When it comes to chest training the barbell immediately springs to mind as the gold standard for chest development, rather than dumbbell chest exercises.
This is most probably an ego bias because it is with a barbell that we can lift the most weight and show off in the gym. Instead, dumbbell exercises are often seen as “secondary” tools to be used for finishing exercises after a barbell session.
The reality is that dumbbells offer many advantages over the barbell, both in terms of muscle engagement and growth but also from a safety standpoint, and can be used as primary training tools just as well.
This article will discuss the advantages and benefits of dumbbells over barbells and outline the most effective dumbbell chest exercises for strength and hypertrophy gains, with an outlook on the most suitable dumbbells for the job.
Advantages Of Dumbbells For Chest Developments And Safety
We can divide the advantages of dumbbells over barbells into 2 main categories:
- Chest development.
- Safety of use.
Why Dumbbells Exercises Make Your Chest Work Harder
- No Help From Triceps – Without a bar acting as a stabilizer between your left and right side, your triceps have nowhere to hold on and help in the push, thus forcing your chest and shoulder muscles to do all the job.
- Making The Movement Stable – Furthermore, your chest muscle needs to stabilize continuously the weight as it is being moved up and down through the repetitions.
- Greater Range Of Motion At The Bottom– And finally, the lack of a bar between the weights allows for a greater range of motion. In the bottom part, you can stretch your pecs beyond what the regular barbell bench press would allow you to, as there is no bar in the way of the chest.
- And At The Top – At the top of the movement, you can squeeze the dumbbells toward the center of your chest, something that you just can’t do with a bar once your arms are locked in the top position.
The result is a far greater engagement of all the pectoralis major muscle fibers through a greater range of motion and for a longer time under tension.
The “price” you have to pay to reap all these benefits is a reduction of your usual barbell resistance (if you want to keep the intensity or number of repetitions equal).
Unfortunately, many people let their ego get in the way and instead prefer to use the exercise that enables them to handle the greatest weight, which is the barbell exercise, thinking that greater weight is conducive to greater gains or just simply trying to impress their peers at the gym and themselves.
Barbell presses do have their time and place, of course, but they are not always the best-suited exercises for muscle and strength development.
A bench press is a terrific “strength demonstration” exercises, but not necessarily the best to actually develop that strength, at least not on its own.
When you get to a sticking point and you see your barbell presses hitting a brick wall, then you should consider a switch to dumbbell chest exercises for the reasons outlined above.
What Is The Correct Weight Ratio From Barbell To Dumbbell Chest Exercises?
If you are not familiar with the dumbbell exercises, you may be wondering if there is a general ratio guideline to quickly calculate how much you should reduce your weight from your regular barbell press equivalent.
There is, in fact, a rough quick, and easy way to do this, without having to experiment and waste time. There may be individual variations, as not everyone is the same, but it is a good starting point that proves adequate most of the time. Here is the trick:
- Take the total weight you normally use for a certain barbell exercise.
- Deduct the weight of the naked bar (45 lbs or 20 kg) from the total weight.
- Divide the result by two.
- Done! You now know how much each dumbbell should weigh.
Elaborating on the guideline above, suppose you can perform a barbell military press for 10 repetitions with a total weight of 200 lbs. You then deduct 45 lbs (the weight of the bar) and you have 155 lbs (the total weight you can lift for the same exercise with dumbbells).
Divide 155 by two and you have 77.5 lbs for each dumbbell. If the exact weight number is not available on the dumbbell rack, round it up or down to the nearest one. In this case, you could use 75 lbs dumbbells.
This rule is not set in stone and you may experience some discrepancies here and there, depending on exercises and personal body type, but you wouldn’t be far off the correct weight anyway and you can quite rely on it to have a good starting point for your dumbbells chest exercises experimentation.
The examples above are meant for compound presses, of course. If you are planning to do dumbbell flyes, then cut the weight further by half again. In the example above, you should cut the weight down from 75 lbs to approximately 35/40 lbs.
