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The Best Way to Dumbbell Bench Press: A Step-by-Step Guide

Master the dumbbell bench press with our comprehensive guide that covers proper form, targeted muscles, and variations like incline, decline, and flat presses. Build chest, shoulder, and arm strength effectively by learning the exercise techniques based on the latest research. Our guide answers common questions such as "dumbbell bench press vs barbell" and "how much weight should I dumbbell bench press" to help you optimize your upper body workouts.

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Unleashing the Power of the Dumbbell Bench

There’s just something incredibly satisfying about the dumbbell bench press. Unlike the barbell version where you’re locked into a fixed position, the dumbbells allow you to move more freely and naturally.

It’s an exercise that’s straightforward yet challenging – the perfect combination for a no-nonsense workout. For years, I shied away from dumbbell benching.

Having to control two independent weights instead of just one barbell seemed overwhelming and destabilizing. Boy, was I wrong to avoid it for so long! Once I finally committed to mastering proper dumbbell bench press form, I was hooked. This classic exercise quickly became a staple in my training regimen, and for good reason.

My Dumbbell Bench Press Journey

Leaving my reservations behind, I decided it was time to finally give this movement the attention it deserved. I studied up on proper technique, grabbed a pair of moderately weighted ‘dumbbells , and got to work. Those first few dumbbell bench sessions were humbling to say the least.

Having to stabilize both weights independently while generating enough force to press them was far trickier than I anticipated. But within just a couple of weeks, things started clicking into place.

The balance and control became more natural, allowing me to really zero in on nailing the finer points of form. And holy chest pumps, Batman! – the hypertrophy effects were almost immediate. I was instantly a dumbbell bench press convert.

Fast forward months later, and this exercise has become a foundational movement for my entire push routine. It delivers an unreal combination of muscle building and functional strength in one seamless package. If you’re looking to take your chest, shoulders and triceps to new levels, the dumbbell bench is an absolute must.

How to Do Dumbbell Bench Press

Nailing the Setup

Unlike the barbell bench where you can just lie down and un-rack the weight, setting up for dumbbell benching requires a bit more technique. My preferred method is to:

  • Sit at the end of a flat bench, holding a dumbbell in each hand against your thighs. The weights should be resting on your legs, not the bench.
  • In one smooth motion, kick one leg up to drive the dumbbell from that side up to your chest. Immediately follow by kicking your other leg up to drive the second dumbbell up as well.
  • Lie back to a flat position on the bench, holding the weights together at your chest with a neutral grip. Your palms should be facing inwards toward your body.

Take your time with this setup – there’s no need to rush or use excessive force when lifting the weights from your lap. Focus on coordinating the kicking motion and avoid arching your lower back.

The Proper Form of Dumbbell Bench Press

With the weights properly situated at your chest, it’s time to dial in your full-body positioning:

  • Plant your feet firmly on the floor, driving them into the ground. This will create tension from the ground up.
  • Engage your core by taking a deep breath and bracing your midsection. Think about keeping a neutral spine.
  • Pull your shoulders back and down into the bench, pinching your shoulder blades together. This will help lock your upper body into a safe, stable position.

With your full-body properly tensioned, you’re ready to execute the eccentric (lowering) portion of the lift:

  • Initiate the movement by unlocking your elbows and allowing the weights to descend in a controlled arc. Focus on keeping your elbows tucked at around 45 degrees relative to your body.
  • Continue lowering until you feel a deep stretch in your pecs. Depending on your mobility and goals, this could range from having your upper arms parallel to the floor up to touching your lower chest. Just be sure to avoid bouncing the weights.

From this stretched position, it’s time to drive the weights back up by:

  • Taking a big breath to regain full-body tightness.
  • Powerfully pushing through your feet and engaging your legs to provide a stable base.
  • Concentrating on pressing the weights directly upwards in a slight inward arc until they’re stacked over your chest. Think about trying to bring the weights together at lockout without actually clanging them.
  • Finishing each rep by squeezing your pecs forcefully at the top of the movement.

