There are lots of different variations of the bench press; barbell, dumbbell and machine to name a few. That said, is one better than the other for building a better chest? In this video, I’m going to pit them all head to head in an iron face off challenge. I will go over the pros and cons of each version of the bench press exercise to land on one ultimate winner when it comes to your training.
That said, we start off with the dumbbell bench press. I’m using the flat bench version of this exercise throughout the video rather than an incline or decline so that we keep one variable of bench angle out of the decision. With the dumbbell bench press we have the opportunity to weight the exercise quite a bit, making it a good option for progressive overload.
The issue however is the amount of shoulder stability that is required because of the independent motion of the dumbbells vs the fixed bar you use in a barbell bench press. That said, the mechanics of the press are even a little different. With the barbell bench press, the weights are wider apart and balanced equally around your hands in almost a see-saw mechanics. The dumbbells have all of their weight distributed in a much smaller amount of space (your hand) making it more difficult to support their motion.
Back to the dumbbell press however, you gain some additional range of motion here that you are not afforded with the barbell bench press. This is because the hands are not fixed on a bar and therefore can travel towards each other into adduction towards the top of the movement. This extra range of motion does require more control and time under tension however making this somewhat more difficult than the straight up and down bar path of the bench press.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that the adduction that does occur here in this bench press variation is resisted however. Side to side motion of the dumbbells at the top is not altered by the downward force of gravity. You may feel more going on in your chest because you are able to actively contract your chest and feel the squeeze as it does so. This just isn’t occurring under any additional resistance and it is something worth noting since it is something people point to as an advantage of dumbbell bench that really is not an advantage.
The standing machine press does provide you with a greater opportunity to resist adduction of the arms, but at a cost. It requires a tremendous amount of core stability to counteract the push of the weights away from your body, and even more so, the slow return of the weights back to the stack. If you have a weak core you will not be able to match your true pressing strength ever with this variation of a bench and will therefore be selling your capabilities short.
Even the laying down version of the machine cable bench is limited by the ability to “curl” the weight into position to even start performing your reps.
The overall winner becomes the barbell bench press. Though slightly limited in its range of motion, it does allow for the greatest amount of progressive overload and strength building. You can press up to 20 percent more weight in this version than you can the dumbbell version as a matter of fact. If you were seeking pure strength, the barbell is the clear choice for these reasons. If you wanted an additional hypertrophy boost you would simply bookend this exercise with another that you could do standing that would overload adduction more significantly. My choice here would be the 3D crossover.
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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.