Flat Dumbell Chest press

How to do the dumbell chest press?

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 if you’ve been out of the gym for a long time. You need to balance each weight independently. It takes some practice to get right but after that it’s well worth it.

 

Flat Dumbell Chest press

Getting started

Sit on a flat bench, lift the weight onto your knees; when you’re ready, give them a push with your knees, one dumbbell after the other, while at the same time lifting them with your arms and lying back. This is a little trick to lift very heavy dumbells into position when you wouldn’t be able to lift them with one arm each or when you don’t have a spotter around. If you lie down first and then try to lift the dumbells, you’ll find it’s much harder.

Lying on the bench in the correct position you’d adopt for the bench press, i.e. with your chest out, shoulders pulled back, back arched, feet flat on the ground, start with the dumbells at the top held in a neutral position. Lower them smoothly while breathing in. See this article on how to breath. At the bottom, reverse direction without stopping, push hard up and expel your breath forcefully. You don’t have to make the dumbells touch at the top.

You want to start the exercise by lowering the dumbells so you get a feel for how heavy they are and be prepared mentally for that. Be careful of not lowering the dumbells excessively at the bottom, especially if they are very heavy for you or you may tear a muscle.

Advantages

We mentioned the stretching benefit already and the fact that dumbells work each side independently.

The balancing action might make it an exercise avoided by novices and also prevent you from lifting as heavy as you would with a bar but this is an advantage in itself as you make the muscle work harder and in a different way.

Finally, the ace that the dumbbell press has over the bar is that the triceps are recruited to a much lesser extent. Unfortunately, there is no avoiding the shoulder muscles.

Variations

Of course, you can do it inclined and declined.

Use a gym ball instead of a bench.

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

The dumbbell chest press is an all-round excellent exercise and better than the bench press for me.

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 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.

 

Sidenote: the flyes machine is not to be confused with the pec deck machine. The movements are similar but with the latter your arms are bent 90 degrees at the elbow and feel very unnatural. With the flyes machine, your arms are wide open, 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 for you between the free weight version and the machine version of flyes is that the resistance stays constant when you use 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 when your arms are stretched wide open and nearly parallel to the floor. As the weight is provided by the pull of gravity straight down, when your arms are at the top nearly touching each other, the weight of the dumbbells is of course the same but the resistance is close to nil as the weight is acting vertically down along your arms. Your pecs are doing nearly no work.

The flyes machine develops your inner pecs. Make sure you squeeze your muscles hard at the top of the exercise to benefit the most from it.

Advantage of the flyes machine

What this means at the machine is that you are still able to recruit your pecs when your arms are close to each other. In fact, this is the great advantage of the flyes machine: to be able to provide resistance throughout the exercise and especially at the top. This is great news for your pectorals. With the flyes machine, by squeezing hard at the top of the exercise, you are able to develop your inner pec muscles and accentuate the line separating the two sides. This helps give the impression that your pecs are even bigger and definitely more cut.

Disadvantage of the flyes machine

The disadvantage is of course that the machine dictates your movement. One machine cannot fit to all individuals but only the average ones. 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 move to suit your reach. Just ensure that your shoulders are aligned with the centre of rotation of each arm of the machine that you will push together. You are not able to do incline and decline versions although you can somehow move your torso to a very limited degree to achieve these positions. The primary emphasis with the flyes machine anyway should be to work your inner pecs as this is a region that cannot be targeted by the traditional dumbbell flyes.

When to do it?

You can of course do this exercise after the heavy compound movements but you can also use it as a pre-exhaustion exercise if your shoulders are too strong and are taking over all the work in the bench press. By killing your pecs first with an isolation exercise, whatever work they do later will be pushing them to their limits and forcing them to grow. It’s a good idea to do the flyes machine exercise first as a pre-exhaustion strategy if your inner pecs need some catching up too. That way the get all your attention as you are still fresh. You can do a second round at the end of your chest workout to ensure you squeeze every juice you have 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

The bench press is one of the most popular and satisfying exercises to perform in the gym. Go to any gym and you will find the bench press area crowded of guys trying to outdo each other on the amount they can lift. Why is the bench press so popular? Most guys who start training at the gym want to have impressive biceps first, just after that comes a toned stomach or a deep manly chest. And the bench press is pretty good at that – developing the pectoral muscles. However, in order to get the most from the bench press, don’t just pile on the discs plates but rather learn the correct technique and tips described here.

Position yourself

The bench press is performed on a stable flat bench with supports at one end for the barbell. When you try the exercise for the first time, as with any other exercise, do so with no weight or with very little weight first to get the technique right and feel the movement as you go through the motion. Lie flat on the bench with your feet flat on the floor for maximum stability. If your are short and your feet cannot lie flat, place discs under them .

Grip the bar

The next stage is perhaps the most critical one in performing the bench press correctly – get your grip right. Too close and you are placing emphasis on your triceps. As your triceps are weaker muscles than your pecs, you will not be able to lift as heavy and anyway, you will not be working your pecs to their limit. If your grip is too wide, you end up targeting your front shoulder muscles more than your pecs. These shoulder muscles, the anterior deltoids, are also weaker than the pecs and will result in a lighter lift. The correct grip to target your pecs most efficiently without recruiting other secondary muscles more than necessary is when your arms are bent at 90 degrees whilst you are in the process of pushing up the bar. At his point, both the bar and your upper arms are parallel to each other and the floor. The first few times you perform this lift, you will have to move your hands around during the exercise in order to find the optimum grip width. This is why you should try the exercise with an unloaded bar first until you get the hang of it. Afterwards, as you get more experienced, you will know the right grip width by habit.

Start benching

Now that you’ve got your starting position sorted out, take a breath, lift the bar off the support brackets and straighten your arms. This is the starting position.
Lower the bar under control and take a deep breath as you do so. When you get to the bottom of the movement, the bar should be just above your nipples approximately. Reverse the direction smoothly without pausing at the bottom of the movement and push up whilst breathing out forcefully. At the top of the exercise, do not lock your elbows. This is to prevent the weight from resting on your bones rather than letting the muscles work at holding up the weight.

You have now completed one repetition of the exercise. Continue the same process about 10 times to complete a set.

Remember, don’t lift heavy, lift smart.