Whether you’re new to lifting or a seasoned gym pro you’ve probably looked at the bench press and found yourself wondering “barbell or dumbbell?” Both are varieties of free weight bench press, both work the chest, and both use the same basic motion, so the exercises should be interchangeable, right? But the truth is more than skin deep—its muscle deep. Let’s break down dumbbell vs barbell bench press.
Table of Contents
What is the Difference Between Barbell and Dumbbell Press?
Simply put, the barbell bench press is performed using a weighted barbell that is gripped with both hands. The dumbbell bench press is performed with a single dumbbell in each hand. However, there are all sorts of variations of bench press: incline, decline, close-grip, and reverse-grip. In the case of dumbbells there are even types of single-arm dumbbell press.
For this comparison, we’ll be looking at flat barbell bench press vs flat dumbbell bench press. In both cases, the exercise is performed on a bench that is parallel to the ground. The barbell, or dumbbells, are pushed away from the chest until the arms are nearly extended. The key, for those asking how to do a dumbbell bench press, is to push both dumbbells away from your chest simultaneously, the same way you would push with both hands when lifting with a barbell.
With so many similarities, you might be asking, then how can they be different? One of the biggest differences when comparing dumbbell vs barbell bench press is your hands.
When performing a barbell press your hands are in a fixed position. Because you are gripping the bar, your hands will remain in the same position throughout the exercise, without coming closer together, spreading apart, or turning. The same is true is using an EZ curl bar as well.
In comparison, during the flat DB press, your hands are free. Your hands will move closer to each other or further apart during the motion of the press. This difference—whether your hands are in a fixed position or working independently—contributes to the different effects of each exercise. How much you can lift, the muscles you target, and how symmetrically your muscles develop are all determined by your decision to pick up a barbell or a dumbbell when it’s time to hit the bench.
Is it Better to Use Barbells or Dumbbells?
What most people want to know when they have to choose dumbbell or barbell bench is, which one is better? We all want to use our time wisely in the gym. In the case of dumbbell vs barbell bench the answer comes down to a few factors.
Both bench press and dumbbell press work several muscles, including the pectoralis major (chest), deltoids (shoulders), and triceps brachii (arms). However, you’ll find that certain muscles are worked more in one variation of bench press than the other.
When performing a neutral grip bench press with a barbell and using good form, ideally you’ll power the weight off your chest by planting your feet firmly and driving through your legs. This actually engages your quadriceps (upper legs) and uses them to help out with the heavy lifting. Who knew bench press could work your legs? When it comes to leg drive and engaging the quadriceps, most people find it easier when performing barbell press, due to the heavier weight and reduced focus on fine motions of the hands. Since your grip is fixed to the bar, as we discussed earlier, you can really focus on moving the weight. This truly turns the bench press into a full-body workout.
In comparison, a neutral grip dumbbell bench press engages far more stabilizer muscles than barbell bench press. These are the small muscles that accomplish fine motor skills. Stabilizer muscles are often ignored in big compound exercises where several large muscle groups are targeted. Dumbbell bench press engages often-neglected muscles in your shoulders, chest, and arms in order to control two dumbbells simultaneously. This increases overall strength, muscle control, and can help correct weak points you might not know you had.
Range of Motion
One of the keys of muscle development is performing each exercise completely. Imagine if you performed barbell curls where you only bent your arm halfway. You wouldn’t experience the same sort of muscle engagement as with a full curl, and you wouldn’t get the same results. To a lesser degree, the same principle applies when we take a closer look at dumbbell vs barbell bench press.
When performing a barbell bench press your hands will be more than shoulder width apart on the barbell. With this grip you will primarily target the pectoralis major (the primary muscle in your chest) but you will not be able to fully extend your arms or bring your hands together to engage your pecs completely. When it comes to range of motion, barbell bench press definitely leaves something to be desired.
In comparison, At the start of a dumbbell bench press your hands should be around the same distance apart as they would on a barbell bench press. However, good form dictates that as you press the dumbbells up your hands should move closer together. Ideally, the dumbbells should touch end-to-end at the top of your press. This ensures that you engage your chest muscles completely, especially the portion of your pecs closest to the sternum.
For complete chest development and definition dumbbell press offers more than the traditional barbell press.
When you see bodybuilders and fitness pros going for the smaller weights rather than loading up the barbell you might wonder, are dumbbells better than barbells for chest? The facts are again, not as cut and dry as you might think.
There is truth in the phrase, “lift big, get big.” Although the way you develop muscle will differ based on which weightlifting program you’ve chosen, if you want strength and size…head for the barbell. The weight you lift there and the engagement of several large muscle groups (remember the quadriceps from earlier) will translate into big gains. This is where you can blast through plateaus and pack on muscle.
In comparison, the dumbbell bench press will engage all your muscles equally. When performing barbell bench a weaker muscle, or even a weaker side of your body, can be compensated for by stronger muscles. This can lead to unequal development where one muscle “lags” behind the others. Over time, these imbalances can become more pronounced, leading to injury.
The dumbbell press combats this because both sides of your body have to lift equal weight. There’s no way one side of your chest can take over some of the work from the other. This makes dumbbell bench a great way to combat imbalances, as well as develop muscles equally in strength and appearance. If you want to make sure you stay healthy, look your best, and maximize your potential, work dumbbell press into your chest routine.
Can You Bench More with Dumbbell or Barbell?
In the world of lifting bench press is often the benchmark we judge ourselves on. Many times, this comes down to the question of weight. Which exercise allows you to lift the most when we compare dumbbell press vs bench press? What is the dumbbell vs barbell bench press weight comparison? What about dumbbells vs barbells for strength?
The answer to this question is fairly simple. For most, it’s easier to lift heavier weight during a barbell press than a db press. The reasons for this should be pretty clear by now. When you perform a barbell bench press you’re engaging your entire body, including your legs. Also, during the barbell press your stabilizer muscles are less actively engaged. These small muscles have a tendency to tire quickly, making it tough to maintain good form at higher weights and repetitions. Finally, the reduced range of motion of the barbell press allows you to move more weight simply because you don’t have to move it quite as far.
Barbell bench is great for building strength and it is often easier to progress to heavier weights with barbell bench press. At the upper limits of your abilities, the barbell bench press truly is a full body exercise, which is why it is an essential staple of almost every fitness plan to this day.
Well, you’re saying, if I can’t lift as much weight when I compare dumbbell bench press vs barbell bench press, are dumbbells as effective as barbells? It’s true that you won’t be moving the same amount of weight when performing the dumbbell bench press. In fact, you’ll probably only be lifting about ¾ of the weight you do on barbell press. On the flip side, you’ll be fully engaging your chest muscles, ensuring complete development, and developing both sides of your chest at the same rate.
Dumbbell vs Barbell Bench Press | The Verdict
The benefits of dumbbell bench cannot be ignored. You should still go for the barbell on those days you really want to move weight and blow past a plateau you’ve been stuck on, but if you want the kind of chest you’ll be proud of, don’t leave the dumbbells out of your routine.
Often, us weightlifters can get so caught up in the amount of weight we’re putting up in the gym that we lose sight of the other things. Dumbbell bench may mean lifting less than your max, but it puts an emphasis on form that pays dividends to your health, fitness, and physique in the long term.