By Dawid Lyszczek | Personal Trainer | BSc Human Nutrition
Bursting out of a shirt tends to be a priority on most male’s “to do” lists, especially during Summer. No-one can deny seeing the crowds queuing around the bench press every Monday in their local gyms…
Yet, despite the determination, not many develop this muscle group to its full potential. The most common reason behind the pecs crisis is poor “mind-muscle” connection – inability to “feel” the muscle working while performing an exercise. This can be the case especially for various barbell presses, and means poor muscle activation leading to poor growth. If that sounds familiar read on and find out how to up your game with top dumbbells exercises for chest and finally fill that shirt out.
In comparison to muscle groups such as legs or back, chest is relatively simple. When talking about the chest or pecs we mean a single muscle called pectoralis major.
The muscle further splits into three bundles:
1) Clavicular part (upper chest)
2) Sternal part (centre chest)
3) Costal part (lower chest)
Underneath pectoralis major lays smaller pectoralis minor, which isn’t of higher interest to our muscle building bunch, as it cannot be specifically targeted by any exercises.
Nevertheless, inflammation of this muscle (tendinitis) is often mistaken with shoulder pain. Therefore, knowing where our troublesome muscle is located can save on emphasising something that is not a problem…
The anatomy of pectoralis major highlights few important facts:
- Firstly, it is a single muscle; therefore the chest training volume (amount of sets) should be reasonable and never exceed the volume of your back or leg training. As a rule of thumb, I would not recommend more than 15 working sets in most chest workout.
- Secondly, the horizontal arrangement of the muscle fibres into upper, centre and lower bundles means that, anatomically, there is no “middle chest”. Many trainees complain on poor middle chest development and look for exercises which target this area directly – the muscle fibres in the chest cannot contract vertically. Therefore, there is no other way to fire up the “middle chest” than learning to forcefully contract pecs during all exercises.
- Lastly, “upper”, “centre” and “lower” chest muscle fibre bundles can be emphasised by manipulating the position of your arms in various exercises. This can be achieved by altering the angle of the bench during presses and flyes:
Incline Bench Press – emphasises upper chest
Flat Bench Press – emphasises centre chest
Decline Bench Press – emphases lower chest
How to Safely Pick Up Dumbbells
It’s 100% necessary to highlight the issue of safety… Without unnecessary scaremongering, before handling heavy dumbbells in any chest press exercise you should feel comfortable at getting them into the starting position and putting them down on your own.
Unlike in barbell presses, you won’t be able to rack the weight or count on a spotter to lift the weight of your chest. Sure you can throw it, swing it, you name it – but this carries a great risk of injury to both yourself and the precious gym flooring.
…So, how to get these dumbbells up yourself?
1) Grab a pair of dumbbells and sit down on a bench, placing the dumbbells atop of your thighs. Make sure that your grip is firm and that your hands are facing each other.
2) Lie back on the bench whilst pushing the dumbbells up with your thighs.
3) Position the dumbbells above your chest while placing your feet on the floor.
4) Make sure that your chest is pushed up, your shoulders retracted (pulled back) and that your upper back and buttocks touch the bench at all times.
Once you have finished your set, simply reverse back the steps and place the dumbbells down. Now to begin the exercises…
Top Dumbbell Chest Exercises
1. Dumbbell Bench Press
This exercise is arguably the most effective free-weight movement for development of stubborn pecs. Dumbbell presses allow for better pecs contraction as you can bring the dumbbells together at the top of the movement.
These also allow for greater range of motion in comparison to barbell bench presses. – this is especially true for people with short arms and wide rib cages.
Starting position: Lie down on a bench and bring the dumbbells above your chest – Twist your wrist, so that your thumbs are facing each other (pronated grip).
a) Position your arms in line with your shoulder with slightly bent elbows – slowly lower arms and spread your elbows as far as possible.
b) Hold the stretch for a second and use your chest to bring the arms up and close together, in a triangle-like motion – Do not allow the dumbbells to touch each other at the top.
c) In order to allow greater muscle contraction, tilt your wrists outwards; so that your thumbs are pointing slightly up.
d) Squeeze your chest and hold the contraction for a 1-2 seconds
Sets and reps: 3-5 x 12, 10, 8, 6 reps (pyramid weight up)
TOP TIP: Using heavier weights will reduce your range of motion as the stacks of plates on dumbbells won’t allow you to bring the dumbbells close together. However, if you place this exercise at the end of your workout, you will be able to fatigue the muscle with lower weight and using greater range of motion.
2. Twisting Dumbbell Bench Press
Twisting Dumbbells Bench Press is an exercise rarely seen, which fully exploits the non-fixed grip advantage of dumbbells.
The 180° rotation of the dumbbell throughout the movement aims to stimulate all the muscle fibre bundles of the pectoralis major. Twisting the dumbbells will force you to use less weight than in regular presses. Therefore, you shouldn’t focus on hitting your personal bests on this movement. Instead focus on perfect muscle isolation.
