January 13, 2022 8 min read
Hammer presses are a great variation on the bench press if you need something that’s easier on the shoulders, better at fixing strength imbalances, or safer when you’re working toward full muscle exhaustion. All told, there’s not much difference between the hammer press and a dumbbell bench press except for the grip change.
But if you want to get truly sculpted, you have to know every variation to target your muscles in all possible ways.
This guide explains the hammer press in detail, gives instructions for executing a perfect rep, and has some programming suggestions and variations to keep your workout routine lively and effective.
Searching for new exercises can get confusing because of all the similar names given to variations. The hammer press is a great example.
You’re going to be lying on a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand.
The press starts with the arm fully extended, then you lower the weight to your chest, and finally you return it to the starting position. Some other exercises that might get confused with the hammer press are the hammer strength chest press and the hammer shoulder press.
The hammer strength press is done with a hammer strength machine, which looks pretty similar to a regular chest press machine.
The hammer shoulder press is an overhead press that’s done in a standing position. We’re talking about the hammer chest press or hammer bench press, whatever you prefer to call it. Remember that this is a chest exercise first and foremost, although some other muscles see some activation as well.
For this exercise, you’re going to need a flat bench like you would use to do bench presses or an incline bench you can adjust to lay flat. You also need a light pair of dumbbells to learn the steps. Start with a fraction - 15 to 30 percent - of what you would normally use. You can increase the weight once you’ve mastered the proper form.
Once you have those two things, you can follow these steps to get into the starting position and execute a hammer press:
Which muscles and muscle groups does the hammer press target? The hammer press is primarily a chest exercise, although your arms and shoulders also see some activation as stabilizers. The specific muscles worked during a hammer press are the pectoralis major, the anterior deltoid, the triceps brachii, and the biceps brachii.
Extending from near the external obliques, sternum, and collarbone to connect on the humerus, or upper arm bone, the pectoralis major is what lifters are talking about when we say we want to build bigger pecs. It’s the largest chest muscle.
The function of the pectoralis major is to raise the arm out in front of the body, rotate it toward the body’s midline, and raise it out to each side, although this last function is shared with other muscles located in the shoulder, notably the lateral delt.
Located on the front of the shoulder, the anterior deltoid is responsible for moving the arm forward and, like the pectoralis major, rotating it internally. Overhead presses are the ones that principally activate the shoulder muscles, including the delts, and this hammer press is certainly not an overhead exercise. However, the anterior deltoid plays a big role as a stabilizer during a hammer press.
The triceps are primarily an elbow extensor muscle, meaning they straighten the elbow. Whenever you hand something to someone who’s standing in front of you, that action is powered by the triceps. Like the anterior deltoid, the triceps are acting as stabilizers during the hammer press, particularly during the pressing phase of the exercise. Since the triceps is working against resistance, all three heads of the triceps are working.
And the biceps work during the second half of the hammer press as the dumbbells come down to the chest. Makes sense they would control the opposite motion as the triceps since the two muscles are antagonists. You might not get jacked arms from hammer presses by themselves, but many lifters forget to build stabilizing strength in their biceps as well as straightforward pressing and lifting strength.
As you can see from the muscles worked and the step-by-step in this exercise guide, the hammer press is a variation on a standard flat bench dumbbell chest press. It’s not exactly reinventing the wheel. While the difference might not be life-changing, it’s a great way for bodybuilders and serious lifters to get their chest muscles to full exhaustion so their bodies build more muscle mass through hypertrophy.
People who already have some sort of shoulder injury also like hammer curls because the onus is really on the chest muscles in this exercise. If you don’t bring the weights all the way down to the chest, then the shoulders have an even easier time. Plus, the neutral grip reduces the amount of stress placed on the shoulder joint.
Like other presses, this dumbbell variation offers a wider range of motion than a barbell variation would.
