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June 03, 2020 10 min read

 The chest muscle group is one of the crowning jewels of a strong, powerful, physique. A powerful chest helps you exude confidence, improves your posture, and gets head-turns at the beach during the summer months. When it comes to working out, it’s no surprise that chest day is everyone’s favorite day of the week. There’s just something so primal and satisfying about being able to move a massive load using your upper body.

The barbell bench press is the classic bread-and-butter lift to train the chest region (along with the chest press), however, if you’ve just been using the barbell you’ve been missing out on some gains. A staple in any gym, a pair of dumbbells used properly will help you turbocharge your chest strength gains and smash your plateaus. Dumbbell exercises come with a number of benefits that synergize with the chest muscle group to give you the biggest bang-for-your-buck exercises. Let’s dive into the pectorals and what makes them tick before going through the four best exercises to maximize strength in this region. 

Be Mindful of the Muscles Making up Your Chest

The chest is a relatively simple area, at least when compared to the massive complexities in other parts of your body. When talking about the chest we usually mean the pectoralis major, which is then split up into three other parts. The clavicular, sternal, and costal. These are, respectively, the upper chest, center chest, and lower chest.

A strong chest will have these three parts balanced well and in a good ratio. It’s easy to create variations of classic exercises in order to activate different parts of the pecs. For example, a regular flat bench press bench can be changed to an incline bench to focus in on the upper pec, while a declined bench will give you an emphasis on the lower pecs.

Underneath the pectoralis major lies the pectoralis minor. As its name suggests, it’s not a crucial component when building muscle and strength since it can’t be specifically targeted by any muscle isolation exercise. However, it is important to keep in mind that the inflammation of this muscle, called tendinitis, is often mistaken for shoulder pain. Knowing this can help you better diagnose symptoms and move past injuries in order to keep up your training.

Nevertheless, while the pectoralis major is split up into different parts, you should still treat it as a single muscle. Chest training volume should be kept at a reasonable amount, while also not exceeding the amount of volume you use on your back or legs. A good rule of thumb to follow is to not do any more than 15 sets in a single chest workout, in order to prevent overtraining and allow your body ample time to heal. 

The Surprising Benefits of Using Dumbbells

While the main chest exercises usually use barbells, there’s a number of important benefits that dumbbells have over the barbell. It’s important to switch up your training as well, so it might be a good idea to substitute the ole’ barbell for dumbbells in some of your workouts.

The greatest benefit is probably that they allow for a greater range of motion. While a barbell bench press will allow you to use heavier loads, you’re limited in your motion because of the bar. Before your pecs can be activated in their widest range, the bar hits your chest and you’re unable to go any further.

On the other hand, dumbbells allow you to keep going down past that point, effectively stretching your pecs and introducing a wider range in your chest training. A wider range will introduce more muscle fibers into the movement, effectively leading to more muscle growth and greater strength.

And while you might not be able to use as heavy of a load with dumbbells as with a barbell, the former leads to greater pec activation. This is because your arms aren’t attached to a relatively stationary steel bar. At the top of the movement, especially with heavier weights, you’re forced to keep your arms together when you’re using dumbbells. The load pushes your arms not only down, but also out. This introduces another aspect of chest training and places a unique emphasis on the chest muscle group—something which you don’t get by using a barbell all the time.

Another benefit of using dumbbells is that they place less stress on your joints. While your body might look fairly symmetrical, that’s not necessarily the case when we dig below the superficial appearance. All of your joints, including your hips, wrists, shoulders, and more, are slightly different from one side to the other. This means that they have optimal paths of movement, and the way in which you might be best at lifting something on one side will probably not directly translate to the other side.

When you use something like a barbell—something that forces both sides to move in the exact same way and take the exact same path—one side of your body will always be more comfortable and will take a more natural path, than the other side. And while one side moves naturally, the other side is bound to move in a way that’s not optimal. This places unnecessary stress on that side, and in the long term can cause injuries or pain. When you separate the sides from having to move uniformly, as with dumbbells, you’re able to move each side in a way that’s better for your joints. This effectively allows you to place the stress on your muscles—where it belongs. Your joints will thank you down the road. 

