July 12, 2021
If you want a broad, muscular, well-defined chest, dumbbell chest exercises are a must. Nothing against barbell lifts, as they surely have their place, but dumbbells are more versatile and they reign supreme when it comes to hypertrophy and sculpting the pecs. In this article, you are going to find out why dumbbells are so great for chest workouts and learn the 15 best chest exercises that you can do with dumbbells.
We also have some sample dumbbell chest workouts for you after we run through the exercises.
Your chest is made up of two muscles on both sides - the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor. Collectively, they are called the pecs.
As the name “major” suggests, the pec major is the larger of the two pec muscles, making up most of the chest.
The large fan shaped-muscle has two heads, the sternocostal head and the calvicular head.
The sternocostal head originates at your sternum and makes up 80% of your pec major’s total size. It is informally known as the “lower chest”. Its main responsibility is to move your arm toward and across your chest.
The clavicular head originates at the clavicle (collar bone). It is colloquially known as the “upper chest”. Its main job is to help flex the humerus (bring your arm up).
As a whole, the pec major acts to adduct and medially rotate the upper arm as well as draw the shoulder blades forward and down.
So, any movement that involves bringing the arm up, reaching or pressing forward, or bringing your arms across your body will activate the pectoralis major.
The pec minor is a small triangular muscle that rests under the pec major, attaching to your ribs and coracoid (which is a small hook-like profusion at the top of your shoulder blade).
While the pec minor is located on the front side of your body, due to its attachment point on the shoulder blade, it controls structures on the backside. Its main function is to pull down, spread apart and stabilize the scapula, thus providing stability for your shoulders.
The serratus anterior (aka the Boxer’s Muscle) is a large serrated muscle that wraps around the outside of your ribs and attaches to the sides of your shoulder blades.
Although the serratus anterior is not actually part of your chest, it does play a key role during pec exercises as its function is to move the shoulder blades forward and upward.
Note: While there are other muscles involved in chest exercises, such as your triceps and deltoids, today we will be only discussing how dumbbell exercises can target and stimulate the muscles we just went over.
The point of explaining the anatomy and functions of these muscles is to help you understand why a variety of exercises is necessary for full development of your chest. The different movements and the way you position your body and arms will affect how these muscles are activated.
Dumbbells are great for building a strong, muscular, well-developed chest as well as improving posture. They offer unique advantages that you can’t get with barbells or bodyweight exercises.
Let’s go over the benefits of using dumbbells so you can see what we mean.
Barbells are great for the chest as they allow you to lift the most possible weight. However, they are not as versatile as dumbbells. The following benefits will explain why dumbbells are arguably the best equipment that you can use for training chest.
1. Dumbbells allow for a greater range of motion
With barbells, the bar will touch your chest before your pectoral muscles have reached their full range of motion. Dumbbells allow you to lower past your chest, stretching your pecs to the max, and thus activating the most possible muscle fibers.
The ability to maximize range of motion when using dumbbells is not just for stretching tension, it is also for contraction tension. This is because your arms are free to move internally, not just up and down. Moreover, you have to work to prevent the dumbbells from drifting apart as you press up. When pressing a straight bar, this is not a possibility. The action of stabilizing and keeping the dumbbells in place will produce maximum tension as you contract your chest.
Here’s a study that shows a larger range of motion results in greater muscle growth.
Note: The further you press forward, the more your serratus anterior will be activated, which is why dumbbells are generally better for strengthening the serratus anterior too.
2. Balanced Growth & Strength
Whether you realize it or not, you have a stronger side that will compensate for the weaker side by somewhat taking over the movement during barbell presses. This is not possible with dumbbells obviously as each side has its own separate weight. If your weak side lags behind, you will immediately notice it. This means you won’t be able to continue a set past the point your weak side can handle. It also ensures your form stays on point, as it won’t get all wacky with your stronger side powering most of the movement (like when someone presses up a barbell with one side higher than the other and doesn't even realize it). Eventually the strength and muscle imbalance will even out.
What’s more, if your weaker side needs a little more work on a certain set, you can always do a few extra reps on that side.
3. Easier on the Joints
Dumbbells are more versatile so you can move your arms in a way that is comfortable for your joints. You can rotate your wrists and move your elbows and shoulders through a path that feels right for you. Ultimately, this allows you to take stress of your joints and place them on the muscles (where they belong).
