If you are focused on improving your bench press, whether for personal goals or for your next powerlifting competition, it might seem like the best thing to do is to only train the bench press. But introducing a new stimulus through the dumbbell bench press can help you beat your previous personal best.
How does the dumbbell bench press help your bench press? The dumbbell bench press helps the barbell bench press because they are similar pressing movements and because it introduces a unique stimulus through an increased range of motion. It also has direct carryover to your bench press because it trains the same muscles even though it targets them in a different way.
In this article, I’ll discuss the importance of the dumbbell bench press and how it helps your barbell bench press. I’ll also provide tips for identifying whether you should incorporate the dumbbell bench press into your routine and how to do so.
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How Important Is Doing Dumbbell Bench For Helping Bench Press?
Here’s the thing – whether or not you include a dumbbell bench press in your program isn’t going to make a significant difference in hitting your bench press goals or not. There’s nothing particularly magical about the dumbbell bench press that will unlock hidden strength for you.
However, the things that really do matter to improving your bench can absolutely be leveraged with the dumbbell bench press to get you to your goal.
Now you may not be interested in formal powerlifting and competing, but since powerlifters are often laser focused on improving their bench press, we’ll look at the way they train as a guide.
In any good powerlifting program, you’ll see the same patterns:
- Specificity – training the exact movement you plan to max out with
- Intensity – making the sets difficult to complete
- Consistency – training over many weeks/months/years
- Progressive overload – steadily increasing the weight and/or intensity
The dumbbell bench press fits into specificity because it is a very similar motion to the barbell bench press. The only difference is that each arm is responsible for an independent load instead of sharing one load on a bar.
Each arm also has more freedom in how it moves, so this variation also offers variety in your bar path, allowing you to go deeper, wider, and narrower all throughout the lift.
Now, assuming you make good weight selections to keep the sets intense, train it consistently, and incorporate a progressive overload, guess what? The same muscles you use to train the barbell bench press are getting stronger as you train with dumbbells.
The next time you perform a bench press with a barbell in hand, those muscles will be more capable of meeting the demands placed upon them.
However, the same would also be true with other bench press variations such as the close grip bench press, which emphasizes the triceps and increases the range of motion (ROM) due to the narrower grip. It helps the standard bench press because it follows a similar movement pattern, trains similar muscles, and allows you to train an area that may be a weakness (the triceps).
Takeaway: By itself, the dumbbell bench press isn’t vital to increasing your barbell bench press. You can get a very strong barbell bench press without it. What is fundamentally important is to use some kind of bench press variations in your programming, to train them consistently, with intensity, and in a progressive overload.
If you’re having trouble making progress on your bench press, check out 9 Tips To Break Through A Bench Press Plateau (Definitive Guide).
Want to improve your bench press technique?
6 Ways Dumbbell Bench Improves Barbell Bench Press
Now I’m not here to talk you out of using the dumbbell bench press – it’s a fantastic variation that I really like for both strength training and building new muscle.
There are a ton of benefits to using it effectively, but I want to emphasize 6 ways the dumbbell bench press variation improves your overall bench press.
The most obvious benefit is that the dumbbell bench press is similar to the standard bench press we are trying to improve upon.
While we could spend our time doing isolated pec, shoulder, and tricep movements to try to grow each muscle used in the bench press, training the variations that are most similar to it is our best bet at having that effort carry over to the standard lift.
This means doing exercises that use a similar movement pattern or help you address specific problem areas such as having a weak bench press lockout.
By incorporating the dumbbell bench press into your program, you essentially add additional bench press work while getting the benefits of varying the motion slightly. Your body experiences a new stimulus that the barbell bench press doesn’t provide all while hitting the same pec, shoulder, and tricep muscles we need for the barbell bench press.
2. Increased ROM
Think of your barbell bench press. How low can you get the bar? The answer is easy – you can get it to your chest and no lower than that. When you train with dumbbells instead of the barbell, there’s nothing to hit your chest, allowing you to train a lower range of motion.
This is a perfect example of how the dumbbell bench press is very similar to the barbell bench press but has its own unique benefits that you just can’t replicate with the barbell version without a specialized bench press bar.
By training the dumbbell bench press, you can lower the dumbbells beyond the point to which you can lower the bar. Your pecs are the primary muscle recruited on the lower end of the bench press, so this variation is a great way to get extra emphasis on those muscles.
For lifters struggling with getting the bar off your chest in the bench press, the dumbbell bench press can be a valuable addition to your program.
Check out Is Your Bench Press Weak Off The Chest? Try These 6 Things for more exercises to try if your bench press is weak off the chest.
3. Unilateral Strength
If you ever experience the “airplane” bench press where the bar is very slanted due to one side moving up faster than the other, it’s a sign that you have a strength imbalance.
In plain terms, one side of your body is stronger than the other, which causes you to have an uneven bench press.
