Dumbbell training may not feel as impressive as a loaded bench press until it bends under the weight. But that's probably due to your narcissistic syndrome 😉
Yet, for most people, the dumbbell chest exercises are best for bulking up and gaining strength. In addition, they present less risk of injury. And this is especially true if you train at home.
This article presents the best exercises to develop your chest with one or 2 dumbbells. Usually these moves can be done on the floor with a weight mat, but having a straight or incline bench is really a must.
We will come back to the hardware issue later. Let’s start first with the importance of pecs training…
Table of Contents
- Why work the pecs?
- Why use dumbbells instead of a barbell
- 4 effective exercises with a single dumbbell
- TOP 6 dumbbell chest exercises with a pair
- Which dumbbells to choose for the pecs?
- Dumbbell models for pectoral exercises
- Dumbbell Chest Exercises – Conclusion
Why work the pecs?
Training them will help you get stronger in movements that require pushing strength.
You will become stronger in your daily activities and begin to notice progress in the weight you can lift or push.
Because these muscles help you hold things in front of you, strong pecs will even help you with exercises like goblet squats. This is especially important if your upper body was the limiting factor during these movements.
They also help stabilize your shoulder and scapula, which helps limit the risk of injury.
In addition, they play a role in your posture. If you spend a lot of time in a flexed posture, like staring at your phone or hunched over a laptop, your pecs tighten.
If this is your case, they can pull your shoulders and shoulder blades forward and add to a hunched posture. It can also limit your range of motion when lifting a weight above your head. Also, if your pecs are tight, your other muscles, like the traps, have to work harder.
Conversely, when working properly, not too tight and able to move smoothly through their full range of motion, they help your body stay straight and not hunched forward.
That's why it's important to include muscle strengthening and stretching your pecs in your workout routine. And this is where dumbbells really have an advantage over a barbell.
This is what you will understand with the next part…
Why use dumbbells instead of a barbell
As soon as you take a weight in each hand, it becomes doubly difficult to stabilize them. This is a good thing because the smaller muscles in your shoulders learn to stabilize these joints, while the larger muscles (the pectorals, mainly) work harder to control the load.
Dumbbell training offers the following 4 benefits for bulking:
1. Dumbbell chest exercises avoid muscle imbalances
You may feel like your right arm and left arm are pushing with equal force on the barbell bench press, but that's not the case. The body is very good at compensating, putting a little more stress on the stronger side while favoring the weaker.
This is not possible with dumbbells because both arms must stabilize and push with the same force. And if one side is late, you feel it immediately. This ensures that you never push more than your weaker side can handle.
Eventually, the strength of your two sides balances out, promoting harmonious development of your muscles.
2. Less stress on your joints
It's a funny thing about the human body: it just looks symmetrical. In reality, your shoulders, hips, wrists, and other joints are all slightly different.
So when you force the body to move a load perfectly symmetrically, one side will always experience a little more stress than the other. Do it often and eventually your joints will complain.
Dumbbells allow both sides of the body to find the optimal movement during an exercise. Your wrists are free to rotate, while your elbows and shoulders can follow the path that is most comfortable for them. This puts the stress of exercise where it belongs: in your muscles, not in your joints.
3. Greater range of motion
When doing the classic bench press, the bar hits your chest before your pecs fully stretch. It's not bad if your goal is just to lift as much cast iron as possible.
But if you want to gain bulk and athletic performance, you need to use dumbbells that allow you to lower the weight past chest level. This allows you to stretch the muscles to the maximum and recruit more muscle fibers.
Of course, if you are very flexible, you should not stretch the muscles to the maximum so as not to injure yourself.
When you increase the load, the convergent movement gives better muscle feeling and a greater capacity for contraction. This other feature promotes muscle recruitment.
4. Dumbbells work the pecs more at home
With this equipment, you will feel that the chest muscles have to contract at the top of the movement to keep the weights from drifting outward. This is not the case with a bar.
A 2017 NCBI study revealed that dumbbell bench presses activate the pectoralis major more effectively.
In addition, having the hands independent during the movement greatly promotes the strengthening of the stabilizing muscles. This feature will help you take more load in the more or less long term. And thus promote your muscle growth.
You will now discover the best chest exercises to do if you have only one dumbbell. We will then talk about the movements to do with a pair.
Follow the leader…
4 effective exercises with a single dumbbell
For your workouts, 2 dumbbells are better than one. But when it comes to your chest muscles, you can still do a really good workout and get results with just one dumbbell. It's a bit like making push-ups on one hand.
Here are the dumbbell chest exercises to do at home:
1. Unilateral bench press
One of the benefits of unilateral exercises is that you can resolve any muscle imbalances I mentioned earlier by focusing on one arm at a time.
Here is a video to discover the movement:
- Lie on a flat bench with your dumbbell in one hand at chest level;
- Keep the opposite hand resting on your hip;
- Keep your feet flat on the floor and contract your abs.
