Dumbbell vs barbell bench press: which exercise should you choose?
The bench press is a great exercise whether you are a powerlifter, a bodybuilder, or simply want to be fit, athletic, and look good. It improves your upper body strength, builds your chest, shoulder, and triceps muscles, and boosts your athletic performance.
You can perform the bench press in many variations, but the barbell and dumbbell bench press are the most common and popular. They are similar exercises in many ways:
- They are compound movements that work several major muscle groups.
- Both are excellent for complete chest development.
- Both are staples in chest workouts for anyone from beginners to advanced lifters.
Each offers unique benefits but also some key differences. Your preferences, specific goals, and anatomical considerations often determine the best choice.
In this article, you’ll learn the main differences between these two popular exercises, helping you determine the better choice for your workout routine.
Table of Contents
Dumbbell Vs Barbell Bench Press: Key Differences
These are the major differences, advantages, and disadvantages of the bench press using barbells vs dumbbells.
Dumbbell Bench Press
- Increased Range of Motion: A pair of dumbbells allows for a greater range of motion than a barbell.
- Individual Arm Work: Each arm pushes separate weights for balanced strength development and reveals muscle imbalances.
- Joint Health: Dumbbells can be less stressful on your shoulders because they allow your wrists and elbows to find a more natural position.
- Variability: Different grip positions (neutral, pronated, supinated) target your chest muscles slightly differently.
- Safety: If you fail a rep, it’s easier to drop dumbbells safely to the side than a barbell.
- Weight Limitation: As you get stronger, lifting very heavy dumbbells into the starting position becomes challenging.
- Stability Requirement: Greater stabilization is required, which can be challenging for beginners.
- Progression: Smaller increments in weight progression can be more complicated, as many gyms don’t have dumbbells in 2.5 lb increments.
- Complexity: Getting into and out of position, especially using heavy weights, can be trickier than with a barbell on a rack.
Barbell Bench Press
- Heavier Weights: It is easier to progress and lift heavier loads because both hands share the load.
- Linear Progression: Adding small amounts of weight is more straightforward, making it easier to maintain consistent strength progression.
- Stability: The barbell provides more stability than dumbbells, making it more beginner-friendly.
- Standardized Movement: Consistency in the movement pattern, which can be helpful for measuring strength progress.
- Potential for Imbalances: One side can compensate for the other, leading to strength imbalances.
- Less Range of Motion: The barbell can limit the natural motion of the arms and shoulders.
- Shoulder Stress: The fixed hand position can be more stressful on the shoulders of some individuals.
- Safety Concerns: Without a spotter, failing a rep can be riskier with a barbell than with dumbbells.
- Less Versatility: Grip variations are limited compared to dumbbells.
What does this mean for you when designing your chest workout or upper body workout plan?
Read on for a detailed breakdown of each exercise: their benefits and drawbacks, and who should do which exercise.
Dumbbell Bench Press
The dumbbell bench press is one of the best exercises you can do in a push workout for overall chest strength and development.
Unlike barbell presses, each arm maneuvers its separate weight, giving you greater freedom of movement and engaging a broader set of stabilizer muscles, including the serratus anterior, rotator cuffs, and even the biceps.
Because you might be unable to move as much weight using dumbbells as with a barbell, it’s more challenging to overload the chest muscles progressively. However, the dumbbell chest press more than makes for it in versatility and range of motion.
How to Perform the Dumbbell Chest Press
- Starting Position:
- Sit on a flat bench with a pair of dumbbells resting on your thighs, close to your hips. Your feet should be flat on the ground.
- While holding the dumbbells, slowly lie back on the bench.
- Once you’re lying flat, position the dumbbells at shoulder width apart with your arms extended above your chest. This is your starting position.
- Grip: Hold the dumbbells with your palms facing forward towards your feet. Your wrists should be straight, not bent.
- Take a deep breath and lower the dumbbells by bending your elbow joint. Your elbows should move out to the side and slightly back, creating a natural arc.
- Continue lowering the dumbbells until they are level with your chest or until your upper arms are roughly parallel with the floor.
- Pushing Phase:
- Exhale and push the dumbbells back to the starting position by extending your arms and contracting your chest muscles. The dumbbells don’t need to touch at the top of the movement.
- Perform the desired number of repetitions while maintaining good form.
Advantages of the Dumbbell Bench Press
While not a unilateral movement (meaning you work one arm or leg at a time), the dumbbell press requires each arm to stabilize and balance its own weight. It is the main difference between the dumbbell and barbell bench press.
