Most modern gyms provide a large variety of training equipment to help their members pursue their individual goals in the most effective way. Unlike their predecessors, modern lifters are able to target specific body parts in very specific ways with the help of specialized tools.
Although it’s safe to say that there is no one best piece of equipment, since different types of equipment are designed to achieve different outcomes, barbells and dumbbells have remained as the two most popular tools in any bodybuilders’ training arsenal. That’s because no matter how great certain machines are, free weight training is unavoidable for anyone looking to build muscle and real strength.
That being said, barbells are considered to be more effective for developing max strength, while dumbbells are mainly used for joint-isolation exercises. But there’s more to dumbbell training than one might think – using dumbbells for full-body, multi-planar movements can provide a variety of strength gains which can’t be unlocked with the use of barbell. Here are a few important advantages of training with dumbbells:
Muscle Activation with Dumbbells
Since handling dumbbells requires more balance and stabilization throughout the movement, the muscle fibers of the targeted muscles and the stabilizing muscles will be maximally recruited in a way that can’t be achieved with barbells or machines. Also, dumbbell exercises require both inter- and intramuscular coordination, which causes greater levels of muscle activation and can significantly improve coordination between different body parts and lead to unique progress in terms of strength, muscle development and stability.
Unilateral Training with Dumbbells
Using dumbbells will force both limbs to do the same amount of work, thereby helping you overcome any existing muscular or strength imbalances, which are one of the most common issues that bodybuilders face today. Muscular imbalances can result with weird-looking, unbalanced physiques and therefore have to be addressed properly. Most people have a dominant side of the body which tends to compensate for the weaker one when working with a barbell, and this can be hard to notice. With dumbbells, muscular imbalances are painfully obvious and can be easily solved.
It’s no secret that dumbbell exercises are more joint-friendly than their barbell equivalents. When you’re using dumbbells, the hands aren’t fixed in place, and this allows you to move more naturally and complete a greater range of motion. If you’ve had joint injuries in the past or experience joint pain while performing the barbell version of an exercise, you should try performing it with dumbbells, which allow you to alter your form and technique to suit your joints and work around existing issues, which can be impossible to do with a barbell.
Cost & Practicality
If you’re one of those guys who’d rather train in their own home gym, investing in a pair of good quality dumbbells will certainly pay off, especially if you have limited space. While barbells and weight plates are less expensive than specialized machines, they still cost more than dumbbells. On the other hand, most exercise machines can be used to perform only one or two exercises, while dumbbells provide a huge range of movements and almost every barbell exercise can also be performed with dumbbells.
The Dumbbell Bench Press
One great way to incorporate more dumbbell work into your routine is by replacing the barbell with dumbbells on the bench press, the king of chest exercises. The dumbbell bench press offers some benefits that are not available with other chest exercises and can be used to prime your pectorals for new growth.
The dumbbell bench press targets the fronts and tops of the shoulders, the triceps and the chest muscles, while also engaging the rhomboids and the serratus anterior as secondary muscles that help execute the move.
The main benefit of using dumbbells is that it requires you to engage a greater number of muscles compared to the barbell and machine variant and actually activates the lower fibers of the chest press better than a barbell press – since your hands are free to move across your body when you use dumbbells, the lower pecs get a better workout.
This, of course, can be achieved only if you make sure to employ correct form and technique on this great exercise. Read the tips below to make sure you get it right.
How to perform the dumbbell bench press properly:
- Lie on a weight bench with arms extended over your chest and hold the dumbbells with an overhand grip above your eyes.
- Bend your elbows out at your sides to lower the weights down, creating a slight arch pattern. This phase should be performed in a slow and controlled way.
- At the final position, your upper arms should be parallel to the top of the bench.
- Let the dumbbells touch your chest lightly, then extend the elbows to push the dumbbells upward. The upward movement should be performed powerfully and last 1-2 seconds. Make sure to press the dumbbells from as far out wide as possible to avoid causing unnecessary tension in the triceps.
- At the top of the movement, squeeze the chest muscles together. Some lifters choose to lock out their elbows while others feel it places too much undue stress on the joint, so that one is up to you. A good rule of thumb is to avoid locking out your elbows if it feels too uncomfortable.
- Perform 3 sets of 8-12 reps with a weight that makes the last few reps difficult to do with proper form.
Dumbbell Bench Press Mistakes
#1. Using Too Heavy Weights
This is kind of a no-brainer. Trying to lift weights that you know you’re not capable to lift with proper form will limit your range of motion, decrease the effectiveness of the exercise and increase your risk of injury. A much better idea is to make sure you’ve mastered the form and technique before progressing in terms of weight. Avoid the urge to satisfy your ego and start light.
#2. Neglecting the Rotator Cuff
Weak rotator cuff muscles tend to be one of the biggest problems for lifters. The rotator cuff is located near the shoulder and is engaged during every push or pull movement, so any weakness in this area can harm your performance or skyrocket your chance of injury, especially when working with heavy weights and poor form.
That being said, bench pressing places a great amount of stress on the rotator cuff muscles, so in order to avoid rotator cuff tears and similar debilitating injuries, always mind your form and make sure to include exercises that strengthen the rotator cuff into your warm-up routine.
#3. Arching the Back
Arching the back while bench pressing classifies as cheating because it limits the range of motion and makes it easier to use momentum to press the weight upward. This, of course, decreases the effectiveness of the exercise, since the limited range of motion will reduce the number of muscle fibers recruited, so why would you want to do it?
On top of that, arching the back directly increases your risk of lower back injury, which can seriously harm your weightlifting and muscle building progress.
#4. Not Having a Spotter
You should use a spotter with any free weight exercise because there is always a risk of getting defeated by gravity. Having a spotter can be very useful when you’re struggling to complete those last few reps, or when you can’t determine whether your form is OK or not by yourself.
And most importantly, a spotter can assist you in those crucial moments when you realize that you can’t control the weight anymore – instead of dropping the weight in an unsafe manner, you can signal the spotter to remove it safely from your hands.
#5. Lifting the Head Up
Unfortunately, this is another very common mistake that beginners and experienced lifters alike are guilty of. Your head, shoulder blades and butt need to be in contact with the bench all throughout the movement. Lifting your head and neck up whilst performing the motion can cause neck pain and injury and eventually result with an unappealing excessive back curvature known as kyphosis.
Good luck and stay tight!