Common Dumbbell Bench Mistakes to Avoid

While not overly technical, there are a few common pitfalls to steer clear of:

  • Using Too Much Weight, Too Soon – Don’t ego lift! The stability demands of pressing two independent weights is far greater than a barbell. Start lighter than you think while mastering your positioning.
  • Not Going Deep Enough – A shallow dumbbell bench misses out on a ton of potential chest stretch and engagement. Shoot for at least upper arm parallel to the floor (mobility permitting).
  • Alternating Arms – Unless you’re training for muscular endurance, there’s no need to perform the dumbbell bench one arm at a time. It’s far more efficient to press both weights together.

What Muscles Do Dumbbell Bench Press Work

The dumbbell bench press stands as a paragon of upper body sculpting exercises. But what intricate dynamics unfold when you lower and press those weights? Let’s explore the intricate ballet of muscles in play:

The Vanguard: Pectoralis Major

At the forefront are the pectoralis major muscles, the principal actors in this exercise. They orchestrate the robust pushing motion that elevates the dumbbells, according to study of the Journal of MDPI[1]. Picture them as the powerful engines driving the movement, especially vital during the descent phase of the press.

The Balancing Act: Anterior Deltoid

Visualize your shoulders as maestros of this exercise. The anterior deltoids[2], positioned at the front of your shoulders, are pivotal in preserving equilibrium throughout the bench press. They work relentlessly behind the scenes to ensure your shoulders remain safeguarded and properly aligned as the pecs and triceps command the limelight.

The Powerhouse Partner: Triceps Brachii

The triceps brachii, colloquially revered as the triceps, take center stage as the grand finale in this dynamic tableau. Nestled on the posterior aspect of your upper limbs, these muscular titans play a pivotal role in the extension of the elbows, ensuring the dumbbells reach their zenith during the press, as per study mentioned by Journal of Sports Science & Medicine[3].

By modifying your grip width, you can even accentuate the engagement of your triceps, elevating them to the status of MVPs.

The Supporting Cast: Core and Lower Body

Do not undervalue the contribution of your core and lower body during the dumbbell bench press. Though they aren’t directly lifting the weights, they provide an unyielding foundation. Your core muscles activate to uphold proper posture and avert spinal arching, while your legs and glutes brace to deliver stability throughout the movement.

Dumbbell Bench Press Variations

The Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

If the flat dumbbell bench press is the master sculpture, the incline version acts as the detailing chisel. By adjusting the backrest of your bench to an incline of around 30-45 degrees[4], you can precisely shift emphasis from the inner pecs to the outer and upper portions.

How To Do A Dumbbell Incline Press (Video Credit: PureGym YouTube Channel)

The incline variation still reaps all the stability and range of motion benefits of the flat bench, but really lets you hammer those stubborn upper fibers for maximum development. In my experience, nothing has added that final 3D pop to my upper chest muscles quite like incline dumbbell pressing.

Pro Tip: Because you’re working from a destabilized incline position, err on the conservative side when selecting your working weights. Let your body adjust to this new plane of motion with lighter loads initially.

The Dumbbell Floor Press

For a strength-focused twist on dumbbell benching, look no further than the floor press variation. By setting up with your upper back and shoulders anchored on the floor, you effectively shorten the range of motion.

This allows you to overload with heavier weights while taking your bench lockout strength to new heights. Rather than having to press the weights the full range from your lower chest, the floor press starts with your upper arms already extended and perpendicular to the floor, states in the study of Journal of Sports Sciences [5].

Dumbbell Floor Press (Video Credit: Perno Performance YouTube Channel)

From here, you’ll lower the dumbbells until they lightly touch the ground, then powerfully drive them back up to lockout. You’ll be amazed at how much more you can handle compared to the full range version.

