The Best Dumbbell Chest Exercises for Building Muscle

Can you build a stronger and bigger chest with just dumbbell training? Yes, you can! Sure, most people think of the barbell bench press as the number one indispensable exercise for your chest muscles. The bench press might hold the title of king of upper body exercises for many lifters, but the best dumbbell chest exercises equal or surpass it for building impressive pecs.

In this article, you’ll learn which dumbbell exercises are the most effective for sculpting a well-developed chest and why. In addition, you’ll find three great dumbbell chest workouts to help you develop your pec muscles to perfection: one for beginners, one for intermediates, and one for advanced lifters.

All three workouts are available in StrengthLog to help you track your progression, easy and ad-free. You can download StrengthLog for free using the button for your device below.

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Chest Anatomy

These are the muscles that make up your chest and how they work!

Your pectoral muscles consist of four muscles of varying sizes: the pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, serratus anterior, and subclavius. Together, they move your upper extremities in a wide range of motion.1

The pectoralis major is the muscle you associate with bodybuilders flexing their chest.

Pectoralis major muscle

It is one of the largest of all upper-body muscles and the primary mover in exercises like the bench press and the push-up.

The triceps and the deltoids are larger, but they consist of multiple heads.

The pectoralis minor is much smaller and thinner than the pectoralis major. It doesn’t contribute as much to your physical appearance, but it is no less important for function and stability.

The pectoralis major attaches to a hook-like protrusion on the front of your scapula. It runs from the third to fifth rib at the front of your ribcage, pulls your shoulder blades down toward your chest wall, and helps stabilize them.

Pectoralis minor, serratus anterior, and subclavius muscles

The serratus anterior muscle is a fan-shaped muscle on the side of your ribs. When your body fat is low, it is visible on the side of your torso like a set of fingers.

Visible serratus anterior muscles in a bodybuilder with low body-fat

The serratus muscle is sometimes called the “boxer’s muscle” because it protracts the scapula like when you unleash a mighty haymaker.

The fourth and last chest muscle is the tiny subclavius muscle. It runs from the first rib to the clavicle and helps keep your collarbone stable when you move your shoulder girdle.

Subclavius muscle

Equipment Required for the Best Dumbbell Chest Exercises

If you work out in a fully equipped gym, you can skip this part. You likely already have access to everything you’ll ever need.

However, if you train at home, in your garage, basement, or apartment, you’ll want to make the best use of your money and space. Quality dumbbells are expensive, and you’ll need a wide range of weights to do all exercises effectively, especially as you probably won’t be training only your chest.

If you have the money, space, and desire to build a home gym with a complete set of dumbbells to cover all your needs, then more power to you. If you don’t, you might want to look into adjustable dumbbells.

Adjustable dumbbells let you flip a switch or turn a knob and change the weight on the fly between sets. Commonly, they range in weight between five to 50 pounds, with some going as high as 90 pounds. Few trainees need to use heavier dumbbells than that, but if you’re one of them, you probably already have what you require.

Dumbbell chest exercises: adjustable dumbbells
Adjustable dumbbells

If you train at home, buying a pair of quality adjustable dumbbells saves you money and space, as you can replace many regular dumbbells with two. And you’ll have use for them when you train other muscle groups than your chest. For example, you’ll likely need lighter dumbbells for curls and heavier ones for a back exercise like the dumbbell row.

In addition to the dumbbells, you also need a weight bench with an adjustable backrest. You’ll be using your training bench for numerous exercises for years, so splurge on quality equipment if you can. Inexpensive benches might seem like a bargain at first glance, but they are often unstable and rinky-dink quality.

The Best Dumbbell Chest Exercises

Let’s get down to business! These are the five best exercises for your chest and all you need to build muscular and strong pecs. These exercises allow you to create dumbbell workouts for any training experience level. In fact, we did that for you; you’ll find chest workouts based on them later in the article.

Dumbbell Chest Press

The dumbbell chest press is a compound movement that works your chest muscles, front deltoids, and triceps. It allows you to use heavy dumbbells to overload your pecs. 

You can get a greater range of motion using dumbbells than a barbell. The combination of heavy weights and a full range of motion makes it one of the best chest exercises for maximal muscle mass and strength gains.

Even though you can use heavier weights in the dumbbell bench press compared to most other chest exercises, never sacrifice form for weight. It’ll look impressive, but you’re inevitably using other muscle groups to help you move the heavier loads.

Sometimes you see guys in the gym using the heaviest dumbbells and doing half-reps because the weight is too heavy. You’ll notice that they rarely have impressive pecs. Using heavy weights and a full range of motion is the best way to hit all muscle fibers, stimulate greater muscle growth, and lower the risk of injury. You should feel a good stretch in your pectoral muscles at the bottom of the movement. Half-reps mean half the benefits, at least in the dumbbell press.

