While the dumbbell bench press may be recognized as a formidable exercise for building the upper body, it is much more than that: “The bench press, while placing emphasis on specific muscle groups, is a movement that engages the entire body,” explains Lisa Niren, vice president of content and head instructor at Fiture.
Indeed, the dumbbell bench press can aid in developing strength throughout the body in preparation for other exercises (hello, push-ups) and leave you feeling like a supremely strong badass. However, if you need further persuasion, continue reading to discover all the advantages the dumbbell bench press brings, along with tips on perfecting the exercise, whether you opt for the traditional technique or opt for a modified or advanced variation.
How to Perform a Dumbbell Bench Press
To execute the classic dumbbell bench press, lie down on a workout bench, placing a dumbbell in each hand above your armpits. Antonia Henry, M.Sc., R.Y.T., an NASM-certified personal trainer and pregnancy and postpartum athleticism coach, advises extending your arms to lift the dumbbells towards the ceiling, holding briefly, and then lowering them back to your chest.
Struggling to visualize the exercise? Watch Henry’s demonstration below and take note of her technique. If you require more detailed instructions, including how to safely position yourself with the weights, here’s a step-by-step guide:
A. Begin by sitting on a bench with a moderately-weighted dumbbell in each hand, resting them on your thighs.
B. Keep your elbows close to your sides and gradually lower your torso onto the bench, lying face up while holding the dumbbells in front of your armpits. Open your elbows sideways so that your triceps form a 45- to 70-degree angle with your torso. Press your feet firmly into the floor and engage your core. This is the starting position.
C. Exhale and push the dumbbells away from your chest, straightening your arms so that they are directly above your shoulders.
D. Inhale and slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position, pausing when the dumbbells are just above your shoulders.
The Key Benefits of the Dumbbell Bench Press
If you still require convincing to incorporate dumbbell bench presses into your upper-body routine, allow these advantages to sway you:
Enhances Push-Up Performance
Struggling to execute more than a few push-ups without your form deteriorating? The dumbbell bench press will become your closest companion. This exercise is more attainable than a push-up, as it doesn’t necessitate as much core stabilization, but it augments strength in the same muscles utilized during the bodyweight movement, states Henry. That’s why “if you combine the dumbbell bench press with something like a plank, you’ll be well on your way to accomplishing impressive push-ups,” she remarks.
Targets Shoulder Stabilizers
Performing a bench press with dumbbells, instead of a barbell, offers an additional advantage. “Because this variation necessitates more stability in the shoulder, it will aid in strengthening the small stabilizer muscles in the shoulder more than when you use a barbell,” says Heidi Jones, a TRX-certified Fortë trainer and founder of Sweat to Change TV. And that’s advantageous: When one of your joints possesses limited stability (also known as its ability to manage its movement or position), you might compensate your movement, which can heighten the risk of injury and give rise to muscle imbalances, according to the American Council on Exercise.
Aids in Correcting Muscle Imbalances
During a dumbbell bench press, you have the ability to move your arms independently and even opt to do repetitions on just one side of your body at a time. Consequently, the exercise can assist you in recognizing — and rectifying — muscle imbalances, states Henry. “Every single individual in the world possesses one side of their body that’s more powerful than the other,” she explains. “For some individuals, it’s only a slight difference, but for others, it’s substantial.”
The issue: Those muscle imbalances, just like a lack of joint stability, can prompt you to alter your movement patterns and subsequently elevate your risk of injury. “When you’re performing a unilateral exercise, which means an exercise that you can do on one side at a time, you have the ability to identify those strength and coordination deficiencies better compared to when you have both sides working simultaneously, since [the stronger side] can assist the weaker side,” states Henry. Then, you can concentrate on developing the weaker side of your body.
May Be Suitable for Individuals with Shoulder Injuries
While you typically have to tackle a traditional barbell bench press with an overhand (pronated) grip, you can adjust your hand positioning as needed during the dumbbell version — a feature that is especially advantageous for individuals with shoulder problems, according to Henry. “For someone who experiences shoulder discomfort, had a torn rotator cuff, any shoulder trauma, a more neutral grip, meaning with your hands facing each other, will be gentler on the shoulder joint,” she explains. “But you cannot do that with a barbell.”
Muscles Engaged in the Dumbbell Bench Press
As previously stated, when performed correctly, the dumbbell bench press activates the entire body. “The bench press targets your shoulders, triceps, forearms, latissimus dorsi, pectorals, trapezius muscles, and essentially every muscle in your upper body,” says Niren. “However, the bench press does not solely engage your chest or upper body. When you execute the bench press with proper form, you utilize your lower back, hips, and legs to stabilize your entire body, establish a solid foundation, and generate power from the ground,” she explains.
