Unilateral bench press training is key for strength, power, and fitness athletes looking to improve overall upper body strength, increase muscle hypertrophy, and minimize any muscular imbalances and movement dysfunctions that may exist from chronic bilateral training. The single arm dumbbell bench press is a unilateral bench press variation that offers a wide array of benefits that can help coaches and athletes of all levels build bigger, stronger, and healthier bench presses and pressing muscles.
In this single arm dumbbell bench press exercise guide, we will cover:
- Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press Form and Technique
- Benefits of Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Presses
- Muscles Worked by the Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
- Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
- Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press Variations and Alternatives
- and more…
How to Do the Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to properly set up and perform the single arm dumbbell bench press.
Step 1: Start by laying on the back with a dumbbell in one hand, with both arms (even the non-weighted) hand extended at the top of the bench press.
You can also take your non-weighted hand to the body, placing it on the stomach or oblique. It is key to not grab the bench with that arm as that will decrease the need for your core, hips, and glues to create stability via muscle contractions. I personally recommend that you keep the non-weighted hand fully extended and flexed at the top of the bench press position to help created maximal back tension and stability.
Step 2: Pack the shoulder blades together and slowly pull the dumbbell down to the body as you would in a normal bench press, making sure to keep tension in the hips, core, and scapular stabilizers of the middle and upper back.
You should find that it is easier to focus on maximal scapular retraction and depression using one dumbbell as you can solely focus on that one task, rather than having to do both sides at once.
Step 3: While keeping the shoulders packed, press the dumbbell back up the original position, making sure to note collapse the shoulders upwards off the bench.
Return the dumbbell to the top of the movement, making sure to think about pushing yourself deeper into the bench (push yourself away from the weight).
Step 4: Once you have performed all repetitions on the first arm, switch to the other arm and repeat steps 1-3.
I recommend you start with the weaker arm first, as there may be some residual fatigue from the presses on the first side.
Muscles Worked – Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
The below muscle groups are worked by the single arm dumbbell bench press. It is important to note that many of these muscles are worked when most bench pressing movements are performed (barbell, bilateral, alternating, etc). While differences may be minimal between each variations, bench press variations offer significant benefits for beginner and experienced lifters.
The pectoral muscles (chest) are the primary muscle groups involved in the force production needed to perform the single arm dumbbell bench press. With dumbbells, especially single arm dumbbell pressing, 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.
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. The triceps are often engaged the most at the later stages of the control phase of the lift, or at around 90% of elbow flexion.
Shoulder stability is key for pressing movement, with the single arm dumbbell bench press being a great exercise to increase unilateral demands of stability and strength on the larger muscles of the upper back and posterior shoulder. Some lifters will find it easier to retract and focus on keeping the shoulder blades stable while using one dumbbell at a time, which could aid in mind muscle connections and improved stability.
Obliques and Abdominals
The obliques and abdominals are highly involved in this unilateral and asymmetrically loaded bench pressing movement. Due to the asymmetrically loaded movement, the lifter must use the obliques and core muscles to resist spinal and hip rotation while laying on the bench. This can ultimately improve one’s ability to generate tension in both unilateral and bilateral bench pressing movements.
The glutes are responsible for keeping the lifters hips engaged to assist in creating maximal stability in this asymmetrically loaded movement. By using an asymmetrical load placement, the lifter will quickly learn how to engage the core, glutes, and leg muscles to resit rotation and/or falling off the bench. I personally find this to be a good bench press variation to help educate lifters on the importance of hip, leg, and core engagement in the bench press.
4 Benefits of the Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
Below are four (4) benefits of the single arm dumbbell bench press that coaches and athletes from most strength, power, and fitness sports can expect when implementing single arm dumbbell bench presses into a training regimen.
Unilateral Strength and Hypertrophy
Unilateral strength and hypertrophy are key to increasing overall bench press strength, chest and triceps development, and pressing health. The single arm dumbbell bench press can be done to address movement patterning issues and muscle imbalances that may have occurred due to either injury, bilateral training, or movement compensation patterns.
Improve Core and Hip Stability
The core must be active in a heavy bench press (as well as most movements) to help stabilize the spine and increase total body stability to allow for maximal force output of the working muscles. The single arm dumbbell bench press challenges the core muscles (especially the obliques) to lock down the pelvis so that it can resist any rotational forces from the asymmetrical loading. By learning how to activate the obliques, core, and hip stabilizers (glutes) you can boost overall stability in unilateral and bilateral bench pressing movements.
Enhanced Muscle Activation
Among the many benefits of unilateral training, increased muscle activation is one that lifters of all sports and levels should pay attention to. Unilateral exercises can improve muscle stimulation (also known as muscle activation), which can help to increase new neurological pathways between nerves and muscle units, enhance muscle hypertrophy, and improve muscle contractile abilities.
Increased Shoulder Stability
As strength, power, and fitness athletes, shoulder joint health is key for long-term success in our respective sports and training. Overhead pressing, bench pressing, and jerks rely upon a lifter’s ability to stabilize the shoulder during pressing and support positions. The single arm dumbbell bench press can help to isolate a specific shoulder instability issue by allowing a lifter to focus on and address unilateral strength, muscle coordination, and movement patterning issues.
Who Should Do Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Presses?