- Exhale as you push the weight up above your chest;
- Bring the dumbbell up to chest level while inhaling.
NOTE : Make sure to do the same number of reps on each side. If you have a significant muscle imbalance, start with the weakest arm to find the maximum number of repetitions. Keep your feet planted on the ground the entire time, with your neck and back against the bench.
The other exercises work on both sides with a single dumbbell…
2. Close-grip press
- Lie on a flat bench, feet on the ground, head and neck against the bench;
- Hold one end of the dumbbell in each hand with your elbows at about a 45 degree angle to your chest.
- Exhale as you push the dumbbell up above your chest;
- On an inhale, bring the weight back to the chest.
NOTE : If your bench allows it, you can increase the pressure on the lower pecs with a slight incline (head slightly lower than the knees).
- Lie on a flat bench, feet on the ground, head and neck against the bench;
- Hold one end of the dumbbell in both hands, arms extended above your chest;
- In a circular motion, lower the dumbbell behind your head as you inhale, allowing the free end of the weight to dip under the bench;
- On an exhale, reverse the movement and lower the dumbbell back to the starting position.
NOTE : Do not take a heavy load with this exercise. Prioritize the quality and range of motion.
4. Press out
This move is similar to the close-grip dumbbell press in point 2, except that you stay upright and push the weight forward away from you.
The video is in English, but you will understand the movement:
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, shoulders back. Hold the dumbbell with both hands in front of your chest, one end in each palm.
- On an exhale, swing the dumbbell straight forward, squeezing your palms inward from the weight;
- Inhale as you bring the weight back to your chest.
NOTE : In order not to put excessive pressure on your shoulders, you should choose a relatively light weight on this exercise.
Now on to the best exercises with a pair of dumbbells…
TOP 6 dumbbell chest exercises with a pair
Now let's move on to the best pecs moves with a pair of dumbbells:
1. 45° bench press with slight incline
To hit the upper part of the bust a little more, you need a slight inclination during the series. It is aesthetically important for less bulky pecs at the bottom (less bra what 😉 ). And it also puts less stress on the shoulder joints.
- Raise the top of the bench about 30° or use a tilting bench at the first notch.
- Lie on the bench with your head at the elevated end, holding the dumbbells at the edge of your chest and bringing your shoulder blades close to the backrest. In the bottom position, your elbows should be at a 45 degree angle to your torso, like in the video.
- Push the weight up while blowing. Pause slightly in the high position by contracting the muscles.
- Go back down until you touch your pecs without rushing and inhaling.
NOTE : The incline works the muscle fibers connected to the collarbone more.
2. 90° bench press with slight incline
This movement is almost identical to that achieved with a straight bar, while keeping the advantage of the inclination.
- Same bench setting as the previous one.
- Lie on the bench with your head at the elevated end, holding the dumbbells at the edge of your chest and bringing your shoulder blades close to the backrest. This time, your elbows should be apart at 90° to form a right angle with your bust.
- Push the weight up as you exhale and twist your wrists so your palms are facing each other at the end of the movement. Pause slightly in the high position by contracting the muscles. (If you feel shoulder pain when fully stretched, limit range of motion).
- Step 4: Reverse the movement, contracting your chest as you fully extend your arms, until you are back in the starting position.
NOTE : This dumbbell chest exercise is great for building muscle, but brutal for the shoulders. Be sure to keep stress on the chest muscles and start with a relatively light load.
MIDDLE AND INTERIOR OF PECS
3. Floor press
The beauty of this exercise is that it's effective while requiring nothing more than the dumbbells and a weight or yoga mat. It looks like the previous one with the 90° elbows, but does not allow such a large amplitude.
- Lie down with your back on the ground, and bring the dumbbells to each side, resting on your elbows. Keep your wrists in a neutral position. This is your starting position.
- Push up while blowing.
- Slowly lower your elbows back to the starting point while inhaling.
NOTE : Because the amplitude is reduced compared to the classic press, you should not strain the shoulders. It is therefore a very good option if you are fragile on this side.
4. Dumbbell Flyes
Now you are going to put the bench back completely flat for the next 2.
- Lie on the bench holding the dumbbells at arm's length above your chest, palms facing inward. This is your starting position.
- Inhale as you slowly lower the dumbbells to the sides. Simultaneously bend your elbows and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Lower until your chest is comfortably stretched out and your elbows are at about a 90 degree angle. (If you feel shoulder pain when fully stretched, limit range of motion).
- Reverse the movement by exhaling during the effort. Contract your muscles until you are back in the starting position.
NOTE : This exercise isolates the pecs and works them harder in the fully stretched position, where the maximum number of muscle fibers can be recruited. The elbows can be stretched further to increase the difficulty, but be careful not to strain the shoulders too much.
