The bench press is a great movement for developing strength and power through the chest and shoulder which can make it a great supplement for throwing sports, such as baseball or cricket, when included within a strength and conditioning programme.
There are two variations of the bench press – dumbbell and barbell bench press. This article explores how to perform each one, the differences created by the two exercise variations, and the benefits for different athletes.
Barbell vs Dumbbell Bench Press
The barbell and dumbbell bench press involves laying flat on a bench and pushing a weight upwards. They are both referred to as horizontal push movements because the weight moves horizontally in relation to the anatomical position (an upright body position).
The main difference between the barbell bench press and dumbbell bench press is the (1) equipment used (2) type of movement, and (3) loading demands.
The barbell bench press involves using a barbell, making it a bilateral movement, as both arms work together. This enables you to load a substantial amount of weight to the bar.
In contrast, the dumbbell bench press involves using dumbbells, making it a unilateral movement, where each arm operates independently of the other. This unilateral nature makes it less stable, limiting the amount of weight you can lift compared to the barbell. However, the advantage lies in the increased freedom of movement it offers, allowing a greater range of motion.
Let’s delve into this a bit deeper…
Differences in Movement Pattern
The barbell bench press and dumbbell bench press are open kinetic chain exercises – meaning that the body parts moving the weight are free to move. The dumbbell bench press allows a greater range of motion because your chest does not block the descent of the dumbbells as it does with a barbell bench press.
The dumbbell bench press is a unilateral (completed by one arm independent of the other) exercise, so it is also more unstable than the barbell bench, which is a bilateral exercise (completed by both arms).
Differences in Loading Demands
The barbell bench press loads the pecs more than the barbell bench press, while the barbell bench press activates the triceps more. This is because the dumbbell bench is more unstable and therefore the pecs have to work harder to stabilise the weight.
The increase in triceps activation with barbell bench press, may be because the dumbbell bench press enables a wider position at the bottom of the lift, since the grip width is not fixed. A narrower grip activates the deltoids and triceps more.
Joints worked and ranges of motion
To understand the difference, we can also look at what joints and muscles are being used.
|Joins||Dumbbell bench||Barbell bench|
Muscles worked during barbell bench press
The main muscles worked during the barbell bench press include the chest and upper body muscles, including:
- Pecs – These muscles mainly work to flex the shoulder horizontally (push your arms out in front of you)
- Deltoid – The anterior deltoid helps the pec major to push your arms out in front of you. This muscle is activated greater when the arms is pushed above your head but they still work hard to push weight in front of your body
- Triceps – These muscles work to straighten (extend) the elbow. With a narrower grip, the triceps are activated more.
Muscles worked during the dumbbell bench press
- Pecs – These muscles work to push your arms out in front of you (horizontal flexion). These muscles work harder during the dumbbell bench because the movement is more unstable and there is greater range of motion achieved
- Deltoid – These muscles assist the pecs to push your arms straight in front of you
- Triceps – These muscles work to straighten your arms (extend). The triceps are not activated as much in dumbbell bench as they are in barbell bench, possibly because of the larger width between each hand compared to barbell bench press.
Equipment needed for barbell or dumbbell bench press
- Rack (for barbell bench)
- Barbell or pair of dumbbells
How to perform a barbell bench press
Performing the barbell bench press correctly is essential for maximizing muscle engagement and minimizing the risk of injury. Here is a step-by-step guide:
- Make sure a spotter is available
- Lay flat on a bench inside a lifting rack with the barbell racked just above your chest
- With the help of your spotter, unrack the bar with your arms straight
- Lower the weight to just below your pectoral muscles by drawing your elbows down and keeping them at a around a 45 degree angle to your torso
- Squeeze your pectoral muscles and triceps to return the bar to the top
How to perform dumbbell bench press
- Sit down on a bench while holding dumbbells on the top of your knees
- While laying backwards, kick both knees with the dumbbells back into your arms and start with the dumbbells in each hand just wide of your torso. Alternatively, if you have two people available, and you’re going heavy, get these people to place the dumbbells in your/the athlete’s hands
- Squeezing your pec(s) and tricep(s) (depending if you’re alternating your arms or doing both at once), push the dumbbell straight upwards.
- Control the descent of the dumbbell back to just wide of your torso
Considerations when choosing between barbell and dumbbell bench press
Considerations for strength
The dumbbell bench can be hard to load as effectively as the barbell bench because of the start position requiring you to kick the dumbbells back, unless you have 2 people available to pass you the weights. However, because of the greater pectoral activation, the dumbbell bench may be a good exercise for an athlete such as a cricket fielder who is weak through their pectorals and is trying to throw the ball with greater force.
Additionally, if after an injury to the shoulder, there is an imbalance in strength between both limbs, dumbbell bench press may be the better option as it can help to minimise the deficit in strength/performance to the non-injured side. This is important as in athletes, generally, a side to side imbalance of around 10% is often considered to increase the risk of injury.
Considerations for power
Low-load – high velocity exercises such as a bench press throw can be risky and difficult in the case of dumbbell bench press. Therefore, trying to move the weight quickly with greater weight is a much safer and easier option if you were to programme dumbbell bench press. In comparison, the barbell bench press is slightly safer to progress into a bench throw for power development – this should be done on a smith machine if at all so that there is only one possible place to catch the bar.
Weights of around 65-85% of 1 rep max (1RM) are suitable for developing power, while keeping in a rep and set range of around 1-5 and 2-5, respectively. Lower weights can be used with higher speed if the goal of the movement is speed development – such as a bench press throw at 30% of 1RM for a baseball pitcher working to improve their fast balls for example.
Transfer to sports such as baseball, cricket or other throwing sports may be best achieved with the dumbbell bench press as unilateral (single limb) exercises have often been shown to improve performance of unilateral (single limb) exercises greater than bilateral (double limb) exercises.
Considerations for motor learning (beginners)
When lifting a more unstable weight, or the movement is new, the body has a large amount of degrees of freedom (ways in which it can move to complete the task) which it is not used to. This means that the body has to stabilise through other muscles, which means that activation of the prime movers (lats and deltoids) is less. This may be something desired in a sport such as rugby where it is useful to be stable and ‘tight’ through the muscles so that energy from collisions can be dissipated.
On the other hand, using a more stable exercise such as barbell bench press provides the body with less degrees of freedom and therefore there is greater activation of the prime movers since the body doesn’t have to stabilise as much. This can make it a suitable introduction to bench press for someone like a throwing athlete who hasn’t bench pressed before, because it affords an opportunity to learn the movement in its simplest form before progressing to more unstable variations.
Because of a lack of precautions taken, the barbell bench press has the highest fatality rate of any gym-based exercise. Between 1999 and 2003 in the USA at least 50% of deaths associated with weight training could be attributed to the bench press due to asphyxiation – the weight rests on someone’s neck and prevents breathing.
This is in part accounted for by the barbell bench press being one of the most popular exercises in the gym and one of the 3 disciplines in powerlifting, therefore making such events more common. However, the risk should not take away from the benefits it can provide.
A spotter should always be available when going heavy or close to failure to prevent the weight from falling onto the neck. Alternatively, if a spotter is not available, exercise within yours or your athlete’s limits and avoid going to failure or above maximal intensity.
Commonly asked questions
How do I lift more weight in bench press?
Regular training of the bench press with high loads and a low number of repetitions will help to build strength through the movement. However, a structured programme that targets all the musculature involved in the bench press such as training shoulder press for greater anterior deltoid activation, will help to strengthen the accessory muscles in the bench press to a greater degree than they can be strengthened by just doing bench press.
If a sport has limited involvement of the upper body such as football, then players may not need to be as strong and it also may not be necessary to be strong at bench press. However, a strong programme focused on building strength through fundamental movement patterns may still cause an increase in bench press performance.
What is leg drive in bench press?
Leg drive is a technique used by powerlifters to lift heavy loads more easily. The feet are in contact with the floor at the end of the bench and the athlete pushes through the feet to create an arch in the back and keep contact with the bench through the upper back and buttocks. The ribcage is expanded (pushed out), and shoulders are retracted. This makes the lifter more rigid and able to lift heavier weights.
For an athlete it may not be necessary to lift with leg drive as there is no greater activation of the upper body and the technique requires teaching.
Should you arch your back in a bench press?
Arching your back is a consequence of leg drive which is a powerlifting technique to assist with lifting more weight for heavy sets. For an athlete, it may not be necessary to arch your back.
Its not clear whether leg drive causes an increase in stress for the lower back. However, improper technique when using leg drive may cause stress of the lower back which can already be stressed through training in sports that involve a lot of running for example. Therefore, unless it has been properly trained, athletes may want to avoid leg drive.
Can I dumbbell bench press instead of barbell bench press?
Yes. Dumbbell bench press is a great alternative if you’re limited on benches available or don’t have access to barbells. It achieves a greater range of motion and is more unstable than the barbell bench press meaning there is greater pectoral activation.
The dumbbell bench press can also help to prevent imbalances that may arise for example from having a dominant throwing arm in sports like cricket, since each arm gets the same training. If an athlete has an injury to one pectoral muscle for example, the other arm can still be trained by using dumbbell bench press, which can help prevent deconditioning.
Dumbbell and barbell bench press are two horizontal push exercises but differ because barbell bench press is bilateral and dumbbell bench press is unilateral. This leads to slightly different muscle activation and motor pattern which can dictate who might benefit most from each exercise.
Dumbbell bench press may be more suitable for athletes who are weak in their pectorals, are looking to correct any muscle imbalances and/or are looking to progress to a more challenging bench press variation.
Barbell bench press can be a suitable exercise for athletes looking to improve their absolute strength or those who are looking to learn how to bench press.
Other Upper Body Exercise Comparisons
- Overhead Press Vs Incline Bench – Which is Best for You?
- Lat Pull Down Vs Pull Ups – Whats the Difference?
- Wide Grip Pull Up Vs Closed Grip Pull Up – Which is Best for You?
- Decline Bench Press Vs Flat – Muscles Worked, Pros & Cons
- Gardner, Chia & Miller (2019) – Leg-Drive Does Not Affect Upper Extremity Muscle Activation during a Bench Press Exercise.
- Lawrence et al. (2017) – Nonlinear Analysis of an Unstable Bench Press Bar Path and Muscle Activation.
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Ollie Robinson, BSc
Ollie is a Strength and Conditioning Coach at University of Leeds and an MSc Strength and Conditioning student at Leeds Beckett University.
Ollie has a diverse range of experiences within university sport, where he has provided strength and conditioning support for swimming, cricket and rowing teams at University of Leeds, as well as basketball and wrestling teams for an NCAA Division 1 university whilst on a 6-week placement in 2023.
Not only this, as part of Ollies BSc Sport and Exercise Science degree at University of Leeds, in 2021, Ollie immersed himself in a year-long placement at Colchest United, enhancing his knowledge and practical skills.