Have you ever wondered what the best piece of equipment is to build a bigger and stronger chest?
Having a bigger chest can be great for a lot of reasons. Heck, who doesn't want to fill out t-shirts better and have more self-confidence?
In the gym, you’ll see many people focusing on the bench press using a barbell to build their chest. This isn’t a bad idea by any means, because a barbell definitely has the potential to help you build a bigger chest ... but that doesn’t make it the undisputed best tool for the job.
Truthfully, I would argue that you should try to use more than one type of equipment in most situations. That way, you are training your muscles in a more well-rounded way.
If I’m choosing just one type though, it’ll be dumbbells every time.
In this article, I’ll explain why dumbbells are the best piece of equipment for chest development. I'll even cover my top 10 chest exercises with dumbbells too! But first, let's talk about the benefits of training with dumbbells...
Benefits of Training With Dumbbells
Don’t get me wrong, other types of equipment like barbells, bands, and machines are all great ways to train too. They just don’t hold the same number of benefits that dumbbells do, and here’s why:
1. Dumbbells Allow For a Greater Range of Motion
Like barbells, dumbbells are a type of free weight. It’s not tethered to anything, so you can move it around as you please. Dumbbells take that a step further though.
With a barbell, both of your hands are on the same bar ... but with dumbbells, each hand moves freely with its own weight. This gives your shoulders and wrists more freedom to move through a comfortable range of motion rather than being restricted.
2. With Dumbbells, You Can Isolate Muscles More Easily
When it comes to isolation movements, not every type of equipment is made for them. Sure, there are bicep curl machines to help isolate your biceps, but that’s all that machine does.
You’d have to have tons of different machines to isolate all of the muscles you want. On top of that, it’s not easy to isolate muscles using a barbell. With dumbbells, you can pretty much do any isolation movement you can imagine.
Want to isolate your biceps? Sure, with dumbbells, that’s fairly easy to do.
Want to isolate your delts 1 at a time? With dumbbells, no problem at all.
Want to isolate your chest? With dumbbells, again no problem.
3. You Can Train One Side of Your Body at a Time to Minimize Muscle Imbalances
For example, when doing a bench press ... most people don’t realize they likely push harder with one side than the other! This can cause one side of your body to become stronger than the other. We call this a muscle imbalance.
Muscle imbalances like this are common, but can lead to injury if not addressed. This usually happens from bilateral training. This just means you're training both sides of your body at the same time with the same weight.
The best way to counteract a muscle imbalance is with unilateral training. This would be training one side of the body at a time.
With dumbbells, each hand gets its own weight. This means both sides will have to work as hard as the other to lift the weight. Because of this, it can help put your body in better balance.
That doesn't mean you should only do unilateral training though ... it's good to get the whole body working together sometimes, and it’s more functional that way.
Just throw in a few unilateral exercises during your workouts. This can help minimize your risk of muscle imbalances.
4. Dumbbells Target More Stabilization Muscles
Ever wondered why it’s easier to bench press with a barbell than it is to use dumbbells with an equal amount of weight?
On average, people can lift about 20% more weight with a barbell than they can with dumbbells. The reasoning all has to do with the amount of stabilization required.
Like I said earlier, when you train with a barbell, both hands are on the same bar. So when doing a bench press for example, both arms work together to stabilize and control the same weight.
Because they are working together, it actually requires less muscle activation to keep things stable. That also means that more blood can go to the prime movers (main muscles involved) rather than the stabilizers. With dumbbells though, it’s a different story.
Because each arm has its own weight, there is no limit to how many directions the weight can move as you try to control it. This causes an increased need for stabilization ... which is when your stabilizing muscles will be activated for safe movement.
The more stabilization muscles get involved, the more blood they'll pull. This just leaves less blood for the prime movers like the pectoralis major and triceps.
That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing though. In fact, it's a good thing because it strengthens some of the smaller muscles that don’t get worked as much.
5. You Can Train Anywhere with Dumbbells
It doesn’t matter which exercise you’re doing, or how much space you have to do it, you can likely use dumbbells for it. They are portable, so you can take them to a different area if need be.
You could be in a crowded gym, and every machine you want to use could be taken. Well, grab a pair of dumbbells and walk to an open spot. Problem solved.
You want to work out at home, but it’s a nice day out? Grab some dumbbells and take them outside. Problem solved.
You can’t bring machines wherever you want because they’re too heavy and bulky. You can’t bring barbells everywhere either, because they are too big to move in tight spaces.
Dumbbells are small, portable, and easy to train with no matter where you are.
Now, I think you get the picture ... so let's go ahead and take a look at my top 10 dumbbell chest exercises!
Top 10 Dumbbell Chest Exercises
For each of these exercises, it’s important to make sure your shoulders are set properly. This will help ensure they are ready to support heavy weight and prevent unwanted injuries.
To do this, you just need to pull the shoulders back and down with a slight arch in the mid back. You should feel like your chest is being puffed out a little bit.
Keeping that in mind, let’s get into these exercises!
1. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
This is a classic exercise that targets the upper chest, shoulder, and the triceps.
How To: Set a bench to about a 45-degree angle, and sit back on it with a pair of dumbbells held at arm's length above your chest.
Start by slowly allowing your elbows to drop around a 45-degree angle from your torso until the dumbbells are at the outer edges of your chest.
Engage your chest and triceps in order to press the weights back up to the starting position.
Squeeze the pecs for a second at the top, and then repeat for reps.
2. Dumbbell Chest Fly
This is an isolation exercise for your pecs. It's a great way to strengthen them and help support a heavier bench press over time.
How To: Lie back on a flat bench holding a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length above your chest. Make sure your palms are facing each other.
Keep a slight bend in your elbows throughout the movement as well. Start by drawing your arms out to either side of your body like you're opening up for a big hug.
Once you feel a good stretch in your pecs, squeeze your chest to pull the weight back to center.
Squeeze your pecs for a second at the top, and then repeat for reps.
3. Dumbbell Shoulder Press
This exercise targets the upper chest, shoulders, and triceps. The higher the incline, the more emphasis goes to the shoulder though.
So while the shoulder press is putting more work on the shoulders ... it's still a great exercise to develop the upper chest at a different angle.
How To: Sit on a bench set up at a 90-degree angle with a pair of dumbbells held at or just above your shoulders.
Engage your pecs, shoulders, and triceps in order to press the weight straight up overhead.
Squeeze your pecs, shoulders, and triceps at the top for a second before slowly returning to the starting position.
Repeat this for reps.
4. Close-Grip Dumbbell Chest Press
This is a great exercise that really fatigues the chest, and it gives the triceps a great workout too.
How To: Lie back on a flat bench with a pair of dumbbells held together at your chest.
Your palms should be facing each other like you’re about to do a chest fly. To begin, engage your pecs to press the dumbbells together.
From here, engage your shoulders and triceps in order to press the dumbbells up over the chest. Make sure the dumbbells never stop touching each other!
When you reach the top of the movement, squeeze your pecs for a second. Then, slowly return the dumbbells back to your chest.
Repeat this for reps.
5. Bridged Dumbbell Floor Press
This is similar to the movement of a bench press, but you’re lying on the floor with your hips bridged up. This targets the lower pecs, and really strengthens the top portion of your chest press.
How To: Lie down on the ground in a sit-up position with a pair of dumbbells held just outside your chest.
Make sure your elbows are flared out about 45 degrees from your body. Your entire upper arm down to your elbow should be touching the floor.
Drive your heels into the ground and squeeze your glutes in order to bridge your hips up off the ground.
Your body should be in a straight line from your shoulders through your hips to your knees. This is the starting position, so make sure to keep your core engaged.
Squeeze your chest and triceps to push the weight above your chest. Squeeze your chest at the top before slowly returning your arms to the ground.
Pause for a second at the bottom with your upper arms resting on the ground, and then repeat for reps.
6. Arnold Press
This is a classic move made popular by Arnold Schwarzenegger to target all 3 heads of the shoulder. It also uses the chest quite a bit too! This makes it an overall great exercise for strength and muscle development.
How To: Sit on a bench set up at a 90-degree angle with a pair of dumbbells held at or just above your shoulders. Your elbows should be tucked in front of you with your palms facing toward you.
Engage your pecs, shoulders, and triceps to press the weight overhead. At the same time, rotate your palms and elbows outward all in one fluid motion.
At the top of the movement, your arms should be straight overhead with your palms facing away from you.