5. Crush Press
This movement should preferably be done at the end of the session to finish congesting the muscles. No need to take too heavy a load to enjoy it.
- Lie on a flat bench, holding the dumbbells across your chest, palms facing each other, and elbows along your chest.
- Squeeze the dumbbells together across your chest. This is the starting position.
- Keeping the dumbbells pressed together, slowly push up to bring them above your chest, arms straight. Breathe during the effort. Take a short break while contracting the muscles.
- While inhaling, slowly return to starting position.
NOTE : This movement forces the pecs to contract strongly in the center.
I would first like to point out that the work of the lower pecs is not essential for everyone. But you must know this exercise if you are one of those who need to develop them further.
6. Developed decline at 30°
I recommend that you don't take too heavy dumbbells for this one. Otherwise you may have trouble getting into position when you have them in hand.
- Raise the side of the bench where you will place your feet by 30°.
- Lie on the bench, head down, holding the dumbbells against your chest. Place your feet flat on the bench. This is the starting position.
- Push while blowing, while keeping the wrists in a neutral position.
- Slowly bend your elbows as you inhale and bring your shoulder blades together as you lower the dumbbells until they're close to the sides of your chest.
NOTE : The slight incline works the chest with the shoulders in a neutral position. This allows maximum recruitment of the muscle fibers connected to the sternum (targeting the lower chest).
Which dumbbells to choose for the pecs?
To outfit your own home weight room, dumbbells might be one of your first purchases.
You basically have 3 choices for this type of equipment:
- Fixed dumbbells. The weight is attached to the handle. This means that you will need as many pairs of dumbbells as weight increments. It's not uncommon to need 30 pairs for a single person who is seriously training. I'm not telling you the price and the size of the apartment you need…
- Classic modular dumbbells. They generally consist of a small central bar with a diameter of 38 mm and discs held by bar clamps or a screwed blocking.
- Adjustable dumbbells or adjustable. The discs or plates can be added or removed simply by turning a dial or with a pin system. This is by far what I recommend today.
Let's see why...
Why Buy Adjustable Dumbbells?
While fixed-weight or classic dumbbells seem less expensive, indestructible, and have a nice vintage vibe (your grandpa probably had a pair), they're not that practical.
The limits of fixed weights
If you're training at home with fixed weights, you'll need at least three pairs to start with, and you'll need to buy new pairs as you progress.
It's not uncommon to need more than 15 pairs for a single serious trainer. I do not tell you the purchase price and the size of the apartment you need…
The galley of classic dumbbells
The problem with these models is that adding and removing disks takes time between each series. In addition, I often hurt my fingers trying to go fast because of the metal fasteners which were too hard.
Also, you have to constantly calculate which discs to add and remove to achieve your desired weight, and sometimes you just don't have the ones you need. Finally, it is not such an economical choice as it seems. I concede, however, that it remains a better option than the fixed models.
Peculiarities of adjustable dumbbells
Over time, you're bound to wonder why you didn't pay a little more for this kind of equipment. It is true that the purchase price may seem important at first, but it is not the case if you take all the parameters into account.
In fact, you save money in the long run. Especially if you find models such as those I will present to you later…
Let's talk about the strengths and weaknesses first.
- Speed of weight change between 2 sets (2 knobs to turn)
- Replaces 15 pairs (space saving)
- Cheaper than buying all the dumbbells you need
- They will accompany your progress if you have chosen the right model at the start
- Relatively high initial investment
- Only one person can train at a time
- They should not be thrown on the ground after a series because of the mechanism
How to determine the weight of dumbbells?
Before buying, you must take into account your current level, but also your objective in the more or less long term.
When selecting adjustable dumbbells, it's important to think about the minimum and maximum weights the set can provide. Ideally, the minimum loads should allow you to do your sessions now, while giving you the opportunity to increase your muscle strength in the future.
A man must therefore move towards models capable of reaching at least 20 kilos, while a woman can remain in a range reaching 15 kilos. But you may have the desire or the ability to go much further.
Dumbbell models for pectoral exercises
I admit that I have long struggled to find affordable and good quality adjustable dumbbell models. But recently the interesting offers have multiplied.
In Europe, you'll find great value at Avalon Gear with free 4-5 day shipping on top selling models. Here are some examples of BowFlex models:
At Amazon, there have never been as many offers as there are at the moment, especially thanks to the Ativafit brand (table updated regularly) :
Dumbbell Chest Exercises – Conclusion
Dumbbells are particularly suitable for developing your pecs during your weight training sessions at home. They represent a very reduced risk of injury or accident compared to the use of a barbell in a classic bench press.
For harmonious muscle development, choose a variety of exercises that work the pecs from different angles. And the advantage of dumbbells over a barbell is that all the stabilizing muscles are used at the same time. It is important for your overall strength.
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Last updated on 2022-03-03 / Affiliate links / Some images are sourced from the Amazon Product Advertising API