A strong upper body is always impressive; not only will you look like a superhero, but it’s highly beneficial for the longevity of your body’s health and wellbeing.  

One of the best ways to work your upper body is by performing the dumbbell press or barbell press exercises.

In this article, I’ll compare the dumbbell vs barbell bench press and help you understand the similarities and differences between these two excellent exercises.  

When looking at dumbbell vs barbell bench press, both exercises are highly effective at building your pectoral muscles (chest).

But which one is the more effective? I looked at several factors when deciding which is better.

For Muscle Growth & Activation 

Which Is Best For Upper Chest? 

If you’re looking to develop an impressive chest, you’ll need to train your upper chest, which will involve performing plenty of incline bench press movements.

While the barbell bench press is brilliant at activating muscle fibers due to the large amount of weight that can be lifted, I feel the increased range of motion during the dumbbell bench press helps stimulate more muscle growth.  

The increased range of motion from the dumbbell bench will help you activate areas of your chest muscle that doesn’t get used during a bench press. You’ll also find that the unilateral nature of the dumbbell bench press will ensure both sides of the chest work equally and help fix any muscular imbalances.  

As a rule of thumb, the average gym-goer will lift around 10% less using dumbbells than they would lift using a barbell. While this may seem negative, the increased range of motion should even this out over time.  

The dumbbell bench press is one of the best places for beginners to start. It will help you set a solid foundation and will seriously activate your chest and promote muscle growth, giving you some quick wins along the way.    

Winner: Dumbbell Bench Press

Which Is Best For Lower Chest? 

When developing the lower chest muscles, I’ve always been a fan of the decline barbell bench press.

Most gym-goers will find they can decline bench press more weight than they could during a traditional bench press movement, primarily due to the reduced range of motion during the exercise.  

Stimulating the lower chest with a barbell is fantastic as it’ll let you place some seriously heavy weight on the bar, and it feels brilliant too.  

But, if you have shorter limbs, you might not get much from a decline barbell press movement. This is a situation where I’d recommend using dumbbells as they provide a larger range of motion. 

Winner: Barbell Bench Press

Which Is Best For Building Mass? 

What’s better, barbell bench press or dumbbell for mass? – I’ve always believed in following the standard protocol of performing the barbell bench press first and afterwards fatiguing the muscles further using dumbbells.  

This is mainly because the barbell bench press exercise will allow you to lift a lot more weight than the dumbbells.

So if you’re looking to build mass, I’d recommend you start your chest session with heavy barbell work and then move on to dumbbell press to exhaust your pecs 

Winner: Barbell Bench Press

man lifting a barbell for bench press

For Hypertrophy Training 

When it comes to muscular hypertrophy, it’s all about moving the weight through the best range of motion with excellent form [1].

Both versions of the bench press movement can help stimulate muscle growth, depending on how you program them into your workout.  

But, the dumbbell variation will provide you with a more extensive range of motion, helping you activate more muscle fibers, resulting in hypertrophy.  

Winner: Dumbbell Bench Press

For Rehabilitation & Correcting Imbalances 

It goes without saying that when it comes to dumbbell vs barbell bench press for rehabilitation and correcting imbalances, the dumbbell bench press is far superior. 

This is due to the unilateral nature of the exercise, and the movement pattern is more natural than a fixed position the barbell will set you in.  

Dumbbells are brilliant at fixing imbalances as both sides need to work equally as hard, leaving no room for your stronger side to compensate.

Muscular imbalances are relatively common in new gym-goers, so in this instance, I’d recommend dumbbells to beginners in a bid to prevent any imbalances from occurring early on. Plus, dumbbells are far less intimidating than a barbell. 

Winner: Dumbbell Bench Press

Difficulty For Beginners 

As I’ve mentioned above, I’m a massive fan of using dumbbells over barbells with beginners, and I feel that they are much easier to use.  

One of the main reasons is that the dumbbells allow you to move how your body wants. You aren’t fixed to a barbell, which can feel uncomfortable, even for more experienced lifters.  

Also, using dumbbells doesn’t require a spotter to help you if you get stuck. This is a HUGE bonus in my eyes, as there’s nothing more terrifying in the gym than being stuck under a fully loaded barbell.

