Dumbbell Bench Press: Variations Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
May 15, 2022

The dumbbell bench press is an extremely common compound exercise known for its unilateral activation of the pectoralis muscles alongside its secondary mover muscles such as the three deltoid heads that make up the shoulders, the triceps brachii and the latissimus dorsi muscle groups.

This particular form of the bench press is so popular in fact that several variations of it have begun to also take some level of popularity in recent years, with variations in the angle of mechanical tension or the type of grip the exerciser uses all being used to address the differing needs of individuals.

These dumbbell bench press and its variations exist so as to fulfill certain roles and requirements within an exercise or physical rehabilitation routine, with certain variants of the exercise such as the incline or supinated grip dumbbell bench press meant to activate the pectoralis minor – for example, and others activating different parts of the chest, or accounting for a lack of equipment.

What Muscles are Worked by the Dumbbell Bench Press and its Variations?

Though the particular level of muscular activation between dumbbell bench press variations can differ between each type and which particular muscle – they all share the same movement pattern and thus the same muscular activation pattern.

dumbbell bench anterior muscles used

These are namely that of the pectoralis minor and major, the deltoids with a particular focus on the anterior head, the latissimus dorsi, the triceps brachii located along the rear of the arm, as well as the serratus and the levator scapulae to some extent.

dumbbell bench posterior muscles used

Individuals wishing to create a larger focus on certain muscle groups or those wishing to avoid exacerbating or incurring injuries in other areas of the body may pick and choose a dumbbell bench press variation as they wish – though it is far more advisable to leave such decisions to one’s athletic coach or physical therapist.

Does the Workout Program Need to be Changed if a Dumbbell Bench Press Variant is Used?

Though most variants of the dumbbell bench press generally activate the same muscle groups in a similar manner and level of intensity, subsequently modifying the exerciser’s workout program may be advisable as to maximize the benefits they accrue not only from the dumbbell bench press but all other exercises as well.

This is usually done by accounting for the increased or decreased focus and intensity of the dumbbell bench press’s variation, such as reducing the volume of anterior deltoid exercises when switching to the incline dumbbell bench press due to the increased training stimuli placed on said deltoid head.

In other exercises such as the dumbbell floor press, it may even be advisable to add more exercises to the workout program due to a reduced range of motion, such as the addition of cable crossovers or dumbbell flyes in order to ensure that the pectoralis muscle group is fully trained and activated.

As can be inferred from these examples, there is no one trick to optimizing an exercise routine or physical rehabilitation program in order to account for a substitution of the dumbbell bench press with its variants, and as such consulting a coach or similar professional is usually advisable.

What are the Main Differences Between Dumbbell Bench Press Variations?

Primarily, the differences found between the various types of dumbbell bench press usually concern that of the particular angle at which the dumbbell is held in relation to the exerciser, of which will subsequently alter the direction of mechanical tension that is placed on each muscle group.

In the cases of the incline or decline dumbbell bench press, for example, altering the exerciser’s torso in either direction will place more emphasis on one of the two portions of the pectoralis muscle group, as well as shift some of the resistance bearing responsibility from the anterior deltoids to the triceps and latissimus dorsi in the case of the decline bench press.

Other changes that are found in the variations of the dumbbell bench press may be in relation to the specific type of muscular activation they may incur.

This is most noticeable in the pause dumbbell bench press where the exerciser will not only eccentrically and concentrically but also isometrically train their muscles by way of the exerciser “pausing” the repetition over their chest, forcing the various muscle groups involved to contract in a static manner and thereby incurring a type of training stimuli that is rather uncommon for free weight exercises.

The Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

First and the most common among the dumbbell bench press variants, the incline dumbbell press differs from the dumbbell bench press by the manner of the exerciser placing themselves on a bench adjusted at an upward angle, thereby forcing more of the upper chest (pectoralis major) to activate.

dumbbell incline bench press

This also has the benefit of placing more mechanical tension of the anterior deltoids, both as stabilizing muscles and as secondary mover muscles and therefore imparting better muscular hypertrophy and strength gains in the front of the shoulder muscles.

The incline dumbbell bench press may even be used in combination with the traditional dumbbell bench press so as to fully activate the pectoralis muscle group in a more efficient manner, though this purpose can just as readily be done with any other pectoralis focused exercise.

The Decline Dumbbell Bench Press

The opposite in terms of angle to the incline dumbbell bench press, the decline dumbbell bench press instead places the exerciser at a downward angle so as to maximize the activation of the pectoralis minor and latissimus dorsi, both of which are utilized for pushing the dumbbells away from the torso – a task made more difficult by the direction of the exerciser’s body.

dumbbell decline bench press

This, by extension, reduces the mechanical stress placed on the deltoids and triceps brachii, making the decline dumbbell bench press suitable for workout routines that already place significant training stimuli and fatigue on the aforementioned muscle groups.