That’s correct: No weak legs allowed. You should activate your quadriceps and glutes to firmly press your feet into the ground and establish stability. Additionally, remember to engage your core to maintain a safe back position and precise form.
Variations of the Dumbbell Bench Press
Whether you are new to weightlifting, recently recovered from an injury, or seeking a new challenge, the traditional dumbbell bench press may not be suitable for you — and that is acceptable. In any case, you should feel at ease modifying or advancing the exercise to achieve your desired workout goals.
Modification: Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
Bench pressing can assist in building strength for push-ups, but you can also perform bodyweight push-ups to prepare your muscles for the dumbbell bench press. If both exercises are too demanding, consider regressing to eccentric push-ups: Initiate the movement from a high plank position and gradually lower your body to the floor. Dealing with shoulder issues? “A 45-degree or neutral grip (meaning your palms facing inward) will target the chest muscles slightly differently and will provide individuals with shoulder problems a better bench position,” notes Jones.
However, complete beginners may prefer to commence with a single-arm dumbbell bench press, as demonstrated by Henry below. Instead of simultaneously pressing both weights upwards towards the ceiling, you will concentrate on performing repetitions on one side at a time, reducing some of the coordination and mental effort required for the exercise, according to Henry.
Progression: Continuous Strain Dumbbell Bench Press
If you’re dominating the dumbbell bench press, escalate it by using a barbell instead, which allows you to hoist heavier weights and, consequently, acquire more muscle. Alternatively, experiment with variations such as a close-grip bench (which primarily targets the forearms and triceps), a speed bench (meaning pressing the bar as swiftly as possible), or a banded bench press (which amplifies the resistance), advises Niren. Just ensure that you have a spotter or are benching safely if you decide to significantly increase the weight.
Even better, attempt a continuous strain dumbbell bench press, where you maintain the non-working arm fully extended towards the sky between repetitions, as proposed by Henry. “The most significant advantage of doing this is that the requirement for stabilization is incredibly high,” she adds. Specifically, you will need to engage your entire body to prevent toppling over to one side as you lower one dumbbell to your chest, she explains. Additionally, your non-working arm will still need to exert effort during its “break” to ensure that the weight remains suspended above your chest.
Common Dumbbell Bench Press Errors
Once you lie down on the bench, make sure that your feet can securely rest on the ground, which is crucial for stabilizing your upper body during the dumbbell bench press, advises Henry. If you are too short to reach the floor, place your feet on weight plates or stable, cork yoga blocks on the sides of the bench, she suggests. Once you are settled, ensure that your triceps form an approximately 45- to 70-degree angle with your sides, and not a 90-degree angle, as this can place excessive strain on your pectoral muscles, according to Henry.
To fully activate the muscles of the upper body, from the starting position, squeeze your shoulder blades together as if clasping a pencil between them. This will press the latissimus dorsi into the bench. Be sure to move the dumbbells directly up and down in alignment with the center of your chest to maintain proper form. Lastly, avoid “dumping” your shoulder, or allowing it to pull forward, cautions Henry. Making this mistake will result in the dumbbells ending up between your breasts and belly button, instead of your clavicle and breasts, at the bottom of the movement, she explains. “That would likely cause a significant amount of discomfort initially, and over time, it could lead to injury,” she adds.
How to Incorporate the Dumbbell Bench Press Into Your Routine
Ready to integrate the dumbbell bench press into your fitness regimen? Ensure that you receive approval from your doctor if you are embarking on a workout program for the very first time or if you have blood pressure concerns, advises Henry.
The workout involves reclining and standing up again after your sets, which can result in a rapid decrease in blood pressure in some individuals and lead to dizziness, fatigue, or unconsciousness, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Once you receive approval, perform the dumbbell bench press at the beginning of your workout, as it’s a compound movement (meaning it engages multiple muscle groups and joints) and can be quite tiring, says Henry. In this instance, aim for three sets of eight to 10 repetitions per side, she suggests. However, if you’re delaying this exercise until later in your strength training session, reduce the weight and strive for three sets of 12 to 15 repetitions, she recommends.
And remember, select the dumbbell chest press variation that feels suitable for you in that moment. There’s no embarrassment in modifying the exercise to suit your body, fitness level, and abilities.