Flat Dumbell Chest press

How to do the dumbell chest press?

Content

This is one of my favourite exercises for the chest. In fact, it’s my favourite exercise since the only other alternative is the bench press. I much prefer using dumbells because I get a better stretch in the muscles and they work each pectoral muscle independently. The strong one can’t help the weak one.

Dumbell presses are a very hard exercise to do for beginners or those who have been out of the gym for a long time. It requires balancing each weight independently. It takes some practice to get right but after that it’s well worth it.

 

Flat Dumbell Chest press

Back to top



Exercise technique

Sit on a flat bench, grab the dumbells and lie down. Your ideal starting position will be with your arms straight and the dumbells above you. There are 3 reasons for this:

  1. As you lower the weight for your first rep and subsequent reps, the muscles stretch and store some energy, a bit like a rubber band. It’s then easier to push back up.
  2. You get a feel for the weight as you lower it and can prepare yourself physically – your body tightens up and knows exactly how much force to deliver to push back up.
  3. You prepare yourself mentally to push back up. The difficulty of the exercise increases gradually and you find out you can lower the weight to your chest. This gives you a small mental boost.

Ironically, these reasons are particularly apply when handling very heavy weight, but this is the time when you won’t be able to get the weight above you in the starting position. You’ll need a spotter to help you.

There’s a trick experienced lifters use to move heavy dumbells to their chest: sit and place the dumbells on your knees then kick them up whilst at the same time lying back. Unfortunately this doesn’t help to have your arms straight with the dumbells above your chest. You’ll just have brace yourself for a mighty effort and start the first rep with the weight already lowered.

Back to top



Position

Lay on the bench in the same position you’d adopt for the bench press:

  • shoulders pulled back hard
  • chest out
  • back arched
  • feet flat on the ground and pushing

This time you don’t need to worry about grip width and bar path if the weight is sufficiently heavy and you start with the dumbells at the top. I’ll describe this in a moment. For now, hold the dumbells above you in a neutral and comfortable position: your closed fists are neither in line as when grabbing a bar, nor facing each other, but in-between. Lower the dumbells smoothly and under control while breathing in. See this article on how to breath. At the bottom, reverse direction, pushing hard up and expelling your breath forcefully. You don’t have to make the dumbells touch at the top.

Back to top



Balancing the dumbells

This is the part that beginners struggle with and even occasionally more experienced lifters. As you lower the weight, there’s only one optimum position for the dumbells if they are heavy enough and that’s with your forearms approximately perpendicular to the floor throughout the movement. This is where you have maximum strength.

If the dumbells are too close to each other, your elbows will be too bent and when you push up, you will feel your triceps doing most of the work.

With the dumbells too far apart, your shoulders do most of the pushing and you also put yourself at risk of tearing a muscle or the weight falling over to the side because you cannot control it.

With the dumbells too far forward or too far back over your face, your forearms are also no longer perpendicular to the floor when viewed from the side. You end up having to push the dumbells back into their right grove whilst at the same time pushing up – you’re not going to be at your strongest. There’s also a very real risk of the weight falling, either over your face or over your stomach.

Unfortunately, although it’s easy to describe where the weight should travel, it’s not easy to just do that. The only way is through practice and feeling where the weight should be.

When you start out with a low weight, there’s no consequence if the dumbells are all over the place, you’ll still be able to push them back up and you won’t need much strength to correct their path.

As you work out the correct path and feel more confident handling the dumbells, you can increase the weight. Any small error in the positioning should correct itself out as you find the easiest path for balancing and pushing back up heavy weights.

Back to top



Advantages

  • Nice deep stretch in the pecs that the benchpress cannot produce.
  • Each side worked independently.
  • Secondary muscles recruited much more to balance the weight.
  • Triceps are recruited to a lesser extent – more pec involvement.

Back to top



Variations

Inclined and declined. Be warned, it’s much harder to bring the dumbells into position the more inclined the position. In the declined position, it’s very awkward and probably impossible with very heavy dumbells unless using a spotter. Try and do the declined press when already tired so you won’t need heavy weights.

Use a gym ball instead of a bench. This works secondary stabilising muscles, including your core, more rather than the pecs.