Muscles Worked in Dumbbell Chest Press

Muscles worked in dumbbell chest press

How to Dumbbell Chest Press

  1. Lie on a bench, and lift a pair of dumbbells up to the starting position.
  2. Press the dumbbells up to straight arms, while exhaling.
  3. Inhale at the top of the movement, or while lowering the dumbbells with control back to your shoulders.
  4. Repeat for reps.

Incline Dumbbell Press

Performing dumbbell presses on an incline bench shifts the focus to your upper chest. Incline presses still work your entire chest, but with more emphasis on the clavicular head or the upper part of the pectoralis major muscle. 

Research shows that including incline presses in your chest training leads to more significant muscle growth of the upper pecs than relying on the flat bench press alone.2

When adjusting the incline of the bench, go for an incline bench angle of around 30°. Increasing the angle to 45° does not work your upper pecs more effectively. Instead, it activates your lower chest less and forces your front delts to do more of the work.3 4 It’s better to train your delts with delt exercises than to turn your chest exercises into some kind of a half-measure of a delt/chest hybrid.

As with the flat bench dumbbell press, range of motion is important, but don’t overdo it. Try to lower the dumbbells until your elbows are slightly below your shoulders and get a good stretch in your pecs. There is no need to go even deeper by turning the press into a semi-fly, though. You’ll just lose stability, stress your shoulder joints, and decrease the tension in your chest muscles. A full range of motion for the chest muscle doesn’t mean the full range of motion of the shoulder joint. Keep it tight, and let your pecs do the work.

Muscles Worked in Incline Dumbbell Press

Muscles worked in incline dumbbell press

How to Incline Dumbbell Press

  1. Sit on a bench, and lift a pair of dumbbells up to the starting position.
  2. Press the dumbbells up to straight arms, while exhaling.
  3. Inhale at the top, or while lowering the dumbbells with control back to your shoulders.

Dumbbell Chest Fly

The dumbbell fly is the best free-weight isolation exercise for your chest. Unlike compound exercises like the flat and incline dumbbell press, dumbbell flyes only require the movement of the shoulder joint. That removes your triceps from the equation and effectively isolates your pectoralis major muscle and your front deltoid.

Handling as much weight as possible when performing dumbbell flyes is secondary to controlling the motion and feeling your chest muscles contract and stretch. That means using a lighter weight and focusing on technique instead of load.

Range of motion comes naturally in this exercise, and if you have good shoulder mobility, you might have to limit how deep you go. Your chest muscles don’t do much, if any, of the work below a certain degree. Lowering the dumbbells below your chest line or even below the bench if you have strong, mobile shoulders offers no benefits, only unnecessary risks.

Performed correctly, the chest fly is one of the best dumbbell exercises for your pecs, but when done incorrectly, it’s ineffective and potentially harmful. Keep that in mind, use a lower weight if needed, focus on technique, and don’t overstretch your chest muscles at the bottom of the movement to put less stress on your shoulders and more stress (the good kind) on your pecs.

As with the dumbbell chest press, you can perform the chest fly on an incline bench to increase the activation of your upper pecs.

Muscles Worked in Dumbbell Chest Flyes

Muscles worked in dumbbell chest flyes

How to Do Dumbbell Chest Flyes

  1. Lie on a bench, and lift a pair of dumbbells up to the starting position.
  2. With almost completely straight arms, lower the dumbbells out to your sides.
  3. When you’ve lowered the dumbbells as deep as possible, reverse the motion and return the dumbbells to the starting position.
  4. Repeat for reps.

Dumbbell Floor Press

If you have a weight bench, the dumbbell floor press is not an essential exercise. You get a fuller range of motion and a better experience performing presses and flyes lying on the bench than on the floor.

However, if you don’t have access to a fully equipped gym, don’t have space for a weight bench in your apartment home gym, or are trying to get a workout done in a hotel room, the dumbbell floor press is a great way to train your chest with nothing but a set of dumbbells. A workout consisting of floor presses and push-ups gives your pecs all they need to grow bigger, stronger, and more shapely.

That’s why the floor press deserves a spot on the list of the best dumbbell chest exercises: it’s a life-saver when you want a heavy chest workout, and you don’t have any equipment but dumbbells at hand.

It’s a good idea to lie on some kind of soft, elevated surface instead of directly on the floor. A workout mat or a carpet makes the movement more comfortable and prevents you from sliding around.

If you don’t have fancy equipment, only a pair of dumbbells, but still want a good chest workout, give the dumbbell floor press a chance.