With dumbbells, it's a case of placing them on the floor if you "get stuck," no crushing yourself under the bar needed.

Winner: Dumbbell Bench Press 

Total Upper Body Strength Development 

While I’ve been talking a lot about dumbbells and how great they are, if you’re looking to compare the barbell or dumbbell bench press for strength, then I’ll have to side with the barbell on this one.  

The barbell bench press is a brilliant exercise to perform to develop raw strength, as the barbell can be loaded far heavier than the dumbbells [2]. There’s a reason why powerlifters use this exercise as a benchmark for strength.  

However, it’s worth noting that if you’re a beginner and you struggle to lift a barbell, then using dumbbells to build up base strength is the right way to go.

Winner: Barbell Bench Press

Proper Exercise Form 

The form for the barbell and dumbbell bench press is somewhat different. The barbell will move in a straight line up and down, with no movement in the hand position, and relies heavily on the triceps.  

However, the movement is more arc-like with dumbbells and doesn’t involve the triceps as much as the barbell bench press.  

Both movements are suitable for beginners to advanced gym-goers, but the dumbbell bench press is a brilliant place to start if you’re new to resistance training.  

Dumbbell Bench Press Overview

The dumbbell bench press is one of the most effective at targeting your chest muscles (pecs).

So if you want to develop a strong-looking upper body with a barrel-like chest, then you'll want to include the dumbbell bench press into your workout routine.

man doing a flat bench dumbbell chest press

When Should You Do The Dumbbell Bench Press?

To Reduce Injury Risk

There is less injury risk with dumbbell bench press compared to barbell bench press, particularly the shoulders.

This is due to the fact the barbell bench press can easily be performed too wide, causing a strain on your shoulders. This is less likely when lifting dumbbells. 

For hypertrophy training

A 2017 study that showed the barbell bench press stimulated the triceps brachii more than a dumbbell bench press.

It also found that the dumbbell bench press activated the pectoralis major and biceps brachii to a greater extent making it a more superior exercise for chest and biceps growth compared to the barbell bench press [3].

To Correct imbalances

Because the weights are independent of each other, the dumbbell bench press is the perfect choice for improving strength and muscular imbalance. 

It strengthens the stabilizer muscles in the shoulder and increases the range of motion, allowing you to create more well-rounded strength and target the small muscles than the barbell bench press doesn't.

5 Benefits Of Dumbbell Bench Presses

  1. 1
    Helps Improve Form & Correct Muscle Imbalances 
    The dumbbell bench press is brilliant for improving your form due to the unilateral nature of the movement. It will help you iron out any muscle imbalances that can occur from performing bilateral exercises, e.g., the barbell bench press. 
  2. 2
    Increases Range Of Motion
    The dumbbell bench press is a brilliant way to increase your range of motion during the bench press movement, resulting in greater chest muscle activation. 
  3. 3
    No Spotter Needed
    You’ll always need a spotter if you go heavy on a barbell bench press...nobody wants to get stuck under the bar. But, with dumbbells, this isn’t a problem.  
  4. 4
    One-Arm Exercise Will Blast Your Core
    When you perform a unilateral movement, your core has to work incredibly hard to stabilize your body.  
  5. 5
    Isolate & Identify Weak Spots In Your Lift 
    Due to the unilateral nature, you’ll identify weak spots much easier and will be able to address them accordingly. Bilateral movement such as the barbell bench press can often cause a dominant side; dumbbells will help fix this problem. 

Pros

  • Reduces strain on the shoulders
  • Corrects strength and muscular imbalances
  • Less equipment
  • No spotter required
  • Less injury risk

Cons

  • Can't lift as much weight
  • Dumbbells may not go heavy enough for strength gains
  • More difficult to get into a good position

Dumbbell Bench Press Variations

Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press 

This is an excellent way to train not only your chest but also your core's stability too. By pressing the weight upwards using one arm at a time, your whole body will have to engage to help stabilize the weight.  

To perform: Lie down on a bench holding two dumbbells on your chest. Press one dumbbell up vertically and then reverse the movement. Repeat with the opposite arm alternating each rep.  

