Dumbbell Press vs. Bench Press

Although the classic barbell bench press has been a staple in resistance training programs for decades, it may be time to drop the barbell and pick up a pair of dumbbells. However, depending on your goals, one variation may be superior.

Dumbbell bench press requires more use of your stability muscles. (Image: Vladimir Sukhachev/iStock/GettyImages)

Dumbbell vs. Barbell Bench Press

The constants between the dumbbell and barbell bench press are the main muscle groups that they both work, those being the chest, shoulders and triceps. The differences come with the amount of weight that can be utilized, the stability demand, the sharing of the weight between the two arms and the difference in grip.

The Barbell Bench Press

The barbell bench press is the classic move that you'll see fitness enthusiasts doing in the gym. It's also featured in sports such as powerlifting and football as a test of upper-body strength.

When you compare it to the dumbbell press, the barbell variation can use more weight — and that's a benefit to you. Because the bar is fixed, there is less stability required to complete the lift allowing the main muscles of the chest, shoulders and triceps to exert more force. From a pure strength gain perspective, this is key.

To complete the bench press effectively, follow five steps:

  1. Use a bench that allows the bar to be racked. Always use a spotter to help you remove the barbell from the rack, spot you during the exercise and help you rack the barbell once you are done.
  2. Lying on the bench, grasp the barbell with a grip that is slightly wider than shoulder width.
  3. Keep your abs engaged as your spotter helps you remove the bar and bring it over shoulder level.
  4. Take in a breath as you slowly lower the bar to your mid to lower chest keeping the elbows 45 degrees to the body. Think about pulling your shoulder blades back and together as you lower the bar to create a stable base to work from.
  5. Lightly tap your chest with the bar and drive your feet into the ground while keeping your back flat to the bench as you press the bar back toward the ceiling.

The Dumbbell Bench Press

While the dumbbell bench press is limited in the amount of weight that can be utilized when compared to the barbell bench press, this variation offers a few benefits the barbell bench press does not.

First, the dumbbell bench press requires more stability at the shoulder and shoulder girdle, which helps to strength the stabilizer muscles.

Second, because the dumbbells are independent, the grip that can be utilized can vary from a 90 degrees at the shoulder to 45 degrees and all the way to a neutral grip, where the knuckles of the hands are facing each other.

The ability to vary your grip to 45 degrees or to a neutral grip allows you to target the muscles slightly differently, and also allows you to achieve an angle at the shoulder that is more conducive to those who have had — or currently have — shoulder issues.

Last, the dumbbell bench press does not require a spotter as if failure is achieved with the exercise, the dumbbells can simply be dropped to the side without the worry of being caught under the bar.

To perform the dumbbell bench press, complete the same steps as the barbell bench press, but note that there's no need for a spotter.

  1. Get into position by sitting on a bench with the dumbbells resting on the thighs.
  2. Lean back bringing the dumbbells to shoulder level and press them toward the ceiling.
  3. From there the steps are the exact same as a barbell bench, but the grip that can be utilized can vary.
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