4. Strengthens Stabilizer Muscles Better
Because you are using a separate weight for each hand, stability is a greater factor. Not only does this activate your primary movers in a different way, but it also works the small stabilizer muscles surrounding your joints, such as your rotator cuff muscles, pec minor, serratus anterior, and rhomboids. The end result will be stronger, more resilient shoulder and scapula complexes.
All in all, we are not saying that barbells, machines and bodyweight exercises don’t have their place in chest workouts, as they certainly do, but one could easily argue that dumbbells are the superior training tool for the chest.
Check out this study from 2017 if you want some science-backed proof. It suggests that dumbbell presses activate the pec major to a higher degree than barbells and smith machine bench presses due to both a greater range of motion and demand of stability.
There are several things you need to do to build a strong, muscular, well-developed chest with dumbbells.
Let’s go over each of these points above.
All of your chest muscles will be activated no matter what dumbbell chest exercise you are doing. You can’t completely isolate a specific area. However, you can emphasize them. For example, certain exercises will emphasize the upper chest, lower chest, or middle of your chest. Essentially, you can hone in on certain areas by doing different exercises and changing variables like hand positioning and body positioning.
The upper chest, which is your clavicular head, is activated most when moving your arms up (shoulder flexion) or press at an upward angle. So, exercises like incline presses, incline flys, and seated or standing low to high flys will best target your upper chest.
The clavicular head is often the hardest area of the chest to develop, so it’s important that you spend time doing upper chest-focused dumbbell exercises. A well-developed upper chest will significantly improve the aesthetics of your chest.
Related: Best Upper Chest Exercises
The lower chest, which is your sternocostal head, is activated best when your arms are pushing straight forward or at a downward angle.
Remember, your lower chest makes up 80% of your pec major, so it’s not actually just the lower part. When referring to the lower chest, that means the entire sternocostal head.
While you can’t completely isolate any area, certain exercises will hone in on the lower part of the sternocostal head and some the top area.
Exercises like flat presses will hit the middle and upper part of your sternocostal head, and decline presses and parallel dips will emphasize the lower area.
Related: Best Lower Chest Exercises
When we say middle, we are referring to the inner chest. This is semantics. Some call it the middle chest, some call it the inner chest.
Either way, there is no such thing...
Again, your pec major is made up of two heads, the upper and lower.
Be that as it may, when people say “hit the inner chest”, it is warranted. Certain exercises emphasize the inner part of your pec major, which includes the upper and/or lower heads.
The inner part of your pec major will be most contracted when moving your arms toward the center of your body. So, exercises like flys, close grip presses, and any press that brings your hands close together will target the inner chest.
(Keep your arms wide and move in a straight path and you will be emphasizing the outer part).
All in all, the “inner chest”, while technically non-existent, should be taken seriously because by doing exercises that focus on this area of your pec major, you can develop a well-defined separation of the left and right side of your chest. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, but it also ensures that your pec major is being worked in its entirety (it’s a big muscle, so it need to be hit from all angles to stimulate all of its fibers!)
Related: Best Inner Chest Exercises
The pec minor is not a primary mover or muscle that has big growth potential like your pec major. It is a stabilizer muscle for your shoulders and scapula. So, it will be activated during all chest exercises and many back exercises.
However, it can be targeted to a higher degree by leaning forward more and pulling your shoulder blades down. Exercises like dips, decline presses, pull ups and pull downs will offer greater activation of your pec minor, which will allow you to increase its strength.
The serratus anterior works to draw your shoulder blades forward around your ribs (scapula protraction). It also helps rotate your shoulder blades upward. As such, it will be activated during any pressing exercise.
Chest exercises like incline presses are great for the serratus anterior because it brings your shoulder blades forward and upward, which is its two main actions.
You will also get greater activation of the serratus anterior when you fully protract your shoulder blades. Most bench press exercises require that you keep your shoulder blades retracted (you’ve heard it before, “keep your shoulder blades down and back”). While this is good as it protects your shoulders during heavy lifts, it limits the activity of your serratus anterior. With that, you will want to mix in some exercises like one arm dumbbell presses and dumbbell push ups as they allow your shoulder blades to move through full protraction.
TRAINING VARIABLES & PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD
Altering training variables will allow you to stress your muscles differently, which is important for full development of your pecs.
Doing different exercises is a form of altering training variables, as you will have different hand positioning, body positioning and load placement, it’s not just about that.
