Dumbbell Bench Press

Some people want to bulk up their chest muscles to create the perfect V shape, which is highly sought after in the body-building community. Others want to improve performance and prevent upper-body muscular imbalances.

Whether you want to increase muscle strength or work on your conditioning, the dumbbell bench press is the ideal exercise.

In this article, we will give practical tips on how to do the dumbbell bench press. We’ll also provide insight into the best ways to work this functional exercise into your weekly gym routine.

How To Do

  • Start by sitting down on a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand, dumbbells resting on your thighs. Your feet should be flat on the floor.
  • Use your thighs to help lift the dumbbells up as you lie back. Once lying down, your back should be pressed firmly against the bench. Also, ensure your shoulder blades are retracted (pulled back) to create a stable base. Position the dumbbells at the sides of your chest with your palms facing forward. Your elbows should be at a 45-degree angle to your torso.
  • Take a deep breath in and engage your core. Press the dumbbells upward until your arms are fully extended but not locked out. Keep your wrists straight. At the top of the movement, the dumbbells should be directly above your shoulders. Your arms should be perpendicular to the floor.
  • Pause briefly at the top, maintaining tension in your chest muscles. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position, keeping the motion controlled and smooth. Breathe out as you lower the dumbbells down.

Tips From Expert

  • Start with a weight that you can easily control to help prevent injuries while you learn to perfect your form.
  • Squeeze your chest together at the top of the movement. Focus on contracting your chest muscles throughout the lowering phase of your lift. 
  • Avoid using momentum to help you lift your weight. Use a lighter weight if you can’t do slow and controlled movements.
  • When increasing weight or going for a new personal best, find a friend or trainer at your gym to spot you for safety.

Optimal Sets and Reps

There is no one-size-fits-all regarding the number of sets and reps you should aim for. Instead, you will want to customize each workout to best suit your unique fitness goals, as shown below.

Training Type Sets Reps
Strength Training 3–5 1–5
Hypertrophy 3–4 8–12
Endurance Training 3–4 15–20
Power Training 3–5 3–5

How to Put in Your Workout Split

The dumbbell bench press is a compound exercise that targets multiple muscle groups simultaneously, including the chest, shoulders, and triceps. This makes it a versatile exercise that you can work into several split options, as listed below.

  • Push — Follow the dumbbell bench press with other push movements such as a shoulder press or tricep extension.
  • Upper-Body Day Follow the dumbbell bench press with other upper-body exercises. Examples include the incline bench press, bent-over rows, overhead press, bicep curls, and tricep extensions.
  • Full-Body — Follow the dumbbell bench press with other movements designed to target each muscle group. These may include dumbbell squats, bent-over rows, deadlifts, and overhead presses.

Strength Training Focus

  • Weight: Heavy, 80%100% of 1RM.
  • Rest: Two to three minutes between sets.

Hypertrophy Training Focus

  • Weight: Moderate to heavy, 60%80% of 1RM.
  • Rest: 6090 seconds between sets.

Endurance Training Focus

  • Weight: Light to moderate, 40%60% of 1RM.
  • Rest: 3060 seconds between sets.

Power Training Focus

  • Weight: Heavy, 80%90% to 1RM.
  • Rest: Two to three minutes between sets.

Above, you might have noticed the term 1RM, which refers to your single repetition maximum. Simply put, this is the heaviest weight you can lift for a single rep. 

For example, if your maximum weight for a dumbbell bench press is 10 kg, then the appropriate weight will be:

  • Strength training: 8kg10kg.
  • Hypertrophy: 6kg8kg.
  • Endurance: 4kg6kg.
  • Power training: 8kg–9kg.

Primary Muscle Groups

Clavicular Head of Pectoralis Major

Muscles located at the top of your chest, running from your armpit to collar bone. Smaller portion of your chest muscle.

Sternal Head of Pectoralis Major

Large muscles located underneath your clavicle head. Makes up most of your chest area

Abdominal Head of Pectoralis Major

Muscles located at the bottom of your pectoral region, just above your abdominal muscles.

The dumbbell bench press mainly targets your pectoral muscles, which comprise the bulk of the chest muscle group.

These include the clavicular head, sternal head, and abdominal head — all of which are more highly activated in this bench press variation versus traditional barbell bench press.

To get the most from this workout, focus on slow eccentric movement (movement where your muscles lengthen). Eccentric movements increase muscle strength and mass more effectively than concentric movements. 

