Dumbbell Press vs Barbell (Bench) Press: How Are They Different? Is One Better?
The press is the most widely known exercise for pectoral development. We’ll review how the dumbbell and barbell presses differ from each other and provide you with all the info and relevant content you’ll need to become an expert on these exercises.
Dumbbell vs Barbell Presses
Both exercises are simple and straightforward. A press involves laying down on a bench and pushing the weight you are using up and away from you. Each type of press has its own advantages and disadvantages when it comes to building muscle.
How Are Dumbbell And Barbell Presses Performed?
With both exercises, you lay down on a bench and use the weights to exhaust your pectoral muscles. The main differences in the exercises come down to set up, and the muscles that are used during the movement.
**Note: As with every exercise you perform, you want to keep the parts of your body that are not moving (or involved in the exercise) very tight. This article by T-Nation does a good job of explaining the setup for a bench press along with cues to use while performing it.**
Step By Step: How To Perform A Barbell Press
In a barbell press, the weight is suspended above you on the bench before you start the exercise.
- Lay down on the bench, with an arched back while keeping your butt on the bench and feet firmly planted on the floor.
- Outstretch your arms and grip the barbell firmly at the base of your palms.
- Move the barbell off of its resting position so that you are bearing all of the weight on your outstretched arms.
- Take a deep breath into your chest, and lower the barbell down to just below your pectoral in a controlled movement.
- While keeping your body tight and rigid, use your pecs and arms to move the weight back to the starting position.
- Once you’ve performed your last rep, and your arms are fully extended again, move the barbell back to its resting position on the bench.
**Make sure the weight is resting on the support arms of the bench before letting go to avoid injury.**
Step By Step: How To Perform A Dumbbell Press
In a dumbbell press, the weight is not suspended above you, and getting into position for the exercise can be harder than a barbell press. This is especially true when you’re using heavier weights.
- Collect your dumbbells that you will be using for your exercise, and place them on your knees as you sit down on the bench. If done correctly, you’ll now be sitting on the bench with the weights comfortably placed just behind your knees on the top of your legs.
- Brace your core, shoulders, and back, and transition to a laying down position while gripping the dumbbells and moving them towards your chest.
- Once you are laying down with the dumbbells over your chest, you’re ready to begin pressing upwards.
- When your arms are extended with the dumbbells overhead, slowly lower them back to the starting position.
- When you’ve completed your reps, push the weight back to just in front of your knees as you sit up. This movement can be hard to get down but will make the process of beginning and ending your dumbbell press safer and more controlled.
This technique can be hard to visualize, so check out this Scott Herman dumbbell press video for a visual example. He shows the proper form along with the setup and end of the exercise.
Similarities And Differences Between The Dumbbell And Barbell Press
While both exercises target mostly the same muscles, there are small differences between them that make doing both worthwhile for chest development.
- Both exercises target pectoral muscles, along with delts and triceps other exercises that target these same areas include, the single-arm french press, the overhead cable curl, and shrugs (dumbbell shrugs or barbell shrugs).
- Both exercises involve the same movement and bar or dumbbell pathing when done correctly
- Each is great ways to build strength and are considered gold standards for pec development
- Your form and bracing techniques are the same for each
- A dumbbell press uses more stabilization muscles than a barbell press and will often require greater core strength to be able to achieve similar weights.
- In a dumbbell press, each arm is working independently of the other, and muscle imbalances will become apparent
- Dumbbell presses are better for correcting muscle imbalances because of this
- Most people can perform more weight with a barbell press because it requires less stabilization. More force can be put into the pressing movement more easily
- Setup of a dumbbell press is harder than setting up a bench press and can more easily lead to injury.
- Dumbbell presses are safer to perform without a spotter as long as you understand how to bail effectively. You can drop the weights in an emergency without them falling directly onto yourself.
Barbells vs Dumbbells: What’s Better For Mass And Strength Gains?
While both the dumbbell press and barbell press are great for mass and strength gains, the barbell press holds a slight edge. The most important factor in gaining mass and strength (apart from eating correctly) is the overall amount of weight you’re moving on a weekly basis.
A barbell bench press allows you to move more weight, and will therefore let you more easily achieve higher total volumes each week. You can always do more sets and reps with dumbbells to compensate, but barbell workouts win when looking to gain mass and strength.
With that said, don’t ignore either of these exercises. The dumbbell presses allow you to work on muscle imbalances, along with stabilizer muscles, that the barbell press will not. Improving your dumbbell press will help to increase your barbell press!
Which Is Better, Incline Dumbbell Press Or Incline Barbell Press?
Similar to the answer above, they each fill their own niche in developing your upper pectorals and deltoids. An incline barbell press will allow you to move more weight, increasing strength and mass gains. An incline dumbbell press will recruit more stabilizer muscles, and forces you to focus on technique and imbalances more than a barbell press.
Both are worthwhile exercises, and both can be done in the same workout. We encourage you to experiment and see which exercise feels better for you when it’s done first. If you give your all on a set of 5 barbell presses, you’ll need to drop the weight slightly for your sets of dumbbell presses.
Try alternating each week so that you’re fresh when performing the movement. This way, you’ll learn your true limits for each exercise, and can better keep track of your strength gains across the board.
Which Is Harder? Dumbbell Or Barbell Bench Press?
While some people disagree, everyone that I’ve ever seen in the gym is able to press more with a barbell. The dumbbell press is considered the harder of the two exercises.
Why Is The Dumbbell Press Harder Than A Barbell Press?
With a barbell press, the weight is connected, and both arms, shoulders, and pecs are working together to move it up and down. In a dumbbell press, your arms, shoulders, and pecs are working independently.
Because the weight is not connected in the middle, the rest of your body needs to be stronger to compensate for the stability provided by the bar. Your back, shoulders, and pecs are not only working to control the weight moving forward or backward but also side to side as your complete your reps.
Keeping the weights on the correct path is harder in a dumbbell press for this simple reason.
Why Can I lift more With A Barbell Than A Dumbbell?
It all comes down to stability. While a barbell press can seem more imposing, keeping your dumbbells from moving in every direction presents a real challenge to lifters. Each shoulder is working independently and is responsible for controlling the dumbbell in your hand.
Keeping a dumbbell in the proper location during a press makes the dumbbell press harder, and you are using more energy and stabilizer muscles to do so. This is why most everyone can press more with a dumbbell than a barbell.
What Is The Dumbbell Bench Press To Barbell Bench Press Ratio?
While there is no exact ratio that works for everyone, the general rule of thumb would be to start your dumbbell press with around 60% of the total weight that you’re pressing with a barbell. You may be able to do more, but this is a good place to start.
From here, you can easily increase or decrease the weight base on the ease or difficulty you are facing. If you’ve only focused on barbell bench pressing, the starting weight for your dumbbell press may be lower than you think. Start around 60% of your bench press, and adjust from there.
Other Resources For Barbell And Dumbbell Presses
The guide that we’ve written here is all-inclusive and goes over all of the main points of dumbbell and barbell presses. For some other resources to get you started off right, check out the following links.
All of these tips are important when building up your press, whether it be dumbbell or barbell. Most novice lifters will hit a plateau in their press, that can only be overcome by learning more advanced techniques.
Breathing and bracing are both extremely important for these exercises, along with body positioning and form. Once you get to a point where you’re struggling to increase your pressing weight, take a step back and study these details.