By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
About the Dumbbell Bench Press
Perhaps the standard bench press is the only exercise more popular for building bulging pecs than the flat-bench dumbbell press, but not by much. Dumbbells provide so many key aspects to muscle growth, including: 1) It’s easy to incorporate intensity techniques like drop sets and forced reps; 2) They force you to use smaller stabilizer muscles to complete the movement; 3) Each side works independently so that a stronger side can’t mask a strength imbalance.
Spot the Error
Though each side has to work through a longer range of motion and balancing the weight is more challenging with dumbbells, many lifters fall victim to fatigue on each rep and resort to resting the dumbbells against each other before at the top of the rep. Letting the weights rest against each other defeats many of the purposes of using dumbbells, because that short timeframe of rest means the tension on the muscle is reduced. Bodybuilders who don’t allow the weights to touch at the top are able to string together more time under tension (TUT) and can therefore more fully engage the pecs. Photo 1 is correct.
One of the most practical ways to solve the issue of resting at the top of each rep is to imagine you’re actually using a barbell (making it impossible to bring your hands together), pressing the dumbbells straight up toward the ceiling. By forcing your hands straight up, you don’t lose any tension on the target musculature nor do you allow your stabilizers a chance to rest. At no other point of the range of motion (ROM) is the need for stabilizer activity greater than when trying to keep the dumbbells apart at full extension. The key is to press as much weight as possible for a target rep range while avoiding the natural tendency to relax during the set. As long as you keep a few inches between the dumbbells, you’re making the best use of them.
Shoot for high reps. Correctly using dumbbells can be both highly rewarding as well as costly on the joints if you try to go too heavy too soon. And considering you’re not touching the dumbbells at the top means more work is placed upon your chest. If you go a little lighter, you’ll be able to bust out more reps with better form, allowing you to build a better foundation as you gain strength and size.