Why Is Dumbbell Bench Press Harder Than Barbell Bench Press? Find Out Here
As someone new to weightlifting, you may have wondered why the dumbbell bench press is harder than the barbell bench press.
After all, both exercises involve pressing a weight above your chest. But as it turns out, there are several differences that can make the dumbbell version more challenging.
In this post, we’ll take a closer look at these two exercises and explore the reasons why dumbbells can be more challenging.
By understanding the differences between these two exercises, you’ll be better equipped to choose the right one for your routine. So let’s get started!
Why is dumbbell bench press harder than barbell bench press?
The primary reason the dumbbell bench press is harder than the barbell bench press is due to increased instability. With a barbell, the weight is evenly distributed across your arms and chest. However, when using dumbbells, you have to support each weight independently, which requires additional stabiliser muscles. This makes it more difficult to initiate the exercise, as well as control and balance the weights. In addition, dumbbells allow for a greater range of motion at the top and bottom of each press, which puts extra strain on your muscles. This can lead to imbalances that may not be exposed when using a barbell. Finally, dumbbells are generally easier on the shoulders and wrists than a barbell, which can be beneficial for those with existing joint issues. However, it also means that more of your strength is concentrated on the dumbbells rather than shared across both arms. This can make them feel heavier, making them harder to lift.
Let’s now look more in-depth at why the dumbbell bench press is harder than its barbell counterpart…
Requires more stability
With a barbell the weight is evenly distributed, meaning you don’t need to use as many stabiliser muscles. The stabiliser muscles used are the serratus anterior, lower trapezius and rotator cuff muscles.
These are also known as ‘antagonist muscles’ which help to keep the load stable while you press.
With dumbbells, however, each arm must independently control the weight and this requires more stabiliser muscle recruitment. This can be particularly challenging for beginners as their stabilizers are often weak or untrained.
This can also make it difficult to initiate the exercise and control the weights throughout. This is why as a beginner, using the barbell can make it easier to learn proper form and technique.
There are still a lot of things to think about when pressing a barbell, but you can concentrate more on pushing/pressing the bar as opposed to adding the worry of stabilising the load you are lifting.
Trying to lift heavy dumbbells can be more challenging than using a barbell, especially if you are trying to match the amount of weightlifting.
It would be wise to reduce the weight when bench pressing with dumbbells, to allow for these smaller stabiliser muscles to improve.
Greater range of motion
The range of motion doing this exercise with dumbbells is greater than that of the barbell version. This means that you have to control the weight for a greater distance and over a larger range of motion.
This can be more challenging for beginners, as it requires additional strength and stabiliser muscles than the barbell does.
It may also lead to muscle imbalances occurring as each arm is not able to move the weight in a synchronised manner.
The top and bottom of each press are greater when using dumbbells than a barbell, this is because with one arm you can bring the weight down behind your head and with a barbell, it is hard to perform this motion.
This extra range of motion may also cause you to recruit extra muscles, such as your pecs, triceps and deltoids.
This increased range of motion can be beneficial as it allows for more muscle recruitment and improved strength, but it also requires additional stabilisers to be engaged in the lift.
However, this can place extra strain on your muscles because you aren’t used to the movement of the exercise, which is why it can be harder to lift heavier weights with them.
It’s also important to note that the stabiliser muscles may not be as strong at the bottom of the press as they are at the top, meaning that you may not be able to lift as heavy weights.
Imbalances are highlighted
When using a barbell, the weight is shared between both arms. This means that you can move it symmetrically without worrying about uneven loading between the arms.
With dumbbells, however, each arm must independently control the weight and this can lead to imbalances in strength and technique between each arm.
This can be particularly troublesome for beginners, those with pre-existing muscle imbalances or those who are coming back from an injury.
It is important to note that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing if one arm is weaker than the other, as long as it is being addressed.
A great way to do this would be to perform exercises such as the dumbbell bench press with lighter weights and higher repetitions to ensure that both arms are able to move evenly.
It’s also worth noting that the dumbbell press will highlight any imbalances you have between your arms and chest. For example, if you have a weaker arm, it will become obvious when you try to press the weight.
Lots of people are asymmetrical, to begin with, and this is perfectly normal. However, it’s worth noting that any imbalances should be addressed in order to prevent injury and further imbalance.
Harder to initiate the exercise
A dumbbell bench press is harder to initiate than a barbell press because of the increased instability.
With the barbell, it’s normally racked and ready to go, but with dumbbells, you need to pick them up independently and stabilise them before beginning.
