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8 Best Dumbbell Chest Exercises To Pump Up Your Pecs

Jun 18, 2023

No barbell? No problem. We've got the exercises you need to build a bigger chest using only dumbbells

Second perhaps only to the biceps, the chest is one of the most googled body parts when it comes to working out and adding muscle (the number one hit, unsurprisingly, isn’t part of your *ahem* anatomy that you can train in any gym we've ever been in). A big chest doesn’t only contribute to your total upper body strength, it's also one of the most visually striking areas of your physique, and clearly one that most men covet.

For better or for worse, the barbell bench press is the first stop for most gym-bros when it comes to pumping up those pecs, but if you don’t have access to a barbell you needn’t feel as though your quest for perfect pectorals is a non-starter. In fact, dumbbells are more than just a runner-up when it comes to beefing up your chest, and with the right movements they may actually prove to be more effective.

That's why we’ve compiled a list of our favourite dumbbell chest builders that you can pump into your sesh right now, alongside the workouts you need to put them into practice. Whether you work out from home or just want to switch up your gym regime – we’ve got you covered on your quest for poppin’ pecs.

But first, let’s take a closer look at the muscles that make up that treasured chest.

The chest muscles, commonly referred to as the pectoral muscles or ‘pecs’, are crucial for more than just push-ups, they’re responsible for any daily activity that involves pushing or lifting – they can even contribute to respiration. These muscles are located in the front of your upper body and on a broad level are responsible for movement of your arms and shoulders.

The pecs consist of two main parts: the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor. The pectoralis major is the larger muscle and gives your chest its bulk and strength. The pectoralis minor is situated underneath the major muscle and is involved in stabilising your shoulder blade.

You might be familiar with terms like 'upper,' 'lower,' or 'inner' when discussing different parts of the chest, but these actually refer to various sections of the same muscle, namely the pectoralis major, while the pectoralis minor is located beneath it.

Far from being a step-down from the barbell, dumbbells offer up a number of benefits that a fixed bar couldn’t even touch. For starters, dumbbells offer more freedom of movement, creating access to a much larger range of motion than bars and machines. Unlike barbells, which require a fixed grip and often limit your movement patterns, dumbbells allow for greater flexibility and independence. With each arm working individually, the possibility of muscle imbalances is mitigated and you ensure that both sides of your body receive equal attention. This freedom of movement also helps you to find comfortable positions for your own anatomy, working around injuries and niggles (as well as helping you to avoid them in the first place). This maximisation of movement also works to engage smaller stabilising muscles and can promote better balance and coordination.

When it comes to hitting the chest with dumbbells, being able to stretch the pecs through a massive range of motion at the bottom of each rep — as well as contract them to a greater degree at the top — confers a huge advantage when it comes to adding size over the barbell. In fact, studies have shown that the dumbbell bench press can elicit significantly greater activity in the pec major, the largest muscle of the chest, versus the barbell bench press.

These are the dumbbell exercises you need to add to your arsenal if you're looking to maximise your chest gains.

The first and most obvious move to make is a simple substitution of the barbell for a pair of dumbbells in your bench press. You may not be able to shift as much weight as you can on a bar, but the greater range of motion offered by dumbbells allows you to work the pecs more thoroughly.

Form Check:

Lay flat on a bench, your knees bent, pushing your feet into the floor. Press a pair of dumbbells into the air, locking out your elbows (A). Lower the bells slowly until they touch the outside of your chest (B) keep your elbows at 45 degree angle, pause here before explosively pressing back up. Repeat.

No bench? Hit the floor. You’ll lose some of the ‘stretch’ in your chest as your arms can no longer dip below the midline of your body, but the floor press enables you to keep targeting your chest even with minimal equipment.

Form Check:

Lay flat on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. Press the weights above you, locking out your elbows (A). Lower them slowly until your upper arms are resting on the floor (B) at a 45 degree angle to your body, pause here before explosively pressing back up.