Change your grip: hands facing each other or facing forward. Add a twist: start with your hands facing forward and rotate them as you push up so they end up facing each other in a kind of flyes/bench press combo movement. Quite hard to do with heavy weights. See this article for over 100 exercises and variations to work the pecs.



Conclusion

The dumbbell chest press is an all-round excellent exercise and arguably better than the bench press to target the pectoral muscles. The downside is that you won’t be able to lift as heavy as with the benchpress, so it’s less of a choice when trying to bulk up.

Back to top

Flyes machine demonstration

When to use the flyes machine?

Flyes machine demonstrationIf you are a proponent of free weight and especially enjoy doing the benchpress like so many guys, you may have shown some disdain for the flyes machine and given priority to dumbbell flyes instead. Dumbell flyes are great but there is a place and use for every exercise. So here is what you can gain from doing flyes at the machine, at least from time to time.

Flyes or pec deck?

Don’t confuse the flyes machine with the pec deck machine. The movements are similar but with the latter the arms are bent 90 degrees at the elbow and feel very unnatural. With the flyes machine, the arms are wide open and slightly bent at the elbow just like the free weight version. The movement feels very natural, satisfying and you will feel very strong in this position.

Machine versus man

The crucial difference between the free weight version and the machine version of flyes is that the resistance stays constant when using the machine. The weight plates simply move up and down via a series of cables and pulleys. Compare this with the dumbbell version where the resistance is at its maximum with the arms outstretched and nearly parallel to the floor. As the weight is provided by the pull of gravity straight down, when the arms are at the top nearly touching each other, the resistance is close to nil as the weight is acting vertically down. The pecs are doing nearly no work.

Advantage of the flyes machine

The flyes machine still engages the pectoral muscles when the arms are close to each other. In fact, this is the great advantage of the flyes machine: providing constant resistance throughout the movement and especially at the top. This is great news for the pectorals. With the flyes machine, by squeezing hard at the top of the exercise, you can recruit the inner pec muscles and accentuate the line separating the two sides. This helps give the impression that the pecs are even bigger and more cut.

Disadvantage of the flyes machine

The machine dictates the movement. One machine cannot fit all individuals; it has been designed to suit Mr. Average. If you are too short or too tall, you might be placing undue stress on your joints. Having said this, this particular machine is actually quite flexible to adapt to most people’s sizes as the handles can be moved to suit their reach. Just ensure that the shoulders are aligned with the centre of rotation of each arm of the machine that you will push together. There is no incline and decline versions although the torso may be angled somewhat to a limited degree for an inclined version. The primary emphasis with the flyes machine anyway should be to target the inner pecs as this is a region that cannot be targeted by the traditional dumbbell flyes.

When to do it?

Doing it after the heavy compound movements is common but it can also be used as a pre-exhaustion exercise if the shoulders are too strong and are taking over all the work in the benchpress. By killing the pecs first with an isolation exercise, whatever work they do later will be pushing them to their limits and forcing them to grow. Also do it first if your inner pecs have some catching-up to do, that way you’ll be fresh. You can do a second round at the end of your chest workout to squeeze out every juice left.

Feel the pump and tightness in your chest afterwards as it gets congested with blood. Don’t forget to squeeze hard at the top of every rep.

muscular chest

Over 100 examples of great chest workouts

muscular chest

Mass builders

#1 Flat bench press + incline barbell press + decline barbell press

This routine involves only compound exercises. Change the order depending on which part of your pecs needs more development.

  • Vary your grip width slightly if you wish.
  • You may also try the reverse-grip bench press with your palms facing you.

#2 Flat + incline + decline dumbbell presses

Dumbell presses are slightly harder than their barbell equivalent as you need to balance the weight. Again, the emphasis is on compound movements that will recruit the maximum amount of muscles.

  • Vary the order of the exercises depending on which part of your chest is lagging.

#3 Bench press + dumbbell flyes

This is a classic: a compound exercise followed by an isolation exercise. The isolation exercise at the end of the routine serves to really drill down into the pecs and really finish them off.

Variations:

  • Replace the flat bench press with the incline or decline version.
  • Replace flat flyes with the incline or decline version
  • Replace the barbell with dumbbells.

Try not to combine flat bench press with flat dumbbell flyes, incline with incline and so on in order to keep your workout more varied, unless one region of your chest really needs to be targeted.

