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best dumbbell exercises for chest


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 chest size and strength development, some training goals become much harder if we can’t use a barbell. However, the truth is that sometimes we’ve got equipment limitations such as when we’re doing a home workout, 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!

These exercises will help you hit the upper, mid and lower chest using dumbbells only.

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 effective chest exercise that helps us address the lack of adduction that we have when we’re strapped with dumbbells as our only implement.

I recommend that you use a couple of these exercises in your chest day workouts depending on your goals, rather than trying to use all of them in a single chest workout at home with dumbbells. If you’re looking for a complete chest day workout plan, and you’re NOT limited by equipment, you can check out the Chest Workouts guide I put together.


  1. Dumbbell Weighted Dip
  2. Plyo Tap
  3. Eccentric Floor Fly
  4. Ladder Style Dumbbell Bench Press
  5. Bench Press Up
  6. Pec Minor Stretch
  7. Dumbbell UCV High Raise
  8. Dumbbell UCV Low Raise

The first exercise below for developing a stronger chest 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. If you don’t have one in your home gym arsenal, I recommend you invest in one.

So, let’s get started and I’ll break it down, one by one!

chest pec muscles anatomy including clavicular head, sternal and abdominal head


Progressively overloading the chest is much easier if you can use barbell training.

The barbell bench press would be the ideal option to build your chest strength, but we need to come up with something using only heavy dumbbells.

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barbell bench press for chest
The barbell bench press is the most obvious choice for chest strength, but you need a barbell to do it!

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.

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weighted dip for chest
The weighted dip is another great exercise for progressive overload of the chest.

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 flat bench press to a dumbbell bench press variation 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 barbell presses 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.

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.

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dumbbell bench press not a good exercise for chest strength
Because of stability, you won’t be able to push as much weight in a dumbbell bench press as you would in a barbell bench press.

So, now let’s reevaluate that dip.

We can substitute dumbbells for the heavy barbell plates as the extra resistance 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. Of course, you can use this dog leash trick with weight plates as well!

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dog leash trick for dumbbell weighted dip
To convert the dip to a dumbbell exercise, use a dog leash wrapped around a dumbbell.

Now you’ve got a perfectly weighted dip belt of any weight!


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dumbbell weighted dip for chest

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 heavy dumbbells will undercut your overall strength.


  1. Tie the dumbbell around your waist using my dog leash technique and get up onto the dip apparatus.
  2. For starting position, lower yourself down, keeping your elbows at a 90 degree angle in the bottom portion of the movement.
  3. Then brace your core and squeeze your chest to push yourself upward to return to the starting position.
  4. Be sure to use proper form with core tight throughout the exercise.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: The Dumbbell Weighted Dip doesn’t sacrifice shoulder stability and allows you to keep working on progressive overload, and build a bigger stronger chest!



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.

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sled push away for chest
A sled push away is a great exercise that allows us 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 an exercise with dumbbells 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.

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dumbbell bench press is not a good power exercise for chest
The dumbbell bench press isn’t a good option for power because we automatically decelerate the weight as we approach full extension, when what we want is acceleration.

This deceleration is exactly the opposite of what you want if you’re trying to maximize force development.

However, we do have a chest 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.


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plyo tap chest exercise for power


  1. You’ll start out in high plank position with a set of dumbbells set up on their ends in front of you.
  2. Perform plyometric push-ups, tapping the dumbbells on each rep with no rest periods.
  3. 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.
  4. Be sure to keep your core tight throughout the movement.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: 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 you are when you’re bench pressing. Trust me, this ‘dumbbell push-up’ is not an easy exercise and it will test your muscular endurance.

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using heavier dumbbells will mean a greater height for your plyo taps
Keep increasing the weight of your dumbbells so that the height increases to make this exercise increasingly challenging.

It’s key that you perform these to a submaximal level. Don’t take them all the way to muscle failure.

Leave a couple in the tank, but maximize the force and speed with which you push, and I promise you the best chest gains from this exercise!


You’ve probably heard at some point that you don’t need to get sore in order to build big chest musculature.

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 chest muscles because of the lighter weights that you use to perform those exercises.

In order to build a bigger chest, 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.


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eccentric floor fly for chest hypertrophy

If you care about the health of your shoulder joints, DON’T use a weight bench for this exercise! Instead do it as a dumbbell floor press.

In this dumbbell chest fly variation, 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!


  1. For starting position for this dumbbell fly variation, lie down on the floor in a neutral position, press the dumbbells directly overhead, angled at a 45 degree angle to your chest with arms shoulder width apart.
  2. Press the to the top as you would with a normal bench press.
  3. Lower the weight slowly with a slight bend to your elbows as in a dumbbell flye, concentrating on the eccentric phase, lowering of the weights to put the stress on the pectoral muscle.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: This exercise will be an absolute winner for you when it comes to creating that eccentric muscle fiber 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 chest muscles is how you create a change.

I chose the incline dumbbell bench press, although it doesn’t matter whether or not you choose to do it flat or in incline positions on an adjustable bench.

It’s how you perform the dumbbell press that matters the most!

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incline bench press
You can use the dumbbell flat bench press or even the incline bench press to create metabolic stress in the muscles.
What is metabolic training?

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 incline dumbbell chest press ladder style.


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ladder style dumbbell bench press for metabolic chest exercise


  1. For starting position, lie on an incline bench with dumbbells at chest level in each hand and squeeze the chest palms facing forward.
  2. Press the weights up, then lower them pausing for a single second at the bottom of the rep.
  3. On the next repetition, hold for two seconds in the most difficult portion of the rep.
  4. Be sure to use proper form, maintaining core stability on every rep to avoid risk of injury.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: 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 chest press variation!