Starting position: Lie down on a bench and bring the dumbbells above your chest. Twist your wrist, so that your pinkies face each other (supinated grip).
a) Position your arms in line with your shoulder and slightly bend your elbows – contract your chest and press the dumbbells against each other, forcing even more powerful contraction.
b) Slowly detach the dumbbells from each other trying to maintain the chest contraction – lower your arms, spreading your elbows apart similarly as in regular dumbbell bench press.
c) Whilst lowering the dumbbells, slowly turn your wrists, so that your thumbs face each other (pronated grip) once reaching the bottom part of the movement.
d) Hold the stretch for a second and use your chest to bring the arms back up, again slowly twisting your wrists to a supinated grip at the top of the movement – at his point squeeze your chest and press the dumbbells together and hold the contraction for 1-2 seconds
Sets and reps: 3 x 12-15 reps
(with each set your reps should go down due to muscle fatigue e.g. 15, 14, 13)
3. Crush-Grip Dumbbell Bench Press
Want to set your chest on fire?
The “crush-grip” is simply pressing both dumbbells against each other throughout the entire movement. Your chest needs to deal with applying force both horizontally (“crushing” dumbbells) and vertically (pressing dumbbells). This allows for incredible muscle activation and contraction!
Starting position: Lie down on a bench and bring the dumbbells above your chest – Keep your palms facing each other (neutral grip) and bring the dumbbells together; aligning them so that weight plates touch each other.
a) Position your arms in line with your shoulders and slightly bend your elbows.
b) Squeezing your chest, press the dumbbells against each other as hard as you can.
c) Maintaining the “crush-grip” lower the dumbbells down about an inch off your chest
d) Immediately bring the dumbbells back up and contract your chest at the top for a second.
Sets and reps: 3-4 x 15 reps
TOP TIP: Using hex-shaped dumbbells will make this exercise much easier, reducing the likelihood of dumbbells gliding against each other and losing the “crush-grip”.
4. Dumbbell Flyes
The bread and butter of most chest training programmes… and for a good reason! Dumbbell flyes allow for an intense loaded stretch.
If performed correctly, the exercise is an amazing finisher to a chest session. However, the biggest mistake made by most trainees is bringing the dumbbells too close together, which leads to losing the muscle contraction.
Starting position: Lie down on a bench and bring the dumbbells above your chest – Make sure that your palms are facing each other (neutral grip).
a) Position your arms in line with your shoulder and slightly bend your elbows
b) Slowly lower your arms in a wide arc until a stretch in your chest – slight discomfort is normal; pain isn’t. As you become more flexible, your safe range of motion will increase – forcing will cause injury.
c) Hold the stretch for a second and use your chest to bring the arms back up in a wide arc – the bend in your elbow should be constant and arms kept rigid. (Move shoulders only)
d) Dumbbells should not touch at the top, as this will cause loss of chest contraction – Squeeze your chest tight for 1 second (imagine bringing your arms together with your pecs.)
Sets and reps: 3 x 12 reps
TOP TIP: You can put more emphasis on upper or lower part of the pecs by altering the trajectory of the movement – bring your arms up above your head to activate more clavicular fibres. Bring your arms up below your sternum to activate more coastal bundle
When experimenting with angles try to find a “sweet spot” where you can feel pecs more than your deltoids.
5. Dumbbell Pull Overs
Dumbbell Pull-overs are often considered as a back exercise rather than chest exercise – truth be told, it is both. The key element determining whether it will stimulate the former or the latter is the bend in your arms and range of motion; both explain in the step by step guide.
Similarly to dumbbell flyes, the exercise allows for an intense loaded stretch. However, it targets the pectoralis major from a different angle; which effectively complements the flyes.
Starting position: Place a dumbbell upright, on top of a bench, just off the edge – lie on your back across the bench, so that only your shoulder blades touch its surface:
Importantly, your neck should be off the bench to prevent cervical spine injuries.
a) Place your feet firmly on the ground and drop your hips down and grab the dumbbell in both hands – press your palms against the inner-side of the weight plates: To ensure a secure grip you can tangle your thumbs around the handle and wrap your fingers around the edge of the dumbbell.
b) Place the dumbbell above your head, bend your elbows slightly (excessive bent will engage more back than chest) and flex your chest for a second.
c) Keeping your arms rigid, slowly lower the dumbbell behind your head until your arms are in line with your body, holding the stretch for a second and raise the dumbbell back until it’s above your eyes.
d) Raising the dumbbell to just before your forehead will put more emphasis on your back – squeeze your chest and keep the contraction for a second.
Sets and reps: 3 x 12 reps
TOP TIP: You can super-set this exercise with dumbbell flyes into a loaded chest stretch combo; which targets the muscle fibres from two opposite angles.
Chest Dumbbell Training Programme
Below you will find a sample, chest training programme using dumbbells exercises only.
The first exercises is preceded with 3 warm-up sets, following exercises should not require any additional warm-up sets. There are a total of 15 working sets; each set should be performed short of failure (1-2 repetitions left in the tank) with the exception of 2nd exercise.
|Exercise||Sets and reps|
|Incline Dumbbell Bench Press||3 x 12,10,8 warm up|
|Incline Dumbbell Bench Press||3 x 12,10,8 working set|
|Flat Dumbbell Press||3 x failure|
|Crush-Grip Dumbbell Press||3 x 15|
|Super-Set: Dbell Flyes + Chest Pull-Overs||3 x 12 + 12|
Take Home Message
Dumbbells offer numerous advantages over regular barbell bench presses. Greater range of motion, effective muscle activation and freedom to manipulate the grip through the movement offer a unique benefit for chest development.
Try out the recommended Dumbbells-Only Training Programme for Chest and let us know about your progress.