9 Best Dumbbell Push Exercises (with Pictures!)

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
October 26, 2022

The concept of a “push” exercise refers to a resistance exercise with the angle of resistance being towards the body of the lifter, requiring that they press or otherwise push against the resistance in order to perform the movement.

While these push exercises can be performed with a number of different types of equipment, with a particular favorite among bodybuilders being dumbbell-based push exercises. 

Performing push exercises with the use of dumbbells instead of kettlebells or barbells can present a number of benefits and rehabilitory effects - making them arguably superior to other types of push exercises in certain aspects.

The most frequently encountered kinds of dumbbell push exercises are the dumbbell chest press, the dumbbell overhead press and the dumbbell overhead tricep extension.

Benefits of Dumbbell-Based Push Exercises

Better Muscular Proportionality

Individuals with a muscular imbalance or those that wish to maximize the proportionality of their musculature will see the best results from dumbbell-based exercises, rather than performing barbell or machine-based exercises that will likely worsen their imbalance.

This is because of the fact that each side of the body is forced to work independently of the other during dumbbell-based movements, even in cases of compound exercises being performed. 

This form of unilateral training, in turn, will result in both sides of the body being trained equally and allowing the “weaker” side of the body to catch up to its counterpart, resolving the muscular imbalance.

Larger Range of Motion

The usage of dumbbells instead of other resistance equipment can influence the maximum range of motion during an exercise, as the encumbering size of a barbell or limited angle of resistance of exercise machines can both reduce said range of motion.

An increased range of motion can result in greater strength development and the capacity to fully target a muscle group, improving hypertrophy and ensuring that no sticking points are accidentally developed from an insufficient range of motion.

Increased Muscular Stability

The usage of dumbbells as a source of resistance will require greater isometric contraction of the muscles, as each side of the body is forced to stabilize itself - unlike with barbells or machines, where the stability requirements are somewhat less intensive.

While this can indeed result in less energy being utilized for force production, it also excels in improving the stability of whatever muscles are being recruited, carrying over to other exercises and reducing the risk of injury during further training sessions.

Possibility of Unilateral Movement

Performing exercises with a dumbbell instead of other types of equipment will open up the opportunity to only train one side of the body at a time, allowing for greater neuromuscular contraction to be achieved and furthering the effectiveness of isolation exercises as a whole.

This benefit is especially useful for individuals that wish to maximize the recruitment of a specific muscle group, as it allows them to focus more on consciously contracting said muscle.

Dumbbell Push Exercises for the Deltoids

1. Dumbbell Push Press

The dumbbell push press is visually similar to a dumbbell overhead press, but also includes force produced from the muscles of the legs so as to increase maximum weight moved per set.

dumbbell push press

As such, the dumbbell push press is rather an inefficient deltoid-focused compound movement, as a large portion of the resistance is distributed to the abdominal muscles and the legs, reducing focus on the deltoid muscles despite the increased maximum weight.

The dumbbell push press is better reserved as an accessory exercise for olympic weightlifters or similar types of power-based athletes, and is not always considered to be a good primary compound exercise for training the shoulders.

2. Dumbbell Arnold Press

The dumbbell arnold press is a variation of the standard dumbbell overhead press wherein the exerciser will rotate their wrists as they perform the repetition, thereby training the biceps brachii and forearms at a similar level of intensity to the deltoids.

arnold presses

The dumbbell arnold press is usually performed as a primary compound exercise meant to improve multiple upper-body muscles in a single movement, saving the lifter time and energy at the cost of shorter time under tension for the deltoids.

3. Dumbbell Overhead Press / Military Press

The quintessential dumbbell deltoid exercise, the dumbbell overhead press is a compound resistance movement that involves the lifter raising the dumbbells overhead until their elbows have reached a state of full extension.

dumbbell shoulder press

This will recruit not only all three heads of the deltoids, but also the triceps brachii and the pectoral muscles as well.

Considering the fact that one of the most common forms of muscular imbalances is that which affects the deltoids, performing the overhead press with dumbbells instead of a barbell is a surefire way of remedying this problem.

An important matter to note is that - due to the fact that dumbbells require independent muscular stabilization - the lifter will not be able to move as much weight as they would with the barbell or smith machine variations of the overhead press.

4. Lateral Raises

An isolation exercise that makes use of dumbbells so as to train the deltoids in a highly targeted fashion, lateral raises are most often performed as accessory movements to heavier compound exercises so as to maximize deltoid muscle development without causing excessive fatigue.

dumbbell lateral raise

Lateral raises can be modified to target individual portions of the deltoid muscles, but otherwise will recruit the anterior and medial head in equal measure while the posterior head will be reserved as a secondary mover muscle.

Due to the disadvantageous position the lateral raise places the shoulder girdle in, the best way to structure a set of lateral raises is to use a high volume of repetitions and very low amount of weight.

Dumbbell Push Exercises for the Pectoral Muscles

1. Dumbbell Chest Press

Otherwise known as the dumbbell bench press, the dumbbell chest press is a variation of the standard chest press that requires each side of the body to work independently of the other - effectively requiring greater isometric contraction and coordination.

dumbbell chest press

The dumbbell chest press is often used as a secondary compound movement or as a substitute to the barbell bench press - both of which allow the lifter to perform the dumbbell chest press with a full level of resistance, maximizing strength development and remedying any imbalances that may be present.

The dumbbell chest press targets the pectorals, anterior deltoid head and the triceps brachii to a significant degree - with the anterior deltoid head in particular being recruited more than in other chest press variations due to the stability requirements of the dumbbell chest press exercise.

