One of the most commonly asked questions in the fitness industry is… how much do you bench?
Normally that question refers to the barbell bench press, not the dumbbell bench press.
While many people brag about the amount of weight they can barbell bench press, others have quite the impressive chest and never do barbell bench press. More often than not, these people prefer a dumbbell bench press over a barbell bench press.
The barbell bench press and the dumbbell bench press are very similar.
Both movements are classified as free weight exercises. Both exercises fall under the horizontal press movement pattern category. Both can be used to build strength and grow the chest, triceps, and anterior delts.
So are they really that different?
And are they interchangeable?
Well, there are some key differences between the two that you should be aware of and that’s exactly what we are going to cover in this article. More specifically, we will highlight the pros and cons of each, which is better for strength and which is better for hypertrophy, how to perform the movement correctly, and more!
Keep reading to find out which bench press variation will best suit your goals!
What’s the main difference between the barbell and dumbbell bench press?
The main difference between the barbell and dumbbell bench press is that a barbell bench press is a bilateral movement and the dumbbell bench press is a unilateral movement. In other words, during a barbell bench press, your arms move in unison to perform the exercise. During a dumbbell bench press, your arms move independently of one another.
Additionally, the barbell bench press is better for building strength and a dumbbell bench press is better for hypertrophy and correcting muscular imbalances.
You’re typically stronger with bilateral movements, which is why most people can bench press more weight with a barbell than they can with dumbbells. But, the dumbbell bench press allows for a greater range of motion, isolation of each pec muscle, and is more optimal for preventing or correcting muscular imbalances.
So if your goal is strength, you should consider adding the barbell bench press to your routine. If your goal is hypertrophy or injury prevention, the dumbbell bench press is the better option of the two.
This is summarized nicely in this video by Buff Dudes.
Pros and Cons
Barbell Bench Press Benefits
Here are some benefits of the barbell bench press:
- The barbell bench press is a compound lift so it engages multiple muscle groups simultaneously, which is optimal for those that are crunched for time.
- It is very effective at increasing upper body strength as well as chest, tricep, and shoulder development.
- Since the barbell bench press is a unilateral movement, you have better stability and can move more weight than the dumbbell bench press.
- It’s much easier to un-rack the bar and get into position with a barbell bench press than a dumbbell bench press.
- It is one of the three major lifts in powerlifting, so getting better at them is crucial for those that may compete in the future.
- Minimal equipment is needed to perform a barbell bench press. All you need is a barbell, plates, a bench, and a rack.
- There are numerous variations you can use to target different areas of your chest, including incline and decline barbell bench press.
- A 2017 study found that the barbell bench press activated the triceps brachii more than the dumbbell bench press. So it may be better for increasing the size and strength of your triceps.
Barbell Bench Press Cons
Here are some disadvantages of the barbell bench press:
- Since the barbell bench press is bilateral movement, it can lead to muscular or strength imbalances. It’s quite common for one arm to be stronger than the other.
- Injury risk is greater with the barbell bench press since you can lift more weight and your ego can easily get in the way.
- In order to train to failure on the barbell bench press, you need a spotter, whereas with dumbbells you can easily drop them to the side.
- In order to perform a barbell bench press, you will need some sort of rack to place the barbell on.
- Your range of motion is limited with the barbell bench press because the bar hits your chest.
- Although barbell bench presses are a very common piece of equipment, some gyms may not have them, such as hotel gyms.
- Some would argue that the barbell bench press is a more complex movement, so it may take longer to learn for beginners.
- Most Olympic barbells are 45lbs, which may be too heavy for someone just starting to bench press.
Dumbbell Bench Press Benefits
Here are some benefits of the dumbbell bench press:
- A dumbbell bench press is a very effective exercise for growing and strengthening your chest, shoulders, and triceps.
- It’s a compound movement that engages multiple muscles groups at once.
- It’s a unilateral movement that is ideal for preventing or correcting muscular and strength imbalances.
- It’s safer to train to failure on a dumbbell bench press because you don’t need a spotter and you can easily drop the dumbbells if you fail a rep.