If one side of your body is stronger, a barbell might allow that dominant side to compensate for the weaker side, leading to potential imbalances in strength and muscle development.
Dumbbells force each side to lift its own weight and are an effective way to address and correct potential strength imbalances over time. Since each side of the body works independently, the more powerful side doesn’t overcompensate for its weaker twin.
Greater Range of Motion
Another of the benefits of the dumbbell bench press is that it excels in providing a full range of motion. The freedom of movement with a pair of dumbbells allows for a deeper stretch at the bottom.
Most research suggests full range of motion (ROM) training benefits strength and muscle growth.1
Few studies specifically look at the bench press ROM, but training your pecs at longer muscle lengths is likely optimal.2
The increased range of motion and ability to squeeze your pecs at the top of the movement results in a slightly better activation of your chest muscles. This flexibility is beneficial, especially when looking to maximize muscle growth.
Another potential benefit of the dumbbell bench press is its ability to activate various muscle groups other than the primary movers, the pectoral muscles.
Dumbbells require stabilization in multiple planes of movement. Each hand and arm work independently, demanding coordination and control to move both dumbbells in a similar path.
Unlike when you do the barbell bench press, there is an increased demand on several stabilizing muscles to prevent the dumbbells from moving away from or toward your body’s midline.
That means the smaller stabilizing muscles in your shoulders, like the rotator cuff, must work harder to keep the weights steady and aligned.
So why the “potential” benefit?
Higher stability requirements are not beneficial if you want to hoist as much weight as possible. Better stability, like in the barbell bench press, allows you to lift heavier weights.
But they are beneficial when you want to engage as many muscles as possible and develop the stabilizing muscles simultaneously.
Variability in Wrist and Elbow Position
Not everyone feels comfortable with the standard wrist positioning in the bench press due to individual differences in anatomy and past injuries.
With its increased freedom of movement, the dumbbell press allows for a more personalized and comfortable movement pattern, possibly translating to reduced strain on your wrists and shoulder joints.
Unlike the fixed position in barbell exercises, dumbbells offer a neutral grip option, which can minimize undue tension on your wrists, reduce stress on your shoulder joints, and even hit the muscle fibers from a different angle.
Safety is paramount in any workout routine, and the mechanism of racking weights is a significant aspect of this safety net.
If you encounter difficulty or fail to complete a rep, dropping a pair of dumbbells to the side is generally safer and more straightforward, preventing potential injury. It’s a built-in safety mechanism if you train solo.
In addition, the absence of a bar means there’s minimal risk of being trapped or pinned beneath a weight, especially when exhaustion hits during the last few reps.
Disadvantages of the Dumbbell Bench Press
While the dumbbell press offers many benefits, lifting heavy weights can be challenging.
Once you reach a certain strength level, your gym might not even have dumbbells heavy enough. And if they do, they don’t come in small increments that allow you to move to the next pair up the dumbbell rack easily. That makes it harder to practice progressive overload compared to a barbell.
Getting into the starting position with a pair of heavy dumbbells can be a daunting task, especially without assistance.
Kicking the weights up with your knees while reclining into position requires a very awkward movement that takes some of the energy you could have spent on productive reps.
Dumbbells require each arm to work independently, which can highlight strength imbalances between your left and right sides. For example, if one arm is stronger or more coordinated than the other, it will press the dumbbell more easily, causing asymmetry in the movement. The smaller stabilizing muscles in the shoulders and upper back must work harder to prevent the dumbbells from wobbling or drifting.
Long-term, performing the dumbbell press will help even the imbalances out, but for a beginner, these factors make it a more challenging option.
Barbell Bench Press
The barbell bench press is one of the most popular exercises, with an unrivaled reputation for building strength and mass in the chest muscles.
- The bench press is the primary measure of upper-body strength for powerlifters.
- The bench press allows bodybuilders to lift heavier weights than other chest exercises, promoting mechanical overload, a key factor for muscle growth.
- In addition, the bench press is a staple exercise for testing and training the upper body strength of athletes in many professional sports.
In short, the barbell bench press lives up to its moniker, “the king of upper body exercises,” However, compared to its dumbbell counterpart, you find both advantages and disadvantages.
How to Perform the Bench Press
- Position the bench so the barbell is directly above your eyes when lying down.
- Lie down on the bench with your feet flat on the ground, creating a slight arch in your lower back.
- Reach up and grasp the barbell with a slightly wider grip than shoulder-width. Your palms should be facing away from you (overhand grip), and your wrists should align with your forearms.
