Skip to content
Home » Strength Training

Is the Dumbbell Bench Press Better Than Barbell?

Dumbbell versus barbell bench press and their key differences to keep in mind

Don’t press me, bro. I love the dumbbell and barbell bench press for different reasons. Each exercise has a ton of utility for accomplishing upper-body goals, depending on what you want from your program.

In my coaching opinion, there tend to be a lot of misconceptions about the dumbbell and barbell bench press, which is “best” and which you should use for different goals. Context matters. Here’s how I approach these exercises when working with clients.

  • Equipment & Execution: Dumbbells offer a simplicity and versatility you won’t always find with a barbell. They’re perfect for home gyms and travelers, allowing for a range of motion that’s more forgiving on the joints.
  • Training Goals: If you’re chasing muscle growth, dumbbells might be your go-to due to their flexibility in targeting specific muscle groups. On the flip side, when aiming for sheer strength, especially in competitive settings, the barbell reigns supreme.
  • Skill Level: New lifters might find dumbbells easier to start with, offering a gentle introduction to pressing movements. However, mastering the barbell bench press can be a rewarding challenge with its own set of skills and techniques.
  • Muscles Worked & Benefits: Both variations work the pecs, shoulders, and triceps but in slightly different ways. Dumbbells can lead to more balanced growth and strength, while barbells allow for heavier loads.
  • My Advice: Don’t get caught up in the either/or mentality. Both tools have unique benefits and can coexist in a well-rounded training program. Listen to your body, consider your goals, and remember, the best exercise is the one you do consistently and safely.

Dumbbell/Barbell Bench Pros and Cons

Logo

Pros

  • Fantastic exercises for building the upper body, especially the pac major, triceps, and anterior deltoids.
  • The dumbbell bench can be a great variation for teaching beginners horizontal pressing and for some lifters working around shoulder injuries.
  • Great for improving horizontal pressing strength, power, and capacity.

Cons

  • There are no cons with indivdidual exercises, just contexts where they make make or less sense.

Join TF2 Strength: Feeling lost in the gym? Join my Train With Me program. This program is ideal for the lifter who wants to get strong, improve their body composition, and have an engine.

Is Dumbbell Bench Better Than Barbell?

The dumbbell bench press is not necessarily “better” than the barbell bench press, as we need to apply context to this question. Can it be better in certain contexts? For sure, but we need to apply context and rationale here.

The idea that the dumbbell bench press is “always” better than the barbell bench press is shortsighted. Below are a few contexts in which the dumbbell and barbell bench press can be better than one another.

The Dumbbell Bench Press Can Be Better If:

  • Your goals revolve around hypertrophy, and you’re focused on building your pecs, shoulders, and triceps mass.
  • You’re a beginner learning to work out and press in the horizontal pressing movement pattern.
  • You’re a lifter who has no desire to spend time working on the skill component of the barbell bench press, and your main focus is to build general pressing strength.

The Barbell Bench Press Can Be Better If:

  • You’re a powerlifter or want to compete in powerlifting. To be proficient in your strength sport, you’ll need to have a strong bench press.
  • You want to improve your maximal pressing strength, and your goals revolve around hitting certain numbers or pressing the most weight possible.

All that said, the dumbbell bench press can be a better option for most lifters who aren’t specific with their bench press goals. However, this DOESN’T mean it’s always better than the barbell bench press. We need to apply context.

Differences Between Each Exercise

Difference 1: Equipment Used and Movement Execution

The first and most basic difference between the barbell and dumbbell bench press is the equipment you’ll use for each exercise. As their names suggest, the dumbbell bench press will require dumbbells, whereas the barbell bench press uses a barbell.

The dumbbell bench press is generally a little easier to perform in most gyms regarding equipment. For example, not every gym has a good barbell bench press setup but most gyms will have a wide range of dumbbells available.

Barbell Bench Press Vs Dumbbell Bench Press Differences

Not to mention, gyms like hotel gyms will usually only give you the option of performing the dumbbell bench press due to equipment limitations. That said, the dumbbell bench press can be a little more “universal” regarding the equipment needed to do it.