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.


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bench press up total body chest exercise

In this full-body 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 dumbbell incline bench presses, 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 during these dumbbell incline presses, you see those dumbbells caving forward, either you’ve chosen too heavy of a weight or you’re lacking in thoracic mobility. Try a more moderate weight and see how it affects your form.

If I want to take this exercise to another level and add an additional body segment, I can try to stand.

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take the bench press up to standing for a total body chest exercise
To add an additional component of difficulty to the Bench Press Up, take it to standing.

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.


  1. Sit on an incline bench with a pair of dumbbells in your hands.
  2. Press the dumbbells in an upward angle with the path of motion above your shoulders.
  3. Then sit up at a 90 degree angle.
  4. Then stand up if you can.
  5. Return to the starting position and repeat.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: 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 stretched position on the pectoralis minor.

You’re probably saying to yourself “Who cares about the pec minor? I only want to develop my pectoralis major.”

Your pectoralis 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, causing shoulder issues down the road.



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pec minor stretch corrective chest exercise


  1. For starting position, lie on a foam roller with a set of very light dumbbells.
  2. Raise the dumbbells overhead, then bend your elbows and squeeze your shoulder blades back, down and around.
  3. When you get that retraction and depression of the shoulder blades, lift your arms up and out toward the side of your rib cage to allow the dumbbells to sink lower than the elbow slightly wider than shoulderwidth apart. That creates external rotation at the shoulder.
  4. 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!

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: You’ll find that this stretch really starts to loosen up your upper chest muscle fibers, and more importantly, starts to help reposition those shoulders back and down where they belong!

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lift your arms up and out to the side to achieve a full pec minor stretch
Once your shoulder blades are retracted down, lift your arms up and out to the side to achieve the full Pec Minor Stretch.


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 muscle fiber 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 weight 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.


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dumbbell ucv high raise chest adduction exercise


  1. 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.
  2. Standing with feet flat on the floor and holding a dumbbell in your left hand lift the dumbbell straight up with an underhand grip, keeping it at arms length, bending your elbow slightly.
  3. Lower the dumbbell slowly and repeat.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: If we can ‘follow the fibers’, we can get good chest activation. And training each side of the chest individually, we achieve muscle activation of each side separately, helping to prevent muscle imbalances.

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upper chest activation in dumbbell ucv high raise
You can see how hard of an upper chest contraction we can achieve with the Dumbbell UCV High Raise.

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.


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dumbbell ucv low raise for chest adduction


  1. We also have a second option with this movement. We can take a low approach. To do this, stand with feet shoulder width apart.
  2. Hold the dumbbell down at your side and shrug up and across your body so that the dumbbell lines up under the opposite pec.
  3. Lower the dumbbell and repeat.

WHAT MAKES IT EFFECTIVE: 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! These upper body moves will help you build a bigger better chest, regardless of what your goal is.

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, exercise videos and science based explanations behind my exercise choices.  Check out our Program Selector to see which program best suits your training goals and experience level!


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. For a metabolic challenge, you can perform a Ladder Style Dumbbell Bench Press to find the burn and stay in it.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Finally, I’ve chosen two variations of the Dumbbell UCV Raise for adduction, which tends to be lacking in the most popular chest exercises.


It's definitely possible to build pec muscle definition with just a pair of dumbbells.  Adjustable dumbbells are the best option to choose, so that you can use different weights for different exercises and scale up as you build strength. In order to get a good chest workout, it's imperative that you train every major muscle in the entire chest including all the areas of the pec major and the pectoralis minor. If you're looking to build a well-defined chest, the areas of the pec major you want to be sure to target include the clavicular head, the sternal head, and the abdominal head. 

Dumbbell chest exercises can be very effective at training all the parts of the pec major and the pectoralis minor. The areas of the pectoralis major you want to be sure to target include the clavicular head, the sternal head, and the abdominal head. When doing dumbbell training, be sure to consider your fitness goals and training variables to be sure to choose the most effective exercises for you. 

You can get a great dumbbell workout routine for the chest from home using nothing but a pair of dumbbells.  At home if you don't have a flat bench, an ottoman or other flat elevated surface will suffice. The areas of the pec major you want to be sure to target include the clavicular head, the sternal head, and the abdominal head.

You can get a well-developed chest by using exercises that build muscle through progressive overload. These include exercises that allow you to use a heavy load in compound movements like Weighted Dips or a Dumbbell Bench Press done on a flat weight bench.  This can even be done at home using dumbbell training if you've got access to dumbbells.

You can achieve chest muscle development by doing compound exercises that build muscle mass and achieve chest hypertrophy through progressive overload. These include a Dumbbell Bench Press exercise, and Weighted Dips. It's also important to include single arm dumbbell exercises (done with a single dumbbell) in your workouts with dumbbells to prevent any muscle imbalances and achieve muscle symmetry in the pec major. 

A solid chest dumbbell workout program includes effective exercises that hit all of the areas of the pec major and the pec minor and includes multiple types of training including for strength, power, hypertrophy, metabolic, total body and corrective. Including multiple types of training in your chest training program will improve your chest development and gains.

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Jeff Cavaliere M.S.P.T, CSCS

Jeff Cavaliere is a Physical Therapist, Strength Coach and creator of the ATHLEAN-X Training Programs and ATHLEAN-Rx Supplements. He has a Masters in Physical Therapy (MSPT) and has worked as Head Physical Therapist for the New York Mets, as well as training many elite professional athletes in Major League Baseball, NFL, MMA and professional wrestling. His programs produce “next level” achievements in muscle size, strength and performance for professional athletes and anyone looking to build a muscular athletic physique.

Read more about Jeff Cavaliere by clicking here

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