- Engage your lats (imagine trying to pinch a pencil between your shoulder blades) and puff your chest upwards.
- Hold a deep breath, then push the barbell up to lift it off the rack.
- Move the barbell forward so it’s positioned directly over your chest.
- Descending Phase:
- Lower the barbell slowly and in control towards your chest. Aim for the mid-chest or nipple line.
- Continue to hold your breath as you lower the bar to create intra-abdominal pressure, supporting your spine.
- Bottom Position:
- Allow the bar to touch your chest gently. Do not bounce it off your chest.
- Ascending Phase:
- Push the barbell upwards, extending your arms while exhaling.
- Perform the desired number of repetitions while maintaining proper form.
- Once your arms are fully extended, and the lift is complete, move the barbell back over the rack.
- Carefully lower it onto the J-hooks or safety pins.
- Ensure the bar is securely racked before letting go.
Advantages of the Barbell Bench Press
The barbell bench press’s main advantage is the ability to lift heavier weights. The load is evenly distributed and both arms work together to move a single weight, allowing for maximal force production.
The total weight consolidated onto one bar provides stability and enables you to focus on progressive overload, a cornerstone for muscle growth.
It’s easier to add weight to a barbell. The lightest Olympic plates weigh 2.5 lbs, but you can get fractional weight plates down to 0.25 lbs, allowing you to keep challenging your muscles in manageable increments.
In contrast, once you get to the heavier dumbbells in the gym, the next step up is typically 5 lbs per dumbbell, which results in a 10 lbs total increase — a more significant jump that requires a substantial strength gain to handle.
As you remember, more significant stability requirements were a potential advantage of using dumbbells. Similarly, the lower stability requirements of the barbell can also be an advantage, but in different ways.
The barbell provides a more fixed movement path, which is easier to control, especially when using heavy weights. It reduces the stabilization demand compared to dumbbell exercises, one of the reasons you can lift significantly more weight in the traditional flat bench press than you can with dumbbells.
Greater stability is particularly beneficial for strength gains. However, it does not necessarily lead to more muscle growth, as the load does not seem to matter if you train close to failure.
The fixed path of the barbell makes it easier to maintain consistent technique, especially for beginners.
That can be beneficial for beginners learning the movement or when you are trying to perfect your technique. In contrast, no two reps of the dumbbell press will be identical.
Powerlifting and Competition
If you have aspirations to compete in powerlifting or other strength sports, the barbell bench press is one of the three main lifts (along with the squat and deadlift).
The specificity principle states that you become good at what you do. Training with the barbell prepares an athlete for competition standards and improves performance in that specific movement.
In other words, if your primary goal is to maximize your bench press strength, your training should align with that goal.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do dumbbell bench presses at all, but the foundation of your bench training should be using a barbell.
Disadvantages of the Barbell Bench Press
Despite its stability, your stronger arm or side might still dominate during the bench press, especially when form falters.
That can lead to potential strength imbalances over time: one reason to include dumbbell work, even if your training plan primarily calls for barbell bench presses.
If one arm fatigues sooner than the other during dumbbell presses, it becomes obvious, and you can more easily address the problem,
Limited Range of Motion
Due to the shape of the barbell and the fixed hand position, the barbell bench press offers a shorter range of motion than the dumbbell variant, both at the top and bottom of the movement.
While the research is inconclusive, most studies suggest an advantage for a full range of motion when training for strength, speed, or hypertrophy.1
Less Freedom in Wrist Movement
The fixed hand position on a barbell can be uncomfortable for some people, especially if you already have wrist issues.
With dumbbells, you have more freedom to adjust your hand position (neutral grip, pronated grip, etc.), which can be more comfortable and reduce strain on your wrists.
Without a spotter, failing on a barbell bench press can be dangerous. You might get trapped under the bar if you’re lifting heavy and can’t complete a rep.
Dumbbells can be safer in this respect, as you can drop them to the sides if you can’t complete a rep.
For some people, the fixed hand position on the barbell can be more stressful on the shoulders compared to the more neutral and adjustable grip dumbbells offer.
With dumbbells, you can adjust the angle of your wrists and the path of the weights to suit your biomechanics and comfort better. This isn’t possible with a barbell, which forces your hands and arms into a fixed position.
At worst, this can lead to shoulder discomfort or injury, especially if your overall form isn’t optimal.
Dumbbell Vs Barbell Bench Press: Safety Considerations
Whether you’re using dumbbells or a barbell, safety is paramount to prevent injury and ensure consistent muscle growth. An injury grinds all progress to a halt.