Most bodybuilders will tell you that the incline bench press targets your upper-chest, but that’s not to say it isn’t an effective exercise for adding size across your entire pec-region. Incline presses can also be slightly more forgiving on your shoulders than their flat cousins.

Form Check:

Lay on a bench set at a 30-45 degree angle, holding two dumbbells locked out above your chest (A), slowly lower both bells over 2-4 seconds, keeping your elbows at a slight angle to your torso, until both dumbbells touch your chest (A) explosively press the bells back to full lockout and repeat.

Strictly speaking, you may not be using the dumbbells as intended, but this simple ‘hack’ of gripping your dumbbells on the floor as you perform your press-ups isn’t just more friendly on your wrists, it also allows you to stretch the pecs more than regular push-ups as your hands are slightly elevated. For home gym warriors, these are the perfect ‘drop-set’ accompaniment to the floor press.

Form Check:

Drop into a plank position, with your core tight and hands on your dumbbells. Create a rigid structure from your ankles to your shoulders. (A). Bend your elbows to slowly lower your chest to the floor (B). Keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your body as you push back up explosively.

Pull-overs are an old-school bodybuilding move that you don’t often see performed in modern gyms. This seems bizarre given that legends like Arnold Schwarzenegger swore by them to add size to their chest, back and arms. And Arnold knows a thing or to about building a great chest.

Form Check:

Lay flat on a bench holding a single dumbbell with both hands, locked out above your chest (A), keeping your arms at a fixed angle, lower the dumbbell down behind your head until you feel a stretch through your entire upper-body (B), keeping your arms straight, explosively pull the bell back up the starting position, squeezing your chest, hard.

If you're stuck with lighter weights and endless bench presses just aren’t challenging you, then switching to the more ‘mechanically’ difficult flye could be your ticket to bigger pecs. This variation takes the assisting muscles like the triceps out of the equation and uses clever angles to challenge your chest through a huge range of motions.

Form Check:

Lay flat on a bench holding a pair of dumbbells, locked out above your chest (A). Keep your arms at a fixed angle as you slowly lower your dumbbells outwards and down, towards the ground in a smooth arc. Stop when you feel a deep stretch across your chest (B), before powering back up explosively

We’ve already given you the low-down on why you should be performing flyes as well as dishing up the benefits of incline pressing. Combine those two ideas and you get the weapon of mass pec construction that is the incline dumbbell flye.

Form Check:

Lay flat on a bench set at a 30-45 degree angle holding a pair of dumbbells, locked out above your chest (A). Keep your arms at a fixed angle as you slowly your dumbbells outwards and down, towards the ground in a smooth arc. Stop when you feel a deep stretch across your chest (B), before powering back up explosively

We know, we know, another one that might not technically be a ‘dumbbell exercise’. That being said, we're including this one as adding the extra resistance of a dumbbell to your bodyweight dips might just be the most efficient way you can use a 'bell to add serious size to your chest.

Form Check:

Holding a dumbbell between your legs, or attached to your waist, jump up on two parallel bars, boxes or gymnastics rings with your palms facing inward and your arms straight (A). Use two boxes or the backs of two sturdy chairs if you’re at home. Slowly lower until your elbows are at right angles, ensuring they don’t flare outward (B). Drive yourself back up to the top and repeat.

Only got two dumbbells but looking for a workout to get those pecs popping? Try this ‘mechanical drop-set’ to maximise your chest gains, with minimal equipment.

Complete 5 rounds of the following circuit. Rest minimally between movements before resting 2-3 minutes between each round.

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1/ Dumbbell Bench PressForm Check: AB2/ Floor PressForm Check: AB3/ Dumbbell Incline Bench PressForm Check: (A), (A) 4/ Push-Ups on DumbbellsForm Check:(A). (B)5/ Pull-OversForm Check: (A)(B)6/ Dumbbell FlyesForm Check: (A). (B)7/ Incline Dumbbells FlyesForm Check: (A). (B)8/ Weighted DipsForm Check: (A)(B)