Training variables also include rep schemes and volume.
It’s important that you train your chest with different rep schemes and volume.
You want to work your chest with heavy loads and low reps, medium loads and medium reps, and lighter loads with higher reps. By doing this, you will stress the muscle differently and you will be working on strength, hypertrophy and endurance, which are all important.
Main Compound Exercises:
Progressive overload is also vital if you want to build muscle and strength. The principle is that by progressively increasing the difficulty of your workouts, you can continue to overload your muscles enough for adaptation. By doing things like increasing reps, increasing weight load, increasing intensity, increasing volume, or decreasing rest time, you are progressive overloading.
Related: Progressive Overload Guide
EAT RIGHT, SLEEP RIGHT
To build muscle, you obviously need to eat right and sleep right. What you do outside of the gym is just as important as what you do inside the gym. Growth happens during recovery time!
TRAIN BACK & SHOULDERS TOO
If you want a bigger chest, it’s important that you also train your back equally as hard. If you were to only do chest workouts because you are so focused on building bigger pecs, your muscle fibers will end up being too tight, leading to rounding of the shoulders. Back exercises will stretch your pecs and pull your shoulders back, which will improve posture and broaden your chest out.
Don’t skip shoulder exercises either. Stronger, more muscular shoulders will greatly improve your aesthetics and help you to maintain a healthy, resilient upper body.
The dumbbell flat bench press should be a staple in everyone’s workout plan. It is an effective, all-around compound dumbbell exercise that activates the entire chest (with emphasis on the sternocostal head) and it allows for the heaviest load and greatest range of motion, all of which are great for building up impressive pecs of steel.
Be sure to keep the movement balanced by moving your arms with equal space and speed. Use a weight that you can control well so you can get a deep stretch and full contraction at the top. Form is top priority. Once your range of motion and control is good, then you can go up in weight.
The kettlebell deep push up takes a regular push up to the next level by allowing for a greater range of motion on the eccentric phase. Essentially, you can go deep, maximizing the stretching tension in your chest. As for the muscles targeted, this is an all-around chest exercise that emphasizes the sternocostal head. However, if you alter your foot/body/hand positioning, you can change how the push up hits your pecs. For example, if you put your feet up on a platform, you can target your upper chest more or if you bring your hands closer together, you can target the inner chest more.
If you experience pain when going deep into the push up, limit your range of motion. Over time you can work on increasing your range of motion by getting lower and lower.
Note: For higher activation of the serratus anterior, use an exaggerated range of motion on the concentric phase by moving through full scapula protraction.
The dumbbell fly is a classic accessory exercise for opening up the entire chest, improving range of motion, and building solid definition of your inner chest. The dumbbell twisted fly is the same exact concept but it allows for even more muscle fiber activation. By rotating your arms slightly so that as you reach the top, your palms are in an underhand grip, you will get a stronger contraction. As you lower back down, you rotate your hands back so that they are facing each other like a traditional dumbbell fly during the stretching phase.
This exercise will be a little more difficult that the traditional dumbbell fly. Be sure to use an appropriate weight and keep your elbows fixed throughout and don’t overextend at the shoulder joint.
Note: This exercise can be done from an incline and decline position as well. The incline will hit the upper-inner chest more and the decline for the lower-inner chest.
The one arm chest press is the same as the flat bench press but you will only be using one dumbbell and targeting one side at a time. By doing this, you are forcing yourself to use more core and hip stability, which is great for core strength. Moreover, you can use an even greater range of motion on the concentric phase AND you can further improve muscle imbalances and movement patterning.
When doing one arm dumbbell presses, focus on keeping your core and hips down and squared straight up. Get a good stretch each rep and fully contract at the top (even slightly exaggerating the range of motion by moving the dumbbell up higher and toward your centerline). If you are using a light dumbbell, it’s ok to protract your shoulder blades as you press up at the top.
The dumbbell around the world is not a well-known exercise, but it doesn’t mean it’s not effective. This exercise is great for the chest and shoulders, but you should have healthy shoulders to perform it as it moves your shoulder blades through a large range of motion.
To start, sit on the incline bench and hold the dumbbells at your sides near your thighs with your palms up and elbows slightly bent. From there, rotate your arms up. When the dumbbells are overhead and nearly touching, squeeze your chest and return them back to the starting position through that same path of motion, then repeat.
