There is little doubt regarding the effectiveness of the bench press for developing the chest, shoulders and triceps. There are various options avilable, however – and a common query is the difference between the barbell and dumbbell bench press.
Bench pressing is rightly considered the bread and butter of chest training. It is unquestionably one of the most effective upper body exercises for bodybuilding and strength athletes; hence it is widely used among a variety of weight trainers.
The bench press itself can be performed in a number of ways; an array of angles can be used (decline, flat and incline) and the trainer can perform the bench press on a machine, lever system or free weights – typically using a barbell or set of dumbbells.
The dumbbell and barbell bench press are by far the most popular and logical choices for most, so we will examine if one should be favoured over the other.
It is often wrongly assumed that the barbell bench press is the superior choice if the trainer wishes to add muscle bulk to their chest. This school of thought is often accompanied with the view that the dumbbell bench press is a better option for shaping the chest, which is also off the mark.
Let us explain; muscle bulk and shape are both achieved by muscle hypertrophy (growth), so it is the exercise which results in the greater potential for growth which will be considered superior in both these regards, and that’s assuming either exercise shows notable superiority.
There is a practical benefit of the barbell bench press which is not possessed to the same degree by the dumbbell bench press, and that is the ability of a spotter to aid the trainer during the exercise. Greater muscle stimulation can be achieved if the trainer is pushed to the limit, therefore placing greater demand on the chest fibres. The barbell bench press is a lot easier to spot making it much easier for the experienced spotter to aid the trainer as they fatigue.
The barbell bench press does target the chest in a slightly different way compared to the dumbbell bench press, with the front deltoids (shoulders) and upper chest more involved during the exercise and the lower chest less active.
One of the main advantages of the dumbbell bench press is its unilateral characteristic, or in other words – the ability of both sides of the body to independently lift equal poundage. This can be a great benefit to those trainers who suffer from muscle imbalances, as well as reducing the chance of such imbalances going forward. This unilateral trait also leads to a greater involvement of assistive muscle groups which will benefit the trainer greatly.
As mentioned above, the barbell bench press targets the front deltoids and upper chest to a greater extent compared to the dumbbell bench press. The dumbbell bench press stimulates the lower region of the chest to a higher degree. The difference between the two is due to the position of the hands as the weight is pushed upward. The dumbbell variation involves the hands being brought closer together at the top of the exercise, whilst the barbell bench press has the hands fixed in position throughout.
The above discussion is targeted exclusively to those focused purely on aesthetics. Strength athletes will much more likely incorporate the barbell bench press in their routine because it is easier to spot during heavy loads. Furthermore, it may be a competition event for some athletes so they will benefit from event specific strength gains.
For bodybuilders, it would be logical to include both dumbbell and barbell bench pressing within their routine. As shown above, both have advantages and offer slightly different stimulation so a well-balanced routine should find time for both. This does not mean both exercises should be included in each chest workout – it means it would make sense to periodically switch from one to the other to give your chest workouts a shakeup.