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Barbell vs. Dumbbell Bench Press

Written by the Boostcamp staff
May 1,2024|11 min| 6289
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What is the difference between a barbell bench press and a dumbbell bench press?

The main, and perhaps the most obvious difference between a barbell bench press and a dumbbell bench press is the equipment used to complete this chest exercise. Barbell bench press involves using a barbell, which allows for a greater overall weight to be lifted. Dumbbell bench press uses dumbbells, which require more stabilization and can help with muscle imbalances. But which of these exercises is better?

The King of Chest Exercises

When it comes to your weight training, you may have specific goals in mind. For example, if you are a powerlifter, your focus is typically going to be aimed at gaining more strength, ultimately peaking and hitting a one rep max during a competitive meet. On the other hand, if you are a bodybuilder, your focus is going to be on building muscle mass and hypertrophy. So, that being said, when you train your chest, many workout programs will contain the barbell or the dumbbell bench press, or even both. Which one reigns supreme and can help you progress more?

Let’s dive into it.

Barbell Bench Overview

The barbell bench press is an age-old exercise that has been utilized in bodybuilding for many years. It is a compound exercise that involves the pectoralis major of the chest, the anterior deltoids of the shoulder, and the triceps brachii of the upper arm. It also is one of the big 3 compound lifts that you see in a powerlifting competitions and training regimens, next to the barbell squat and the deadlift. The bench press has been a symbol of strength training upon gym goers for as long as it has been around, but is it the most optimal for building the muscles of the chest?

If you ask old school bodybuilders such as Arnold Schwarzenegger their favorite chest movement, the barbell bench was on the list, and their chests are huge. However, the movement seems to be fading out in the bodybuilding crowd, but we will dive into that shortly.

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of the barbell bench.

Pros

  • Increased upper body strength

  • Stimulates pectoral growth 

  • Stronger bones

Cons

  • Higher risk of injury

  • Limited range of motion

Looking at the barbell bench, there are a good amount of pros and cons to it. But what about its counterpart, the dumbbell bench press? 

Dumbbell Bench Press Overview

Image courtesy of Instagram (attack_the_weakness)

The dumbbell bench press has become increasingly popular amongst regular gym goers and competitive bodybuilders alike. The reason being is that it may allow more room for growth in the pectorals than the barbell bench does. 

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons. 

Pros

  • Increased range of motion

  • Less risk of injury

  • Stimulates pectoral growth

Cons

  • Cannot lift as much weight as barbell bench

  • Harder to unrack 

Dumbbell vs. Barbell Bench: Range of Motion

When it comes to the range of motion of any exercise, there is no doubt that the greater it is the more likely you are to stimulate muscle growth and a strength increase. For example, if you half squat, your legs will not be as big, nor will you be able to squat as much using a full range of motion. Your strength will only be in the top half of the movement, and once you hit depth, you won’t be able to get back up.

A fuller range of motion reigns supreme, as it also enables the lifter get a better mind-muscle connection, and ultimately helps them to get a deeper stretch in the targeted muscle groups, forcing more activation and breakdown in the muscle fibers. That means with a proper recovery protocol, the muscles will grow back bigger and stronger. 

Now, with a barbell bench press, your range of motion is limited because the movement stops when the barbell touches your chest. With a dumbbell bench press, you can go much lower and get a deeper stretch, really making those muscle fibers fire off. 

Bench Press Strength

Even though your range of motion is greater with a dumbbell bench press than a barbell, you will more than likely be able to move more weight on the barbell bench press due to the combined weight of the barbell. Since you can move more weight with a barbell bench than dumbbells, you are probably going to build more strength with the barbell bench press, unless you have shoulder issues or other anatomical challenges. Additionally, barbell movements can be overloaded with just 2.5 lb increments on each side, making it easier to progressively overload and prevent strength plateaus too soon.

One feature of any exercise’s strength-gain potential is the ability to load it with more weight (easily progressively overload). Barbell exercises tend to be better for overloading yourself with more weight. 

Barbell vs. Dumbbell Bench for Hypertrophy

It is no secret that both versions of the bench press will help you with hypertrophy, but it all comes down to how you use each movement. That said, as stated above, the dumbbell variation of the bench press can allow lifters to achieve a longer range of motion, ultimately allowing for more muscle activation of the pectoralis major, specifically the upper chest. However, in many cases, an increased amount of muscle incline can benefit strength.

Muscular Imbalances

Muscular imbalances are something that no one wants, as it hinders the overall appearance of your physique but can also cause strength imbalances. When it comes to the barbell and dumbbell bench presses and their effect on muscular imbalances, and maybe you are trying to address a physique imbalance, the dumbbell press comes out ahead as a great option. This is because the dumbbell press incorporates independent loading and allows for more direct targeting of bodily weaknesses, including minimizing shoulder pain.

Form

The form you use for the barbell bench press will be different from a dumbbell bench. With the barbell, you pretty much are on a fixed path, meaning your hands stay in one place and the barbell comes down then you push it back up. 

With the dumbbells, you are able to adjust hand placement, angle of the dumbbells, and so on to activate the pectorals from different angles. You can even incorporate a dumbbell fly type of movement into a dumbbell bench press.

Barbell and Dumbbell Bench Press Similarities

Image courtesy of Instagram (@scott_robertson1987)

Although they certainly have their differences, the barbell and dumbbell bench press have a good amount of similarities as well, so let’s break it down before you add one or the other to your upper body workout plan.

Multi-Joint Exercise

While the bench press movement is ultimately designed to grow your pectorals, there are other muscles that are recruited into the movement. Those muscles include shoulders, triceps, and biceps, and even your lats and upper back, to a degree. This is why you will see many lifters doing pull-ups before benching, to stretch out the lats. As a result, they can experience strength boosts and potential growth from barbell and dumbbell bench pressing with a slightly wider grip.

Upper Body Push Movement

The barbell or dumbbell bench press movements are both a cornerstone of a good upper body push workout. Both movements will stimulate anterior flexors to a degree, so it is not a bad idea to incorporate them both into your upper body push workouts.

Our Verdict on Barbell vs. Dumbbell Bench Press 

Well, with all of that being said, which movement is better? To be completely honest, it all depends on your training goals and training style, but there is no harm in incorporating both into your training regimens. If your goal is strictly to gain more strength and power, then placing a larger emphasis on the barbell bench press may be more optimal. However, incorporating a dumbbell bench press into your workouts to get that deeper stretch and help activate those muscle fibers is not a bad idea either. For more free tips and suggestions regarding diet and exercise, check out my videos on Instagram, YouTube, or other social media platforms.

The same goes if you are looking more for hypertrophy, then using the dumbbell bench press more than the barbell will be ideal, and incorporating a barbell bench every now and then to work on your strength is perfectly fine. The bottom line is, each movement has their pros and cons, and depending on your goals, you should look to find a program that suits your needs, and incorporates movements that will help you hit your goals. 

Finding a Good Workout Program

Boostcamp has plenty of free programs that help with improving your bench press, both strength and hypertrophy, and any other goals that you may have. A workout program helps to guide you, and can diversify your routines so you are incorporating both the barbell and dumbbell bench press. That being said, check out the Boostcamp App for some great programs. Also, be sure to follow Boostcamp on Instagram and subscribe on YouTube!