- There’s less injury risk, especially to the shoulder, with dumbbell bench press compared to barbell bench press because you’re less likely to go too wide on dumbbell press, which places less strain on the shoulders.
- A dumbbell bench press allows for a greater range of motion than a barbell bench press.
- The same 2017 study that showed the barbell bench press stimulated the triceps brachii more than a dumbbell bench press, also found that the dumbbell bench press activated the pectoralis major and biceps brachii to a greater extent. Therefore, it may be superior for chest and biceps growth compared to the barbell bench press.
- The dumbbell bench press works the stabilizer muscles of the shoulder more than the barbell bench press.
- Dumbbells and a bench can be found in nearly any and every gym, including hotel gyms.
- Dumbbells allow your wrist to move more freely, whereas, with a barbell, your wrists are stuck in a fixed position. Therefore, you can alter your wrist position throughout the movement to target the chest or triceps more or less.
- Dumbbells can be anywhere from 2lbs to 200lbs, so they allow for a lot of progressions. Beginners can easily choose a weight that will enable them to perfect the movement before jumping up in weight.
Dumbbell Bench Press Cons
Here are some disadvantages of the dumbbell bench press:
- It’s more difficult to get into proper position with a dumbbell bench press compared to a barbell bench press because you can’t just unrack the weight.
- You can’t lift as much weight overall with the dumbbell bench press, so it’s subpar for maximal strength.
- If you’re really strong, your gym may not have dumbbells that are heavy enough.
- Although dumbbells allow for a greater range of motion than barbells, you’re more likely to go too deep, which could place excessive strain on the shoulder. This will also take away some tension on the chest.
When to Perform an Exercise
When to perform a barbell bench press
Anyone that wants to compete in powerlifting or is solely focused on building upper body strength and doesn’t have severe muscular imbalances should consider doing the barbell bench press.
A barbell bench press is typically programmed on upper body, push, or chest workouts. If your focus is strength, you should consider training in the 1-5 rep range. If your goal is hypertrophy, then the 6-15 rep range may be more optimal.
The barbell bench press is usually performed at the beginning of work as the first or second exercise. If you’re a powerlifter, it’s wise to practice the back squat, bench press, and deadlift on the same day leading up to the competition since that’s what you’ll have to do on meet day.
Doing the barbell bench press more frequently (1-3 times per week) will help you improve your technique and performance. Anecdotally, many lifters report that one of the quickest ways to increase strength in the upper body is to increase frequency. For example, if you typically bench twice per week and your bench press has plateaued, add a third bench press session.
When to perform a dumbbell bench press
Anyone that wants to maximize their chest development, reduce injury risk, or correct muscular imbalances should consider doing the dumbbell bench press.
Unless you’re a powerlifter, a barbell bench press is not necessary to perform. Even if you are a powerlifter, using the dumbbell bench press as an accessory movement is a wise decision.
The dumbbell bench press strengthens the stabilizer muscles of the shoulder, helps correct strength imbalances, and allows you to work in a greater range of motion. Therefore, it will have tremendous carry over to the barbell bench press.
The dumbbell bench press is usually performed on upper body, push, or chest workouts. Since the dumbbell bench press is a compound exercise it’s a good idea to program it as the first or second exercise in a training session.
Unlike the bench press, it’s optimal to use the hypertrophy rep range with the dumbbell bench press, so aim for 6-15 reps on average. The frequency you do a dumbbell bench press largely depends on if the barbell bench press and other chest/anterior deltoid movements is already being performed.
If you train chest more than one time per week, look into incorporating other dumbbell press variations, such as incline dumbbell bench press.
Barbell Bench Press Muscles Used
The barbell bench press primarily targets the chest, more specifically the pectoralis major, and triceps brachii. Secondarily, it activates the shoulders (anterior deltoids), biceps brachii, lats, forearms, rhomboids, and traps.
You can also use a close-grip variation to target the triceps more.