Clavicular Head

Your clavicular head is the upper part of the pectoralis major muscle. It originates from the clavicle, or collarbone, and extends into the humerus, or upper arm bone.

If you want to target your clavicular heads in particular, using an incline bench can help. During an incline bench press, muscle activation moves from your middle to your upper chest. This makes it the better option for individuals wanting to strengthen their upper chest muscles.

Sternal Head

Your sternal head is the middle part of the pectoralis major muscle. These muscle fibers originate from the sternum, or breastbone, and connect to the humerus.

During a flat dumbbell bench press, the sternal head is the most active of the pectoral muscles. This makes it an ideal choice for anyone wanting to target their middle chest area.

Abdominal Head

Contrary to what the name suggests, the abdominal head is not a part of the abdominal muscle group. Instead, it refers to the lowermost fibers of the pectoralis major muscle group. It originates from the lower part of the sternum and connects to the humerus.

The abdominal head acts similarly to the clavicular head. It plays a stabilizing role in the sternal head and is responsible for the bulk of the power during a dumbbell bench press.

Secondary Muscle Groups

Serratus Anterior

Small, fan shaped muscle that lies deep under your chest and scapula.

Triceps Lateral Heads

Muscles located on the back of your arm between your shoulder and elbow.

Triceps Medial Heads

Small muscles located at the back of your arms. Deep to the triceps long heads between the shoulder and elbow.

Triceps Long Heads

Large muscles located at the back of your arms between your shoulder and elbow. Most outside portion of the tricep.

Anterior Deltoid

Muscles located at the front of your shoulder region

The pectoral muscles are the main muscle group responsible for the bulk of the lifting action during the dumbbell bench press. However, there are a few supporting muscles that deserve an honorable mention.

Anterior Deltoid

The anterior deltoid is located on the front of your shoulders. During a dumbbell bench press, anterior deltoid activation helps stabilize the shoulder and aids the pressing motion. A dumbbell bench press will therefore provide a smaller muscle-building stimulus.

Serratus Anterior

The serratus anterior is a fan-like muscle that lines the side of the ribcage. Although it is not particularly involved in the lifting action during the dumbbell bench press, it plays an important supporting role. 

It is responsible for stabilizing the shoulder blades, keeping them in a retracted state during your entire lift.

Triceps Lateral Heads

The tricep is a muscle group made up of three separate muscles. Of these, the lateral head is the most activated during a dumbbell bench press.

The lateral head is located on the outermost part of the triceps, near the upper arm bone.

During a dumbbell bench press, the most important role of the lateral head is to extend the elbows. However, it also aids in stabilizing the elbow, allowing for slow and controlled movements.

Triceps Medial Heads

The medial head muscle is a small muscle located below the long head just above the elbow. Their role is to stabilize the elbow, especially when it is in an extended position.

Although the tricep medial head is active during a dumbbell bench press, it isn’t the most effective movement for this muscle. Instead, it should be paired with a tricep-specific exercise like tricep dips or skull crushers to hit the entire muscle.

Triceps Long Heads

The tricep long head is the largest of the tricep muscle group and originates from the shoulder blades. It is located along the back of the arm, just above the tricep medial head. 

The main function of the long head is to help straighten the arm. It does this by extending the elbow joint. The long head is mainly involved in the pressing motion of the dumbbell bench press rather than the lowering phase.

Equipment

Dumbbells

Flat Bench Without Rack

Dumbbells

You can use these for a wide range of unilateral and bilateral exercises. Avoid using momentum to lift. Ensure a secure grip to prevent drops.

Flat Bench Without Rack

This is great for pressing and pulling movements. Ensure the safety catch is firmly locked in. If you can't find this bench, use one with a rack for barbell exercises.

Variations

Exercises that target the same primary muscle groups and require the same equipment.

Alternatives

Exercises that target the same primary muscle groups and require the different equipment.

Push-Ups

T Push-Up

Push-Up to Shoulder Tap

Clap Push-Ups

Plyo Push-Ups

Grasshopper Push-Ups

Spider Push-Ups

Kneeled Push-Ups

Who Should Do?

Individuals With Muscular Imbalances

The dumbbell bench press is a unilateral movement, meaning it works one side of the body at a time. This makes it a viable option for individuals wanting to prevent muscular imbalances — a common occurrence in weight lifting.