The equipment required for each bench press variation will also influence your form and lifting mechanics. When you use dumbbells, you’ll have a greater degree of freedom regarding your range of motion and how you sequence the arms.

Since you’re using dumbbells, you can change your position and how you’re tracking your dumbbell bench press a little easier because your hands are holding each dumbbell individually.

Barbell Bench Press Vs Dumbbell Bench Press Equipment Differences

With the barbell bench press, your hands are fixed on the barbell and this can influence your elbow sequencing and things like your chest thickness and mobility can influence your overall range of motion.

That said, due to the equipment you’re using, you can more easily adjust your position and execution of the dumbbell bench press, while your mechanics will be a little more fixed and dictated by your anatomy in the barbell bench press.

Difference 2: Training Goals

Another difference to keep in mind between the dumbbell bench press and barbell bench is how you can use each to accomplish certain training goals. This difference entails a lot of nuance and context and every athlete and coach will approach this differently.

Generally speaking, the dumbbell bench press will have a greater bias for hypertrophy-focused training goals. Since you can more easily adjust your position with the dumbbell bench press you can then use it to be more specific with the muscles you’re trying to train.

Barbell Bench Press Vs Dumbbell Bench Press for Beginners

For example, you can tuck your elbows more to hit the sternal pec fibers (mid-pec) or bring the elbows out a bit to bias the anterior delts and clavicular pec fibers (upper pec), and this is where the nuance comes into play.

On top of this, it’s generally easier to manipulate tempo with the dumbbell bench press for beginner and intermediate lifters as it’s often an easier exercise to perform in general, and at high volumes when your goals revolve around time under tension.

Note, the above isn’t to say that the dumbbell bench press can’t be used for strength because it definitely can. In fact, I’ll opt for the dumbbell bench press to improve pressing strength 9/10 times, especially if I’m not in prep for powerlifting meets.

Barbell Bench Press Vs Dumbbell Bench Press for Powerlifters

The barbell bench press can be used for hypertrophy, but generally speaking, lifters and athletes will opt for this exercise to improve their overall pressing strength and increase their bench press max.

Since you can load the barbell bench press heavier and there’s less of a stability component with it, lifters usually opt for this exercise to train top-end strength, which is why you’ll see more triples, doubles, and singles with it.

In addition, the barbell bench press is needed for the sport of powerlifting, so if your goals revolve around competing or wanting to compete, you’ll need to use it to accomplish these goals.

Difference 3: Skill Requirements

The final difference between the dumbbell bench press and the barbell bench press that I think is worth noting is their skill requirements. I feel as though this difference is constantly overlooked, especially for newer lifters.

Generally speaking, the barbell bench press requires more skill than the dumbbell bench press. In terms of application, the barbell bench press has more components to account for and think about.

Close-Grip Bench Press With Dumbbells

This is why you’ll see lifters do technique and skill-focused sessions with this exercise and not with the dumbbell bench press. To be really great at the barbell bench press, you need to practice and constantly fine-tune your form and mechanics.

Basically, there’s a lot more individuality that needs to be accounted for in the barbell bench press if you want to get really good and strong with this exercise.

The dumbbell bench press is a little easier to perform and learn and that’s due to the equipment you’re using. With dumbbells, it’s a lot easier for lifters to self-organize and change their form in-between reps based on “what feels the best”.

For example, if you’re teaching the dumbbell bench press to a new lifter, then you’ll usually see them adjust themselves as they get more reps because this exercise can feel a little more intuitive in the context of execution and learning.

Muscles Trained

The dumbbell bench press and barbell bench press will work a lot of the same muscles. However, how you perform each exercise can influence “how much” you’re hitting particular muscles.

Dumbbell vs Barbell Bench Press Muscles Worked

Dumbbell Bench Press Muscles Worked

Dumbbell Bench Press Muscles Worked

  • Pec Major
  • Triceps Brachii
  • Anterior Deltoids

*bolded indicates a higher degree of muscle involvement

Barbell Bench Press Muscles Worked

Barbell Bench Press Muscles Worked

  • Pec Major
  • Triceps Brachii
  • Anterior Deltoids

*bolded indicates a higher degree of muscle involvement

To elaborate on the above, if your goal is building the pecs, for example, then the greater range of motion and stress you can place on the pec’s muscle fibers may lead to better hypertrophy gains.

