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STOP Doing Your Dumbbell Bench Press Like This (5 Mistakes Slowing Your Chest Gains)

by Jeremy Ethier - July 16, 2022

The dumbbell bench press is one of the best exercises you could use to build your chest. But are you doing it correctly? Here are 5 common form mistakes people make — and how to fix them for more gains.

As far as chest exercises go, the dumbbell bench press is arguably the most effective choice for building your chest. But wait. Is the dumbbell bench press better than even the barbell bench press? Well, when you think about the dumbbell bench press vs the barbell bench press, the former has 2 advantages:

  • Greater range of motion: The dumbbell bench press allows you to train your chest through a greater range of motion than the barbell bench press.
  • Even development of the chest: Since both sides of your body must lift the same amount of weight independently, the dumbbell bench press can help prevent one side from becoming more developed than the other.

By the way: find out more about the differences between using a barbell vs dumbbells here.

That said, the exercise isn’t as simple as pressing the weight up and down. If you don’t do it correctly, rather than working your chest you’ll end up working other muscles like the front of your shoulders and your triceps.

There are 5 mistakes in particular that cause this to happen. They’re easy to fix but will make a massive difference in your chest growth. Let’s start with mistake number 1.

Before that: if you're looking for a training program that'll help you set up every single one of your workouts for optimal muscle growth, I've got just the thing for you. Every BWS program is designed to be an all-in-one, science-based process that’ll get you building muscle FAST. For more information:

Click the button below to take my analysis quiz to discover the best program for you:

 

Mistake #1: Arm Path

The first dumbbell bench press mistake has to do with your arm path.

Typically people use a very wide arm path and press the dumbbells straight up and down. This is so common because pressing with this form will make the movement feel easier and will enable you to use heavier weights.

But this is problematic because it:

Align Arm Path With Chest Fibers To Maximize Chest Activation On The Dumbbell Bench Press

So, to maximize chest activation on the dumbbell bench press, you want your arm path to line up in the same direction that the chest fibers pull. A wide arm path with the elbows flared out doesn’t accomplish this very well.

That's because it ends up lining with the front delts and a small muscle underneath the chest called the coracobrachialis. This is why many of you likely feel this movement more in the front of your shoulders rather than your chest.

Relationship between arm path and chest activation on the dumbbell bench press

To align the arm path with the majority of the chest fibers, you’ll instead want to:

  • Tuck your elbows to about 45 to 60 degrees angle away from the body AND
  • Allow your grip to turn in slightly with your elbow

Tweak your arm path to boost chest activation on the dumbbell bench press

With this form applied, the dumbbells will no longer move straight up and down but rather forwards on the way down towards your mid-chest, and then backward on the way up towards your shoulders.

Optimal dumbbell bench press path

Mistake #2: Forearm Misalignment

Once you fix your arm path on the dumbbell bench press, it’s important you don’t then make the next mistake which has to do with your forearms.

I remember back in my first few years of lifting I got very strong on the dumbbell bench press very quickly. I’d take the 95lb dumbbells and throw them around like they were nothing. But I noticed that although my arms definitely got bigger, my chest never really grew.

Eventually, I realized what I was doing wrong. As the weights would get heavier, I’d start bending my forearms inwards more and more without realizing it.

This is a common compensation among those who struggle with their chest development.

This is because, by bending the forearms inwards on the dumbbell bench press, you’re shortening the lever which makes the movement easier by taking some of the load off of the chest. It also gets the triceps more involved to take on some of the load as well.

And even the most subtle bend can drastically decrease the load placed on the chest.

In fact, if we apply very basic physics to get a rough estimate, if the forearms bend such that the weights end up halfway between your shoulder and elbow, you would end up reducing the load actually placed on the chest by about half.

Difference in load between bending and not bending your forearms on the dumbbell bench press

Although this can help you lift heavier weights on the dumbbell bench press, you aren’t getting any higher stimulus on your chest and are simply causing more strain to your joints.

So lighten the weight, keep your forearm vertical over your elbow throughout each rep, and you’ll feel the difference right away.

Mistake #3: Protracting Shoulders At The Top

Now even with your forearms fixed, you may be guilty of making this mistake which is the most common dumbbell bench press mistake I see.

Given that many of us are already stuck in a hunched-over posture, we have the tendency to round our shoulders forward whenever we press. This is especially true for those with lagging chest development because they’ll often have stronger shoulders that will want to take over the movement.

Do not let your shoulders round on the dumbbell bench press

This can lead to the front of the shoulders experiencing most of the growth rather than the chest.

How To Better Activate The Chest On The Dumbbell Bench Press

To avoid this, other than actively fixing your hunched-over posture, I’d first suggest opening up your chest before you even do the dumbbell bench press so that you’re better able to activate it. You can do this by extending your back over a foam roller, and then performing over-and-backs and band pull-aparts with a band.