Why Dumbbells Chest Exercises Are Ideal If You Train Alone
- No Fear Of Getting Stuck – Without a bar to get stuck under when going to failure, you can confidently train at the top of your capacity even without a training spotter. If you fail your last repetition, you simply drop the dumbbells on the floor.
- No Need To Rely On A Spotter – This is why dumbbells are so convenient when you train alone at home or even in a commercial gym but you have trouble finding a reliable buddy to train with.
Dumbbells set you free from the reliance on other people to perform an effective workout that will tax your muscles to the maximum of your capacity.
A Few Disadvantages
The only downside to the safety advantage of dumbbells over barbells is the positioning at the start of the exercise, particularly if you are advanced and very strong.
For example, on an incline barbell chest press, you have the bar already placed above you, slightly behind your head. Just lift it off the rack and you are ready to go.
For the equivalent incline dumbbell presses, you need to grab them from the rack, or from the floor after the first set, and quickly place them onto your thighs with an upward and rotating motion.
After you have the dumbbell resting on your legs, you have to pull them up and back onto your chest with an explosive movement so that they come to rest at the bottom part of the range.
As you become stronger, it may become more and more difficult to get to the starting position, simply because of the weights throwing you off balance.
You may even need a spotter to help you lift the dumbbells in position but not to finish the exercise though, as you can still do your presses alone and simply drop the dumbbells on the floor after you reach failure.
Different Types Of Dumbbells For Effective Chest Workouts
There are two main types of dumbbells on the market, each one with its own pros and cons:
- Fixed Weight Dumbbells
- Adjustable Dumbbells
Pros And Cons Of Fixed Weight Dumbbells
- Pros – Fixed weight dumbbells are the simplest and probably the sturdiest dumbbells of all. Their main advantage is in the simplicity of manufacturing, which confers them great durability and terrific upper poundage potential. There is no limit to how heavy a fixed dumbbell can weigh, except that imposed by human strength.
- Cons – The simplicity of fixed dumbbells is also their downfall because you need a lot of them to be able to perform different exercises or to suit different strength levels, as you cannot adjust the weight.
If you regularly train at home, in the beginning, you may get away with just a pair of dumbbells or two. Later on, as you progress in strength, you’ll end up needing a whole rack to be able to use the correct resistance for each different exercise.
Eventually, the cost of a full set of dumbbells on a rack will invalidate the cheap initial cost of each pair of dumbbells, making adjustable dumbbells the cheaper option instead.
The reason why dumbbell racks are so popular in gyms is that many people of different strength levels must be able to use different pairs of dumbbells at the same time, of course.
But if you train at home you do not have this problem and a good pair of adjustable dumbbells could be a good investment in the long run, comparing to a full rack that you may end up needing down the line.
Not to mention the problem of space! Unless you have a vast garage or a backyard, why would you want to keep a ton of dumbbells on a long rack when you can just have the different level of resistance needed by adding or removing plates on a single pair of adjustable dumbbells (which you can store in a corner after use)?
Pros And Cons Of Adjustable Dumbbells
- Cons – Adjustable dumbbells come with a higher price tag by default, comparing to equivalent fixed weight dumbbells of the same poundage.
- Pros – The great advantage though, is that you can remove or add plates as needed from the handle, just as you would on a barbell, making a single pair of adjustable dumbbells equally effective as multiple pairs of dumbbells of different poundage.
Basically, one pair of adjustable dumbbells offers the same functionality as a whole rack of dumbbells, but without the costs and large space needed for it.
The downside is that this great flexibility is tied up with a greater complexity and manufacturing costs, which make a pair of adjustable dumbbells more expensive than a pair of fixed dumbbells, at least to start with.
But still, adjustable dumbbells are pound per pound way cheaper than a full rack of multiple pairs of dumbbells for the reasons explained above.
Also, the price and technology of adjustable dumbbells can vary a lot and offer different solutions for different requirements.
Types Of Adjustable Dumbbells
For example, there are 4 main types of adjustable dumbbells, some very simple and cheap and other sophisticated and pricier. These are:
- Screw collar handles adjustable dumbbells.
- Catch and release handle adjustable dumbbells.