To add some nuance here, this is why despite the barbell and dumbbell bench press both training similar muscles and muscle groups, the dumbbell bench press will generally give you a better ability to bias and double down on your pec gains.

Benefits to Keep In Mind

Benefit 1: Improve Horizontal Pressing Strength

To build a strong and well-rounded body it’s a good idea to improve your strength through different ranges of motion and movement patterns. The dumbbell bench and barbell bench press can both be great for improving your horizontal pressing strength.

Close-Grip Bench Press for Barbell Bench Press

Horizontal pressing strength is good to have in real-world settings where you need to push things away and in sports when you’re actively pushing others or things away.

The barbell bench press will usually be the better option for improving your maximal pressing strength and the dumbbell bench press can be great for increasing general strength and stability at the shoulder joint.

Benefit 2: Awesome for Increasing Pec, Shoulder, and Triceps Mass

Another benefit of performing more dumbbell bench presses and barbell bench presses is that they can be great for packing on upper body mass, especially around the chest, shoulders, and triceps.

If your goal is building your pectoralis major, triceps, and anterior deltoids, the dumbbell and barbell bench press can be great options. Both of these exercises will place a lot of stress on these muscles.

Barbell Bench Press Vs Dumbbell Bench Press for Pec Growth

Plus, these are great exercises for training all of these muscles in tandem, so if your goal is hypertrophy, using a dumbbell and barbell bench followed by specific isolation work can be a really useful tool.

As mentioned above, the dumbbell bench press can often be the better option for hypertrophy work and that’s due to how you can typically stretch the pecs a little easier with this exercise whereas the barbell bench press can be a little tougher to do so.

Benefit 3: Strengthen Upper Body Tissues

As with most exercises, the dumbbell bench press and barbell bench press can be great for strengthening the tissues of the upper body. When we think about these exercises, our minds typically default to focusing only on building muscle.

Barbell Bench Press

However, when used with strategy and progressive overload, the dumbbell bench press and barbell bench press can lead to better tissue resiliency around multiple joints.

For example, by training this movement pattern you’ll strengthen the tissues around the shoulder girdle, elbows, wrists, and much more. Essentially, you’re further bulletproofing your body by exposing joints and their respective tissues to strategic stress.

Final Verdict

The dumbbell bench press versus the barbell bench press is a fun topic to explore, especially in the context of programming for different training goals.

If your primary focus is building general pressing strength and a bigger chest, then the dumbbell bench press can be enough for recreational lifters. The barbell bench press can be a great option for powerlifters and those interested in moving the most weight possible.

In reality, it can be useful to blend the two exercises together in a nice, cohesive program that rotates the bench press variations you’re using based on your specific and individual goals.

If you have additional questions about the dumbbell versus barbell bench press and which would be best for you, drop a comment below or reach out via Instagram (@jake_boly or @that_fit_friend).

Jake Boly, CSCS, MS Sports Science

Jake Boly, CSCS, MS Sports Science

Jake Boly is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of That Fit Friend. He's often regarded to as a go-to resource in various performance shoe communities. He’s been formally reviewing shoes and training gear for over 7 years and has hand-tested over 400 pairs of shoes. Jake is known on the internet and YouTube for blending his review process with his educational, strength sports, and personal training background.

Jake has a Masters in Sports Science, a Bachelors in Exercise Science, a CSCS, and he's been personal training for over 10 years helping hundreds of clients get stronger, lose weight, and accomplish their goals. He uses his exercise science brain and personal training background to make curated and thoughtful review content on the fitness gear he's testing.

2 thoughts on “Is the Dumbbell Bench Press Better Than Barbell?”

  1. I found your article on dumbell vs barbell very interesting and thought full. It was concise clear and helpfull. I intend to incorporate your views with in my training philosophy and planning. As I am now just turned 58 years young my intention is to train for hypertrophy but have to say I still like to lift reasonably heavy. Even at my age I need to keep my ego at bay. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *