A frequently asked question when it comes to chest training is ‘Are Dumbells better or worse than a Barbell?’ – There is no yes or no answer to this one, it is entirely dependant on your goals.
As you can load a barbell gradually with minor increases in weight, they are the ideal tool for building strength. To get stronger you need to progressively lift more weight over a period of time. If you can’t, something is not right – You can perform all the drop-sets/supersets/giant sets/forced reps etc etc, but if the weight is not increasing, you will not get stronger – You will plateau much quicker with Dumbbells due to the large increase in weight percentage between them. Even a well stocked gym will have the weight increases around the 2.5kg mark. This is as increase of 5kg on your lift which is going to be a challenge for most and makes progressive loading nigh impossible. If your goal is pure strength you can load significantly more onto a barbell due to its balance and stability and so is the perfect tool in this situation.
Muscular imbalance is another thing to address. Although you can try and be more aware of pushing equally or focusing on leading with the weaker side, with a Barbell imbalances can be masked. When using Dumbbells you will be much more aware of imbalances as one side will be unstable or will fatigue first, and will prevent your dominant side from growing faster than the other. Balanced body strength leads to greater performance and lowers the chance of injury.
The Barbell bench press is also harder on your joints than dumbbells. When pressing with dumbbells, your hands won’t remain completely pronated (palms forward), but will rotate slightly inwards reducing the stress on your wrists elbows and shoulders (particularly rotator cuff) and therefore reducing your chance of injury.
With regard to muscle recruitment, researchers noted that electrical activity or muscle stimulation in the arms was greatest in the triceps with a barbell, but when dumbbells are used the biceps also come into play as stabilisers. The Barbell activates more upper chest fibres and anterior deltoid due to the wide grip in the top position, however as your hands are free to move across your body with dumbbell presses there is greater lower pectoral activation. Although yes, you will use more stabilising muscles with the dumbbells, you will be limited by the weight increases as previously mentioned meaning you will plateau sooner.
In my opinion the barbell is the better option as you can handle a lot more weight doing the same exercises. More weight moved = bigger muscles. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use dumbbells, you should try and use both – Just keep the main focus on increasing the weight on the bar and use dumbbell sets to ensure you work the entire chest area, prevent imbalances and keep your joints healthy.
In a nutshell:
- Grip the bar so that your forearms are perpendicular to the ground and your wrists are straight (bar is in heel of hand, directly over forearm bones) not bent back. For most that will be just at the edge of the knurling.
- Take a deep breath, flex the chest and lats hard to create a shelf for your upper arms to rest on. Try to avoid the common ‘rack’ position (think Olympic lift, where the bar touches chest/collarbone and bar rests on shoulders) as this will cause you to lose tightness at the bottom of each rep.
Straight Wrists Bent Wrists or ‘Rack’ Position
- Drive the bar quickly overhead to lockout, bringing your head and chest through at the top of the movement (so bar is directly overhead), this reduces the stress on the anterior deltoid (front shoulder) and lumbar spine (lower back). You can then exhale before starting the next rep.
Bad Overhead Position Good Overhead Position
- Rep 2 begins at the top position, inhale and control the bar down to the start position to ‘bounce’ off the lat shelf and back to the top before you breathe out again to start next rep.
- Keep your legs straight throughout with anywhere from deadlift to squat stance, squeeze glutes and abs hard throughout the lift.
- Take a stance roughly heels in line with hips – Alternatively think about doing a vertical jump, this varies with course but it is a guide.
- Toes should be slightly turned out. Not as much as the squat but definitely not parallel. Bar is just in front of your shins whilst standing.
- Bend down and grip the bar, your arms should hang vertically (so a shoulder width grip). You can use an alternating or hook (thumbs under fingers) grip, as the bar gets heavier, but if you want to improve your grip strength try and use a double overhand grip as long as possible. In this position your shins should now be touching the bar.
Deadlift Overhand & Alternating Grip
- Take a deep breath, squeeze shoulders together and lift chest, pushing bottom back. Your lower back should remain either static or slightly arched throughout the lift, don’t let it round!
Good Vs Bad Back Position
- Squeeze the pressure into the bar and sit back into your heels till you feel like you’re about to fall backwards, then lift, keeping the bar as close to the body as you can.
- As soon as the bar passes your knees, drive your hips forward to complete the lift (lockout), squeezing the glutes hard. Do not lockout by leaning back at the top!
Good Vs Bad Lockout Position
- Return the bar to the floor along the same path, don’t drop it! If you have exhaled at the top, take another breath and hold as you lower. Most deadlift injuries occur on the lowering as people tend to relax and drop the bar down, jerking the lower back, or with poor back position at the start of the lift.
- At the end of each lift, re-set your position before taking another breath and lifting again. As soon as you feel your lower back starting to round or can’t lockout the set is over.
When it comes to performing exercise, there is so much contradiction it’s hard to muddle through. From forced reps to partial reps to ‘cheat’ reps – everyone has an opinion and everyone loves to tell you who’s wrong! Here‘s an article from Elite FTS and here, one from T-nation discussing this issue. Neither of which I hasten to add, advocate for a moment ‘cheating’ as a beginner or even an intermediate lifter in some cases, but only when you reach advanced level’s of strength and/or size and are looking to break through into new territory. I personally cannot stress enough the importance of form and believe it should be something you strive to improve all the time and focus on every single session, but let’s not forget there are benefits that can be had from ‘cheating’. After all what is a negative rep if it’s not cheating at the start and benefiting from the overload on the negative phase to come back stronger next session?
Recently I posted a video of my overhead press and commented that there was too much layback. However, this enabled me to lockout at least the last two reps of my set. If I was being really harsh probably the last three! Where these last few reps beneficial? Potential injury aside, I think so. Although I stand by the fact I need to tighten up my form (to reduce that injury potential), those last reps would have provided a stimulus for my muscles/CNS and I will be stronger for it when I re-visit the bar. To reduce injury potential I would have been better turning the last rep into a push press and perhaps I’ll try that next time!
Of course, if you are a competing athlete or weightlifter, then cheating or not locking out a lift whilst competing is an absolute ‘no-go’, and I am in no way condoning the use of ‘cheat’ reps for these types of goals. However my goal is not one of competition, but of size and strength. In the journey to getting ‘Hench’ I feel that the occasional ‘cheat’ or partial rep may well be beneficial in certain exercises, as a finisher for otherwise fatigued muscles or to force some extra growth. But this is just my opinion, I would suggest you make your own decision! If for anything else you could increase DOMS and could then potentially reduce your performance in the next session!