The last benefit of dumbbells is that they allow for the development of a more balanced strength and physique. Just like the previous point mentioned, our bodies aren’t built symmetrically. And while in our regular training we do try to keep in mind that symmetry is important, that becomes difficult when you’re using a barbell which forces both sides to move uniformly.

When you push on something like a barbell, your body will unconsciously compensate for your weaker side by putting more stress on the stronger side. Even if you think that you’re doing everything correctly, it’s these minute details that can spiral out of control and cause obviously asymmetrical development.

With dumbbells, this compensating factor becomes impossible Since both your arms are moving unattached but in unison, you’ll instantly feel and see if one side is lagging behind. So if you’re left side is significantly weaker than the right, you’ll be forced to only complete the movements as fast as your slowest side. The added benefit to dumbbells is that you’re able to focus in on one side—the weaker side—in order to bring it up to par with the other side. Consistently ump out a few extra reps on the side lagging behind, and you’ll have a more symmetrical strength and physique in no time.

 A man doing the dumbbell bench press. 

The Best Exercises to Energize Your Chest 

Many of these are variations of exercises you can do with the barbell. However, as mentioned above, they have added benefits that make them worth it to introduce in your workout routine. Furthermore, keep in mind that these movements can also be slightly modified in order to put an emphasis on different parts of the chest. For example, a focus on the upper chest will have you pressing on an incline. On the other hand, if you need to bring up your lower chest, then a declined bench will serve you well. Just be sure to take in some. solid whey protein before getting started.

Dumbbell Bench Press

Much like the barbell bench press, this is probably the most effective exercise with free-weights when trying to train up your pecs. The range of motion benefit is even better for those with shorter arms and wider rib cages—aspects that can get in the way of a full range of motion when using a barbell.

To begin, you’ll want to lie back on the bench, holding a dumbbell in each hand to the sides of your shoulders. Your feet should be flat on the floor to provide stability, and your core should be activated to prevent rolling from one side or the other. With the weights in your hands, your palms should be facing towards your feet while in the starting position. However, the palm direction isn’t necessary if you have shoulder mobility issues.

Then comes the press. Extend your arms out until they’re straight above you, locking your arms at the top of the movement. Then, slowly bring the weights back down. In order to take advantage of the greater range of motion, take the weights down as far as you can without overstraining yourself. They should be able to come down below your shoulders. Additionally, at the top of the movement, you can have them come closer to each other—something you definitely can’t do with a barbell.

While using heavier weights will reduce the range of motion at the top of the movement, since the plates on the dumbbells won’t let them come closer together, doing this exercise at the end of the workout as a finisher can help in building muscle fatigue without having to use heavy weights. 

Dumbbell Flyes

The dumbbell fly effectively targets all areas of the pecs, which is good for keeping a well-balanced look and strength in the chest area. However, they’re specifically good at strengthening the sternal fibers—those fibers that are attached to the sternum. Strengthening these gives you that chest-separation look that seriously defines your pecs. Much like the dumbbell bench press, the fly is also great for activating muscle fibers across the entire chest area, with a greater range of motion.

To begin, you’ll want to lie flat on the bench with your head and shoulders supported. Once again, have your feet flat on the floor and your core braced for stability. Hold the dumbbells up, directly above your chest. With your palms facing each other, slowly arc and lower the weights down and to the side. Go as far as is comfortable—remember to cash-in on the greater range of motion, but also don’t go far enough to injure yourself. Reverse the movement and repeat, remembering to keep your elbows slightly bent throughout. 

