The dumbbell bench press and barbell bench press are both popular exercises for building upper body strength and mass. Lifters constantly rotate between these exercises based on their training goals and needs.
In the context of programming, the dumbbell bench press and barbell bench press are pretty different regarding their application despite both being bench press variations. To accomplish your goals, it’s a good idea to recognize their differences.
In this dumbbell bench press versus barbell bench press breakdown, I’m going to cover some key differences to keep in mind with both exercises, when and who should use each, and the muscles they work.
The dumbbell bench press is great for upper body strength and hypertrophy-focused goals while the barbell bench press can be great for working on top-end strength and maximal pressing power.
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The dumbbell bench press requires a little less skill than the barbell bench press, and in most cases, it can be more than enough for general lifters who want to build their pressing strength and upper body mass.
The barbell bench press is a skill. Don’t overlook the practice component of this movement and everyone’s pressing mechanics will be individual based on their anatomy.
Neither variation is necessarily outright better than the other. When we discuss which is “better” we need to apply context to the situation in which we’re debating the use of the barbell and dumbbell bench press.
Dumbbell Vs Barbell Bench Press Differences
Whether you’re new to lifting or you’re starting to program for yourself, there are three differences that I like to keep in mind between the dumbbell and barbell bench press. These are also differences that I’ll language to my clients when talking about goals.
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 when performing 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.
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.
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.
All that said, in the dumbbell bench press you can more easily adjust your position and how you’re executing this exercise due to the equipment you’re using, and in the barbell bench press, your mechanics will be a little more fixed and dictated by your anatomy.
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.
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.
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 you’ll usually see lifters opt for this exercise to train top-end strength and that’s why you’ll see more triples, doubles, and singles with this exercise.
On top of this, the barbell bench press is needed for the sport of powerlifting so if your goals revolve around competing or wanting to compete then you’ll need to use the barbell bench press for accomplishing these goals.
Difference 3: Skill Requirements
The final difference that I think is worth noting between the dumbbell bench press versus the barbell bench press 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 to perform than the dumbbell bench press. In terms of application, the barbell bench press has more components to account for and think about.
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 self-adjust as they get more reps because this exercise can feel a little more intuitive in the context of execution and learning.
Dumbbell Vs Barbell Bench Press Muscles Worked
The dumbbell bench press and barbell bench press will work a lot of the same muscles. However, the way you perform each of these exercises can influence “how much” you’re hitting particular muscles.
Dumbbell Bench Press Muscles Worked
- Pec Major
- Triceps Brachii
- Anterior Deltoids
*bolded indicates a higher degree of muscle involvement
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.
Dumbbell Vs Barbell Bench Press Benefits
There are multiple benefits that come with performing the dumbbell bench press and barbell bench press in your workout programs. Below are three benefits that both exercises can provide.
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.
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.
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 just focusing on building muscle.
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.
Is the Dumbbell Bench Press Better Than the Barbell Bench Press?
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 just focused on building your pecs, shoulders, and triceps mass.
- You’re a beginner just learning how to work out and press in the horizontal pressing movement pattern.
- You’re a lifter who has no desire to spend time working 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 as you’ll need to have a strong bench press to be proficient in your strength sport.
- 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.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q:Is dumbbell bench press more effective than bench press?
Q:Can dumbbell press increase bench press?
Q:Is dumbbell bench press good enough for chest?
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. For powerlifters and those interested in moving the most weight possible, the barbell bench press can be a great option.
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).