The floor press is the perfect occasional curveball to throw at your triceps and upper body pushing musculature. By maxing out the lockout portion of the lift, you build fantastic strength in the most difficult portion of the movement. Just be cautious with how deep you touch the weights to the floor – you don’t want to compromising positioning.

The Close-Grip Dumbbell Bench Press

While we often think of the bench press purely as a chest-builder workout, the close-grip variation allows you to shift focus onto the triceps as well. By adopting a neutral grip with your hands together but slightly wider than shoulder-width, you’ll spark new triceps activation and growth.

Close-Grip Dumbbell Bench Press (Video Credit: James Harrison YouTube Channel)

As with the barbell version, the close-grip dumbbell bench[6] emphasizes the triceps stretching and contracting through the full range. But thanks to those independent dumbbells, you also introduce an additional stability challenge absent with a barbell. Your triceps will be obliterated from controlling the weights!

Pro Tip: Hex-shaped dumbbells can make the close-grip variation more user-friendly compared to round dumbbells. The hexagonal heads create more surface area to grip and press from.

Alternative Dumbbell Pressing Movements

The Barbell Bench Press Of course, we can’t discuss dumbbell benching without paying respect to the OG barbell version. While I’ve waxed poetic about the benefits of dumbbells, there’s no denying the barbell bench press workout still reigns supreme for overall pressing strength and power development.

Dumbbell work is complementary, not a direct replacement for the standard barbell bench. By training the two in tandem, you develop both the maximal strength capabilities along with the stabilization and control needed to optimally express that strength.

The Dumbbell Overhead Press Another fantastic dumbbell pressing option is the overhead variation. Much like the bench press, going overhead with dumbbells instead of a barbell introduces greater unilateral stability demands while enabling a more natural range of motion.

Overhead dumbbell pressing will set your deltoids on fire while giving your core and upper back musculature a serious anti-rotational beating. It’s an exercise that simultaneously builds powerful shoulders while reinforcing full-body rigidity – a real win-win!

The Unmatched Benefits of the Dumbbell Bench

Unreal Chest and Triceps Growth

Let’s start with the most obvious benefit of the dumbbell bench press – it’s an absolutely stellar exercise for building bigger, stronger pecs and triceps. As I quickly discovered in my dumbbell bench journey, the combination of a stretched position coupled with increased range of motion leads to incredible growth.

The ability for your hands to travel independently during each dumbbell rep allows you to really focus on squeezing and contracting the chest at the top of the movement. That peak contraction paired with the deep stretch at the bottom creates maximum hypertrophy. And with your triceps highly involved for lockout strength, they’ll be hammered into oblivion as well.

Improved Pound-for-Pound Pushing Strength

While a heavy barbell bench may still be king for brute pressing power, the dumbbell variation has serious carryover when it comes to functional strength and improved movement patterning. Think about it – very few daily pushing activities involve completely fixed, symmetrical positions.

Most real-world pushes are done with offset loading that requires stabilization and control on both sides. By having to independently control each dumbbell, your “pushing” stabilizers are fired up in a way that barbell benching just doesn’t replicate.

You’re forced to engage your core and entire upper body to efficiently transfer force through two separate levers. This unilateral training effect will skyrocket your pound-for-pound pushing prowess.

Increased Mobility and Shoulder Health

While the barbell bench press can be an effective exercise, it also has the potential to be problematic for lifters with tight pecs, poor shoulder mobility, or previous injuries. By allowing your hands to take a wider or closer grip, the dumbbell variation lets you find a customized position that minimizes any painful impingement.

Additionally, removing the fixed barbell path enables you to rotate your arms into a more neutral position. This reduces shearing forces on the shoulder joints and shifts more emphasis to the intended target your pecs. All of this extra elbow and shoulder freedom of movement can go a long way to building resilience and joint health over time.