This exercise can be done using a flat bench too. The incline places emphasis on your upper chest.
The dumbbell incline fly is great for building the upper-inner area of your chest. Focus on squeezing your chest to raise the dumbbell up rather than using just your arms. Get a deep stretch if your shoulder mobility allows for it, but there’s no need to go down too low to where the stress starts to be placed on your shoulders rather than your chest muscles. If you can't get a good stretch in your chest due to shoulder mobility, work on improving your mobility as this exercise is best when you can get a full pectoral stretch on the eccentric phase.
Note: You can add a twist at the top by rotating your arms so your palms face up for even more contraction.
The dumbbell pullover is a hypertrophy accessory exercise that became popular in the Arnold-era. It works both your arms, back and chest at the same time, more specifically your upper chest and lats.
The variation of placing just your upper back on the bench adds an element of core strength to the exercise.
Other than that, it is a good exercise for posture and improving mind muscle connection. To make this exercise effective for your upper chest, you need to really focus on that area. As the dumbbell comes up past your head, you will need to squeeze the heck out of your upper chest. Keep a slight bend in your elbows at all times.
Note: Another variation involves using two light weight dumbbells held side-by-side with palms facing up. This will put a little more tension on the outer part of your chest, whereas the single dumbbell pullover puts more emphasis on your upper-middle chest as your hands are closer together.
This is another good dumbbell accessory exercise for chest hypertrophy. However, you will need good motor control to perform it correctly and effectively.
It is very similar to a standing low to high cable fly, but you will be sitting on a bench in an incline position.
To do this exercise, put the bench at about 45˚ (which is slightly higher than normal for incline flys/presses). Hold the dumbbells at your sides with an underhand grip and a slight bend in your elbow. Your arms should be at about a 45˚ angle away from your body. Contract your chest and raise the dumbbells up, keeping your elbows and wrists fixed. Stop when the bells of both dumbbells are just about to touch each other, then return slowly back to the starting position through the same path of motion.
The dumbbell standing low fly allows you to target your upper and inner chest. It is just like a cable pulley low to high fly. The dumbbells will be held with an underhand grip. Your elbows should be slightly bent and about 30˚ away from your body. Raise your arms up to your centerline at about chin level. Squeeze your chest, slowly lower back down, and repeat.
The dumbbell reverse bench press is like a regular bench press except you are holding the dumbbells in reverse (underhand grip) and your arm positioning is a little closer to the body.
By simply changing your grip, you are placing more emphasis on your upper chest and you are taking pressure and tension off your shoulders. It also hits the triceps to a greater degree than the standard bench press.
A lot of trainers use this exercise for people who have shoulder issues and bodybuilders use it because it is very effective at hitting the upper chest and triceps without the shoulders doing too much work.
The hammer press is a good alternative to the standard dumbbell bench press for those who want to take a little stress off their shoulders. Like the standard bench press, the exercise places emphasis on the sternocostal head, but as you hold the dumbbells in a hammer grip (neutral position), you can get them a little closer together at the top, which allows for an even greater contraction of the inner chest.
If you’ve been in the gym for some time, you’ve probably seen this exercise being done with a weight plate but never knew the name. The Svend press is a standing chest exercise where you press the weight straight forward with your hands in a prayer-like position.
When using a dumbbell, you simply hold it in vertically with both hands on the handle. Your arms will be at about sternum level and from there you slowly press forward until your arms are extended then slowly bring it back to your chest.
Note: You can also hold it by the top of the bell if you are using a light hex dumbbell.
The exercise is simple but it will require some good mind-muscle connection to feel it in your chest rather than just your shoulders. Try to keep your shoulders down by keeping your scapula down and in (downward rotation). If done correctly, you should feel it in your pecs nicely. Your lower-inner chest and upper chest will get good activation.
This is a variation of the bench press where you hold the dumbbells pressed together with a neutral grip (palms facing each other). The dumbbells will be kept in contact with each other at all times during the exercise, so you will be squeezing them together as you press up and down in a straight path at your chest’s centerline.
This exercise is great for full chest activation, but the primary target is your outer, inner, and upper chest.
Be sure to really squeeze those dumbbells together as this is what makes the squeeze press so effective.
The dumbbell decline bench press targets the lower part of your pec major sternocostal head. If you want to develop a strong distinction between your chest and abs, this is a great one.
