BEST CHEST EXERCISES WITH DUMBBELLS
Today I’m going to share my favorite chest exercises… but there’s a catch.
We can only use dumbbells!
And when it comes to the chest, some training goals become much harder if we can’t use a barbell. However, the truth is that sometimes we’ve got equipment limitations, so we need to find some workarounds.
I’m not going to give you a random collection of dumbbell chest exercises…
Each of my choices has got a purpose behind it!
I’ll show you what to do whether you are training for hypertrophy, strength or power. I’ll also give you the best options for metabolic overload, total body and corrective, as well as one exercise that helps us address the lack of adduction that we have when we’re strapped with dumbbells as our only implement.
The first exercise for strength is going to require an equipment modification using a dog leash.
Yep, that’s right. A dog leash!
(And no, you’re not going to be resisting the strength of a Mastiff or a Great Dane pulling you around.)
It’s a cheap and easy hack for building strength if you don’t have access to a complete gym.
So, let’s get started and I’ll break it down, one by one!
Progressively overloading the chest is much easier if you can use a barbell.
The barbell bench press would be the ideal option for chest strength, but we need to come up with something using only dumbbells.
Before we make a jump to the dumbbell variation of a bench press, let’s look at another great exercise for chest strength, the weighted dip.
The weighted dip is a good exercise for overloading the chest, although it involves some other muscles as well. You can favor the chest in this exercise by leaning forward more and making sure your shoulder blades are down and back.
Now what happens when we try to substitute dumbbells in these two exercises?
If I go from a barbell bench press to a dumbbell bench press I run into a little bit of a problem. I’m never going to be able to press the same weight that I could with a barbell once I split the weight between the two dumbbells in each hand.
The stability requirements inherent in the use of two dumbbells in the bench press will undermine our ability to press with the same amount of strength as we could in the barbell version of the bench press.
You’ve probably experienced that firsthand if you’ve ever tried to move from a barbell bench press to a dumbbell bench press.
So, now let’s reevaluate that dip.
We can substitute dumbells for the plate as the weight in this exercise with one simple tweak.
I’m using a dog leash here. It’s a simple, no excuses way to do this.
I just wrap the dog leash around and through the handle, around the dumbbell, and then to itself.
Now you’ve got a perfectly weighted dip belt of any weight!
1) DUMBBELL WEIGHTED DIP
When training for strength, it’s important to focus on safely lifting that heavier weight, and in the process we want to be sure not to sacrifice shoulder stability. When moving to a dumbbell version of the bench press you will find that your shoulder instability from holding separate dumbbells will undercut your overall strength.
I prefer the dip done with a dumbbell because it doesn’t create this issue and allows you to keep working on progressive overload, and keep those strength gains coming!
The element of speed is critical to maximizing the effect of power training for our chest.
Whenever we want to work on power, we are looking for an exercise that we can move as quickly as possible without having to sacrifice the weight.
My preference for this is a sled push away, because it allows us the ability to release the load that we’re trying to accelerate, but it’s not a dumbbell exercise.
So if we’re limited by equipment, we’ve got to find a dumbbell exercise that allows us to do the same thing, because it’s critical for maximizing power development.
Let’s say we wanted to do a dumbbell bench press and opted to accelerate the weight as fast as possible. We’d find that as we approach full extension, the body inherently slows down the weight as a protective mechanism for the joints and to prepare for the next rep.
This deceleration is exactly the opposite of what you want if you’re trying to maximize force development.
However, we do have a dumbbell option that allows us to accelerate through the entire rep and then release the weight as we did with the sled push away.
Technically it’s a bodyweight exercise using the dumbbells just as targets.
Check out this explosive Plyo Tap.
2) PLYO TAP
Performing an explosive Plyo Tap pushup allows you to fully express your power by accelerating through the rep, unhindered by the length of your arms as in the bench press.
Trust me, this is not an easy exercise.
If you continue to choose heavier dumbbells, their height will increase more and more which will force you to push off the ground faster and more explosively.
