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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.