Don’t use too extreme of a decline. A 30% decline is fine. When you press up, keep the dumbbells in a path at sternum level or just slightly below your chest.
The last on our best dumbbell chest exercise list is the decline fly. This exercise is done just like other flys but from a decline position. Like the decline bench press, only use a 30% decline and keep the fly motion at about sternum level.
Really squeeze the heck of your chest with this one. It’s going to smash your inner-lower chest well if done correctly.
As with all flys, keep your arms locked into position with a slight bend and squeeze your pecs to move the dumbbell up rather than just your arms and lower down slowly to really feel the stretch.
If you don’t have a bench you can perform flat presses and flys on the floor. You will be limited in range of motion on the eccentric phase, but it will still be effective enough for training your chest.
A stability ball is also great. You can perform chest presses and flys on a stability ball. You will get the ideal range of motion and you will also get the added benefit of core stability training.
For incline presses and flys, you can prop a thick foam roller at your mid back to mimic the incline position. Your elbow will come down below the foal roller, so your range of motion will be pretty good too.
Finally, you can also work on dumbbell deep push ups, which are great and promote a full range of motion. You can alter your body position to target different areas of your chest too (i.e. place your feet up on a chair and you are hitting your upper chest like incline bench presses).
Note: With resistance bands, you can increase the resistance of your push ups too! They can be combined with dumbbell push ups for added resistance and greater range of motion!
You are obviously not going to do all 16 dumbbell chest exercises in a single workout, so here is how you can create a workout with the above exercises and how to program the rest moving forward.
DUMBBELL WORKOUT #1 - CHEST ONLY
If you are doing a body part split, you will have a workout that focuses on just chest, or maybe chest and triceps. Assuming you are doing just a chest workout with dumbbells, here is how a good one can look.
Note: For dumbbell chest workouts, the main compound lifts should be done each week throughout your training cycle, but you can switch up the accessory exercises if you’d like. Basically, you want to keep your heaviest lifts consistent and use progressive overload to increase the reps/weight over the course of the training cycle so you can continue to build muscle and strength. The accessory lifts are there to keep your muscles guessing and to stress them in different ways.
Start every workout with a 5-10 minute dynamic warm up to ensure your muscles and joints are primed.
Exercise 1: Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 sets x 6-12 reps
Exercise 2: Dumbbell Incline Press: 3 sets x 10-15 reps
Exercise 3: Hyght Dumbbell Fly: 3 sets x 8-12 reps
Exercise 4: Dumbbell Pullover: 3 sets x 8-12 reps
Exercise 5: Dumbbell Deep Push Up: 2 sets x 10-20 reps
Exercise 6: Decline Dumbbell Fly: 2 sets x 10-15 reps
DUMBBELL WORKOUT #2 - CHEST & SHOULDERS
Here is a good chest, shoulders, and tricep workout for a push pull legs split...
Exercise 1: Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 sets x 6-12 reps
Exercise 2: Dumbbell Incline Fly: 3 sets x 8-12 reps
Exercise 3: Dumbbell Standing Shoulder Press: 3 sets x 6-12 reps
Exercise 4: Dumbbell Reverse Bench Press: 3 sets x 8-12 reps
Exercise 5: Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 sets x 10-15 reps
Exercise 6: Dumbbell Crush Press: 3 sets x 8-12 reps
DUMBBELL WORKOUT #3 - CHEST AND BACK
Chest and back workouts are great as the chest and back are opposing muscle groups. With that, we like to superset push exercises with pull exercises. This is a great way to keep your workouts efficient, effective, well-balanced, and high intensity.
Here is an example of how a good chest and back dumbbell workout could look.
1. Dumbbell Bench Press x Dumbbell Bent Over Row: 3 sets x 8-12 reps
2. Dumbbell Fly x Dumbbell Reverse Fly: 3 sets x 10-12 reps
3. Parallel Dips x Pull ups: 3 sets x 6-12+ reps
4. Dumbbell Pullovers: 3 sets x 8-15 reps
Here are some good chest and shoulder stretches for before and after the workout.
Depending on your split, you should be hitting your chest muscles 1-3 times per week. Implement these dumbbell chest exercises into your workouts and we guarantee you will build an impressive, well-defined, powerful chest - whether you have good or bad chest genetics.
More Dumbbell Exercise Resources:
More Chest Exercise Resources:
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