Muscles Worked in Dumbbell Floor Press

Muscles worked in the floor press exercise

How to Dumbbell Floor Press

  1. Sit on the floor with your legs straight and a pair of dumbbells beside you.
  2. Pick the dumbbells up and place them in your hip creak.
  3. Lay down while you bring the dumbbells up to your chest.
  4. Press them dumbbells to straight arms, bend your knees, and place your feet flat on the floor.
  5. Lower the dumbbells slowly until your upper arms hit the floor.
  6. Reverse the motion and push the dumbbells up to straight arms again.
  7. Gently drop the dumbbells to the floor to finish the set.

Dumbbell Pullover

The dumbbell pullover is a classic old-school exercise for your chest and your lats. For more than a century, the pullover has been a staple for bodybuilders and strength athletes, although it has fallen into obscurity over the last few decades. 

Golden-age bodybuilders swore by the dumbbell pullover for expanding the rib cage and thickening the entire torso. While that particular effect is debatable (although many bodybuilders, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, swore by it), it’s still a valuable addition to your chest-training toolbox.

Experienced strength athletes can use the dumbbell pullover to target the pecs or the lats to varying degrees. Performed the traditional way, the pullover is more of a chest exercise than a lat exercise.5

Most chest exercises, including presses and flyes, use horizontal adduction at the shoulder to work the pecs. In the dumbbell pullover, on the other hand, the primary movement is shoulder extension, offering variety in your chest training and hitting the muscle fibers from a unique angle.

Muscles Worked in Dumbbell Pullovers

Muscles worked by dumbbell pullover

How to Do Dumbbell Pullovers

  1. Lie down on a bench and lift a dumbbell up to almost straight arms above you.
  2. Lower the dumbbell down behind your head, while keeping your arms almost completely straight, just with a slight bend in the elbows.
  3. Reverse the motion and return the dumbbell to the starting position.

There you have it: the five best dumbbell chest exercises for building massive, chiseled pecs.

Putting it All Together: The Best Dumbbell Chest Workouts

Let’s put the exercies together into a workout you can use to blast your chest the next time you hit the weights. In fact, let’s make that three workouts, one for beginners, one for intermediates, and one for advanced lifters. Remember: you’ll find all three in StrengthLog. You can also easily view recommended rep ranges and the number of sets in the app.

Dumbbell Chest Workout for Beginners

This one is easy. As a beginner, you don’t need a dozen exercises to work a muscle thoroughly or an advanced bodybuilding routine from the get-go. You need a few sets of compound exercises using reasonably heavy weights that feel challenging. Focus on increasing the load from workout to workout while maintaining good form.

  1. Dumbbell Chest Press 2 sets x 8–10 reps
  2. Incline Dumbbell Press 2 sets x 8–10 reps

That’s it. Perform those dumbbell chest exercises twice weekly (along with training for the rest of your body), and try to increase the weight of the dumbbells when you can. At this level, multiple short weekly workouts for a muscle are better than a single extended session to learn the movement and get used to resistance training.  After a couple of months, you’ll have increased the size of your chest muscles, become stronger, and be ready for the intermediate chest workout.

Dumbbell Chest Workout for Intermediates

At the intermediate level, when you have a couple of months of training experience, you need a higher training volume to progress at an optimal rate. Research suggests that doing around ten weekly sets per muscle is the sweet spot for strength and muscle hypertrophy at this level.6 7

  1. Dumbbell Chest Press
  2. Incline Dumbbell Press
  3. Dumbbell Chest Fly

Give this workout a try on your next weekly chest day. You won’t regret it. 

Advanced Dumbbell Chest Workout

With great training experience comes the need for a greater number of sets. According to up-to-date research, advanced-level lifters and bodybuilders might need up to 20 weekly sets.8 The advanced dumbbell chest workout puts it all together with a variety of exercises for optimal pec development.

  1. Dumbbell Chest Press
  2. Incline Dumbbell Press
  3. Dumbbell Chest Fly
  4. Dumbbell Pullover

Doing this workout once per week is all you need to stimulate muscle growth in your pecs like never before, no matter your training experience. If you prefer training each muscle group twice weekly, you could split the workout into two sessions, like this:

Workout A

  1. Dumbbell Chest Press
  2. Dumbbell Chest Fly

Workout B

  1. Incline Dumbbell Press
  2. Dumbbell Pullover

It doesn’t matter if you divide your sets into one or several workouts, as long as the total weekly number of sets are the same.9 You can let your personal preferences and schedule decide.

How to Integrate the Dumbbell Chest Workouts into Your Training Routine

Unless you’re only training your chest (which is probably not a good idea), you’ll want to integrate these workouts into your routine in a sensible way. Here’s how.