The single arm dumbbell bench press can be highly beneficial for all strength, power, and fitness athlete. The below groups can benefit from learning and performing this movement due to the various reasons listed below.
Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press for Strength and Power Athletes
The single arm dumbbell bench press is a good exercise to build into accessory programs for strength and power athletes as it can increase unilateral pressing strength, increase muscle activation, and help a lifter who may be coming back from an injury (it can help address muscle imbalances and improve movement patterning). By pressing one dumbbell at a time, you can also help engage core and hip muscles to better stabilize a lifter on the bench, which can then be used during bilateral pressing movements.
Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press for Olympic Weightlifters
While the bench press is not a highly specific movement for Olympic weightlifters, it does offer benefits such as overall increase upper body pressing strength and hypertrophy. The single arm dumbbell bench press could be a good option for lifters looking to increase unilateral shoulder stability, pressing strength, and muscular development without having to use a barbell. This unilateral pressing variation also is limited by a lifter’s ability to stabilize the shoulder, core, and hips; which could be a good “governor” so that athletes do not go overboard with loading or volume of the bench press movement.
Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press for General Fitness, Hypertrophy and Strength
The single arm dumbbell bench press can be beneficial for all lifters for many of the ame reasons discussed above. Coaches, trainers, and fitness goers can integrate the single arm dumbbell bench press into most accessory programs focusing on movement coordination, unilateral strength and muscle development, and refining core and hip activation in the bench pressing movement.
How to Program the Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Presses
Below are three primary training goals and programming recommendations when utilizing the single arm dumbbell bench press into specific programs. Note, that these are general guidelines, and by no means should be used as the only way to program single arm dumbbell bench press.
Strength – Reps and Sets
For strength building sets, athletes can perform lower repetition ranges for more sets.
- 4-6 sets of 4-8 repetitions, resting 2-3 minutes
Hypertrophy – Reps and Sets
Muscle hypertrophy can be accomplished by adding training volume (more reps), time under tension, and/or training towards fatigue.
- 4-6 sets of 8-12 repetitions, resting 1-2 minutes
Muscle Endurance – Reps and Sets
Some lifters may want to train greater muscle endurance (for sport), in which higher repetition ranges and/or shorter rest periods are recommended.
- 2-3 sets of 12+ repetitions, resting 60-90 seconds between (this is highly sport specific)
Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press Variations
Below are three (3) single arm dumbbell bench press variations that can be used by coaches and athletes to keep training varied and progressive.
Single Arm Dumbbell Floor Press
The floor press, which can be done with barbells, kettlebells, and dumbbells is a partial range of motion bench pressing variation that can serve as a good unilateral variation of the single arm dumbbell bench press. To do this, the lifter should lie on the floor with the load in one hand only, wit the other hand on the stomach or simply locked out (as if there was a dumbbell in the hand) to help maintain tension. This variation is used to further enhance core and hip stability in the bench press as well as reap all the benefits of the floor press.
Dumbbell Reciprocating Bench Press
The reciprocating dumbbell bench press is a variation that can address unilateral strength and muscle development asymmetries, however can often be done with slightly heavier loads than the single arm dumbbell bench press due to the lifter having a counterbalance weight in the opposite hand. By having the counterbalance, the lifter is often more stable with the core and hips allowing for higher intensities of loading to be handled if the goal is increased strength and muscle hypertrophy of the chest and triceps.
Tempo Dumbbell Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
Tempo training can be done to (1) increase time under tension which has been linked to increase muscle activation and growth, (2) improve stability throughout a full range of motion, and (3) to add specificity for various sporting movements (such as maximal speed concentric phases for punching/throwing, slow eccentrics or skill greater activation and control in deeper ranges of motion…often needed in gymnastics, etc). This can be done in an identical manner as the standard single arm dumbbell bench press, however using tempo/cadences to set specific speeds for the eccentric, concentric, and transition phases of the lift.
Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press Alternatives
Below are three (3) single arm dumbbell bench press alternatives coaches and athletes can use to increase chest and triceps strength and muscle hypertrophy.
Single Arm Overhead Press
The single arm overhead press is a unilateral shoulder press exercise that can be done with dumbbells, kettlebells, and other objects to build pressing strength and stability. Improved overhead and pressing strength can also improve bench press strength, upper body hypertrophy, and scapular stabilization; all of which are necessary for a healthier bench press.
80/20 Push Up
The 80/20 push up is a push up variation that has a lifter shift roughly 80% of the load onto one hand, with the other 20% of the load on the other hand. In doing this, you can increase unilateral strength and stability in the pressing motion, overload the triceps and chest (of the 80% side), and use the 20% side as a support “crutch” as you progress towards a true single arm push up. If you have issues doing a 80/20 push up, you can also do varying splits as well, such as 70/30, 60/40, etc. The idea is to load up one side more than the other, and then switch.
Dumbbell Bench Press
The standard dumbbell bench press is a good option if you are looking to develop strength, shoulder stability, and do so while addressing any asymmetries and imbalances. Unlike the single arm dumbbell bench press, the standard dumbbell bench press (a dumbbell in each hand) is less limited by core strength and hip stability, and therefore can allow a lifter to solely focus on upper body pressing strength and movement. If your l goal is to build a bigger bench, the dumbbell bench press (single and double) is a solid alternative to do regularly.
Featured Image: Mike Dewar