There's many opinions out there regarding whether barbell or dumbbells are better for training - both pieces of equipment have their pros and cons and the 'better' option comes down to the exercise itself (we'll explore a range of exercises in a future post) but for now we're focusing on the barbell vs dumbbell bench press specifically when targeting the chest for mass and size.
Your pressing exercise is hands down the most important exercise for building both size and strength in your chest, cable flies, bodyweight dips and the like can't come close in terms of the stress and overload applied to the chest (along with the strength gains that come as a result of this). Don't get me wrong - I recommend and I personally do throw in an isolation exercise or two after performing my heavy presses... but where should our priority lay? Which exercise is going to give you the best bang for your buck during your chest workout?
Here's What You Need To Know - Barbell Vs Dumbbell Comparison
Range Of Motion
A full range of motion is essential, if you're unable to work the barbell or dumbbells through the entire range of motion you're lifting too heavy.
However, the dumbbell variation of the bench press will always allow for a deeper range of motion than the barbell bench press - the barbell must always stop when it touches your chest... there's no way around that.
Dumbbells on the other hand can move around the body - allowing that deeper range of motion on the negative portion of each repetition. A trick I picked up from Mike Matthews when pressing with heavy (physically bulky) dumbbells is to rotate the dumbbells 45 degrees to allow them to clear your chest as opposed to hit and limit the ROM.
Correction & Prevention Of Muscular Imbalances
It's quite common for you to have a dominant side or muscle group - when I previously used to perform the barbell bench press I'd find myself pushing more of the weight through my right side as my left side was unable to keep up and with the increase in weight and reps (progressive overload, the key to growth!).
Unfortunately there is no definitive way to cure a muscular imbalance when utilizing a barbell as your dominant side will always come in to play.
This is where dumbbells come to the rescue - there's no way to cheat and utilize a dominant side when pressing with dumbbells as the weight is evenly distributed among each side of your body (or chest, specifically in this example).
Tension On The Chest
Tension on the chest when working with a barbell is dependant on the hand placement utilized - a wider hand placement will be placing greater emphasis on the outer chest, meanwhile a shoulder width or narrower grip will place the load on your triceps. When pressing with a slightly wider than shoulder width grip a decent amount of tension is placed on the chest - there's no denying it. However as you begin to up the weight in order to overload the muscles our form on the barbell bench press more often than not begins to compromise - with the shoulders flaring out, resulting in our hands pushing slightly further outwards as opposed to directly driving the barbell upwards - this miniscule change in form results in an increase in load on the shoulders, with tension on the chest reduced.
Once again, dumbbells rain supreme.
Weight Being Lifted
The barbell bench press is often used as a benchmark of strength and an overall measure of progress - there's no doubt about the fact that an increased load can be lifted when utilizing the barbell bench press as opposed to the dumbbell bench press, however as I mentioned as you begin to lift heavier and heavier weight on your bench this is the time when muscular imbalances reveal themselves.
Lifting dumbbells also requires greater stabilizer activation, resulting in a decrease in the total weight your muscle fibers are able to lift in comparison to the steady plain of the barbell.
Progression & Programming
Without a doubt the barbell bench press is easier to plan and train with in terms of progression and programming - however, this is often due to the equipment on offer in your gym.
There's never a shortage of 45lbs or lighter plates for your Olympic barbell, but finding a gym that has a linear progression in dumbbells from 40lbs all the way up to 140lbs is quite hard from my experience - when it comes to the heavier end of the dumbbell spectrum jumps ranging 10 - 20lbs between sets makes progression difficult.
When performing heavy sets of your barbell bench press a spotter is required as getting stuck under the bar is a concern, as I mentioned earlier as dumbbells work around your body a spotter isn't necessary as the dumbbells are easy to drop and avoid if you hit failure while trying to struggle out another repetition, meanwhile the barbell ends up on top of you.
Like any exercise the width and orientation of your hand placement determines the emphasis of the exercise.
When it comes to your barbell bench press a wide, normal or close grip can be utilized depending on what portion of the chest (or triceps) you're intending on targeting.
With the dumbbell bench press the flexibility in variations is not quite there - besides the regular width dumbbell press the dumbbells can be rotated 45 degrees and pressed in closer to the chest to the triceps, however this is the only variation I've been able to successfully pull off.
The dumbbell bench press is far superior to the barbell bench press.
What're your thoughts on this ongoing debate? Let me know below!