How to open your chest before the dumbbell bench press

Don't have a band? Here's a link to one I use and personally like.

Then, when you actually go into the movement, on the way down think about as if you were using your back muscles to pull the weight down towards your chest by pinching your shoulder blades together.

Think about contracting your back when performing the dumbbell bench press

Then on the way up, avoid letting your shoulders forward and instead keep your chest up and think about squeezing your biceps into the sides of your chest.

Focus on this every single rep on the dumbbell bench press and you’ll immediately notice your chest rather than your shoulders now doing most of the work.

Surprised by some of the mistakes you're seeing in this article? Chances are, you're making mistakes on other exercises, too, that are hurting your gains. Good news? BWS programs can help. Each program guides you through the do's and don'ts of training, so you transform your body in the shortest time possible. For more information:

Click the button below to take my analysis quiz to discover which of my programs are best for you and your specific body:

 

Mistake #4: Bringing Arms In Too Far

Alright, so we fixed the shoulders rounding forward at the top, but it’s important to avoid this next dumbbell bench press mistake at the top position as well.

The main function of the chest is horizontal adduction, which is simply the act of bringing the arms together. This is what makes the dumbbell press an effective chest builder since the arms are pulled together under load.

Knowing this, you might think that bringing your arms in as close as possible at the top would better engage the chest. Some people even touch the dumbbells together at the top.

However, since we’re using dumbbells, the line of force is straight down because of gravity.

This means that once your arms are straight over your shoulders, there’s actually no more tension placed on the chest because there’s no longer any force pulling your arms apart. Going further than this doesn’t stimulate the chest any further and is wasting energy that could otherwise be used towards your next reps.

So instead, to keep constant tension on the chest, stop each rep once your arms end up straight over your shoulders.

Be mindful of where you stop the rep on the dumbbell bench press

Mistake #5: Bench Angle

The last dumbbell bench press mistake doesn’t actually relate to form and instead has to do with the angle of the bench.

The flat dumbbell press is great, but the primary muscles worked will be in the middle portion of your chest. This may leave the upper and lower portions of your chest underdeveloped.

For example, in a recent 2020 paper, subjects that performed the incline bench press experienced over double the growth in the upper portion of their chest when compared to subjects that only performed the flat bench press.

Incline dumbbell bench press for upper chest

Experiment With The Incline Or Decline Bench Press For More Balanced Chest Development

So in addition to doing just the flat dumbbell bench press, I’d also recommend doing an incline dumbbell bench press once a week as well.

However, there's one thing to note about the incline dumbbell bench press. Research has shown that just a very slight incline of about 15 to 30 degrees is optimal to target the upper chest. This is just 1-2 notches up from the bottom position of a bench.

For most individuals, anything higher than that often causes the front delts to take over and upper chest activation to diminish.

In fact, for some of you, even just a slight elevation by placing a weight plate under the end of a bench may be all you need to really target the upper chest.

How to perform the incline dumbbell bench press

Now as for the lower portion of your chest, for most people the flat dumbbell bench press will already hit this region quite well. Some studies however suggest that a slight decline can help activate this region even more effectively.

In this case, you can place a weight under the other end of the bench to create just a slight decline.

How to perform the decline dumbbell bench press

Try that out, see how it feels, and feel free to add it to your weekly routine such that you’re doing a pressing movement that biases the:

  • Upper chest
  • Mid-chest
  • Lower chest

Just remember that all the previous mistakes I went through apply to these dumbbell bench press variations as well.

Takeaway

Now, after you apply these various fixes to your dumbbell bench press form, you’ll notice that you won’t be able to lift nearly as much as you used to.

It might hurt the ego but realize this is a good thing. It means that your chest is now doing most of the work rather than other muscle groups, and you’ll very quickly feel and see the difference this makes to your chest development.

Just make sure that you don’t fall back into your old habits as you try to increase the load over time.

And guys it’s important that you take this same detailed, science-based approach to every single exercise you do. That way you can get results faster and without harming your joints. For a step-by-step plan that puts this all together for you:

And guys it’s important that you take this same detailed, science-based approach to every single exercise you do. That way you can get results faster and without harming your joints. For a step-by-step plan that puts this all together for you:

Click the button below to take my analysis quiz to discover which of my programs are best for you and your specific body:

 

I'd also highly recommend giving the following articles a read to see if you might be guilty of making similar mistakes with your deadlift or squat:

By the way, here’s the article summed up into a YouTube video:

STOP Doing Dumbbell Press Like This (5 Mistakes Slowing Your Chest Gains)

STOP Doing Your Dumbbell Bench Press Like This (5 Mistakes Slowing Your Chest Gains)

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