#4 Dumbell flyes + bench press

There is more to this than just swapping exercises around. By performing an isolation movement first, you pre-exhaust the muscle before the hard work starts. This is the pre-exhaustion technique and is useful when secondary muscles such as the anterior deltoids become so powerful that they end up doing most of the work during the bench press.

  •  Do the incline and decline versions as variation.
  • Replace the barbell with dumbbells.

#5 Dumbell flyes + bench press + flyes

This is a combination of the last 2 routines. Isolation exercise first to pre-exhaust the pecs, followed by a compound exercise and finished off with an isolation exercise.

  • There is nothing wrong with doing all the flyes in the same plane of motion but equally, some variations are welcome.
  • Also replace the barbell with dumbbells.

#6 Dumbbell press + barbell press + chest press machine + flyes

The order of the exercises is important here but you do not have to do all of the exercises. Dumbells require more concentration and are harder to perform as they need to be balanced while the chest press machine is at the other end of the spectrum. This is useful when you have already been exhausted by the dumbbell and barbell movements. You can then just concentrate on pushing at the machine. You may finish with flyes if you are no longer a beginner.

  • Variations: incline and decline planes where possible.

#7 21s with the chest press machine

21s are 3 sets of 7 reps each where you perform the top half of the movement in the first set, the bottom half in the second set and the full motion in the last set. So with the chest press machine, in the first set you lower the handles halfway to your chest and back up again, in the second set you lower the handle from the bottom of your chest to half-way up. This is a real killer. You can also add a compound movement before to make it even harder as your muscles will then already be tired.

  • Replace the chest press machine with a barbell or dumbbells; however, the advantage of the machine is that you can just concentrate on pushing as much as you can.

#8 Press-ups + compound exercise

If you are a fan of bodyweight exercises, then this is for you. Do them first as a warm-up if they are easy for you, followed by a compound movement such as barbell or dumbbell press, or even the chest press machine. If all this is still not enough, finish off your pecs with an isolation exercise.

Equally, if you find press-ups really easy, you can perform them at the end of your routine, after a compound movement. Your pecs will be tired by then so press-ups will be harder.

If you find press-ups hard to start with, you will have no option but to do them at the beginning.

  • The gamut of variations for press-ups applies here: place your legs higher up and torso lower, the equivalent of the incline press, vary your arm width and hand orientation, use a Bosu ball, use one arm, one leg, etc.
  • When you can no longer do a single press-up in good form, push yourself beyond that limit by resting your lower body on your knees instead of your toes.

#9 Chest dips + compound exercise

The chest dip is another bodyweight exercise. As with the press-up, you can perform it last if you find it easy. Or add a weighted belt. Make sure you lean into the movement and you adopt a wide grip to really target the pecs instead of the triceps.

Chest dips are great at really sculpting the sides of your pectorals. No other press movements can replace it. Finish off with an isolation exercise or a second compound exercise.

If you find the dips hard already, you will have to keep them at the beginning of the routine or else you won’t be able to do a single one.

More exercises to incorporate into a routine

Pullovers

The pullover works both the chest and the lats. It also helps expand the thoracic cage. Some people perform the pullover in their back routines, others in their chest routine. I prefer the former. However, feel free to add it towards the end of your routine.

Cable flyes

They are performed at the cable station using the pulleys on either side. Vary the height of the pulleys to introduce variety. If you lie flat on a bench, the pulleys will lie low, same for the incline and decline version. However, raise the pulleys all the way up if you do it standing. In this position, you will lean slightly forward and bring your arms together either at stomach-level, at chest level or above your head. Try them all and find out how each movement feels.

Swiss ball

Replace all flat bench exercises with the Swiss ball. You can add a slight incline or decline to the exercise by lying forward or backwards on the ball. You won’t be able to go as heavy because of a lack of stability but the Swiss ball is a great game-changer.

Smith machine presses

Replace the barbell with the Smith-machine to get a hybrid of the bench press and chest press machine. Or you can also use the Smith machine as an extra exercise. Incline and decline versions are of course possible.