Proper form, understanding your body’s limits, and the setup of your lifting environment are all essential for a safe bench pressing experience.
Dumbbell Bench Press Safety Considerations
Before starting your set, ensure that your shoulder blades are firmly retracted and flat against the bench. This position protects the shoulder joint and provides maximum chest muscle activation.
Keep your wrists straight and aligned with your forearms throughout the movement. Misaligned wrists, especially when using heavy loads, can cause strain and potential injury.
While spotting is less common when using dumbbells, it can still be beneficial, especially if you’re strong enough to handle hefty weights. A spotter can assist you in safely getting the dumbbells into position and ensure that you maintain good form, particularly when fatigue sets in.
Barbell Bench Press Safety Considerations
A rack or cage with safety bars is essential, especially when lifting heavier weights. That way, you catch the barbell if you fail a rep, with no harm done.
Use collars to secure the weights on the barbell. The plates won’t slide off if the barbell becomes tilted during the lift.
Note: using collars without safety bars or a spotter is a bad idea! If you get stuck at the bottom with collars on, you can’t tilt the bar to slide the plates off, potentially trapping yourself under the weight.
A spotter can be vital when aiming to lift heavier loads or pushing your limits, even if you use a rack with safety pins. They can assist in re-racking the barbell safely and intervene during failed reps.
Dumbbell Vs Barbelll Bench Press: Who Should Use Which?
Both the dumbbell and barbell bench press are fantastic exercises. It’s rarely the case of one being a good choice and the other a bad. In some cases, though, one might have an edge over the other.
The barbell bench press may be a better option if your main goal is to increase your overall strength and lift heavier weights.
You can load more weight on a barbell than using dumbbells, and you can make smaller weight increments as you progress.
The barbell bench press also allows you to train more specifically for powerlifting competitions. A powerlifter can still do dumbbell presses, but most of their training program will be sport-specific, meaning the squat, deadlift, and barbell bench press.
There are no rules for bodybuilding training when it comes to dumbbells vs barbells. You can build muscle mass with either.
Most bodybuilders prefer to utilize both in their workouts for variety and to hit their muscles from different angles. However, as long as you practice progressive overload, your chest muscles will grow regardless of the training equipment you prefer or have access to.
A classic method for building muscle is to start with compound exercises using free weights, usually a heavy barbell exercise that overloads your muscles maximally. You then move to dumbbell presses and isolation exercises for a greater range of motion and muscle activation.
In other words, as a general recommendation, do the barbell bench press first, then the dumbbell bench press, perhaps on an incline bench, to target your upper chest more.
Muscular Imbalances and Asymmetries
If you have noticeable differences in strength or size between the left and right sides of your body, the dumbbell bench press may be a better option.
With dumbbells, you work each side of your body independently, which can help you correct any imbalances or asymmetries. Dumbbells also prevent you from relying on your dominant side to lift more weight, which can happen with a barbell.
Safety and Form
If you are new to lifting weights or do not have a spotter to assist you, the dumbbell bench press may be a safer option.
Dumbbells are easier to control and drop if you fail a rep, whereas a barbell can trap you under its weight or injure you if it falls off the rack. Dumbbells also allow you to adjust your grip and elbow position to suit your comfort and avoid shoulder strain.
That’s not to say that barbell bench presses are dangerous. They’re not if you observe proper form and some good sense. But dumbbell presses are the safer option, especially if you train alone.
Both dumbbell and barbell training are excellent for someone new to strength training. Many successful athletes, powerlifters, and bodybuilders have started with nothing more than a bench and a set of dumbbells or a barbell.
- The barbell bench press is often easier to learn regarding technique, while dumbbells require more stability and coordination, which can be challenging for beginners.
- The barbell bench press is also more consistent for tracking progress as you can more easily manage weight increments.
Ultimately, the best choice depends on your goals, preferences, and physical condition. For example, if you have shoulder or wrist issues, the barbell bench press might not feel good, but with dumbbells, you can adjust the angle of your elbows and wrists to suit your anatomy and comfort.
As a beginner, try both exercises and see which one feels more comfortable and effective for you. You may use the dumbbell bench press as a complementary exercise to the barbell bench press or alternate between them in your workouts. This way, you can get the benefits of both exercises and avoid the drawbacks of either one.
Dumbbell Vs Barbell Bench Press: Exercise Variations
The flat bench press is the most common variant of the exercise, whether you’re using dumbbells or a barbell. It’s a fantastic all-rounder for your entire chest.
