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How To Do The Dumbbell Bench Press

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We don’t want to come over all fitness hipster here, but frankly, the barbell bench press is not an effective enough chest exercise to justify its massive popularity. It’s a great exercise, sure, but its place as a workout staple is perhaps down to the fact that benching a big weight is as good for the ego as it is for your muscles.

If you’re ready to look beyond the bench press, we have suggestions for five chest exercises you should do instead – one of which is the dumbbell bench press. That’s right, all you need to do to improve on the bench press is to switch out the barbell for a brace of dumbbells, especially if you’re looking to bulk up your chest.

Using dumbbells allows a greater range of motion than using a barbell and this in turn means you can work more of the pec muscles during the exercise. Your pecs are the main muscles targeted by the exercise, but as an added bonus it also works your triceps. Opting for dumbbells also trains each side in isolation, so you can’t rely on a stronger side to muscle up the weight like you can when using a barbell. If you do find that one side is struggling when using dumbbells, you can then focus on building your strength on that side to balance your body.

How To Do The Dumbbell Bench Press

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Lie back on a bench holding a dumbbell in each hand just to the sides of your shoulders. Your palms should be facing towards your feet in the starting position, although if you have shoulder issues then switch to a neutral grip, where the palms face each other.

Press the weights above your chest by extending your elbows until your arms are straight, then bring the weights back down slowly. To take advantage of the range of movement offered by using dumbbells rather than a barbell, take the weights down past your shoulders and bring them closer together at the top of the movement. Don’t touch them at the top, though, because that will take some of the strain off your muscles.

Dumbbell Bench Press Variations

Incline dumbbell bench press

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The incline press works the top of the chest and the front of your shoulders harder than the standard exercise, boosting the strength of your muscles and hopefully increasing the amount you’ll be able to lift when performing the standard flat bench press.

Set up a bench at an incline of 30-45° and sit with your feet flat on the floor and your back on the bench. Lift the dumbbells to chest height with your palms facing forwards. Breathe out and push the dumbbells up until your arms are fully extended, using your pecs to power the movement. Don’t let the dumbbells touch. Pause for a second at the top, then slowly bring them back down as you inhale.

Decline dumbbell bench press

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If the incline bench press targets the top of the chest it stands to reason that the decline bench press will hit the lower chest muscles harder, and you might also find with this variation that you can lift more weight when on a decline than with the flat or incline press. Set up a bench so it’s at a 45° angle and sit on the top of the slope. Lean back (carefully) and bring the dumbbells up to your chest. Press the weights straight up slowly, then bring them back down to your chest. The natural tendency is to let the weights drift back over your head during the lift, so focus on avoiding that. It can be worth having someone check your form when first attempting this move.

Alternating dumbbell bench press

If you’re using dumbbells rather than a barbell with the aim of evening out any strength imbalances in your body, the alternating version of the exercise is one you should get well acquainted with. The form is the same as with the standard dumbbell bench press, except that you lift one weight at a time, keeping the other by your chest. The effect is to isolate each side of the body even more effectively than the standard version of the move. Start on your weaker side and you’ll soon see how much more of a challenge it is to lift one weight at a time.

Hammer-grip dumbbell bench press

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By holding the dumbbells in a hammer grip – with your palms facing towards each other – you increase the load on your triceps compared with the standard grip for the bench press. You can do this variation with either a flat bench or set it at an incline, with the latter focusing more on the upper chest muscles.

Set up with the dumbbells held at chest height in a hammer grip and press them up until your arms are fully extended. Pause at the top, then bring the weights back down slowly.

Nick Harris-Fry
Nick Harris-Fry

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.