By Michael Berg, NSCA-CPT
With nothing more than dumbbells and an adjustable bench, you can blast the hell out of your pectorals via presses and flyes — with the dumbbell bench press leading the way. This exercise has a couple of advantages over the traditional barbell bench press. One, it allows for a deeper stretch at the bottom, which helps activate more fibers at the outer edges of the fan-shaped muscles, and two, it doesn’t allow a stronger-side pec to dominate, meaning more balanced development overall. (The dumbbell press is also great if you’re training alone and don’t have a spot.) Here, we tell you how to properly perform the dumbbell bench press. Plus, we give you tips on how to work it into your chest training program.
Prime movers are the pectoralis major, with a secondary (yet important) assist from your triceps.
Lie face up on a flat bench with your feet planted flat on the floor, holding a dumbbell in each hand just outside your shoulders. Your elbows should be bent a bit beyond 90 degrees, pointed out and just under the level of your torso. Your palms should be in the palms-down position, meaning they’re facing toward your lower body.
Powerfully press the dumbbells toward the ceiling by flexing your pecs and extending your elbows, stopping when the inner plates of the weights are an inch or so away from each other. Then slowly return the ’bells to the start and repeat.
Breathe in on the descent and breathe out forcefully on the ascent of each repetition.
Clang the dumbbells together at the top. This may seem like a powerful, authoritative way to finish the positive portion of a rep, but the striking of the weights together momentarily releases tension from the working muscles, which you don’t want.
Outside of the obvious modification — changing the angle of the of the bench to an incline (or decline, if your particular bench allows) — you can also try palms-facing presses, which ever so slightly alters the stimulus on the pectorals. Another option is to do alternating presses, where you press one dumbbell up at a time instead of simultaneously — for this, you can either leave the non-working arm in the top position, or keep it at your side as you rep with the other, sticking with whichever method you choose throughout the set.
The dumbbell flat-bench press is ideal as the first or second exercise in a chest routine. If your upper pecs are laggards in the development department, you’ll want to lean toward incline presses as your leadoff exercise (so you hit them when you’re freshest). Or, you can alternate the press you start with week to week.
The press can be paired in a superset with dumbbell flyes near the end of a workout. You’ll start with flyes, doing as many as you can before your form falters, then immediately reorient the weights at your sides, palms down, for presses, repping until momentary muscle failure. Why flyes before presses in this case? Because the presses involve triceps as an active mover, the tri’s give an assist, meaning you can eke a few more reps out of your fatigued pectorals.