However, sometimes, you may want to target your upper or lower chest more specifically.
That’s where the incline and decline variants of the bench press come in.
Incline Chest Press
For complete chest development, including both a flat bench press and an incline press is a good idea.
Decline Chest Press
When you perform chest presses on a decline bench, tilted so your hips are higher than your head, you shift more of the load to your lower chest muscle fibers.
The decline bench press also tends to place less stress on the anterior deltoids (front shoulder muscles) than the flat or incline bench press.
In general, more lifters benefit from incline benching than decline. Including the flat dumbbell or barbell press in your workout routine is usually enough for the lower parts of your pecs. However, underdeveloped upper pecs are not uncommon, even in competitive bodybuilders.
Dumbbell Vs Barbell Bench Press: Sample Plans for the Beginner
If you’re new to lifting and want to get stronger in the bench press, try one of these 8-week sample training plans. The first requires a set of dumbbells (or a pair of adjustable dumbbells) and a bench, and the second requires a barbell, weight plates, and a bench.
Dumbbell Bench Press Progression
Week 1-2: Introduction & Technique
- Frequency: 3 times per week.
- Weight: Start with light dumbbells that you can easily press for 10 reps.
- Sets & Reps: 3 sets of 8-10 reps.
- Focus: Pay attention to balance and form. Make sure the dumbbells move symmetrically and you maintain control throughout.
Week 3-4: Light Loading
- Weight: Increase by the smallest increment available (usually 5lbs/2.5kg total).
- Sets & Reps: 3 sets of 8 reps.
- Progress: Each workout, try to move to the next weight increment if you can complete 3 sets of 8 reps with good form.
Week 5-6: Moderate Loading & Volume Increase
- Sets & Reps: 4 sets of 6-8 reps.
- Progress: Keep progressing in weight as in the previous phase.
Week 7-8: Heavier Loading
- Sets & Reps: 4 sets of 5 reps.
- Progress: Increase weight when you can complete all sets with good form. Dumbbell jumps can be significant, so ensure you maintain control.
After Week 8: Assess and decide on the next steps based on how you feel and your goals. Consider integrating other chest exercises or adjusting the volume.
Barbell Bench Press Progression
Week 1-2: Introduction & Technique
- Frequency: 3 times per week.
- Weight: Start with just the bar (usually 45lbs/20kg).
- Sets & Reps: 3 sets of 8-10 reps.
- Focus: Concentrate on form, learning the technique, and moving the bar with the right muscles.
Week 3-4: Light Loading
- Weight: Add a small weight increment compared to weeks one and two.
- Sets & Reps: 3 sets of 8 reps.
- Progress: Each workout, try to add the smallest weight increments available on each side if you can complete 3 sets of 8 reps with good form.
Week 5-6: Moderate Loading & Volume Increase
- Sets & Reps: 4 sets of 6-8 reps.
- Progress: Keep increasing the amount of weight as in the previous phase.
Week 7-8: Introduction to Heavy Loading
- Sets & Reps: 5 sets of 5 reps.
- Progress: Continue to add weight, but now prioritize completing 5 reps even if you cannot complete all 5 sets. If you struggle, remain at that weight until you can complete the full 5×5.
After Week 8: Evaluate and either continue with the 5×5 model, or switch to a different progression or periodization model based on your goals.
In our workout tracker, you’ll find many excellent, dedicated bench press workouts and programs to help you become a bench press giant.
You can download it for free with the button for your device:
As you can see, both the dumbbell and the barbell bench press variations have their benefits and drawbacks.
In conclusion, there is no “best” universal choice; both can be used for different goals. A powerlifter specializing in the barbell bench press will want to focus on that specific movement. For most lifters, however, implementing both exercises in their workout routine gives you the best of both worlds, providing the benefits of both while eliminating the disadvantages.
If you are a beginner, you may want to experiment with both exercises and see which suits you better. There is rarely any truly “right” or “wrong” in the world of strength training.
Ultimately, the best exercise is the one that you enjoy, and that helps you achieve your desired results and fitness goals.
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- Strength and Conditioning Journal 45(2):p 162-176, April 2023. Muscle Hypertrophy Response to Range of Motion in Strength Training: A Novel Approach to Understanding the Findings.
- Int J Exerc Sci. 2020; 13(6): 859–872. Effects of Horizontal and Incline Bench Press on Neuromuscular Adaptations in Untrained Young Men.
- 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.
- Eur J Sport Sci. 2016;16(3):309-16. Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise.