First, allow me to state the obvious: The barbell bench press and the dumbbell bench press both involve pressing from (duh!) a bench. But is there any difference between the two? Will one leave you with the chest of a Greek god and the other with the upper body of Mr. Burns? Or should you do them in tandem, doubling up on their strengths and making up for whatever weaknesses they bring to the table (bench?)?
Yeah, what’s the deal? How are the barbell bench press and dumbbell bench press different in any way that matters?
Rightly or wrongly, the barbell bench press is considered the gold standard of chest exercises. For many people, it represents the only chance they will ever have of pressing more than 200 pounds of weight over their bodies. This is due to the fact that most human beings don’t have the power to scoop up 200 pounds of weight from the ground or off of a rack, control it as they assume a seated position and lean back and hoist it up to a pressable position. If you’re powerful enough to accomplish such a feat, you shouldn’t be wasting your time with the unexceptional training routines of us mere mortals; you need to be lifting the trunks of full oak trees over your head.
With the weight safely secured to a barbell that’s been pre-elevated over your body, you can load hundreds of pounds onto the bar, position it above your chest, lower it, raise it and re-rack it. Also, if you require the assistance of a spotter to prevent a catastrophic chest or neck injury, the bar provides them with a fitting target to latch onto.
Stated plainly, if you consider heavy bench-pressing to be essential to your fitness routine, you’ll never be able to press heavier weights with dumbbells than you can with barbells; it’s impossible. A barbell allows your hands to maintain a fixed lateral position, and your only obligation becomes controlling the weight as it descends, and pressing with the utmost power and preserving the barbell’s balance as it ascends. If you prioritize power, and you judge strength primarily through raw bench-pressing numbers, the barbell bench is going to be your ideal means for boosting those numbers.
Not to mention, the barbell enables the weaker side of your body to benefit somewhat from the power provided by the stronger side, since both arms are projecting their force against the same object.
Is there anything wrong, though, with the dumbbell bench press?
Not at all. In fact, if you prioritize total chest development, the dumbbell bench press is a superior lifting method for several reasons. For starters, it’s practical with respect to prioritizing total control of the weight. When you bench press with dumbbells, each of your appendages is required to control dumbbells of equal weight, so the strength of your pectorals is likely to balance out, and opportunities to cheat with the stronger side of your body are eliminated.
There’s also the optimization of the pathway upon which the weights travel and the muscles are developed. Why? It’s as easy as tracking the movement of your hands. When you lower dumbbells with your arms, the positioning of your hands widens as the weights descend. As you press the dumbbells skyward, the weights move closer together again along with your hands. Yes, your pectoral muscles flex mightily during a barbell bench press as you struggle with all of your strength to raise the bar back into its ideal position. But a barbell bench press can never train the pectoral muscles through their full range of motion during the course of a single exercise. Your hands simply can’t slide along the bar during a barbell bench in order to effectuate that outcome — at least not without inviting calamity.
Speaking of calamity, the barbell bench press is almost certainly responsible for more weightlifting deaths than any other exercise. It makes sense: If you’re training to absolute failure and find yourself stuck on the bottom of a lift with hundreds of pounds bearing down on your chest, you’re screwed. If you haven’t clamped the weights onto the bar to prevent them from sliding, you can attempt to rotate enough so that the weights will slip off and crash loudly onto the floor. However, if the weights are clamped tightly to the bar, your only real option is to somehow roll the bar slowly down your chest and stomach and onto your legs so that you can sit up. Rolling it toward your head is a surefire way to kill yourself.
With the dumbbell bench press, there isn’t any chance that you’ll invite this level of peril. If you can’t lift the weight, you can drop it to the floor safely, so long as you make sure there are no toes in the drop zone waiting to be smashed. Otherwise, the worst-case scenario is that you end up setting off the Planet Fitness lunk alarm.
So which one should I choose?
If you find yourself in a position where you absolutely must choose one exercise over the other, the dumbbell bench press is your best option for developing a powerful chest that’s thoroughly developed — and in the safest manner possible.
That said, there’s no reason why you have to choose to do only one if you can extend your time in the gym by an extra five minutes. Make the barbell bench press your first exercise on chest day, and follow that up with the dumbbell bench press to maximize both the strength and muscle development of your chest. It’s the best of both worlds and no choice at all.