Last updated on November 15th, 2022 at 04:28 pm
Have you ever wondered, “Why is My Dumbbell Press Better Than Barbell?”
On the face of it you should be pressing more with a barbell than with dumbbells.
However, there are many of us who find dumbbell presses much easier.
In fact, you may typically press more with dumbbells than with a barbell.
So, what exactly is going on here?
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Why is My Dumbbell Press Better Than Barbell?
You would expect to press more with a barbell than dumbbells. However, if you perform dumbbell presses more often, then you can expect this movement to be better. Additionally, the movement is more of an arc with dumbbells, as opposed to straight up and down with a barbell, so you activate your triceps less. Plus, it is actually possible to utilize your biceps more during dumbbell presses.
1. What The Experts Say
Norwegian researchers conducted a study in 2011.
The actual aim of this study was to compare the muscle activity and one-rep max strength of 3 chest press exercises with different stability requirements, i.e. Smith machine, barbells, dumbbells.
All the study participants were trained weight lifters.
The researchers wanted to analyze the muscle activity in the pecs, triceps, front delts, and biceps.
The results showed that you can expect to press 20% more weight with a barbell than with dumbbells.
The pec and front delt muscle activity was pretty much the same for both exercises.
However, the barbell bench press involved far more triceps, whereas the dumbbell press used more biceps.
For me, these results are nothing out of the ordinary, although there were two points that surprised me a little.
I would’ve guessed that you should barbell bench press more than you dumbbell press.
But, I didn’t think it was going to be as much as 20% more.
Plus, initially I was a little taken aback by the use of biceps in the dumbbell press.
However, once I thought about it, it actually made a lot of sense.
Anyway, the point being, the experts say that we should be pressing more with a barbell than with dumbbells.
But you and I, we know different.
Dumbbell vs Barbell Workout – Which Builds More Muscle?
2. The Movement You Practice More Will Be Better
The main reason many of us have a better dumbbell press than barbell press is because we practice the movement more.
I know, it seems obvious when you say it, but sometimes this doesn’t compute.
I am definitely in this category.
In fact, if I’m completely honest, I hardly ever perform the barbell bench press.
But, this doesn’t stop me from becoming somewhat confused whenever I do perform the movement,
I still fail to understand why I’m pressing either slightly less or the same weight as I do with dumbbells, but really struggling to get my reps in.
Something that wasn’t specifically mentioned in the study above was the use of more stabilizing muscles in the dumbbell press.
This should basically make dumbbell presses “harder” than the barbell press.
However, I know for me that I typically fly through a set of dumbbell presses.
I don’t need as much rest before I’m ready for my next set.
But, if I put the exact same weight on the bar (including the weight of the bar), then it’s a real struggle to get anywhere near as many reps.
I probably will make it to the same number of reps, but I’ve typically cheated, used body English, or jerked my way through the reps.
Plus, I’m definitely not ready to go again with the next set as quickly.
Pure and simple, I perform the dumbbell press far more often so I’m better at the movement.
3. Less Tricep Involvement With the Dumbbell Press
But what if you perform both movements equally?
Why would your dumbbell press be better than the barbell press?
As mentioned earlier, there is less tricep involvement when pressing with dumbbells.
Obviously, you can still feel the triceps working to some extent with dumbbell presses.
But, it’s definitely not in the same league as the barbell bench press.
If you think about it, the dumbbell press takes a slightly different route from the traditional bench press.
When it comes to the barbell bench press you are literally pressing the weight straight up and down.
However, with the dumbbell press, you may start at the bottom of the movement in the same position, but at the top your hands are much closer together.
The plates on the dumbbells are close to touching.
Then again, you could be someone who clunks the dumbbells together (I’m not a fan).
In effect, the dumbbells come up in an arc, which applies less stress on the triceps.
And with this movement the biceps come more into play.
The easiest way to spot the difference in the movements in the position of your hands at the start and at the end.
With the barbell bench press your hands always remain along the same plane of movement.
However, with dumbbell presses your hands are wider at the bottom and closer together at the top.
Are Your Triceps Weak?
Plus, I would say that the weak point for just about everyone on any type of chest press is the triceps.
Basically, once the triceps are fatigued your set is pretty much over.
So, let’s say that you perform the barbell and dumbbell chest presses an equal amount.
However, your triceps are weak in relative comparison to your chest.
This will mean that you will probably be better at dumbbell chest presses due to slightly less tricep stimulation during the movement.
The obvious fix would be to barbell bench press more often.
Plus, you could also work on your triceps with specific exercises such as tricep extensions, skull crushers, close grip bench press, etc.
The Perfect Triceps Workout
4. Your Grip Width Varies Between Dumbbell Press & Bench Press
I guess the width of your grip with either exercise ties in quite well with what I’ve just mentioned.
When it comes to dumbbell presses we all typically perform the movement in much the same way.
You bring the dumbbells down to either side of your chest, or if you maintain the correct 90 degree angle in the elbows, then to just above your chest.
And as we press up, as I’ve mentioned, the dumbbells (and your hands) come towards each other.
Basically, you never veer of this path with the dumbbell press.
In fact, the only real variation would be the hammer grip dumbbell chest press.
A great alternative if you want to take the strain off your shoulders.
However, when it comes to the barbell bench press you can vary your grip depending on which specific muscles you want to work.
The wider your grip, the easier the exercise becomes because the bar has less distance to travel and there’s also marginally less tricep involvement.
And obviously, the closer your grip on the barbell, the more tricep activation you can expect.
So, you may find that your dumbbell press is the better exercise because you always perform the movement in exactly the same fashion.
But, with the barbell your grip width may vary from workout to workout, thus providing the muscle less of a chance to get used to the movement.
So, as you can see the main reason your dumbbell press is better than barbell is because you probably perform the movement more often.
Basically, the muscles have adapted to one exercise better than the other.
However, if you feel that you perform both exercises an equal amount, this could point to a potential weakness in the triceps.
We now know that the barbell bench press requires more tricep activation than dumbbells.
Finally, if you vary your grip width regularly on the barbell bench press, once again your muscles will have probably adapted better to performing the dumbbell press in exactly the same way every time.
If you’re looking to up your numbers on your bench press, Lee Hayward claims he can help you add 51lbs to your bench in just 3 weeks.
Lee, or course, is a professional bodybuilder and has been running his exercise and fitness website for over two decades now.
So, can Lee live up to his claims?
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.