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press 

The incline dumbbell bench press primarily targets the upper pectoral muscles, and it helps thicken the chest muscles and will fill your t-shirt out. This is suitable for all levels of experience.  

To perform: Set an adjustable bench on a 30-degree incline, then perform a bench press movement using two dumbbells.  

Related Article - Best Adjustable Weight Benches

Decline Dumbbell Bench Press 

The decline dumbbell bench press targets the lower pectoral muscles, giving you a brilliant-looking chest. While it's suitable for all levels, I'd recommend beginners focus on regular and incline dumbbell presses.  

To perform: Set a bench to a decline position (below flat), and perform a bench press movement with two dumbbells. 

Neutral Grip Dumbbell Bench Press 

If you have a shoulder injury or find the standard dumbbell bench press isn’t comfortable, you should try the neutral grip dumbbell bench press variation.  

To perform: Hold the dumbbells so that your palms face inward towards each other. Then perform a bench press movement.  

Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press 

This single arm dumbbell exercise involves a lot of stabilization and will engage your core muscles greater than any other variation.  

To perform: Hold one dumbbell and lie down on the bench press. Then complete your reps using just one side, then switch to the other side.  

man doing a dumbbell bench press

Barbell Bench Press Overview

The barbell bench press is one of the best upper body exercises there is. Not only is it key for upper body muscular development, it will also get you strong. 

People often think this exercise is only for your chest, but this is a compound movement, targeting several muscle groups to move the weight. 

When Should You Do The barbell Bench Press? 

In Powerlifting 

If you train in the sport of powerlifting, the bench press is one of the three lifts you train to lift as much weight as you possibly can.

When it comes to training specificity, you want to spend the most time at the thing you're trying to get good at. Want to lift as much weight as possible in the bench press? Do plenty of it!

To get strong

The barbell bench press can be loaded with bigger weights, making this the superior exercise when building strength.

The barbell bench press also provides more stability making is easier to push bigger weights, ideal when your goal is to get strong.

to build a bigger chest

The bench press is one of the best exercises for building bigger pecs, due to the high muscle activation and stress the muscles are placed under during this exercise.

Studies show that strength in the bench press and chest size has a strong positive correlation between them [4].

man doing a flat barbell bench press with a spotter

5 Benefits Of Barbell Bench Presses

  1. 1
    Increase Chest Muscle Strength
    To lift a heavy barbell during the bench press movement, your body requires a lot of strength, particularly in the chest muscle. Therefore, performing it regularly will increase your chest's strength.  
  2. 2
    Increase Heart Potency
    Resistance training is excellent for increasing your heart’s health. Performing a couple of sets a week of barbell bench press can slash your risk of heart attack [5].  
  3. 3
    Helps Build Muscle Mass
    You can overload the chest muscles easily by using the barbell bench press, and this will cause an increase in your body’s muscle mass.  
  4. 4
    Helps Strengthen Other Lifts
    By performing the barbell bench press regularly will have a carry-over effect on your other pressing lifts, including push press, incline bench, shoulder press, tricep press, and push-ups.  
  5. 5
    Conditioning
    Performing the barbell bench press as part of a sports-specific conditioning program is a brilliant way to build foundational upper body strength. Sports such as football, hockey, wrestling, and more will benefit.  

Pros

  • Increases upper body strength
  • Builds a big chest and shoulders
  • Can easily be modified to target different muscles
  • Improves sports that required throwing power

Cons

  • Lots of equipment and spotter required
  • Susceptible to overuse injuries in the elbows and shoulders

Barbell Bench Press Variations

Paused Barbell Bench Press 

This variation is super simple but highly effective. It requires you to pause your bench press movement midway through a rep, increasing the time under tension (great for hypertrophy).

To perform: Lie on the bench, lift the barbell, lower the bar to your chest, and pause for 2-5 seconds without resting the bar on your chest. Then press the bar upwards in a powerful manner.  

Guillotine Bench Press 

The guillotine bench press was created by celebrity trainer Vince Gironda and is a brilliant way to boost the range of motion during the bench press. It also increases the upper pec activation.  

To perform: This movement involves lowering the barbell (exceptionally carefully) toward your neck instead of your chest. Always perform this movement with caution as it can lead to a severe injury if it goes wrong. This is NOT suitable for beginners.  