A Bilateral Strength Curve Booster

Even among the most relatively ambidextrous individuals, muscular imbalances exist from side to side. During barbell training, the stronger side can often compensate and take over for the weaker muscles. But with the dumbbell bench, each arm is forced to produce force independently and equally.

Over time, dumbbell benching helps reinforce unilateral strength equilibrium. As you level up the weak links, you’ll begin to see improved bilateral force transfer and strength production carrying over to all of your pressing movements – barbells included.

Dumbbell Bench Press Gear and Setup

Dumbbell Holders/Racks

One of the trickiest parts of the dumbbell bench press is simply getting set up with the weights in the starting position. Rather than having to awkwardly kick and throw the dumbbells into place, a set of holders or racks can make things exponentially smoother and safer.

Dumbbell holders essentially act as mini squat racks, providing stable trays or arms to hold the weights at chest & back height. This way, you can simply lift and position the dumbbells the same way you would a barbell. No more having to “clean” the weights into place, which can rapidly sap energy during taxing sets.

While not an absolute necessity, holders take a ton of the logistical faff out of dumbbell training when you want to just focus on the work itself. They’re a relatively low-cost investment with immense quality-of-life improvement.

Wrist Wraps

As you start pushing heavier and heavier weights during dumbbell benching, the stress transferred through your wrists can increase substantially. Even with perfect form, those heavy eccentric forces have the potential to cause nagging aches and irritation over time.

Investing in a quality set of wrist wraps can go a long way toward mitigating these issues. By cinching your wrists into a semi-rigid position, you’re able to maintain a strong, neutral wrist alignment while benching. This reduces shearing forces that could otherwise manifest as pain or discomfort.

Don’t view wrist wraps as a crutch – think of them as protective equipment to enhance longevity without sacrificing performance!

Programming and Progression

No matter your specific goals, the dumbbell bench press can readily be programmed into your training. Here are some rep range recommendations:

For Maximal Strength: 4-6 reps per arm

For Muscle Hypertrophy: 8-12 reps per arm

For Muscular Endurance: 15+ reps per arm

In terms of sets, start conservatively with just 3-4 sets per workout. As you become more conditioned to dumbbell benching, you can gradually work up to as many as 6 quality sets when peaking.

The key to continual progress, as with any exercise, is progressively overloading over time. After mastering a given rep range with a weight, aim to add either:

  • More total reps to your sets
  • More overall weight on the dumbbells
  • Or ideally, a combination of additional reps AND more weight!

Even tiny increments in load or volume can stimulate further muscle and strength adaptations when applied consistently over weeks and months. Don’t worry about making jumps – slow, steady progressions are the name of the game.


Reaping the Maximum Rewards

There’s a reason the dumbbell bench press has stood the test of time, having been a bodybuilding and strength training staple for well over a century. When mastered with proper form, it delivers an unreal combination of muscle growth, strength development, increased mobility and resilience.

From the beginner looking to build an aesthetic, muscular physique to the veteran strength athlete, the dumbbell bench press is an exercise that everyone can benefit from incorporating into their training. It checks every box – simplicity, effectiveness, versatility. And best of all, it feels incredible to push through those heavy dumbbell reps!

If you’ve been on the fence about giving dumbbell bench pressing a fair shake, let this be your call to action. Make the investment now to dial in your technique, and I can assure you the hypertrophy and strength rewards will quickly follow. Your chest, shoulders and triceps will be forever indebted to you.

So grab a pair of dumbbells, find a bench, and get ready to press your way to new heights! Trustme, once you experience that deep pec stretch and unilateral stabilization challenge for yourself, you’ll be a dumbbell bench convert for life.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q. How low should I go on dumbbell bench presses?
A. Generally, you’ll want to lower the dumbbells until you feel a full stretch in your pectorals, without letting the weights drift too far backward. For most people, this equates to bringing the weights down until your upper arms are at least parallel to the floor. If mobility allows, you can descend even deeper by letting the dumbbells travel a bit further backward toward your head.

