dumbbell vs barbell press

Dumbbell Press vs Bench Press

Chest exercises are a must in any well-rounded muscle training program. 

And if you’ve ever read up on the best exercises for your chest, you’ve probably come across the old dilemma – barbells vs dumbbell bench press. 

Some swear by dumbbell press, others prefer the barbell variation. And in most cases, both parties believe their side is the correct one. But is one really better than the other? 

And if yes, which one? We’ll answer these questions and more in this article.

Dumbbell Press vs Bench Press

Dumbbell Press

dumbbell press

Target Muscle Groups

The dumbbell bench press can be performed by anyone, from beginners to more advanced. 

It targets the pectoral muscles, with biceps and shoulders also involved in the movement. 

Because they are independent, dumbbells require more stability at the shoulder, so there will be more muscle activation in this area. (1, 2, 3)

How To Do A Dumbbell Bench Press

  1. Sit on a workout bench with the dumbbells resting on your thighs.
  2. Lie back and bring the dumbbells to shoulder level, elbows bent.
  3. Push the dumbbells up until the elbows are straight – be careful not to lock out the elbows though.
  4. Lower the dumbbells until the elbows are slightly lower than shoulders, or until you feel a slight stretch in your chest.
  5. There should be a 90-degree angle at the elbows.

Pros & Cons

The fact that the dumbbells are independent of each other means you can change the grip from a 90-degree at the shoulder all the way to a neutral grip. 

This allows you to target muscles slightly differently.

They also require more stability in the shoulders, again increasing the number of muscles involved in the exercise. This aids in an equal usage of muscles. 

Many of us have a dominant arm/shoulder without even realizing it. It can happen from repetitive motion at work or a past injury for which we haven’t done proper physical therapy. 

If you use a barbell or even a chest press machine, you can and probably will use the dominant arm more than the other. 

In the end, the weight will be lifted, but the imbalance will still be there on the bench press. Dumbbells take this issue out of the equation and for you to use both arms/shoulders equally.

The con to the dumbbell bench press is the maximum weight which will be lower than the one barbells allow you to lift.

dumbbell bench press

Tips To Do It Right

  • No matter how experienced you think you are, never start a dumbbell press without a proper warm-up. 
  • Preferably, start with a lower weight than your maximum and do one set with that weight, before lifting more. 
  • When doing a bench press dumbbell, you usually don’t need a spotter, but if you’re feeling uncertain at any time, ask for one. 
  • Finally, while doing the exercise, make sure you keep your abs engaged, to avoid lower back pain.
  • Here’s an article explaining how to do dumbbell chest exercises without bench.

Barbell Bench Press

barbell bench press

Target Muscle Groups

The barbell bench press is a classic move in all strength training and especially bodybuilding programs. 

Just like the dumbbells press, it targets muscle growth in the pecs, the deltoids, biceps, and triceps. (2, 4)

How To Do A Barbell Bench Press

  1. You will need to use a bench that allows the barbell to be racked and a spotter for safety.
  2. Lie on your back and grab the barbell with both hands.
  3. The grip should be slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  4. Press the barbell up, until the elbows are straight, but careful not to lock them out.
  5. Lower the barbell back to your chest.

barbell press

Pros & Cons

Unlike using dumbbells, the barbell bench press allows you to lift very heavy, being ideal for bodybuilders and those who are very advanced in their strength training program.

On the other hand, if you want to lift that heavy you will need a spotter, so forget about doing it at home on your own. 

It is also not ideal if you are just getting back to working out after an injury, or if you have a muscular imbalance in the arms or shoulders.

Tips To Do It Right

  • Make sure you have your feet firmly planted on the ground and your quads engaged while performing this exercise. 
  • Also, make sure your grip isn’t too wide, as it will compromise a greater range of motion.
  • Using barbell pads can help to avoid shoulder injuries and chest pain.
  • Using elbow compression sleeves can help to keep a better and tighter arm position, especially when increasing weights.

Dumbbell Press vs Barbell Bench Press - Which One Is Better?

Muscle groups

Both bench presses target the pecs primarily, and the deltoids (shoulders), triceps, and biceps secondarily. 

Also, the barbell press can workout your quadriceps! To balance off the heavy load, you will need to keep your feet engaged, thus working your legs while doing a chest exercise. 

The dumbbell press will not exercise your legs as much, but it will activate the stabilizer muscles. 

This can help correct weak points and imbalances, as well as increase your overall strength.

Which one has a higher risk of injury?

There’s a risk of injury with any exercise if you do not pay attention to proper form or if you lift too heavy too soon and bench presses are no different. 

Since a barbell allows you to lift heavier and usually requires a spotter, it is safe to say it has more risks of injury. A few common barbell press injuries include:

  • Sternum injuries which can happen when you bounce the barbell on your chest;
  • Low back injuries which happen when you don’t engage the abs and don’t keep your low back flat on the bench. Engaging the quads will also help minimize the risk of acquiring such an injury;
  • Crushed windpipe – this is the most serious injury that can happen if you drop the barbell on your throat.

But some injuries can occur with both dumbbells and barbells such as a hyperextended elbow or a pectoral muscle tear.

Who should be doing a bench press with dumbbells or barbells?

Both bench presses can be performed by both beginners and advanced bodybuilders. 

If you’ve never lifted weights before, or if you’re starting on your own, dumbbells are by far the safer choice. 

A barbell does offer a lot of stability and can help in learning the correct form to execute the exercise.

As for advanced bodybuilders – do not rule dumbbells out completely, even if you can lift a lot heavier than what dumbbells can offer. 

Otherwise, you’ll miss the chance to train on stabilizing your muscle. 

Dumbbells will also offer the chance to press with a different grip, which will again help increase your overall strength and prevent you from hitting a plateau.

The Bottomline

The dumbbell and the barbell bench press are both exercises that work the pecs, shoulders, and arms. 

Each has its role and a particular way of working those muscle groups, which makes it difficult to choose one over the other. 

On the contrary, a well-rounded strength-training program should alternate between the two, to help you work those muscles in various ways, increase strength, and help you avoid a plateau.

If you like this article, don’t forget to check out our other products’ and adjustable dumbbell reviews to help you pick the best equipment for your home gym.

Related Articles: Dumbbell Exercises for Your Whole Body 

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Article by:

Daniel DeMoss

I’m a personal trainer based in Denver (Matrix Gym) and a true fitness nerd. If I’m not training clients or working out at my home gym, I’m probably skiing, cycling or hiking with my dog Rufus.