- Pectoralis Major
- Triceps Brachii
- Long Head
- Lateral Head
- Medial Head
- Anterior Deltoid
- Biceps Brachii
- Short Head
Dumbbell Bench Press Muscles Used
The dumbbell bench press primarily activates the chest (especially the pectoralis major), triceps brachii, and biceps brachii. But it also engages the anterior deltoid, forearms, traps, lats, and rhomboids.
- Pectoralis Major
- Triceps Brachii
- Lateral Head
- Medial Head
- Long Head
- Biceps Brachii
- Short Head
- Anterior Deltoid
How to perform a Barbell Bench Press properly
- To do this exercise, you will need a bench press or squat rack with a flat bench, Olympic barbell, two weight clips, and Olympic plates.
- Set up the bench press at a height that you can safely un-rack and re-rack the barbell.
- Lie down on the bench and grip the barbell firmly using a shoulder-width grip. Make sure your wrists are straight.
- Before un-racking the barbell, retract your shoulders (pinch your shoulder blades together) to engage your lats. This set-up will help protect your shoulders
- Your feet should be firmly planted on the floor. Your butt and upper back should remain on the bench throughout the entire movement. If your butt is coming off the bench, then the weight is too heavy.
- Unrack the barbell until it’s directly over your chest with your arms straight.
- Take a deep breath in and begin to lower the barbell in a controlled fashion until it touches your chest. Your elbows should be slightly tucked, excessive flaring of the elbows can increase injury risk.
- After a slight pause at your chest, exhale while extending your arms to simultaneously push the weight upward and slightly back.
- Once you reach the starting position (arms are straight), repeat for the desired number of reps. If you are training close to failure, grab a spotter because it’s better to be safe than sorry!
Watch this video from Mind Pump to see how to perform a barbell bench press correctly and some common mistakes to avoid:
How to perform a Dumbbell Bench Press properly
- To do this exercise, you will need a flat bench in a pair of dumbbells.
- Grab a pair of dumbbells using a neutral grip and sit down on a bench.
- Place the dumbbells on your thighs near the crease of your hips.
- Get into position by lying back on the bench while keeping the dumbbells close to your chest.
- Once you’re in position, press the dumbbells up until your arms are fully extended. Your hands should be in a pronated position (knuckles facing up & palms facing down).
- Take a deep breath and start to slowly lower the dumbbells by flexing your arms. Keep lowering the dumbbells until your elbows form a 90-degree angle.
- After a brief pause at the bottom of the rep, exhale while contracting the chest and extending your arms to push the weight up. Continue to extend your arms you are back to the starting position.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps.
Check out this video from Scott Herman to see how to perform the dumbbell bench press properly and how to get the most out of the movement:
Barbell vs Dumbbell Bench Press: Which one is better?
To the average gym-goer, the barbell and dumbbell bench press may seem like the exact same exercise. Although they share many similarities, there are clear advantages and disadvantages to each exercise.
If your primary goal is to increase strength, then you should consider doing the barbell bench press over the dumbbell bench press. Not only will you be able to lift more weight, but it also lends itself nicely to progressive overload since you can increase the load in smaller increments.
If your primary goal is hypertrophy, then it’s a better idea to do the dumbbell bench press as opposed to the barbell bench press. The dumbbell bench press will target the chest more, allow for a great range of motion, and help prevent injuries and muscular imbalances.
However, if you want to optimize strength and hypertrophy, then incorporating both exercises is recommended. If you only train chest once a week, you can perform these two exercises on the same day. But if you train chest two times or more per week, then you can perform them on separate days.
The barbell bench press is better for building strength, as it allows the lifter to use heavier loads. It’s also better for powerlifters because it is a competitive movement in the sport.
The dumbbell bench press is better for increasing the size of the chest muscles. It targets the chest muscles more directly and allows for a greater range of motion than the barbell bench press.
The barbell bench press is better for powerlifters because it is a competitive lift in powerlifting. Dumbbell bench press may be a good accessory movement for developing stronger pectoral muscles, but the barbell bench press cannot be replaced for powerlifters.
Other Exercise Comparison Posts
If you enjoyed this post, check out our comparisons of other popular exercises below.
- Farias, D. et al. July 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, vol. 31(7), 1879–1887. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27669189/