When you think of training your chest you may automatically picture yourself lifting a heavy barbell on the bench press, or doing a multitude of variations of the push-up. And whilst they are great for building size and strength, if you want to go to the next level in your chest training, you should look to incorporate dumbbells in your routine.
Although training with dumbbells can be seen as second cousin to when it comes to developing your chest, you’d be surprised to hear that it can be the road to bigger, stronger pecs, with a lot less risk of injury. So what’s the best chest workout with dumbbells that you can do to really make the most of these versatile weights, and how will they help you achieve a head-turning set of pecs?
The Benefits To Using Dumbbells
The thing about dumbbells is they are great at making your muscles work twice as hard to try and stabilise them. As far as your chest is concerned, this means that smaller shoulder muscles are worked to help stabilise the shoulder joints – so more work for the shoulders, especially the front deltoids – and the bigger muscles in your chest (pecs) are forced to work harder to control the weights to prevent them drifting in all sorts of possible other directions! They do this in the following ways:
A greater range of motion
Dumbbells allow for a greater range of motion meaning you can achieve a much deeper stretch when compared to, say, a barbell which hits your chest before a full stretch of the pectoral muscles can be achieved. Whilst barbells are great for packing on strength and helping you to lift the heaviest weight you can, dumbbells will help to maximally stretch the pecs and activate more muscle fibres. Studies have shown that increased ranges of motion lead to increased muscle growth.
Better overall development of strength
Many of us have a weaker side – whether that be left or right – which means that we may be able to lift slightly heavier, or perform more reps, on one side than the other. Take the chest press with a barbell for instance, when lifting it, it may feel like you’re exerting the same force with both sides at the same time, but, as humans, we’re great at compensating for this by throwing more force on our stronger side and not so much on our weaker side. With dumbbells that’s not possible as you have to stabilise and push the weights upwards with the same amount of force, so if one weight lags a little, you feel it. This helps ensure that you will never push a set further than your weaker side can cope with and, eventually, both sides even out. If you need to do a little work on your weaker side, using a dumbbell to do this makes it a whole lot easier too.
Less stress on your joints
Linked to the last point, a pair of dumbbells will help ensure both sides of your body follow the most effective path to lift the weight upwards and back down again. Your wrists are able to rotate and your shoulders and elbows can take the path that’s most comfortable for them which means the stress of lifting the weights is transferred to your muscles – where it should be – and not your joints.
Your muscles are worked harder
If you substitute the barbell for a pair of dumbbells on a bench press you’ll note that the chest muscles have to contract at the top of the movement to stop the weights moving outwards. Dumbbells activate the pectoralis major (the biggest chest muscle) better than a barbell bench or smith machine bench because of this very reason.
Some Tips Before We Start
1.Remember to warm-up
It’s really important you warm your muscles up before you force them to lift heavy things. This will help to prime them and help you perform at your best, as well as help prevent injury.
Start by doing a few minutes jogging – either on a treadmill if you have one, or on the spot, or round the garden – whatever. Get the blood oxygenated and flowing. I then always recommend performing a few sets of one or two of the exercises you’re about to do with a light weight to get your body used to the movement and to prime those muscles so they’re prepared for when you add heavier weights.
2.Squeeze at the top
As with all my workouts, I recommend squeezing at the top of each movement/contraction to focus as much tension as possible on the muscles you’re working. You should then slowly lower the weight before pushing back up again ensuring maximum time under tension to help break down the muscle fibres. Ideally you should push the weight up for around two seconds, pause at the top for a second, and then lowering the weight should take you around four seconds.
3.Rest between sets
If size and strength are your goals then progressively adding more weight to your exercises is key. Recovery between sets is therefore essential to ensure your muscles can recuperate enough to continue lifting at your limit, leading to better progress and gains overall, over time. I recommend 2-3 minutes between each set in this workout for optimal recovery.
I always try to incorporate workouts that use minimal equipment for those who are working out at home and have limited space. All you’ll need for this workout is some dumbbells and a weight bench, although if you don’t have a bench you can try using a stool or even get on the floor. For the incline bench press I recommend substituting for an incline push-up instead (hands raised on steps or a sturdy low stool).
These exercises are geared towards intermediate to advanced users. Use it in place of your current chest workout and as you progress, try to increase the weight until you can do all reps in a given set, and then increase it again. Perform three sets of each exercise below, resting at least two minutes in between sets, and once you’ve performed all three sets for each exercise, more onto the next. The whole workout should take you around 30 minutes to complete.
1. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
Where it targets: As well as your pectoral muscles, this dumbbell variation of the traditional chest press also works your shoulders, triceps, forearms, traps, rhomboids and lats (upper back)
How to perform it: Set a weight bench at an incline of between 30 – 45 degrees and sit with your feet flat on the floor and back on the bench. Lift the dumbbells up to chest height, palms facing forward, and push the dumbbells up until your arms are fully extended, powering up with your pecs. Pause and squeeze at the top of the movement for a second, and then slowly bring them back down to the start position. Perform between 8 to 10 reps to complete one set. Do three sets in total before moving onto the next exercise.
2. Bridged Floor Press
Where it targets: As you’re in a bridged position, you target the lower pecs predominately whilst also working your hamstrings and glutes. As you’re on the floor you reduce your ability to drive the weight up through your hips so you activate your pecs even more.
How to perform it: Lie on the floor, on your back, with your knees bent and feet flat. Put a mat underneath you if needed. Next hold the dumbbells over your chest with palms facing inwards. Now squeeze your glutes and press your feet into the floor, lifting your pelvis upwards so you create a line from knee to shoulder. Now, keeping your glutes squeezed and pelvis up, lift the dumbbells upwards until your arms are fully stretched. Pause and squeeze here before slowly lowering the weights back down to complete one rep. Perform 10 reps to complete the set, rest and then go for two more sets.
3. Dumbbell Chest Flyes
Where it targets: This move really challenges the pectoral muscles whilst also targeting the shoulders and biceps and triceps.
How to perform it: Lie on your back on a flat weight bench. Hold a pair of dumbbells over your chest with palms facing inwards and elbows bent slightly. Keeping your arms almost straight, separate your hands as you lower the weights to your sides until you feel a stretch through your chest – your palms should now be facing the ceiling. Hold here for a second before pushing back up to the start position, squeezing your chest at the top. Now repeat for a total of between 8 to 10 reps to complete one set. Perform for another two sets to complete the exercise.
Variation: If you don’t have a bench, you can get on the floor and perform this exercise. Although you’ll have slightly less range of motion, you can still really target the pecs by pausing and squeezing your chest at the top of the movement.
4. One Arm, One Leg Dumbbell Row
Muscles worked: A total body exercise that targets the chest and lats (upper back) while also working the hamstrings. It’s also good for balance.
How to perform it: Standing on one leg, hold on to a solid surface in front of you, if needed, with one hand (this could be a weight bench, table or chair). Take a dumbbell in the other hand and bend down by lifting your leg. Pull the dumbbell up to the side of your waist before slowly lowering it until your arm is extended. Pull the weight back up to the start position, squeeze here at the top for a second and then continue with your next rep. Complete 10 reps in total for one set, then switch sides. Perform three sets on both sides to complete the exercise.
5. One Arm Dumbbell Hang Snatch
Where it targets: A full-body workout with most of the power coming from the hips, the chest however provides stability as you catch the weight. It’s a good workout finisher!
How to perform it: Standing with your feet at shoulder-width, hold a dumbbell straight down in front of you. Keeping your back straight and chest up, push your hips back to come into a half squat and lower the dumbbell in between your knees. Then, in one motion, explode upwards through your hips, pulling the dumbbell straight up until it reaches maximum height, then drop you body underneath and catch it overhead. Lower back to the start position. Repeat for a total of ten reps to complete one set and the switch arms. Perform three sets on each side before moving on to the next exercise.
Note: Do this exercise with a light weight first to get comfortable with the form required, before adding more weight.
Don’t Forget To Stretch!
Once you’re done, remember to stretch out, in particular your chest and shoulders which have done most of the work, to help recovery and prevent delayed onset muscle soreness. For some really effective stretches that target the whole body, take a look at my article on some of the best total body stretches.
Give This Workout A Try
These exercises are designed to target your chest from all different angles, as well as work other key muscle groups, not just in your upper body but your lower body as well, so you get a chest-focused workout with the calorie burning benefits of a total body workout. As with any new routine, especially if you’re new to training with dumbbells, take it easy at first and go lighter with the weights on your first go to ensure you get the proper form and become comfortable with the movements. Then, once you can complete all given reps in each exercise, increase the weight and repeat. This way you’ll continue to challenge your muscles and that’s how strength and mass gains reveal themselves.
Are you a fan of working out with dumbbells, or do you prefer using other types of free weights such as barbells? What gives you the best results? Comment underneath and let me know.