Beginners

If you’re new to the world of strength training, I suggest you either follow a full-body split 2–3 times per week or a low-volume upper/lower split. An excellent way to spread your workout days over the week using the upper/lower training split could look like this:

  • Monday: Upper body
  • Tuesday: Lower body
  • Wednesday: Rest
  • Thursday: Upper body
  • Friday: Lower body
  • Saturday: Rest
  • Sunday: Rest

Here’s an example of a dumbbell-oriented upper-body training day using the beginner dumbbell chest workout.

  1. Dumbbell Chest Press 2 sets x 8–10 reps
  2. Incline Dumbbell Press 2 sets x 8–10 reps
  3. Dumbbell Row 4 sets x 8–10 reps
  4. Dumbbell Shoulder Press 3 sets x 8–10 reps

Optional:

  1. Dumbbell Curl 2 sets x 8–10 reps
  2. Dumbbell Standing Triceps Extension 2 sets x 8–10 reps

Intermediates

At the intermediate level, you might want to split your body further and focus more on a particular muscle group each workout. Below is an excellent routine for muscle growth. Of course, there are no rules, and you can opt for every kind of training split, from full-body sessions to bro-splits. 

  • Monday: Dumbbell Chest Workout for Intermediates and triceps
  • Tuesday: Legs
  • Wednesday: Rest
  • Thursday: Back and biceps
  • Friday: Shoulders and abs
  • Saturday: Rest
  • Sunday: Rest

Advanced

As an advanced trainee, you probably already know your body and the training that makes it grow. For inspiration, the two most popular training splits for advanced lifters are the Push/Pull/Legs (PPL) split and some kind of bro-split where you train one major muscle group per workout.

Example Push/Pull/Legs Split

  • Day 1: Advanced Dumbbell Chest Workout, shoulders, and triceps
  • Day 2: Back and biceps
  • Day 3: Legs
Push pull legs bodybuilding split

You can take a day or two of rest between PPL rounds or do six workouts in a row, resting only one day per week. That kind of training frequency and volume is best left to highly experienced lifters and bodybuilders, though.

Example Bro-Split

The two weekly rest days are yours to take whenever you need or when it fits your schedule.

Read more:

>> The 10 Best Bodybuilding Splits: a Complete Guide

If you’re looking to get and stay fit and strong with effective home workouts and want a pre-packaged routine for your entire body, including your pecs, you can go wrong with our home workout plan using dumbbells only.

>> StrengthLog’s 4 Week Home Workout Plan

Track Your Chest Workouts in the StrengthLog App

The dumbbell chest exercises and workouts in this article will help you gain strength and put lean muscle mass on your chest, as long as you keep challenging your muscles. The key to fast and consistent gains is progressive overload: you increase the weight you use in your training or do more reps over time.

It’s almost impossible to keep track of your progress without a workout log. StrengthLog is 100% free to download and use as a workout tracker and general strength training app. All the basic functionality is free – forever.

The beginner, intermediate, and advanced dumbbell chest workouts are available in StrengthLog, with the beginner workout being completely free. You’ll also find many other effective training workouts in the app. Many are free, but our more advanced programs are for premium users only.

Want to give premium a shot? We offer all new users a free 14-day trial of premium, which you can activate in the app.

Download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below:

Download StrengthLog Workout Log on App Store
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Good luck with your training!

>> Click here to return to our list of training programs and workouts.

References

  1. Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Pectoral Muscles. StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Aug 30.
  2. Int J Exerc Sci. 2020; 13(6): 859–872. Effects of Horizontal and Incline Bench Press on Neuromuscular Adaptations in Untrained Young Men.
  3. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Oct; 17(19): 7339. Effect of Five Bench Inclinations on the Electromyographic Activity of the Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoid, and Triceps Brachii during the Bench Press Exercise.
  4. Eur J Sport Sci. 2016;16(3):309-16. Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise.
  5. J Appl Biomech. 2011 Nov;27(4):380-4. Effects of the pullover exercise on the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi muscles as evaluated by EMG.
  6. J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073-1082. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
  7. Sports Med. 2017 Dec;47(12):2585-2601. The Effect of Weekly Set Volume on Strength Gain: A Meta-Analysis.
  8. J Hum Kinet. 2022 Feb 10;81:199-210. A Systematic Review of The Effects of Different Resistance Training Volumes on Muscle Hypertrophy.
  9. Sports Med. 2016 Nov;46(11):1689-1697. Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.
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Andreas Abelsson

Andreas is a certified nutrition coach with over three decades of training experience. He has followed and reported on the research fields of exercise, nutrition, and health for almost as long and is a specialist in metabolic health and nutrition coaching for athletes. Read more about Andreas and StrengthLog by clicking here.