The barbell bench press is generally recognized as the number one chest building exercise in the gym. It is also seen as the best builder of strength, especially in the upper body. When it comes to different versions of the bench, most people consider the dumbbell press to be an interchangeable, but lesser, option. But is it really? In this article, we investigate whether the barbell and dumbbell versions of the bench press are equally as good and, if not, which one you should prioritize.
Bench Press for Strength
The bench press is a fundamental strength developer that forces your body to work as a unit to produce the force required to push the weight off your chest. It calls for coordination of the front deltoids, the pectorals, the triceps, the latissimus dorsi, the core and the quadriceps. This develops functional power that lends itself well to the type of pushing required on the football or rugby field.
When compared to the dumbbell press, the barbell bench press is a better strength developer. The main reason is that barbells allow you to lift more weight. That’s because, when you are working with a bar you do not have to stabilize the individual dumbbells as you do with the dumbbell press. Just think about the max weight you can lift on the bench press for six reps. Now cut that weight in half and try to do six reps with dumbbells of that weight – I bet you won’t be able to!
Bench Press for Muscle Gain
When we forget about its potential as a strength developer and focus on the bench press for muscle growth, we find that it’s not so good. One of the fundamentals of muscular development is full range of motion. That means being able to get full contraction and full extension of the muscles activated. When you do the bench press, however, you can get neither.
The barbell bench press locks your hands in position about three feet from each other. As a result, when you push the weight up you are unable to bring your hands closer to the midline of the chest, which is the point where they achieve full contraction. When you push the bar straight up, as you are forced to, you are getting, at most 60 percent of contraction.
At the other end of your range of motion, the bench press only allows you to come down to the point where the bar touches your chest. This stops you at least an inch short of full extension. An inch might not sound like much but, when it comes to muscle stimulation, it can make all the difference.
Another problem with using the bench press as a chest developer is that the fixed nature of your hand position means that you are pushing upward and outward rather than upward and inward as you do when you are using dumbbells. This upward and outward push puts more emphasis on the triceps and less emphasis on the pectorals, which is the opposite to what you want.
Dumbbells for Muscle Gain
From the above, we can see that the bench press is not a very efficient exercise when it comes to chest development. However, each of the weaknesses that the bench has can be overcome when we switch to the dumbbell press.
The first problem we discussed with the bench was that your hands are fixed in place on the bar, preventing you from being able to bring your hands in toward the midline in order to fully contract your pectorals. However, when you use dumbbells that is exactly what you are able to do. To perform the dumbbell press properly you should have your forearms perpendicular to the floor in the bottom position and then push up as you bring the dumbbells together in the top position. This will make sure that the pecs are maximally contracted in the top position.
The second problem with the bench is that the bar hitting your chest stops you from achieving full extension in the bottom position. With dumbbells you are not limited in this regard and can get that vital extra inch of extension.
Finally, the dumbbell press has you pushing upward and inward, which emphasizes the pectorals rather than the triceps.
Other Benefits of Dumbbells
As we have seen, the dumbbell bench press has it all over the barbell version when it comes to pectoral stimulation. There are, though, some additional reasons why you should choose the dumbbell over the barbell bench press.
One of the greatest fears that many people have in the gym is to get trapped under the weight when they fail on the bench press. This is not only potentially fatal, it is also pretty embarrassing. Yet, when you do the dumbbell version, you don’t have that worry. When you can’t get the weight up, all you have to do is drop the weights and they’ll fall to the floor. The worst you’ll get is a telling off from the gym owner – that’s a lot better than a couple of cracked ribs!
Using dumbbells on the bench press also allows you to work each side of your chest unilaterally. We all have a side of the body that is weaker than the other. This is often seen on the bench with the bar coming up on an angle as your stronger side takes over. This only makes your strength imbalance worse. When you use dumbbells, however, each side is forced to do its own work. This will, eventually, lead to a balancing of both muscle and strength development.
Bottom Line: Barbell vs Dumbbells Press
The bench press and the dumbbell press are not the same. The dumbbell version of the exercise overcomes every single one of the limitations of the barbell that make the bench press an inefficient chest developer. When it comes to overall strength development, though, the barbell bench press is the superior exercise.
So, decide what you are actually wanting to do the exercise for. If it’s strength development, achieved through lifting heavier weights, go with the bench press as you will be. But, if you’re working out to develop a bigger chest, then ditch the bench and focus on really working your pecs with the dumbbell chest press.
Both these chest exercises are great for you to do at your home gym, follow our workout tips to determine which exercise is right for your fitness objective.