Pec-deck machine

The old-fashioned pec-deck required your elbows to be bent 90 degrees and was uncomfortable, felt like an unnatural movement and put a lot of stress on the shoulder joints. Modern versions are very similar to flyes and allow more freedom of movement. At least the old-fashioned one was a different movement to the flyes. The modern one is simply a machine-replacement for dumbbell flyes. Feel free to use it as a substitute at any time.

Dumbell press with rotation

This is a combination of the dumbbell press and flyes. Start your dumbbell press as usual with your palms facing forward. As you get near the top of the exercise, rotate your palms towards each other so that you finish the exercise like a fly movement. This extra rotation when handling heavy weight will add an extra dimension to your pecs workout.

Of sets and reps

No routine would be complete without mentioning all the types of sets and reps which you can perform. Here are a few advanced techniques you can implement in your workouts.

The superset is particularly effective with the pre-exhaustion technique. Move from flyes to bench press with no rest.

Taking the superset further is the giant set where you perform more than 2 exercises back to back. Apply the giant set when doing routine #6 for example.

Use degressive sets with an isolation exercise, for example the pec-deck machine. As soon as you finish one set, reduce the weight and start the next set and so on. This can be particularly brutal. Don’t use it at every session.

Negative reps are ideal when handling heavy weight, for example with compound exercises.

Partial reps are also appropriate when going heavy and allows you to squeeze a couple more (partial) reps when you can’t do a single full rep anymore.

So, how many routines in all?

I can already count 6 combinations of #1 and #2 each, 7 with #3 by playing with the planes of exercises and another 7 again when replacing the barbell with dumbbells. You can also have another 14 combinations with #4 which reverses the order of the exercises of #3. That’s a total of 40 so far. Remember, every time you change the order of exercise or the way of doing it, your strength in each will be different.

Replace the bench with the Swiss ball in 8 of the 9 routines, and that’s without counting all the combination of ball and bench within each routine. Replace all dumbbell flyes with the 4 versions of the cable flyes plus the pec deck and that makes another 20 more different routines. Total so far: 40 + 8 + 20 + initial 9 = 77. Substitute all routines where possible with the dumbbell press with rotation: that’s another 7. Replace all barbell routines with the Smith machine, another 7. Add the pullover to all 9 routines. Total: 100.

Now add in the mix of sets and reps techniques and adding and subtracting exercises to each routine, press-up variations, grip variations and you can easily get a few hundred different routines in total. That should keep you busy. Working out that is, not counting them!

Designing a chest routine to fit your needs

Last time I mentioned a few alternative exercises to the bench press. How do you build a workout routine among all these exercises? Which ones to choose and how many reps to do? Combining exercises the right way into a workout is part of the fun too. The right combination of exercises will all depend on what you seek to achieve.

There are usually two main goals that people lifting weights seek to achieve: getting bigger by building muscles or getting better muscular definition. In-between these two, you will find a whole spectrum of other goals, such as to build better stamina or to correct a muscular imbalance.

Mass-building routine

To build muscles the quickest and most efficient way, you will need to favour compound movements such as the bench press and dumbbell presses. Make them the first exercises of your workout as you will be fresh and have a lot more strength. Go for low reps and heavy weights. While you may modify the exercises, such as incline and decline and even change exercises, your range of reps should not change – low reps and heavy weights are a key aspect of building muscles.

The wide-grip, parallel bars dips are an excellent bodyweight exercise targeting the pectoral muscles and the deltoids and triceps as secondary muscles. If you find the exercise too easy, either perform it at the end of your workout when you are exhausted or use a belt and chain to attach some weight to your body.

If you still feel some strength left, you can finish off your mass-building routine with an isolation exercise like the flyes to ‘kill’ your pecs until the next session.

Going for definition

With a workout designed for better definition, higher reps are called for. Still perform compound movements but give priority to the isolation exercises.

The machine bench press is a compound movement but your motion is dictated and you don’t have to worry about balancing the weight.

If you are very strong, you might find wide-grip dips easy. Try it as a high rep isolation exercise that also doubles as a compound movement.

Cable flyes are also a great alternative to the conventional dumbbell exercise.

No sculpting routine would be complete without the necessary diet to cut back on the layer of fat that hides your muscles. This routine won’t really build a lot of muscles but instead will try to maximise the muscles belly and emphasise the separations. Imagine a biceps with a peak and distinct heads. This will only be visible will a low body fat.