Bench Press With Resistance Bands 

Using resistance bands during the barbell bench press is a great way to increase the resistance at the top end of the movement. This will help activate your triceps and require a powerful and explosive pressing movement to complete the rep. This enables you to blast past any sticking points you have.  

This is a brilliant exercise for more advanced users to develop the chest muscles further.  

To perform: Place resistance bands on either side of the barbell, anchoring them down using heavy dumbbells or band hooks (on the bench press itself). Then perform a regular bench press movement.  

Related Article - Best Resistance Band Chest Workout

Reverse Grip Bench Press 

The reverse grip bench press is as simple as it sounds. Instead of holding the barbell using a pronated grip (palms down), you use a supinated grip (palms up).  

This movement aims to increase the tension placed on the upper pecs and the triceps. It does feel strange at first and might not feel great for beginners.  

To perform: Perform a bench press movement but change your hand positioning so your palms are facing you.  

Narrow Grip Bench Press 

Sometimes your triceps are the reason why your bench press is stagnant. Luckily, you can make a simple adjustment to your hand position that will help increase the activation in your triceps, making them stronger. 

The narrow grip bench press is also easier on the shoulders, making it ideal for anyone with shoulder issues.   

To perform: Perform a standard bench press movement but with a much closer hand position (shoulder width) and while tucking the elbows in close to the body.  

Related Article - Different Bench Press Grips

top view of a woman doing barbell bench press

People Also Ask (FAQs)

Should I do both barbell and dumbbell bench presses? 

Personally, I would stick with one version of the bench press and perform this for several weeks and then perhaps switch to the other variation to keep things fresh. Another option would be to train flat barbell bench press and then move on to dumbbell incline bench press for the next exercise. This is something I often do during a chest and triceps workout.  

How often should I do a dumbbell or barbell bench press? 

You should always leave adequate time for your muscles to recover before training them again. For example, if you're solely training chest, then you'll need longer to recover, so you should only perform the barbell and dumbbell bench presses 1-2 times a week. But, if you’re performing a full-body routine, then you can get away with doing either bench press movement 2-3 times a week as the volume per session is much lower.  

What is a good beginner weight for a Dumbbell and Barbell bench press? 

How long’s a piece of string?... It will all depend on how strong you are; everybody has strengths and weaknesses. As a beginner, you should focus on perfecting your form rather than how much weight you can bench press. But, a good rule of thumb is if you can perform 15-20 reps easily, you need to move up in weight (unless you’re training for muscular endurance). Performing 8-12 reps where the last couple of reps are a struggle is always a nice place to be.  

What is the best cheap dumbbell brand to buy? 

The Bowflex SelectTech 552 is one of the best dumbbell sets to buy that are pretty cheap compared to other expensive dumbbells. They are a fully adjustable dumbbell system with 15 weight settings ranging from 5lbs-52.5lbs. Plus, they are a well-known brand with a brilliant reputation.  

What is the best cheap barbell brand to buy? 

I’m a massive fan of the XMark Lumberjack Texas Star Olympic set. You can buy the barbell relatively cheaply, and you can also purchase the barbell with a set range of Olympic plates. The XMark Barbell has excellent knurling, making it one of the most comfortable barbells to use.

Conclusion

Overall, when comparing the dumbbell vs barbell bench press, I found that there’s a place for both movements in any given workout routine.  

A combination of them both is the best way to not only develop excellent upper body strength but will help keep your workouts exciting and fresh.  

If you’re a beginner, you should start building up a strong foundation by using dumbbells and moving onto the barbell bench press once you’re stronger.  

Intermediate to advanced gym-goers will benefit significantly from implementing several variations of each movement into their routine, depending on your goals.  

References:

1.https://www.healthline.com/health/muscular-hypertrophy

2.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4562558/

3.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27669189/

4.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3831787/

5.https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181113115430.htm

Jo Taylor

Jo Taylor

Hi, I’m Jo. I love sunrise swims, cold water immersion and cats. I have been dedicated to strength training for the past 14 years. I became a qualified Personal Trainer in 2020, and am passionate about helping my clients get stronger. Visit Jo Taylors Website