Q. Should I let the weights touch at the top?
A. No, you don’t need to forcefully bring the weights together at lockout. Simply focus on pressing them individually in a slight inward arc until they’re stacked directly over your shoulders at the top of the lift. Trying to clang them can put excessive strain on the front delts.

Q. How can I make dumbbell bench pressing easier on my shoulders?
A. First, ensure you’re setting up with a neutral hand position by turning your hands inwards so that your palms face each other. This takes undue internal rotation stress off the shoulder joints. Additionally, you may find it more comfortable to adopt a slightly wider grip. Finally, be sure not to excessively arc the weights behind you during the eccentric (lowering) portion.

Q. Why are my weights shaking or wobbling while benching?
A. A small amount of weight oscillation is normal and simply indicates you’re doing the stabilization work required of a free-weight, unilateral exercise. However, if the shaking seems excessive, you may be using too much weight for your current strength levels. Consider dropping down in load until you can maintain better overall control.

Q. How often should I train dumbbell bench presses?
A. For most lifters, training the dumbbell bench press 1-2 times per week will be sufficient volume to drive progress. If your goals are more strength-focused, you may hit it twice a week with heavier loads. If hypertrophy is your aim, incorporating it once or twice into higher volume routines can be very effective.

Q. Can dumbbells replace barbell bench for chest development?
A. Both barbells and dumbbells absolutely have their place in a well-rounded program. While dumbbells may allow for a slightly greater range of motion, barbells enable you to overload with heavier weights over time. The optimal approach is to train with a mix of both implements to reap their specific strength and hypertrophy benefits.

6 Sources

BodybuildingReviews avoids using tertiary references. We have strict sourcing guidelines and rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic researches from medical associations and institutions. To ensure the accuracy of articles in BodybuildingReviews, you can read more about the editorial process here.

  1. López-Vivancos, A.; González-Gálvez, N.; Orquín-Castrillón, F.J.; Vale, R.G.d.S.; Marcos-Pardo, P.J. Electromyographic Activity of the Pectoralis Major Muscle during Traditional Bench Press and Other Variants of Pectoral Exercises: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Appl. Sci. 2023, 13, 5203.
  2. Campos YAC, Vianna JM, Guimarães MP, Oliveira JLD, Hernández-Mosqueira C, da Silva SF, Marchetti PH. Different Shoulder Exercises Affect the Activation of Deltoid Portions in Resistance-Trained Individuals. J Hum Kinet. 2020 Oct 31;75:5-14. doi: 10.2478/hukin-2020-0033. PMID: 33312291; PMCID: PMC7706677.
  3. Solstad TE, Andersen V, Shaw M, Hoel EM, Vonheim A, Saeterbakken AH. A Comparison of Muscle Activation between Barbell Bench Press and Dumbbell Flyes in Resistance-Trained Males. J Sports Sci Med. 2020 Nov 19;19(4):645-651. PMID: 33239937; PMCID: PMC7675616.
  4. Rodríguez-Ridao D, Antequera-Vique JA, Martín-Fuentes I, Muyor JM. Effect of Five Bench Inclinations on the Electromyographic Activity of the Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoid, and Triceps Brachii during the Bench Press Exercise. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Oct 8;17(19):7339. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17197339. PMID: 33049982; PMCID: PMC7579505.
  5. Saeterbakken, Atle & Tillaar, Roland & Fimland, Marius. (2011). A comparison of muscle activity and 1-RM strength of three chest-press exercises with different stability requirements. Journal of sports sciences. 29. 533-8. 10.1080/02640414.2010.543916.
  6. Lockie, Robert & Moreno, Matthew. (2017). The Close-Grip Bench Press. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 39. 1. 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000307.

By Nader Qudimat

Nader Qudimat is a Jordan-based natural bodybuilding specialist & coach. He is the coach, founder & principal of fitness at FitFrek.

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