It is worth mentioning that this study was conducted with college football players, so its findings may not be directly relevant to the average gym-goer.
For Muscle Growth
A 2017 study found that the dumbbell bench press elicited more pectoralis major and biceps brachii activation than the barbell bench press. (2) The deeper range of motion of dumbbell bench presses might be the culprit and may help you build more muscle as a result. On the other hand, the same study also found that the triceps brachii was more effectively stimulated by the barbell bench press. So if you’re looking to target your triceps for growth, it might be more effective to use a barbell.
For Sports Performance
If you’re a powerlifter, barbell bench presses are indispensable to performance, since benching is a competition lift. While dumbbell pressing can provide powerlifters with immense benefits as an accessory exercise, the barbell bench press should be a staple skill and strength exercise within a powerlifting training regimen.
For sports that do not require an athlete to bench a barbell, a combination of both lifts can be used to create a maximal combination of strength and muscular symmetry. Emphasizing dumbbell bench presses might help an athlete’s body become a bit more resilient against injury, since it emphasizes a freer range of motion for the shoulders and fights imbalances.
For Correcting Imbalances
Unilateral training reigns supreme when addressing imbalances and weaknesses. Barbell training does not allow for single-sided specialization, often hiding any weakness or deficiencies if they are present. By using dumbbells, you can target each side of the body to make sure you’re stable and strong throughout both unilateral and bilateral pressing.
In the event of an injury, the ability to vary joint angles and load placement on a side-by-side basis is a valuable tool. Provided you have been cleared to press by a licensed professional, dumbbells may allow you to accommodate tissues that may be at risk during the recovery process.
Beginners often lack acute neuromuscular control, which makes a single piece of equipment sometimes easier to handle when teaching pressing movements. However, beginners can (and should) use dumbbells and other unilateral pieces of equipment in addition to barbell training.
Using both types of equipment will help a beginner to learn stability, proprioception, and the fundamental movements necessary for growth. If you’re a beginner, integrating dumbbell work into your training can also help prevent muscular and strength imbalances from developing from the jump.
The Bottom Line
Training doesn’t have to be all or nothing — or in this case, all barbells or all dumbbells. Depending on your specific goals, you can prioritize one variation over the other during different training cycles. If you want a truly well-rounded chest training program, integrating both barbell and dumbbell bench presses will be to your benefit — provided you know how to get the most value from them.
- Heinecke, Marc L., Mauldin, Matthew L., Hunter, Monica L., Mann, J. Bryan, Mayhew, Jerry L. (2021) Relationship of Barbell and Dumbbell Repetitions With One Repetition Maximum Bench Press in College Football Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, (35), 66-S71.
- Farias DA, Willardson JM, Paz GA, Bezerra ES, Miranda H. (2017) Maximal Strength Performance and Muscle Activation for the Bench Press and Triceps Extension Exercises Adopting Dumbbell, Barbell, and Machine Modalities Over Multiple Sets. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(7), 1879-1887.
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