Keep in mind to keep your back straight—don’t arch it. It might seem easier when it comes to moving the weight from point A to point B, your goal is to target muscle fibers for strength. It’s also good to remember to keep your elbows bent. Keeping your elbows straight puts a greater emphasis on your joints than your chest muscles, and therefore leads to a greater risk of injury as well. And while it’s important to take advantage of the greater range of motion, like we mentioned, don’t overstretch the arms. Keep the movements controlled and slow, maximizing the amount of stress put on the pecs. 

A man doing the dumbbell pullover.

Dumbbell Pullover

This move not only works the pecs, but also the lats, serratus anterior, and the intercostals. This will make your ribcage appear larger when taking a deep breath, while also providing your back with a workout. While there is a debate about whether this is a back or a chest exercise, it seems that studies show a greater impact on the chest area.

Nevertheless, whether a chest or a back exercise, the pullover will benefit you. When it comes to training your chest, it’s paramount that you also keep working on your back. Especially if you work a desk job, focusing too much on the pecs can give your shoulders a rounded look. This takes away from any posture-boosting benefits of having strong pecs, so it’s important to keep the back in mind. Luckily for us, the pullover hits both of these areas.

Lying perpendicular to the bench press, only your shoulders should be supported with your feet flat on the floor and shoulder-width apart. Your head and neck should be hanging over the bench, with your hips at a lower angle than your shoulders. With a single dumbbell in your hand, gripping the shaft, start the movement with it over your chest and your elbows bent. Taking a deep breath, slowly lower the weight backwards over your head, until the upper arm is in line with your torso and parallel to the floor. The dumbbells should be traveling in an arc toward the floor. Hold at the top of the movement for a moment, and then reverse the movement, squeezing your chest. 

You can also do this exercise with two weights if you’re looking for a challenge. In that case, you’ll cross your arms with the weights in them, and do the rest of the movement regularly. If you have shoulder problems (or have had them), then be careful when introducing this exercise into your routine since it can aggravate the shoulder region.

Crush Press 

A variation of the dumbbell press, the crush press (otherwise known as the close grip dumbbell press), is a boon for your chest and tricep development. This movement is particularly effective at activating your pecs because you’ll need to squeeze them as your “crushing” the dumbbells together throughout the exercise.

Once again, begin this movement lying back on a bench, dumbbells in your hands. Your feet should be flat on the floor and your core braced in order to maintain balance and stability. Your palms should be facing inward, towards each other. Keep the weights close to your chest. Taking a deep breath, push, or crush, the dumbbells together. Pressing up, lockout at the top of the movement, maintaining the pressure against the dumbbells. Reverse the movement, allowing the dumbbells to go down until they touch your chest.

Keep in mind to not lock out the elbows entirely at the top of the movement—this will help maintain tension throughout the pecs. Furthermore, squeezing the dumbbells as tightly as you can, will help in  irradiation, effectively allowing your shoulders and the rest of your body a greater amount of stability. Keeping your shoulder blades tight and back while squeezing your core and glutes will also help with this. A good way to visualize this movement is a fly and a dumbbell press put together. You want to be pressing the weights up, while also pressing horizontally together at the same time.

Programming for Raw Strength

While dumbbells are great tools to increase your strength in the chest region, don’t forget about the basics. As with any strength training, it’s going to be important to maximize weight and intensity. If you wanted big pecs, the proper programming would have you doing more sets and reps at a lower weight. On the other hand, strength training calls for fewer reps altogether.

The trade-off with this is that you’re going to want to lift heavy dumbbells while also increasing the rest period in between sets to 3 to 5 minutes. With heavier weights, especially for exercises that emphasize the range of motion, you’ll want to work your way up and pay very close attention to the form that you’re using. Especially with movements such as the crush press, going too low or improperly bending the shoulders and elbows can cause injuries at higher training intensities.

And just like you should be paying attention to the programming of your training to get the strength that you’re aiming for, remember you also can’t out-train a bad diet or poor sleeping habits. Any strength, whether it’s in the chest, somewhere else in your body, or in the mind, is dependant on a strong and healthy base. Now go out there and turbocharge your chest gains with these simple, yet effective, dumbbell chest workouts.