This means that you have to use additional muscles and strength just to initiate the exercise and if you are looking to lift anything comparable to your barbell numbers, then getting the dumbbells from the weight rack to your thighs and into the pressing position can be difficult.
The instability of the weights means that you have to be extra focused on your form, in order to keep the weights balanced and under control throughout the exercise.
This isn’t a bad thing, it just means you need to be more vigilant when performing the exercise and be aware of your limitations with dumbbells compared to the barbell.
If you are lucky enough to have a gym partner you can rely on, they can help you lift the dumbbells into position, or if you are working out at home, make sure to have a spotter nearby just in case the weights become too heavy.
There are some gyms now that have individual dumbbell racks, which hold the dumbbell and as you lift the weight off them, the rack springs back out of the way. This makes it easier to initiate the exercise as you don’t have to lift the weight from your lap.
As mentioned earlier, a barbell bench press requires fewer stabilisers to be engaged as the weight is evenly distributed along your arms and chest.
This means that more strength and power can be concentrated on the barbell itself, which is why it’s easier to lift heavier weights with a barbell than with dumbbells.
You still have to be mindful of the barbell bar path, but it’s much easier to control the weight as it is not being challenged by instability.
The force you are able to generate with a barbell is greater than with a pair of dumbbells, as you don’t have to worry about the weights being unbalanced and straining the muscles, which means your barbell numbers will be greater than that of those with dumbbells.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t lift heavier weights with dumbbells, but it does mean that you need to be aware of the limitations of this exercise and adjust your goals accordingly.
The dumbbell bench press is still a great exercise for building strength and power but it’s important to remember that there is an increased risk of injury when performing the exercise due to the instability of the weights.
It is, therefore, important to take things slow and be aware of your form when doing the exercise. It’s also a good idea to use lighter weights and higher repetitions in order to get the most out of the exercise.
Dumbbells are easier on joints
Dumbbells are generally easier on your shoulders and wrists than barbells, which can be beneficial for those with existing joint issues.
However, this does mean that more of your strength is concentrated on the dumbbells rather than the barbell, which can result in slower progress.
I tend to find that when having a neutral grip (palms facing each other) with dumbbells feel more comfortable than a barbell at times, and allows me to press with less strain on the wrists, shoulders and elbows, which is helpful for those suffering from pre-existing joint pain.
The good news is that dumbbells allow for a greater range of motion, which can help build strength in the muscles that may otherwise be neglected.
This is especially beneficial for those who want to improve the aesthetics of their chest, as they can take advantage of the full range of motion that a dumbbell press offers.
Overall, it’s important to consider the pros and cons of using a barbell versus a dumbbell when it comes to bench pressing.
If you struggle with joint pain, using dumbbells could be beneficial as they are easier on the wrists and shoulders.
However, if you are looking to progress quickly, the barbell bench press is still the most effective exercise.
It’s important to be aware of your body and how it responds to each type of exercise, and adjust your training accordingly.
Regardless of the equipment you choose, if you are consistent with your training and eat healthily, you should begin to see progress over time.
Work on stabiliser muscles and range of motion
One thing you can do to make the dumbbell bench press more effective is to work on your stabiliser muscles, as this will make it easier to control and balance the weights throughout the range of motion.
You can also work on improving your range of motion, as this will help to engage more muscle fibres and help to build a stronger chest.
Exercises that focus on external rotation, such as cable flyes and band pull-aparts, can help to strengthen the muscles around your shoulder blades, which will help with stabilisation when you are performing the bench press.
Generally, with any exercise, it’s important to focus on form before you start adding weight and increasing the difficulty.
The dumbbell bench press can be an effective exercise if you take the time to focus on form and stabilisation and pay attention to your range of motion.
By doing so, you will be able to get the most out of this exercise and see progress towards your goals.
Ultimately, the choice between using a barbell or dumbbells comes down to personal preference and what works best for your body and goals.
The increased instability of using dumbbells can also help you to develop better coordination and control during the exercise, which can translate to other exercises and activities.
Overall, the dumbbell bench press is a great exercise for those looking to build strength, add muscle and improve their overall chest aesthetics.
It’s important to remember that the primary reason why the dumbbell bench press is harder than the barbell bench press is due to increased instability, which means that you have to pay extra attention to form and stability in order to get the most out of the exercise.
In addition, dumbbells allow for a greater range of motion and help to engage more muscle fibres, which can lead to faster gains.
Choosing the right exercise can be tricky, but understanding the benefits and differences between a barbell and a dumbbell press can help you make an informed decision.
I say do both, just make sure you find the right balance that works best for you and your training goals.
Do you find dumbbell bench press more difficult than the barbell version? Let me know in the comments below.