2. Dumbbell Chest Fly

An accessory exercise meant to isolate the pectoral muscles in a biomechanically advantageous manner, the dumbbell chest fly is usually performed with a low amount of weight and a high volume of repetitions per set.

dumbbell chest fly muscles

While there is no barbell variation of the dumbbell chest fly, it is most comparable to a pec deck machine in terms of mechanics and range of motion - with the added benefit of being a free weight exercise, thereby contracting the pectoral muscles both dynamically and isometrically.

3. Dumbbell Incline Press

A variation of the dumbbell chest press, the dumbbell incline press makes use of an angled bench in order to place the lifter’s torso at a moderately steep angle relative to the floor. This, in turn, will significantly alter the targeted muscles of the exercise and how much total weight the lifter will be able to move with each set.

dumbbell incline perss

The incline variation of the dumbbell chest press results in greater pectoralis minor and anterior deltoid head recruitment in exchange for less triceps brachii activation and a somewhat more unstable movement due to the disadvantageous angle of resistance.

Dumbbell Push Exercises for the Triceps Brachii

1. Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension

A triceps brachii isolation exercise that makes use of a single heavy dumbbell or pair of lighter dumbbells, the overhead triceps extension involves the lifter placing a dumbbell or pair of dumbbells behind their heads with the elbows fully bent, prior to extending the forearms until the dumbbells are immediately overhead.

tricep overhead extensions

This will recruit the triceps brachii as the sole primary mover muscle, while the deltoids are left to function in a stabilizing capacity instead.

The dumbbell overhead triceps extension is primarily used as an accessory exercise near the end of most push day workouts, wherein it is meant to act as a method of maximizing muscular hypertrophy of the triceps brachii.

2. Dumbbell Skull Crushers

Much like the overhead triceps extension, dumbbell skull crushers are a triceps brachii isolation exercise that involve using a pair of dumbbells or a single heavy dumbbell to target the main biomechanic of the triceps - that being elbow extension.

dumbbell skull crushers

Dumbbell skull crushers involve the lifter lying on a bench and lowering the dumbbells behind their head, keeping their shoulders and elbow as stationary as possible so as to maximize triceps brachii muscular recruitment.

This particular dumbbell-based triceps exercise is considered to be a more advanced exercise due to the risk of elbow impingement or other forms of chronic injury if performed with improper exercise mechanics, requiring some level of training experience in order to minimize the risk of injury.

Structuring a Dumbbell-Only Push Workout

Though the majority of push day workouts are meant to involve machines and other kinds of free weight equipment alongside dumbbells, it is entirely possible to perform a dumbbell-only push workout, especially if structured in the correct manner.

Considering that dumbbell compound movements will almost always fatigue the deltoids to a more rapid extent than other types of equipment, it is best to perform these movements after heavier compound exercises have already been completed.

Of course, programming heavier compound movements as the first exercises performed within a workout must be done regardless of the presence of deltoid-focused exercises or not.

Once the heavy compound movements have been completed, exercisers may increase their total workout volume by further incorporating accessory exercises that target their weak points or muscles that they may wish to train with greater focus.

As a general rule, exercises of greater resistance or those targeting more muscle groups should be performed first in the workout, with lighter exercises or those with an isolated muscular recruitment pattern are meant to be performed after.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Can You Get Big With Only Dumbbells?

Yes - it is indeed possible to both induce muscular hypertrophy and strength adaptations solely through the usage of dumbbells

In fact, doing so can present several benefits that other forms of resistance equipment do not; such as greater muscular proportionality, more stable muscle co-activation and even rehabilitation of certain types of chronic injury.

What are the 5 Common Push Exercises?

The five most frequently utilized push exercises are the chest press, the fly, the dip, the overhead press and the push up - each of which target one or multiple muscles considered to be responsible for the pushing movements that are seen in their execution.

Can You Do Push/Pull With Dumbbells?

Yes - though the pull day workout will likely be limited due to the rather small number of pull-type exercises that can be performed with dumbbells alone. 

Lifters wishing to perform a dumbbell-only pull day workout will need to get creative or acquire additional exercise equipment if they wish to ensure continuous progression and a full workout routine.

Final Thoughts

Though we’ve covered the most common and most effective dumbbell-based push exercises, there are dozens more that may fit any specific need that a lifter may have. 

We encourage you to continue searching for possible exercises that meet your goals if none of the aforementioned movements are fitting, as there is doubtless a perfect exercise to fit your niche.

In the event that you are unsure of how to perform a certain exercise, it is important to seek out the advice of a coach or to otherwise research how to properly execute the exercise prior to attempting it with full weight, as doing so can easily result in injury.

References

1. Negrete RJ, Hanney WJ, Pabian P, Kolber MJ. Upper body push and pull strength ratio in recreationally active adults. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2013 Apr;8(2):138-44. PMID: 23593552; PMCID: PMC3625793.

2. Gabriel, David A. C.S.C.S.; Pyka, Ian B. C.S.C.S.. PROGRAM DESIGN: The scientific basis of push-pull weight training programs. National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal: August 1989 - Volume 11 - Issue 4 - p 30-32

3. Soriano MA, Suchomel TJ, Comfort P. Weightlifting Overhead Pressing Derivatives: A Review of the Literature. Sports Med. 2019 Jun;49(6):867-885. doi: 10.1007/s40279-019-01096-8. PMID: 30924081; PMCID: PMC6548056.

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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