- Side pins adjustable dumbbells.
- Side dial-adjustable dumbbells.
Each type presents advantages and disadvantages that go beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say is that the simpler screw/collar dumbbells are the cheapest but also the slowest to operate and change weights on and off, a significant problem if you do drop sets, for example.
The more expensive side dial and catch/release options are just what they sound, more sophisticated, pricier but also very fast, ideal for any type of training.
However, these dumbbells have complex mechanisms that may or may not go wrong in the long run and can be bulky and cumbersome by default, even when stripped down to the lightest weight.
What Are The Best Dumbbell Chest Exercises?
There is no great difference at all between barbell or dumbbell exercises in regard to the inclination of your torso on a press bench and the resulting effect on chest activation.
The higher you go, the greater the activation of the upper fibers and front shoulder. The lower you go, the more your lower chest gets the brunt of the job.
This is where the similarities end though, as we have seen that the equivalent chest exercises performed with dumbbells are superior to barbell movements in terms of the range of motion and time under tension.
Given your familiarity with barbell presses, it should be easy to switch over to dumbbells, once you have calculated the right poundage as described above.
Dumbbells Chest Exercises For The Upper Pecs
Incline Dumbbell Presses
These can be done either with the backrest at approximately 45 degrees or just with a slight incline. The higher you go, the greater the front deltoids activation, but the less they focus on the upper chest.
A lower incline will focus more on the upper pecs but less on the shoulder. So, depending on your routine (split or full body) and your shoulder exercises, you may choose the right inclination for your upper chest.
How To Do It:
- Set the bench backrest anything between 20 to 45 degrees. Usually, 30 degrees is a good torso inclination that will nicely target your upper chest and to a lesser extent the front deltoids.
- Sit on the bench and grab the dumbbells from the floor, which you placed there from the rack before starting out, and rest them onto your legs.
- Lean backward while simultaneously accompanying the dumbbells with a rotating motion into your chest.
- Go full stretch in the bottom position with your arms at about 45 degrees from your torso, not too flared, not too close. This is a natural and safe position, easy on the joints and the rotator cuff.
- Perform full range repetitions with a controlled and smooth motion, going full stretch at the bottom and full squeeze at the top, this is the whole point of dumbbell chest exercises as opposed to barbell ones.
- When you reach failure, rest the dumbbells near your chest, sit back up on the bench and gently drop the dumbbells on the floor.
Incline Dumbbell Flyes
The same tenets apply to flyes as to presses, except that you need to cut the weight to approximately half or a bit more than half, depending on arm extension.
An extended arm with a slight bent will ensure a good motion without the joint stress associated with a fully straight out arm.
How To Do It:
- Choose the right bench incline and get into position by following the same steps as for the barbell presses.
- Once you are in position, you extend your arms above you in front of your chest and perform the repetitions in a smooth, controlled arch pattern.
- Stretch as much as you can safely do in the bottom, slightly bend your arms if the resistance is a bit too high, and possibly reduce it at the next set if needed. Be wise and use a good compromise between high load, good form, and safety.
Dumbbell Chest Exercises For The Lower Pecs
You can target the middle and lower part of your chest by working out on a flat or slightly declined bench. The poundage will be greater.
Flat Or Decline Dumbbell Presses
Depending on your strength level, you may need a buddy to help you into the start position, but other than that you perform the dumbbell presses exactly as you do with incline presses.
How To Do It:
- Get into position in the usual way, picking up the dumbbells from the floor and laying back in a rotating motion with the dumbbells close to your chest. If they are too heavy, have a spotter help you.
- With your arms at about 45 degrees from your torso, press up and down in full range, squeezing as much as possible at the top and carefully stretching at the bottom.
- Do not arch you back and assume an excessively declined or arched stance in an attempt to lift a greater weight than you can handle. By depressing your scapula too much, you may end up placing too much stress on your rotator cuff, setting you up for injury down the line.
- Use good form always and do not cheat on the correct movement pattern. Instead of using excessive weights, focus on quality repetitions, and good mind/muscle control.