As such, the decline dumbbell bench press is more suitable for exercisers and bodybuilders wishing to emphasize the lower portion of their chest muscles, as well as athletes looking for a more well-rounded upper body exercise push routine when also including such exercises like the military press and triceps isolation exercises as well.

Neutral Grip Dumbbell Bench Press

A bench press grip variation that is otherwise impossible without the use of dumbbells or other specialized equipment, the neutral grip dumbbell bench press is primarily performed with the exerciser holding the dumbbells in such a way that their palms face on another over their chest, hence the term neutral as this keeps the wrists in their most natural stance.

As such, the neutral grip dumbbell bench press both reduces the incidence of wrist injury as well as improves pectoral muscle group activation by placing a larger amount of strain on said chest muscles due to the nature of how they are activated.

If utilizing proper form, the neutral grip dumbbell bench press can also replicate the close grip barbell bench press in the manner of significantly activating the triceps brachii muscles as the dumbbells are held closer together than what would normally be done.

Single Hand Dumbbell Bench Press

Simply the bilateral form of a dumbbell bench press, the single hand dumbbell bench press is primarily performed for the purposes of improving the exerciser’s focus on a single side of their body – thereby allowing them to exert somewhat more energy and effort on a single side at a time, which may translate to improved benefits and results when combined with other anabolic factors.

The single hand dumbbell bench press can unbalance the exerciser during the eccentric portion of the exercise, requiring that they either find a suitably wide enough surface to lie upon or a stable enough object to grip as they complete the set.

A primary drawback to the single hand dumbbell bench press is that it takes approximately twice the length of time a unilateral dumbbell bench press exercise would take, a trade off that is left up to the individual to decide on whether it is worth the improved focus or not.

Spoto or Pause Dumbbell Bench Press

Primarily performed by high level athletes or individuals wishing to greatly improve the strength and function of their pectoral muscle group and triceps brachii, the pause dumbbell bench press makes use of not only dynamic contraction but also isometric type muscular contraction in order to maximize the benefits of performing the exercise.

This is done by the exerciser quite literally “pausing” a short distance away from their chest as they squeeze all the muscle groups involved in the movement, prior to resuming the repetition and only repeating this pause once they have begun another repetition.

Dumbbell Floor Press

Usually performed either by individuals with an injury that causes a reduction in their arm’s range of motion or by exercisers without access to a suitable enough bench, the dumbbell floor press is a variation of the dumbbell bench press with a significantly reduced range of motion that causes an increased level of resistance to be placed on the triceps as they bear the brunt of the load.

dumbbell floor press

This can be quite beneficial for powerlifters wishing to train the lock-out portion of their bench press form, or exercisers desiring to place further emphasis on their triceps brachii muscle group without performing a close grip bench press exercise.

Reverse or Supinated Grip Dumbbell Bench Press

Performed with the palms of the exerciser facing inwards so as to increase the horizontal distance that the dumbbells must travel as well as place a certain level of emphasis on the biceps brachii muscle groups, a muscular activation that is not normally found in most dumbbell bench press variations.

The reverse grip dumbbell bench press is occasionally even considered an entirely different exercise to the dumbbell bench press itself, despite their similarities, and as such may require that the workout program of the exerciser performing it to be modified so as to account for the change in training stimuli and muscular activation.

This is especially applicable for high level athletes or powerlifters that are wishing to train their bench press strength or similar physical capacities, as the difference in muscular activation pattern, form and connective tissue strain can result in a training effect somewhat different from what the athlete may be expecting.

References

1. Saeterbakken AH, Mo DA, Scott S, Andersen V. The Effects of Bench Press Variations in Competitive Athletes on Muscle Activity and Performance. J Hum Kinet. 2017 Jun 22;57:61-71. doi: 10.1515/hukin-2017-0047. PMID: 28713459; PMCID: PMC5504579.

2. Saeterbakken AH, Stien N, Pedersen H, Solstad TEJ, Cumming KT, Andersen V. The Effect of Grip Width on Muscle Strength and Electromyographic Activity in Bench Press among Novice- and Resistance-Trained Men. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Jun 14;18(12):6444. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18126444. PMID: 34198674; PMCID: PMC8296276.

3. Lauver JD, Cayot TE, Scheuermann BW. Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise. Eur J Sport Sci. 2016;16(3):309-16. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2015.1022605. Epub 2015 Mar 23. PMID: 25799093.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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