Want to pack some mass on your chest?

For decades bench presses have been a staple for building chest size and strength. However, are you using the right variation? Should you use a barbell or dumbbells?

It’s time to get to the bottom of this so you can build the chest you’ve always wanted.


So, Bench Press vs Dumbbell Press. Both have advantages and disadvantages that you need to consider.

Barbell advantages

– The barbell is more stable

– Allows more weight

– Great for upper body strength

– You will not run out of room on the bar to load more weight

Barbell disadvantages

– Does not work the chest as hard (further information on this below)

– The barbell can be harder on the shoulder for some

– Using the barbell will require a spotter unless benching in the power rack

bench_vs_dumbbell_3Dumbbell advantages

– Hits the chest harder than the barbell (more information on this below)

– Allows more freedom of movement and thus is easier on the joints

– Although a spotter is still recommended, you don’t have a bar that can cut off your airway

Dumbbell disadvantages

– It can be challenging to get the weights into position as they get heavy

– Many gyms do not supply heavy dumbbells so you could max out the weight at your gym

– The extra instability of the dumbbells can make exhausting the target more difficult than a more stable exercise

– It may be difficult to progress as 5lb jump per dumbbell is really a 10lb jump

So what does the science say?

Your chest muscles (Pectoralis Major) have three functions:

– Shoulder flexion (lift your arm forward and up – think a front raise motion)

– Internal rotation (twist your upper arm inwards)

– Transverse adduction (pull your arm inwards across your body – like the motion of a chest fly)

Of these three functions, the transverse adduction is the most dominant. Exercises that have you pulling your arm along the midline of the body and work the chest. This is why most people feel chest fly movements so much across the chest area.

While a bench press does hit the chest, a dumbbell bench press usually works the chest harder because there is more of this transverse adduction.

In EMG research (where muscle movement is measured through electrodes) the dumbbell bench press has been shown to work the chest harder than the barbell bench press.

bench_vs_dumbbell_2What does real-world evidence say?

There have been countless people who have found the barbell bench press to be a great way to build size and strength in the chest – you could be one of them.

I have trained a lot of people over the years who like bench press and find it an effective exercise.

Personally, I’m not a fan of the barbell bench press for my training. I have really long arms and the bench press has always been awkward for me. While it has worked out well for building upper body strength, it beat my shoulders up.

When I first tried dumbbell bench presses I found them to be a much better exercise for me.

They were more effective at building muscle mass and were easier on my joints.

Picking the right variation for you!

For building muscle, you want to find exercises that meet the following criteria:

– An exercise that allow you to use a good amount of weight

– Relatively easy to progress

– Allows you to feel the target muscle working

– Feels good during and after on your joints

If the barbell bench press is not a good fit for you, don’t worry.

You don’t need it to build a great-looking chest and unless you are a competitive powerlifter, there is no rule that says it is fundamental.

If both the barbell and dumbbell bench presses pass this test for you, then by all means feel free to use them both.

If you are doing a whole body routine or an upper/lower split, you could try heavier, lower-rep barbell bench presses earlier in the week and then lighter, higher-rep dumbbell bench pressing later on in the week.

If you are doing a split routine, you could start your chest workout with heavy barbell bench pressing, finishing off with higher-rep dumbbell presses and flies.

Happy chest training!

Connect with Expert Andrew Heming

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