Flat And Decline Dumbbell Flyes
Again, follow the same steps outlined for the flat and decline presses, just cut the weight to the appropriate level, that is a good compromise between load, joint safety, and form.
Alternative Dumbbell Chest Exercises
There are also few unusual dumbbell chest exercises that can come in very handy to break through sticking points or to add a bit of variation to the same boring flat/incline/decline bench workout. Let’s go with the first one:
Floor Dumbbell Chest Presses
The floor presses limit the range of motion, but that is the point of this exercise. The idea is to enable you to handle an even greater weight than regular, full-range bench presses, going from zero resistance when your arms are resting on the floor, to immediate full-on effort before the lock-out.
This exercise can help you break through plateaus when you find yourself unable to increase resistance or repetitions no matter what.
This is what usually happens when you hit a wall in a bench workout: after the usual number of repetitions your arms get stuck halfway through the last rep and you never seem to progress from there to get an extra rep, let alone adding more resistance next time.
The floor dumbbell chest press forces you to start from the sticking point when your arms are flat to the floor and your hands halfway through the full range of motion.
What happens is that you go from zero effort with your arms on the floor to maximum effort right away. However, you only have to perform the upper half of a regular repetition before lock-out.
This enables you to use greater weights than regular dumbbell bench presses. After a while, when you go back to the usual bench job, you should be able to perform more repetitions with the old poundage or even increase it.
Here is how you do it:
- Place a pair of dumbbells on the floor, a bit heavier than your usual poundage.
- Sit on the floor and then lay down with the dumbbells on the side of your body.
- Grab the dumbbells, lean them against your hips, and thrust them upward with a bridge motion, one by one if necessary.
- The dumbbells should now be resting on your vertical forearms, ready to go.
- But first, adjust your position with your arms out at 45 degrees, not too flared, not too close.
- You will see that the dumbbells are already halfway through the normal range of motion because your arms are resting on the floor and can’t go down any further.
- Now press the weight up to lockout, then slowly lower it and rest your arms on the floor again and repeat.
- The range of motion is limited, but the starting point off the floor should be harder than in regular presses, which is the point of this exercise.
Close Or Squeeze Dumbbells Presses
This is an unconventional exercise that mimics a few diamond push-ups, only with dumbbells.
As a result, it targets well the inner and upper chest in a different way than incline presses. It is particularly suited to hit the clavicle (collar bone) part of the upper chest and to fill up that stubborn upper chest.
Squeeze dumbbell presses, like diamond push-ups, are useful to develop that flat, masculine and square shield look to your pectorals. It offsets unbalances in your chest and matches up the development of your upper chest to the lower part.
The result is a warrior-like chest, well developed all around with a nice dividing line between left and right pecs all the way from top to bottom, not a puffy chest with muscular man boobs at the bottom but a flat, undefined top.
How To Do It:
- Grab the dumbbells from the floor and place them on your legs.
- Lay back on the bench and place the dumbbells close to each other on your chest right in the center,
- Go through the repetitions while keeping the dumbbells always in contact.
- Use a controlled style and focus on the mind/muscle connection, engaging your upper pecs as much as you can.
Stability Ball Dumbbell Chest Exercises
This exercise is done by keeping your back resting on a stability ball instead of a bench. The purpose is to make your back unstable and thus force your chest to work extra hard to lift the dumbbells through the repetitions.
Because of the instability offered by the ball, you should use a lighter weight than the one you normally use for regular bench presses.
How To Do It:
- Grab the dumbbells and rest your upper back on the stability ball with your knees bent at 90 degrees to match the height of the ball so that your torso is horizontal. You may need a partner to help keep the ball steady while you position yourself.
- Perform your usual dumbbell presses slowly, concentrating on the quality reps while trying to keep your arms and back controlled, fighting the instability of the ball.
Jay always had a passion for fitness. A former skinny guy, he built himself 35 lb of lean muscle over the years using different training strategies, going through failures and eventually succeeding, and now wants to share his knowledge with those who value fitness as a way of life (See all posts by Jay Fielding).