The dumbbell bench press is a great way to remedy that, as each arm has its own load to press. There’s no way for your weaker arm to rely on the stronger one to do more of the work or keep momentum going while it tries to keep up.
This benefit is true with most unilateral (one-sided) exercises, so they’re a great staple to include in any program.
To make your unilateral training even more challenging, try the single-arm dumbbell bench press.
4. Stability And Control
There’s something much sturdier about having all the weight on a single bar than having a heavy weight in each hand. This is exactly why we make ourselves train with dumbbells – so that we can learn to control even the more volatile variations of our lifts.
Whether one arm is stronger than the other or both of them lack stability and control on the bench press, adding dumbbell bench sets and reps forces us to adapt accordingly and learn to control the weight all the way down and all the way up.
Because our arms have much more freedom when they aren’t holding on to a single barbell together, we have to be conscientious of how we are moving our arms. Otherwise, we can easily lose control, especially with a heavy load.
As such, training the dumbbell bench press properly can improve your stability and control on any other bench press variation you’re interested in improving.
Do your arms shake when you bench press? Find out why that happens and how you can fix it in Why Do Your Arms Shake When You Bench Press? (6 Reasons).
5. Increased Volume
There’s no getting around it – more volume often leads to more gains. Yes, there is a point of diminishing returns and even overtraining. But for most of us, we are pretty far from that upper limit and would benefit from intelligently adding more volume.
The dumbbell bench press is a perfect way to add 3-6 sets of additional bench work without just banging your head against the wall doing more standard bench press sets and reps.
The fun part about variations like the dumbbell bench press that is you can program it however you like. You could simply add 3 sets of 10-12 reps after your barbell bench work to get some hypertrophy done, or you could make the dumbbell bench your top set for a whole block and progress it with sets of 3-6 reps just like you would your main bench press.
However you incorporate it, any addition of the dumbbell bench press can give you extra volume for your bench work each week, pushing you closer and closer to your goals.
Wondering how often you should train the bench press? Check out How Many Times Per Week Should You Bench Press?
This piggybacks on the previous benefit of increased volume with the dumbbell bench press, but it’s a great tool for hypertrophy as well.
I love the dumbbell bench press for hypertrophy because you can choose any weight you like at any 5lb increment and push your bench press to complete failure without worrying about getting stuck under a bar.
Sure, you don’t want to drop a dumbbell on your face while attempting this, but it’s otherwise a great exercise to use for hypertrophy because you can safely perform high reps to failure.
Since we already established it’s got carryover benefits to the standard bench, you’re doing hypertrophy work on all the muscles you want to grow for your barbell bench while doing it with a safer, more flexible variation.
How To Know If You Should Prioritize Dumbbell Bench Work?
Before you go adding dumbbell bench press to your program just because you like what I’ve written here, you should consider a few of the main reasons why you should prioritize dumbbell bench work.
1. You Have Goals That Can Be Accomplished by Doing Dumbbell Bench Presses
I can’t harp on this enough – if it doesn’t aid you in reaching your goals, don’t pursue it! Stay focused. On the flip side, if the dumbbell bench press appears to be an element that will help you reach your goals, that should be a big driver in helping you make a change.
The dumbbell bench press can be a great addition to help you reach your goals if they include having bigger pecs, shoulders, or triceps or increasing your 1RM on the bench press.
Just apply the right sets/rep ranges and keep the sets intense, and you’ll see the results after many weeks of consistency.
If you’re looking for more exercises that can help you build your chest, check out 12 Standing Chest Exercises: Cables, Dumbbells, and Bodyweight.
2. You Have Weaknesses That the Dumbbell Bench Press Can Address
This is similar to goals but is almost the backside of the same coin. If you recognize weaknesses that are holding you back, this is a perfect reason to address them by adding some dumbbell bench press work.
The dumbbell bench press can help with the following weaknesses:
- You struggle on the lower end of the bench press
- You have trouble getting the bar off your chest
- You have a weaker side of your body that moves the bar slower
- You lack control or stability of the bar during the rep
- Your pecs are particularly weak or your chest muscles lag behind the rest of your upper body aesthetically
In more general terms, your weakness may just be an overall lack of strength in the bench press, so more bench press variations will help your mind and muscles become more familiar with the movement, adapt to it, and get stronger.
3. You Enjoy Doing the Dumbbell Bench Press
Training is always easier when we enjoy what we are doing, so listen to your personal preferences. If you really hate dumbbell bench press, then great – go use different bench press variations instead.
On the other hand, if you really love the dumbbell variation of the bench press, use it heavily! Use it for heavy reps, use it for light reps, or use it as a warm-up. Use it to pick up the 150lb dumbbells and impress your buddies.
For most of us, we lift because we like it, so let the dumbbell bench press just add to that love and enjoyment. Or avoid it to enjoy your workout. Your choice.