Squeeze your pecs, shoulders, and triceps at the top for a second. As you lower your arms, allow your elbows to come out to the side until they reach shoulder height.
Once you pass your shoulders with your elbows, rotate your palms and elbows back inward until you reach the starting position.
Now, repeat this for reps.
7. Standing Dumbbell Squeeze Press
This is an interesting and less well-known chest exercise, but boy does it set your chest on fire! It’s basically a close-grip chest press while standing, but it hits the muscle in a totally different way.
How To: Start by standing up tall with your core tight, palms facing each other, and a pair of dumbbells at your chest. Make sure to keep the dumbbells together for the entire exercise.
Space your feet to be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. With a slight bend in your hips and knees, get into an athletic position.
Engage your pecs to press the dumbbells together, then press them straight out in front of you.
Squeeze the dumbbells together for another second, then slowly draw your arms back in. Repeat this for reps.
8. Standing Cross-Body Front Raise
This is a variation of the front raise! Instead of raising your arms in front of your chest ... you'll actually cross your body with your arm in order to put more emphasis on the pecs.
How To: Grab a pair of dumbbells and hold them at your sides with your palms facing in front of you.
Stand up tall with your feet spaced hip-width apart. Be sure your knees and hips are bent slightly to get you into an athletic position.
Raise one arm at a time as you cross it in front of your body. The dumbbell should land directly in front of your opposite shoulder.
Squeeze your pec for a second before slowly returning back to the starting position.
Repeat on the other side, and keep alternating for the same number of reps on both sides until your set is finished.
9. Dumbbell Pullover
This exercise targets the pecs a little differently than the others. However, it's great for increasing control through a full range of motion. This exercise even targets your lats as well.
This one is a little more complicated to explain, so pay attention.
How To: Walk up to the side of a bench, facing away from it. Sit down in front of the bench and place your upper back against the bench. From here, lift your hips from the ground by squeezing your glutes to form a bridge. Make sure to keep your core tight as well.
Adjust your position on the bench so your head is off the bench. Your upper back and shoulders should be the only part of your body touching the bench.
Grab a single dumbbell and place it vertically on your chest. Form a diamond around the center bar with your hands to support the underside of the top weight on the dumbbell.
Press the weight up off your chest ... this is the starting position. From here, keep your arms slightly bent as you draw them behind your head. When the dumbbell makes it behind your head, you should feel a stretch in your lats. Brace your core and pull with your chest and lats to bring the weight back to the starting position.
Repeat this for reps.
10. Reverse-Grip Dumbbell Bench Press
This feels a little odd if you aren’t used to it, so make sure to choose a weight you can for sure hold onto. This grip variation targets the upper chest.
How To: Lie back on a flat bench holding a pair of dumbbells at your chest with your palms turned toward your face.
Squeezing the handles to maintain a strong grip, engage your chest and triceps to press the weight straight up over your chest.
Squeeze your pecs for a second at the top, and then slowly return back to the starting position. Repeat this for reps.
Putting It All Together
With the right effort and consistency, you can really do a lot with dumbbells. They can help with every type of fitness goal as well.
Whether you want to:
• Lose body fat
• Build muscle
• Gain strength
• Get into better cardiovascular shape
You can do all of that with dumbbells! Now, your results won't come solely from the equipment you use, or from how hard you work out. There are more variables to consider.
Nutrition, for one, is a HUGE component of your results too ... and it’s definitely not the easiest thing to nail down either. There’s a reason for the saying “Abs are made in the kitchen.”
If you work out hard and eat right ... you can see amazing results! But, if your diet is off, you could also struggle to see any at all.
That's why most people start and quit every year.
It’s not easy to actually get your body where you want it to be, but that’s where we can help. We have made it our mission to help real people like you see real, long-term results.
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 Heinecke ML, Mauldin ML, Hunter ML, Mann JB, Mayhew JL. Relationship of Barbell and Dumbbell Repetitions With One Repetition Maximum Bench Press in College Football Players. J Strength Cond Res. 2021 Feb 1;35(Suppl 1):S66-S71. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003539. PMID: 33666593.
 Saeterbakken AH, van den Tillaar R, Fimland MS. A comparison of muscle activity and 1-RM strength of three chest-press exercises with different stability requirements. J Sports Sci. 2011 Mar;29(5):533-8. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2010.543916. PMID: 21225489.