It’s recommended to include at least one single arm exercise in your upper body workout split.

Rehabilitation Patients

Individuals working with a physical therapist to rehabilitate an injury can benefit greatly from using unilateral movements.

New research shows that strengthening one arm can also positively affect the limb on the other side of the body. These improvements occur without you even needing to use the opposing arm.

Older Adults

Everyone knows the phrase, ‘If you don’t move it, you lose it.’ This is absolutely true for aging adults. Studies point to them losing approximately 3%-8% of their muscle mass yearly after age 30.

The dumbbell bench press can help to build functional strength, prevent muscular imbalances, and improve bone density in aging populations.

Who Should Not Do?

Beginners

If you’re just starting your bench press journey, a barbell bench press will be a better option. Unlike when using dumbbells, you can grip the barbell with both hands, which allows for greater stability.

More stability allows for more room to focus on form and building strength for more challenging bench press options. Once you’ve developed the correct technique, you can try the dumbbell version.

Individuals With Injury-Prone Wrists Or Elbows

The dumbbell bench press might not be the best option for people dealing with tendonitis in their wrists or elbows. This variation can add additional load to these joints due to the additional stability required.

Instead, try starting with a bench press using the Smith machine.

Benefits Of The Dumbbell Bench Press

Strength And Muscle Gains

The dumbbell bench press remains the best bench press option for strengthening your pectoral muscles and biceps. It outperformed the same exercise carried out with a barbell or on the Smith machine.

Increased Unilateral Strength And Stability

The unilateral nature of the dumbbell bench press makes it a perfect candidate for working on and preventing muscular imbalances. Balanced muscles are key to injury prevention. They help to support your joints and reduce unnecessary strain on ligaments and tendons caused by muscular imbalances.

Wider Range Of Motion

The dumbbell bench press allows a greater range of motion compared to other pressing exercises. Because of this, your primary movers are taken through a bigger stretch. This greater range of motion can lead to better muscle activation when performed correctly. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Is bench press with dumbbells effective?

Yes, bench presses with dumbbells are as effective as traditional barbell bench presses. In fact, it is a better option for people with limited shoulder mobility and individuals wanting to treat muscular imbalances.

How heavy should the dumbbell bench press be?

How heavy you choose to lift during a dumbbell bench press will differ from person to person. Experienced trainers wanting to build muscle will lift heavier than a beginner or individuals wanting to improve endurance.

Why is the dumbbell bench press harder?

The dumbbell bench press is more difficult because it requires more stability and balance than two-handed variations.

How to dumbbell press properly?

To dumbbell bench press properly, focus on engaging your core and keeping your shoulder blades retracted. Ensure you use a weight that you can do slow and controlled movements with. Avoid using momentum to swing the weights.

Resources

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  2. Schoenfeld, B.J., Grgic, J., Van, D.W. and Plotkin, D.L. (2021). Loading Recommendations for Muscle Strength, Hypertrophy, and Local Endurance: A Re-Examination of the Repetition Continuum. Sports, [online] 9(2), pp.32–32. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/sports9020032.
  3. Solstad, T.E., Andersen, V., Shaw, M., Hoel, E.M., Vonheim, A. and Saeterbakken, A.H. (2020). A Comparison of Muscle Activation between Barbell Bench Press and Dumbbell Flyes in Resistance-Trained Males. Journal of sports science & medicine, [online] 19(4), pp.645–651. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7675616/.
  4. Rodríguez-Ridao, D., Antequera-Vique, J.A., Martín-Fuentes, I. and Muyor, J.M. (2020). Effect of Five Bench Inclinations on the Electromyographic Activity of the Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoid, and Triceps Brachii during the Bench Press Exercise. International journal of environmental research and public health/International journal of environmental research and public health, [online] 17(19), pp.7339–7339. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17197339.
  5. Zhang, W., Chen, X., Xu, K., Xie, H., Li, D., Ding, S. and Sun, J. (2023). Effect of unilateral training and bilateral training on physical performance: A meta-analysis. Frontiers in physiology, [online] 14. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2023.1128250.
  6. Burke, K. (2019). [online] Colostate.edu. Available at: https://chhs.source.colostate.edu/should-you-be-doing-more-unilateral-training/.
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  8. de, D., Willardson, J.M., Paz, G.A., de, E. and 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, [online] 31(7), pp.1879–1887. doi:https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001651.