It’s key that you perform these to a submaximal level. Don’t take them all the way to failure.
Leave a couple in the tank, but maximize the force and speed with which you push, and I promise you the best gains from this exercise!
You’ve probably heard at some point that you don’t need to get sore in order to build big muscles.
While that is absolutely true, at some point you’ll have to get sore, because you’re going to dry up with how much weight you can continue to load to the bar.
Metabolic training alone – which we’ll talk about next – is ultimately going to become limited in its ability to overload your muscles because of the lighter weights that you use to perform those exercises.
In order to keep the gains coming, eventually you’re going to need to explore an eccentrically overloaded exercise option.
That’s why I want to arm you with the best one!
My favorite dumbbell chest exercise for eccentric overload is the Eccentric Floor Fly.
3) ECCENTRIC FLOOR FLY
If you care about the health of your shoulders, DON’T use a bench for this exercise!
Instead, get down on the floor, pick up a pair of dumbbells and press them to the top as you would with a normal bench press. Then slowly lower them as in a fly, concentrating on the eccentric lowering of the weights to put the stress on the pecs.
In this exercise you can actually use heavier than normal weight to maximize your muscle growth effect. This is because it allows for a cheat up to the top of the rep and also because your shoulders are safely supported by the floor.
Don’t worry about the fact that you’re not flying back to the top. We’ll cover the adduction in our later exercise selections!
This exercise will be an absolute winner for you when it comes to creating that eccentric muscle damage, and ultimately, more growth.
Metabolic training is a good option for building more muscle. However it does require that you leave your ego at the door because you have to do this with lighter weights.
But be warned, light weights alone will not cut it!
Light weights with an applied stress, meant to increase metabolic stress inside of your muscles is how you create a change.
I chose the dumbbell bench press, although it doesn’t matter whether or not you choose to do it flat or on an incline.
It’s how you perform the exercise that matters the most!
In metabolic training we need to find the burn and then stay there for as long as possible, because that’s what creates the spark for protein synthesis.
How do we do this?
We perform this dumbbell bench press ladder style.
4) LADDER STYLE DUMBBELL BENCH PRESS
Perform your first repetition of the bench press and then pause for a single second at the bottom of the rep. On the next repetition, hold for two seconds in the most difficult portion of the rep. If you continue to add one second to the hold on every single repetition performed you’ll start to feel a strong burn pretty quickly!
Then the key is how long you can withstand it…
If you give in too soon, you’re going to lose the benefits of this training!
So, how the hell are you going to train your whole body when you’re training your chest?
I’m not always trying to find the exercise that I can load maximally.
When considering total body, I’m trying to find the exercise that I can have a maximum impact on as many areas of my body as possible.
For that, I like the Bench Press Up.
5) BENCH PRESS UP
In this exercise, it’s not about the weight we’re using. It’s about the requirements of our body to perform it.
Not only do I need to be able to perform an incline bench press, but I need to be able to have thoracic mobility to keep those dumbbells up overhead.
It’s a similar concept to a Turkish getup, which is not necessarily programmed for any one specific purpose. Instead it trains our entire body to synchronize its different segments to get us off the ground as efficiently as possible.
That’s what we’re doing with the Bench Press Up.
If you see those dumbbells caving forward, either you’ve chosen too heavy of a weight or you’re lacking in thoracic mobility.
If I want to take this exercise to another level and add an additional body segment, I can try to stand.
Standing from a seated position is very similar to standing from the bottom of an overhead squat, and the requirements for the thoracic spine to be able to do that properly become even more difficult.
With this move, not only are you training your chest, but you’re reinforcing mobility and some additional requirements that are going to benefit you in many areas of your training.
Just because the corrective exercises are small movements, it doesn’t mean they’re any less important!
In this case, just as with our power exercise, we’re not using the dumbbells for overload. Instead we’re going to use them as an implement to accomplish a stretch on the pec minor.
You’re probably saying to yourself “Who cares about the pec minor? I only want to develop my pec major.”
Your pec minor is a very important muscle because it tends to get tightened and short. This can cause compression and thoracic atlas syndrome, which leads to neurological and vascular issues down your arm – like tingling – things you don’t want happening during your training or in your everyday life.
We want to stretch out this muscle, because when it gets tight it tends to bring your shoulders up and forward which is detrimental to your posture and shoulder integrity.
To do this, lie on a foam roller with a set of very light dumbbells, place your arms overhead and squeeze your shoulder blades back, down and around.
6) PEC MINOR STRETCH
When you get that retraction and depression of the shoulder blades, lift your arms up and out to the side to allow the dumbbells to sink lower than the elbow. That creates external rotation at the shoulder.
Allow the weights to let you sink into that stretch and try to stay here for 45 seconds or so. If you want to do this two or three times, even better!
You’ll find that this stretch really starts to loosen up your upper chest, and more importantly, starts to help reposition those shoulders back and down where they belong!
Adduction of the arm is a key function of the chest that simply doesn’t get hit with just the bench press, pushups and dips.
In order to get full chest activation, we’ve got to get the hand and arm fully across the midline of our body.
You might be thinking, “The chest fly.”
I don’t like to do the fly on a bench, and if we do it on the floor, at best we’re only getting to midline, but not across it.
There is a better dumbbell option for this, the Dumbbell UCV Raise.
7) DUMBBELL UCV HIGH RAISE
In the ‘high’ version of this exercise we are trying to take that arm from the low and away position, up and across your body, following the direction of the fibers of the upper chest.
If we can ‘follow the fibers’, we can get good chest activation.
This is not about using a really heavy weight. Instead it’s about achieving that full chest contraction by virtue of getting to full adduction in the exercise.
We also have a second option with this movement.
We can take a low approach.
To do this, hold the dumbbell down at your side and shrug up and across your body so that the dumbbell lines up under the opposite pec.
8) DUMBBELL UCV LOW RAISE
This will allow you to get the same strong adduction, feeling it more from the bottom up.
If you’re going to work your chest with dumbbells, make sure to include adduction exercises into your routine!
I’ve given you the best dumbbell chest exercises for a variety of different training goals, as well as my justification for why I’ve chosen each. Give these exercises a shot whenever you don’t have access to a barbell or if you just want to bring an extra challenge to your chest training!
- If you’ve only got dumbbells to work with, what would be the best exercises for chest? It depends on your training goal. I’ve shown you the best dumbbell chest exercises for strength, power, hypertrophy, corrective, total body and a special focused exercise for adduction.
- For strength my favorite dumbbell exercise is a Dumbbell Weighted Dip. With just a small equipment tweak it allows you to load the weight in exactly the same way as with a plate, and there is no stability factor limiting your ability to overload as there would be in a dumbbell version of a bench press.
- For power I chose the Plyo Tap because it allows you to release the weight you’re accelerating similar to a sled push away. This is much better than a bench press performed explosively, which has an inherent deceleration at the end point of the rep.
- For hypertrophy we need to explore an eccentrically overloaded exercise, and the Eccentric Floor Fly is a great option for this which is also safe for the shoulders.
- For a metabolic challenge, you can perform a Ladder Style Dumbbell Bench Press to find the burn and stay in it.
- If you’re short on time and looking for a total body move that also includes the chest, the Bench Press Up is an ideal option.
- As a physical therapist I like to include corrective movements, and the Pec Minor Stretch is great for loosening this very important muscle that tends to get tightened and short, with the potential for causing neurological and vascular issues.
- Finally, I’ve chosen two variations of the Dumbbell UCV Raise for adduction, which tends to be lacking in the most popular chest exercises.
Our ATHLEAN programs will give you the fastest and safest training plan for your current goals. I lay it out step by step with all the best tips and science based explanations behind my exercise choices. Check out our Program Selector to see which program best suits your training goals!