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The dumbbell bench press is the lift you do in your dreams while lifting in pink wrap-around sunglasses and a tie-dye tank top on Muscle Beach while Arnold looks on with envy at your upper chest development.

You have those dreams, too, right?

Even if you have never had the joy of getting in your favorite upper body workout while you sleep, the dumbbell bench press needs to be on your radar for its muscle-building capacity.

How To Dumbbell Bench Press

  1. Sit at the end of a flat bench with dumbbells resting upright on your legs.
  2. Lie back on the bench and “kick” the dumbbells up to your chest.
  3. Arch your lower back slightly and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  4. In the bottom position, your hands should grip the dumbbells just outside your chest.
  5. Press the dumbbells up. The weight needs to be squarely over your chest at the top of the lift with arms fully locked out.
  6. When you finish your last rep, reverse the process and come off the bench with the weights (if you have bouncy dumbbells and a cool gym owner, just drop the weights on the ground before getting up).
dumbbell bench press

Trainer Tips for Form

Using dumbbells can be a lot more awkward than using a straight bar. Gravity, the weights, and your muscles start pulling you in all kinds of weird directions.

Have an Active Lower Body

Just like with the barbell bench press, we want an active lower body. Really, we want an active entire body, from the traps to the glutes.

Work on really getting tight and pushing through the ground with your feet. This will give you a more stable base to work from, and allow you to push with more force.

Finish Above, Not Together

You need to bring the weights inside your body as you press up, but you don’t need to bash them together. Unless you are using enormous circus dumbbells, this is a sure sign you’re brought the weight too far inside.

If you don’t think about it too much, you will do it naturally, and if you’re using an appropriately heavy weight, it won’t occur to your body to try to do a pec fly with it.

Flybird Adjustable Dumbells in use bench press

Common Dumbbell Bench Press Mistakes

The mistakes most typically seen on this type of exercise include range of motions issues and programming problems.

Going Halfsies on Repetitions

The dumbbell bench press is useful expressly for the increased range of motion you can achieve versus a barbell bench press.

With dumbbells there is no impediment to bringing your hands down lower than your body (a cambered bar being the obvious barbell exception).

Nevertheless, you will still see masses of people choosing a weight heavier than they can successfully utilize the greater range of motion with. These lifters will stop several inches about their chest, barely bending their elbows at all.

Pick a weight you can execute the entire motion with rather than just the top half. If it means using lighter weights for a while it’s fine.

Stagnating

When the dumbbell chest press isn’t our main movement for the day, and we’re already tired by the time we get to it, the tendency is just to go grab the same pair of dumbbells as always.

It’s easy. You know where they are and everything.

In order to achieve muscle growth, even with assistance exercises, we have to make some kind of progress1.

Try grabbing 5 pounds more, or doing an extra rep on every set, or going crazy and using lighter weights to do a downset. Just don’t do the exact same thing over and over.

Dumbbell Bench Press Variations

Dumbbell presses mostly focus on the chest muscles, but we can also use them to help with overall pressing strength2 and triceps hypertrophy.

Incline Dumbbell Press

THIS is the variation you want to do in your tye-dye tank top and matching bandana.

Done on a bench with a 45-degree angle, these allow you to train your upper chest and shoulders.

Unless you’re competing on stage, you probably don’t need to worry about your upper chest.

This DOES allow you to train with lower weights, though. Typically lifters are weaker on this angle than on a flat bench. The accessibility of heavier dumbbells is not always great, so having an option that can still stimulate muscle growth with lower weights is crucial.

incline bench dumbbell shoulder press

Dumbbell Floor Press

These are great to do if you can’t find an available flat bench at 5:30pm, or if you want to do floor presses and, like me, your power rack at home isn’t suited for them.

These are just like a flat bench press, except that the floor stops you and limits your range of motion. This has the advantage of letting you work on the top end of the strength curve3 for horizontal press exercises.

When you bring the weight down, go ahead and pause for a second when your arms hit the floor. An important lesson we all learned as kids; the ground is not a trampoline.