Advanced training techniques

The most interesting aspect of designing a workout routine is to incorporate some more advanced training structure into it, whether you train for bulk or for definition. Use the principle of pre-exhaustion to really work those pecs in depth, try descending sets, supersets, partial reps, negative reps, 21s and so on.

This post will become too long if I elaborate on these more advanced training techniques. The only core aspects you need to remember are low reps to build volume and moderate or higher reps for better definition and vascularity. Pick exercises and their variants that will allow you to go heavy or to better isolate a muscle. After that, adapt your training as your goals and body require. Future blog posts will elaborate on these more advanced techniques. See this post on the best and worst triceps exercises to design a triceps workout for instance.

Alternative exercises to the benchpress

Working out your pecs is not all about doing the bench press over and over again. The bench press may be one of the most popular exercises and one of the best indeed to build a muscular chest but if you do not add some variety, your routine is bound to become stale and you will stop making progress. Here are a few other exercises you could do.

Incline and decline bench presses

Let’s start by not straying far from the bench press and pick some of its variations. The incline bench press is also an excellent exercise where the focus shifts to the upper pec. If you want to look good in a t-shirt, you shouldn’t fail to develop your upper pec until you eventually build a ridge running from shoulder to shoulder. You will certainly stand out from the crowd.

If there is the incline press, then there is certainly the decline bench press which places emphasis on the lower pecs. This is an area that is not too hard to add muscles to, so you won’t have to work as hard as on your upper pectorals. However, it is always a good idea to work thoroughly all facets of a muscle group and the pectorals are no exception.

All gyms probably have a flat bench for the conventional flat benchpress. Most gym will have a fixed incline bench with supports to perform the incline version. However, few gyms will have a decline bench with fixed support for the decline version. In this case, you will need the help of one or two spotters to get the bar over you, unless you are working with very light weights.

This brings us to the next group of exercises.

Dumbell presses

If you can do an exercise with a bar, you most probably can do it with a dumbbell or two. This is certainly the case here. Replace the bar with dumbbells and perform flat, incline and decline dumbbell presses to work each side of your chest independently.

If you don’t have anyone to help you with the decline benchpress, then go for the dumbbell version. Sit on the decline bench, grasp the dumbbells and place them on your knees and while lowering your upper body along the decline bench, bring the dumbbells with you, keeping them close to your body at shoulder level. If you are doing the inclined dumbbell press and working with heavy dumbbells, you might struggle to get the dumbbells from your knee to shoulder level as you will not be lowering your upper body in this situation. A little trick in this case is to give an initial powerful momentum to the dumbbells using your knees. Then keep pulling the dumbbells with arm power until they are in the starting position. This will make all the difference and also much easier to haul up the dumbbells.

Dumbbell presses are actually a better exercise than with the bar, although you will not be able to go as heavy. With dumbbells, you recruit the triceps and the anterior deltoid less. You also work the pectorals much harder as they have to balance the weight as well.

Pullover

The pullover works the lats and the ribcage in addition to the chest; some people like to incorporate it in their back routine but nothing stops you from making it a part of your chest routine. The initial lower phase of the exercise recruits the lats but the final phase as you pull the dumbbell over the head uses your pec muscles. Pullovers are an excellent exercise to expand and stretch the ribcage.

Flyes

This article on chest workout routines would be incomplete without mentioning the flyes exercise. Although not a mass builder, it stretches the muscle, burns it, is great at sculpting it and adds definition to it. To perform this exercise, grasp a dumbbell in each hand, lie on a bench and squeeze your arms together as if you are giving a bear hug. When lowering the weight, focus on the stretching effect but don’t overdo it or you will tear a muscle. Of course, you can perform this exercise on a flat, incline and decline bench.

 

Avoid working your triceps before your chest otherwise your arms will be too weak to push. This doesn’t apply for flyes movement though but no chest workout is made up of flyes exclusively. Here are  some of the top exercises for the triceps you can choose from to do afterwards.

Next time, we will bring all these exercises together in a workout routine and show how you can add plenty of variations within that routine.

Bench press technique

Most guys who start training at the gym want to have an impressive chest and biceps. And the bench press is pretty good at building up the pectoral muscles. However, in order to get the most from the bench press, don’t just pile on the plates but learn the correct technique described here to bench safely and efficiently.