5. You’re Looking for More Variety
We’ve all feared the dreaded plateau of training. Sometimes we need to carefully analyze our training volume or intensity and make adjustments. And sometimes, it’s as easy as just adding some variety to our program for a while.
I certainly don’t mean sporadically changing programs or cherry picking new exercises with each workout. I mean making a deliberate change to how you train your bench press and sticking with it for long enough to see results, usually 4-12 weeks.
We’ve talked about many of the ways the dumbbell bench press differs from the barbell bench press as well as its benefits and nuances. If you think you’d benefit from any of those and you feel like you’ve been spinning your wheels, change things up and do more dumbbell bench work.
Ultimately, we have to keep adjusting our program so our body doesn’t simply adapt to the program and stop progressing. Changing exercises and how we incorporate them is an easy way to prevent the plateau from creeping up on us.
5 Tips For Implementing Dumbbell Bench To Increase Barbell Bench
If you’re ready to start using the dumbbell bench press to increase your barbell bench press, here are my 5 tips for making that happen.
1. Define Your Goal
There are several ways the dumbbell bench press can improve your overall bench, so you need to define exactly why you are doing it.
If you are just looking for a bench press variation that will allow you to perform heavy sets for 3-6 reps, great – define that.
If you want to add muscle to your pecs by increasing the ROM so that in the long term you have more muscle to recruit in your bench press, great – define that.
If you have a particular weakness that will be addressed by the dumbbell bench press (stability, unilateral imbalance, etc) then great – define that.
The rest of the steps I recommend will all depend on what you want to accomplish by adding the dumbbell bench press to your program.
2. Set Your Rep Range
Now that you have defined your goal, you need to add the right rep range to accomplish it.
For example, if you want to use the dumbbell bench press as your main pressing movement for an entire 4-8 week training block, then you’ll want to focus on 3-6 reps per set.
If you want to increase muscle mass in your pecs, shoulders, and triceps, then you’ll want to focus on sets of 8-12.
If you have imbalances, lack stability, or other issues, you’ll want to start with a lighter load and moderate to higher reps before progressing to the heavy load and lower rep ranges described above.
Once you’ve set these ranges, structure your program accordingly. Heavy load, low rep work should be done first, after warming up. Light load, high rep work should be done after the heavy sets.
3. Use Progressive Overload
Most importantly, once you set those rep ranges, you’ll need to progress from there. If we are looking at 4 weeks of the dumbbell bench press as our main pressing movement, we’ll want to increase from week one to week two by adding weight to the load, adding reps to the sets, or adding additional sets (or some combination of those).
Same with hypertrophy goals. If we start week one with 3 sets of 10 reps with 50lb dumbbells, then week two should either use slightly heavier dumbbells and the same sets/reps, or use the same dumbbells with more reps or more sets.
As you progress, adaptations will happen more slowly (it’s normal and happens to everyone), so some weeks you may just be able to do the same as last week, but it feels a little easier. Pay attention to those signs and increase load or intensity accordingly.
4. Monitor Your Technique
While there’s no risk of getting pinned under a barbell when you press dumbbells, there are still safety risks involved. With poor technique, you can easily injure a wrist, elbow, or shoulder. You can drop a dumbbell on your face. As such, tracking and improving your technique will be important for your safety.
Beyond injury prevention, be sure that your technique is serving your goals. If you added dumbbell bench work to get more pec recruitment by increasing the ROM and pulling the dumbbells lower to the ground, then track that. Make sure you are actually doing it and getting as low as you need to.
If your goal is to increase your overall bench, then mimic your barbell bench press with your setup and execution of the lift. Imagine there is a bar connecting the two dumbbells, watch your hands and make sure they are moving uniformly together. Mind your arch and your leg drive so they are the same as when you press a barbell off your chest.
Your goals will influence how you apply and adjust your technique, just make sure you are being accountable to them and to yourself in the process.
Wondering why powerlifters arch their backs when they bench press? Check out The Bench Press Arch (How To Do It, Benefits, Is It Safe).
5. Adjust As Needed
No program is perfect right from the start, and no progress is perfectly linear. Be willing to make adjustments when the data says it’s time.
If you find the dumbbell bench is causing you pain or discomfort, then make adjustments or stop doing it for a while till you figure out why those issues are occurring. Adjust how you incorporate the movement into your training – for example, by moving it from your main pressing movement to an accessory you perform for high reps.
Be willing to admit when you selected too heavy of a load or too light of a load and need to adjust for intensity.
Remember: you don’t push a button in your car and get to your destination in a straight line. You steer the entire way, and lifting is no different. Know your destination and steer your way there, making little adjustments all the time.
Other Exercises That Help Bench Press
- Do Push-Ups Help Bench Press?
- Do Bands Help Bench Press?
- Does Overhead Press Help Bench Press?
- Does Forearm & Grip Strength Help Bench Press?
About The Author
Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.