Lifting weights is guaranteed to make you stronger and more muscular, a goal many gym-goers have in mind. And bench presses are one of the best exercises for increasing your upper body strength and growing your chest, making them particularly popular in the bodybuilding and strength athlete world.
Bench presses provide an excellent workout for your pectoral muscles, as well as your shoulders and triceps. There are several ways you can vary the bench press to achieve different results, whether that's altering the equipment, angles, technique, or your position.
Two of the most well-known bench press variations are the dumbbell and barbell bench press.
Both help increase strength and muscle mass and suit all abilities. But while they may appear very similar, there are several slight differences.
Here, we’re putting the barbell and dumbbell bench press head to head and taking a look at the advantages and disadvantages of both. Let’s see which one comes out on top!
Barbell Bench Press
The barbell bench press is an iconic weight training exercise. It requires you to lie flat on a bench and lift a barbell containing weights on each end, from your chest, to straight above you until your arms are extended.
One of the main benefits of the barbell vs. the dumbbell bench press is that it enables you to easily and effectively increase the weight you are lifting, known as progressive overload. This is the principle that in order to gain strength and physical fitness, you must continually increase the intensity of your workouts.
The shape of the barbell also means the main muscles you are working out when lifting are your pecs. This means the barbell bench press is incredibly effective at building those chest muscles!
Easier set up
Chest pressing with a barbell rather than dumbbells also offers a better setup. Benches have a rack for the barbell, which offers support at the start and finish of your sets. This makes the whole exercise easier and means you can solely focus on lifting your reps. You can also adjust the weights easily.
Suitable for beginners
The easy setup of a barbell bench press makes this one a great exercise for beginners. If you jump straight into using dumbbells, you’re bound to run into some problems, as it is a much harder exercise and requires a better technique. Get used to bench pressing with a barbell, at least to begin with, and you’ll start seeing the results in no time!
Can be dangerous
Overloading a barbell and failing to perform the exercise can result in the bar falling back down on you, which can cause serious injury, especially if you aren’t using a safety rack and train alone.
Can cause strength imbalances
As your arms work together to lift a barbell, your stronger arm can take over and do most of the work if the weight is very heavy. This can worsen asymmetries in your body and result in one side becoming much stronger than the other.
Less range of motion
Compared to the dumbbell bench press, the barbell bench press has a much lower range of motion and does not work the chest muscles as much. This is because the barbell restricts how low it can go and how you hold it restricts the range of motion at the top.
Dumbbell Bench Press
The dumbbell bench press is similar to the barbell bench press, except you lift two separate weighted dumbbells in each hand. It has a greater demand for stability and more range of motion.
So now we know the advantages and disadvantages of the barbell, it’s time to examine the dumbbell bench press.
Engages more muscles
Using two dumbbells instead of a barbell means you have to recruit more muscles to ensure the weights remain balanced, and the exercise is done correctly. This makes it much better at building functional strength, as you have no equipment to rely on to make the exercise easier for you.
We’ve all got one side that's stronger than the other. Lifting weights with two dumbbells stops these imbalances from developing further, as each side is lifting independently from one another. Dumbbells also allow you to work on your weaker side more.
Greater range of motion
The dumbbell bench press is a much more natural movement that can be adjusted in many different ways. For example, you can bring your hands and weights closer together or further apart, depending on how you want to train.
You can also easily change the depth and angle of the exercise without having to alter your whole setup. This allows you to work your pecs in a number of different ways. In contrast, a barbell bench press offers much less variation.
Imbalances can hinder performance
As mentioned above, lifting two separate weights can show up your weaker side. This means if you want to increase the difficulty of your workout, you can only do so at the pace of your weakest side. Otherwise, you may risk injury. As such, progress may initially be slow until both sides even out.
More difficult to lift heavy
If you want to lift heavy weights to increase your strength, the dumbbell bench press is not the best choice. It can be difficult to get into the correct starting position with hefty weights and the risk of dropping weights is much higher - which makes it much riskier!
Difficult to standardize reps
It is common when performing the dumbbell bench press to not lift through the full range of motion. This makes it difficult to standardize the quality across your repetitions and means it is harder to monitor your performance. You may be lifting heavier, but with a shorter range of motion.
After assessing the pros of both the dumbbell and barbell bench press, overall, we feel the dumbbell wins the show. This is mainly because it allows you to build better all-round strength, rather than just focusing on your chest - which it does work out too!
The dumbbell bench press also helps prevent imbalances in your body, which is much more important than you think. It also offers much more flexibility with how you want to perform the exercise and can be easily adjusted.