Positioning

There are 4 contact points when laying down on the bench: the feet on the floor, the glutes, the shoulders and the head on the bench.

The feet don’t just provide stability, use them to push off the floor towards the bar to involve the whole body. Keep the angle at the knees less than 90 degrees. This helps to push off the floor.

Keep the glutes anchored to the bench. Don’t be tempted to raise the hips.

Give a good arch to the back, pushing the chest out and the shoulders back. Squeeze the shoulder blades together hard and keep them squeezed hard. This will provide stability when lowering the bar. Don’t let the bench fabric get in the way when squeezing the shoulders back, especially if bare skin is in contact with the bench. Squeeze your shoulders first, then lay them on the bench.

Lie down such that your eyes are just below the bar. This helps you unrack the bar easily and ensures you’re not too close to the supports that would get in the way during the exercise.

In order to get the right curve to the back, the right squeeze to the shoulders, the chest out and the legs at the right angle, I like to lie on the bench with my eyes under the bar first. Then I extend my arms overhead in a pull-over position. This helps me curve my back, bring my chest up and my shoulders back. I then squeeze each shoulder blade inwards one at a time, raising each side off the bench so the fabric doesn’t impede the movement. I align my body if needed so the bar is above my eyes again, then I anchor my shoulders to the bench, pull up my hips a little to arch my back one last time and then set my feet in position.

Everyone has their own way of getting into position. Some like to grab the bar to arch their back, others literally climb on the bench first. It doesn’t matter what process you use as long as you end up with a rigid shoulder girdle, chest out and the back arched.

Gripping the bar

The next stage is perhaps the most critical one in performing the bench press correctly – getting your grip right.

Grip too close and the emphasis is on the triceps. As the triceps are weaker muscles than the pecs, you will not be able to lift as heavy and anyway, the pecs won’t be targeted sufficiently.

Too wide a grip targets the anterior deltoids excessively and they are also weaker than the pecs, resulting in a lighter lift.

The correct grip to target the pecs most efficiently is when the arms are bent at 90 degrees at the bottom of the movement. At this point, both the bar and the upper arms are parallel to each other and to the floor.

You may have to move your hands around the first few times in order to find the optimum grip width. As you get more experienced, you’ll eventually know the right grip width by habit.

Wrap your thumb around the bar, as in making a fist. Some people, including me, like to tuck the thumb behind the bar, alongside the other fingers, and allow the bar to rest on the palm of the hands. This allows me to rotate my hands slightly towards each other. This position feels more comfortable on my wrists and allows me to keep my elbows closer to my body during the exercise. I’m effectively trying to mirror the setup in a dumbell press, where the hands are in a neutral position.

However there’s a very real risk that the bar may slip and fall with fatal consequences, even with a spotter. This has happened with experienced lifters before and even in competitions. Sweat makes the hands more slippery. If the bar slips, suddenly your spotter is expected to lift the whole weight, whereas if he was helping you with the last couple of reps, he’d be just lifting a few kilos.

If the thumbs are wrapped around the bar, you can have a little boost of strength by trying to pull the bar apart. This gives extra rigidity to the upper back area.

Start benching

Now that you’ve got the starting position sorted out, unrack the bar, straighten your arms and bring the bar slowly over your shoulders such that the arms are perpendicular to the floor when viewed from the side. In other words, the bar is not too much over your face, nor too far down over your stomach.

Take a deep breath and lower the bar under control until it just touches the bottom of the breast bone. As you breathe in, your chest will jut out even more, as if trying to reach the bar. Keep the elbows tucked in slightly, as opposed to flared out as this puts too much stress on the shoulder joints.

At the bottom of the exercise, push back up and exhale forcefully when going through the sticking point which is about 10 cm off the chest, though this varies from person to person depending on their weak point in the lift.

At the top

The path that the bar travels through when going up looks like the letter J upside down, with the curve of the J being near the top of the movement and serving to bring the arms over the shoulders. This is the natural path and not a straight line as would be expected.

Don’t relax the shoulders once the bar reaches the top and don’t lock the elbows. Breathe in and lower the bar again for another rep.

Lift heavy, but also lift smart.