Hammer presses are also a good way to keep your brain and muscles from becoming acclimated to the daily routine. Running through the same old exercises each time you hit the gym is a guaranteed way to bore yourself into demotivation.
If you have access to a machine, it can be another great way to change up your chest day routine. But it does have some disadvantages compared to the dumbbell hammer press.
For example, those muscles we mentioned working as stabilizers are taken out of the equation. On a chest press or hammer strength machine, you’re sitting down and the weight is on a plate stack or overhead support and thus your biceps, triceps, and delts don’t have to keep your arm in place.
That being said, there is going to be some pushing force, so a small amount of activation might be present in those muscles anyway. But it’s not enough to see any sort of gains from this exercise and it likely won’t even be enough to move these secondary muscles toward full fatigue. Another difference is that machines start you at the bottom and feature a period of no resistance.
There are some positive reasons to use a chest press or hammer strength machine.
Notably, you can usually do more reps on them because your chest is basically the only thing seeing substantial activation. The hands starting further apart and winding up closer together theoretically run through more of the range of motion of the pectoralis major than the dumbbell variation does, although that depends on how you’re using the machine and how you do the hammer press with dumbbells.
The most common way to use hammer presses is in a chest workout routine alongside the other variations. Let’s take a look at some sample programming so you can get an idea of where the exercise might fit into your routine.
In general, the hammer press isn’t an exercise that will completely replace the dumbbell chest press or a machine exercise unless limitations like gear availability or an injury make the hammer press the best option.
For example, your chest day routine might look like this:1. Barbell Bench Press
If you’re working toward complete exhaustion, use a low-risk chest exercise like push-ups or more hammer presses to get you there.
On the other hand, you could also throw in more full-body compound exercises that feature high chest muscle activation. This is particularly effective if you’re targeting multiple areas of your body on the same day, like the chest and back or chest, arms, and shoulders, for instance.
You might have noticed our example routine doesn’t use machines much.
That’s done to create a sample with the most appeal in the greatest number of situations. If you’re at the gym and you like to use machines, you could sub in standing cable flyes, cable machine presses, or chest presses on the chest press machine. Just don’t get rid of those incline dumbbell presses or weighted dips unless you replace them with an exercise like cable flyes that also work the clavicular head of the pectoralis major.
The most straightforward alternative to the hammer press is the dumbbell chest press. You could also use an adjustable bench to do incline hammer presses, although if your intention with the hammer press is to keep stress off your shoulder then doing an incline variation may well defeat the purpose. That being said, if you’re just using the hammer press for variety in your routine, then use these two moves:
Sit down on a bench with the dumbbells within reach. Grab onto them and get them up on your thighs and then lie all the way back. Next, raise those dumbbells above your chest with your palms facing toward your feet rather than using the neutral grip of the hammer press. Exhale and extend your arms fully, then inhale as you lower the weights to your chest. Repeat the extension and count one rep each time you get the weight back to the high point.
This exercise is done the same as the hammer press the way we described it earlier in this guide. The only difference is that you need to set your adjustable bench at a 30 - 45-degree angle. The higher the angle, the more your upper pectorals will be working. So this is a great exercise to throw into your routine from time to time to make sure your chest is evenly developed.
Some lifters are surprised when they can blast through reps on a hammer strength machine and can’t get anywhere near the same results when they do the dumbbell hammer press. That’s because of the incorporation of those stability muscles we mentioned earlier. Since the biceps, triceps, and deltoids aren’t recruited, you can more than likely do more reps on the machine.
Machine reps also have a lower range of motion.
You don’t have to move that weight as far and your body is on a more focused mission in general. Those two factors together make machine reps easier than dumbbells when it comes to hammer presses.
Switch to a neutral grip in your dumbbell bench presses to perform the hammer press.
It takes stress off the shoulder and still builds chest muscle as well as any other bench press adjacent exercise. Just remember to keep regular barbell bench presses and shoulder presses in your chest day routine for well-rounded fitness and muscle growth.