Gif of dumbbell floor chest press

Close Grip Dumbbell Press

This is a dumbbell press variation that puts stress on the triceps rather than the pectoral muscles. They are a great replacement for the close grip press.

It is easier to do these with urethane hex dumbbells than bare or round metal (especially with lighter weight). You have to squeeze the dumbbells together, and it is hard to do that with a smaller surface area.

Set up in the normal starting position for a dumbbell bench press, but set your hands in a neutral grip on your chest. The dumbbells should be touching each other on each end.

Keep the dumbbells in contact with each other and press up, making sure to also press in to keep contact. 

close grip dumbbell bench press

Useful Dumbbell Bench Press Equipment Accessories

Having a pair of dumbbells heavy enough to elicit some kind of training effect is obviously the most important investment. These add-ons aren’t strictly necessary, but can make life easier (especially if you train alone).

Dumbbell Holders

These essentially give you a power rack for dumbbells. “Kicking up” heavy weights can be annoying (and even dangerous). These dumbbell holders let you “lift off” the same way you would for a barbell bench press.

These also make it easier to start at the top of the lift (which you should in order to get the proper form).

Typically these come in the form of rack mounted platforms, but there are also versions that hook onto a barbell (also in a rack). These don’t make a bodybuilding crew of good spotters obsolete, but they do make training alone feel a lot better.

bench press REP FB 3000

Wrist Wraps

Lifting heavy weight can hurt, even when you’re doing everything with perfect form. Wrist wraps help you secure your wrist joint and keep it in a vertical position.

These are cheap and help with all kinds of pressing and squatting lifts.

FAQs: How to Do Dumbbell Bench Presses

What muscles does a dumbbell bench press work?

The primary movers of the dumbbell bench press are the pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, and triceps. For the layman; your chest, shoulders, and upper arms.

This means the antagonist, stabilizer muscles of the lats and rear delts will also get a workout.

You can alter the setup of the lift to focus on one more than the other, or even do a single-arm version to work the obliques on the opposite side of your body as the weight.

Are dumbbell bench presses effective?

Along with the noble push-up, the flat bench and incline dumbbell bench press have been chest workout staples in bodybuilding programs for a century.

These simple chest exercises work the body through a large, and natural, range of motion. While the dumbbell press can’t be loaded as heavy as a barbell bench press, the increased range of motion makes it a valuable addition to just about any workout routine.

What are the benefits of dumbbell bench presses?

Increased size of the pecs, triceps, and shoulders. It is one of the core lifts used to build muscle in the upper body.

Even though we are using both arms in concert, the load is not bilateral (like holding a barbell with both hands). This can help fix imbalances in the muscle groups of the upper body, as well as strengthen stabilizer muscles with increased activation during unilateral loading.

Strength training and bodybuilding workouts can both benefit from small changes in motions (angle, grip, depth, etc.) for strength and hypertrophy. Hitting muscles, joints, and tendons in a slightly different way may also be useful for the overall health and durability of the body.

References:

  1. Grgic J, Mikulic P, Podnar H, Pedisic Z. Effects of linear and daily undulating periodized resistance training programs on measures of muscle hypertrophy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PeerJ. 2017 Aug 22;5:e3695. doi: 10.7717/peerj.3695. PMID: 28848690; PMCID: PMC5571788.
  2. Saeterbakken AH, van den Tillaar R, Fimland MS. A comparison of muscle activity and 1-RM strength of three chest-press exercises with different stability requirements. J Sports Sci. 2011 Mar;29(5):533-8. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2010.543916. PMID: 21225489.
  3. Martínez-Cava A, Morán-Navarro R, Hernández-Belmonte A, Courel-Ibáñez J, Conesa-Ros E, González-Badillo JJ, Pallarés JG. Range of Motion and Sticking Region Effects on the Bench Press Load-Velocity Relationship. J Sports Sci Med. 2019 Nov 19;18(4):645-652. PMID: 31827348; PMCID: PMC6873133.

Further reading

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