Because of their status of essential mass builders, heavy compound exercises should be at the core of your chest routine, regardless of your other training preferences. Even though bodybuilders are notorious for their inability to agree upon the best ways to train, almost every lifter out there will tell you that compound exercises should always come first and isolation exercises should always come last in terms of workout structure.
In addition, since each exercise has its own perks and flaws, you need to plan your workout in a way that enables optimal muscle activation in the given period of time. In the case of chest training, you have a wide variety of great exercises to choose from and compose the perfect workout. But let’s begin with the basic tried-and-true upper body builder – the chest press.
You want to start your chest routine with heavy compound presses that will allow you to overload your chest while your pecs are still fresh and unfatigued so that you can achieve maximum tension and engage as many muscle fibers as possible. Presses also let you add more weight in a progressive manner and accurately track your strength development. There are gazillion press variations which target the chest muscles from different angles and we encourage you to experiment with all of them.
Nevertheless, barbell and dumbbell presses are the primary chest compound moves you should rely on for building size and strength in this area. While the barbell press is the golden chest exercise of bodybuilding for many decades now, dumbbell presses also come with a useful pack of benefits that you shouldn’t neglect if you want to up your gains.
In the text bellow we’ll compare both exercises in relation to the three most important factors that determine muscle growth and provide you with the knowledge you need to start making the most out of your chest training days.
#1. Range of Motion
The main responsibility of the fan-shaped pectoral muscles is to make your upper arms move across the front of the torso, a movement termed as “horizontal adduction”, by contracting and pulling the upper arms towards the mid-chest area.
Now, we know that going through the entire range of motion on functional exercises encourages maximum fiber recruitment and supports better muscle growth. That being said, the biggest issue with barbell presses is that they limit your range of motion and reduce it to a short up-and-down motion by keeping your arms in a locked position and thereby restricting the distance they can travel. This means that using a barbell inevitably robs you of achieving the full potential of the exercise which relies on the full arching movement and a complete horizontal adduction.
With dumbbells, your arms and hands are able to move through a full range of motion and further across your chest because they’re not locked in place like when gripping a bar. By simply comparing the top positions of a barbell press and a dumbbell press you can notice that the latter allows your arms to travel more freely and thus much further than the barbell variant. In this way, dumbbell presses make your pecs move more and work harder and stay under more-or-less constant tension through a greater range of motion.
#2. Muscular Symmetry
Most lifters struggle with having an overly developed or dominant side of their bodies caused by imbalanced training and genetic predispositions, for the most part. The resulting strength and size imbalances can be difficult to correct without proper training knowledge and lots of intentional effort. Anytime you’re performing an exercise, chances are that your dominant side will take on some of the work of the weaker side and reinforce the imbalance even further. The long term results of this include reduced stability, damaged aesthetics and increased vulnerability to injury.
Excessive barbell pressing can deepen these symmetry issues and lead to drastic strength and size imbalances in the upper body. You could be simply applying more force on your right/left side for years and even contorting your body in favor of your stronger side and not notice it until the imbalance becomes painfully visible.
Here’s where dumbbells come to the rescue yet again. Dumbbell presses can ensure that both sides of your body receive equal amounts of work and spread the tension placed on the muscles more evenly. By having each side work independently to move the weight, you will prevent your dominant side from constantly helping out the weaker one and balance out any existing muscle imbalances in the long run.
#3. Mechanical Tension
When using a barbell, your hands naturally move outward as you press the weight. This outward push calls other supporting muscles into play, namely the triceps and shoulders, and accentuates their role in the lift. As you can imagine, the shift of tension decreases the stimulus for chest growth and we suppose you want the exact opposite of that.
To enable maximum tension on the targeted muscle, you need to make sure that your pecs are doing the majority of work during every single rep. Dumbbells have the ability to place slightly more tension on the chest muscles than a barbell and they also keep the muscles under tension for longer because of the greater range of motion, so consider incorporating dumbbell presses to your chest routine to reap this benefit and exhaust your pecs more thoroughly.
In addition, certain studies have also shown that compared to the standard barbell variant, dumbbell presses offer greater advantages in terms of muscle activation. One study from York University tested this claim with the help of electromyography and found that all three basic variants of dumbbell presses (flat, decline and incline) have the potential to activate more pectoral muscle fibers than their barbell counterparts.
Although a barbell allows you to lift heavier weights, this factor alone is not enough to ensure optimal muscle growth. With the use of dumbbells you can amplify the effectiveness of your lifts by increasing the volume and duration of the tension placed on the pecs. So if you want top results, make sure you get the best from both worlds by combining both exercises into your chest routine.