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THERE ARE FEW physical attributes guys care about more than a strong chest. Bulging biceps and chiseled abs round out the remainder of the torso, sure—but as anyone who’s seen a superhero movie can tell you, a sense of strength can be communicated through prominent pectorals.

How to go about building that muscle is where some guys struggle. The go-to chest exercise in many traditional fitness plans is the barbell bench press. We love this important compound movement, but it’s not going to be the best choice for everyone. Barbells allow exercisers to work with more weight than other implements, but there are limiting factors that can make using them difficult, depending on your anatomy and injury history.

Swapping the barbells for dumbbells, however, opens up your workout to new possibilities. Not only does the bench press range of motion become less limited, but you’re also able to use the weights for other movements that take full advantage of your chest’s functions. If you have a simple set of dumbbells and a bench, these exercises can help you build the strong, muscular chest you’re aiming to achieve.

What Muscles Make Up Your Chest?

The main movers of your chest are the pectoral muscles—more commonly known as your pecs. The pectoralis major is the larger of the two, sitting on top of the smaller pectoralis minor. The pectoralis major adducts the arm, meaning it moves the limb in towards the midline of the body. It also rotates the arm forward. The pectoralis minor is responsible for smaller motions, including rotating your shoulder forward and flaring your ribs.

The serratus anterior, which sits on the outermost portion of your ribs and rotates the scapula, is also considered a chest muscle. Same with the subclavius—a tiny muscle that sits underneath your collar bone and pulls it downward.

Benefits of Training Your Chest

Functional Upper Body Support

Think about how often you push a door open, reach your arm forward to open a cabinet, or push yourself up off the ground. All of these motions are powered by your chest muscles. The chest provides also much needed stability to the shoulder joint, and structurally support your skeletal system which protects the vital organs in your upper torso, such as your heart and lungs.

Strength

Your chest muscles are important for several compound lifts, like pressing and pushing movements.

Aesthetics

Chest muscles are a key component to the conventional male physique. If that’s what you want to achieve, you should be training the muscle group.

Posture

Developing the chest can help to keep your body balanced (so long as you complement your chest day with back training).

Why You Should Use Dumbbells to Train Your Chest

Dumbbells are an exercise equipment staple for a reason. These versatile tools are simple enough to teach a newcomer the basics while still providing scalable weight options for progression that will serve you for your entire strength training journey.

If you’re opting for a workout at in your garage or at a park, you’ll have an easier time storing and transporting dumbbells than a barbell and plates. That’s especially the case if you have an adjustable set, which can pack in a wide range of weight denominations in one small package.

caucasian man doing exercises for the chest using dumbbels

AzmanJaka – Getty Images

Dumbbells are free weights, meaning the load is not situated along a track and can move freely. There’s an extra challenge to that—not only do you have be able to handle the load of the weight, you also need to stabilize the path the weight travels through. This opens up the option to exercise in several planes of motion. You can also utilize dumbbells for unilateral training, which can help to correct strength imbalances. As mentioned above, dumbbells also allow exercisers to work a larger range of motion than barbells, making some exercises friendlier on your joints.

How to Train Your Chest Muscles

Training the chest may seem simple, but it’s commonly done incorrectly.

Too many guys take the position on the bench for pressing and fly movements as an opportunity to relax. Even though you’re not standing up, that doesn’t mean that the muscles in your torso and legs are not working during the exercise. The glutes and abdominals still serve a purpose here, and need to be engaged for safety and form purposes (more on that below).

Another common mistake is failing to squeeze at the top of a press or fly. When you press up through the load, actively think about squeezing your chest muscles together with intent to get the most out of each rep.

Don’t prioritize only one or two exercises, either. Sure, the classic bench press will help you grow strength and size, and definitely deserves a place in your chest workout—but the key to progression in the gym is diversity. Adding in a variety of exercises that target different areas of the muscle will help you train more effectively.

Here are 12 dumbbell chest exercises to try on your next chest day.

The12 Best Dumbbell Chest Exercises

Dumbbell Bench Press

Why: It’s a staple for a reason. The dumbbell bench press is one of the best chest exercises out there, and you’ll build strength and muscle when you do it properly.

How to Do It:

  • Take a seat on the bench. Lay down and squeeze the glutes tight to press the feet into the floor to anchor your lower body.

  • Squeeze the abs in tight to press your back onto the bench (unless you’re power lifting, you don’t want too much arch through the back).

  • Bring the dumbbells up above your chest. Drive the shoulder blades down and back into the bench.

  • As you drop the elbows, think about creating a 45 degree bend in arm pits. You don’t want the elbows to flare out wide in line with your shoulder—think about facing your palms inward just a bit.

  • Lower slowly to where you get a comfortable stretch through the chest. Exhale and squeeze the chest together to press up.

Sets and Reps: 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps


Dumbbell Chest Fly

Why: The dumbbell chest fly is another staple chest exercise that moves your chest muscles in ways other exercises don’t. This allows you to focus on adduction, so squeeze hard at the top.

How to Do It:

  • Lie back on the bench, then press the dumbbells up above your chest with a neutral grip.

  • Drive your shoulder blades back into the bench to set your shoulders. Keep your feet on the ground and squeeze your glutes and abs to create full-body tension.

  • Move your hands to turn your pinkies toward each other. This will help to create some external rotation at the shoulder joints.

  • Bend your elbows slightly, then lower the weights down to the sides, moving only at the shoulders. Lower down only to a comfortable point for your range of motion, when you feel a stretch on your chest.

  • Squeeze your pecs to raise the weights back up to the starting position. Don’t slam the weights together at the top—instead, stop with the weights just slightly apart, continuing to squeeze the chest.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps


Dumbbell Incline Press

Why: The incline press will target your upper chest by opening up the angle of tension.

How to Do It:

  • Lay down on the bench. Press your feet to the floor, and drive your glutes into the bench to keep your low back close to the bench.

  • Keep the forearms perpendicular to the ground, and turn the head of the dumbbell in just a little bit.

  • Lower the dumbbells down by bending at the elbow. Take it to where there’s a comfortable stretch through the chest—you don’t need to tap the dumbbells to the chest.

  • Squeeze the chest to return to the top.

Sets and Reps: 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps


T-Bench Fly

Why: The T-bench fly allows you to train your chest with heavier loads while providing a backstop support to keep your shoulders safe.

How to Do It:

  • Place your shoulders across the bench.

  • Set up in a glute bridge position—feet stay underneath your knees, glutes stay activated to keep your hips high.

  • Drive your shoulder blades into the bench. Open your elbows and maintain a slight bend through them. Slowly lower down towards the bench—slow being the key here.

  • Tap the elbows to the bench gently and squeeze your chest together to press back up.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps


Half-Bench Single Arm Press

Why: Unilateral exercises can allow you to correct imbalances on opposing sides of the body. This half-bench single arm press will help you do just that, while also firing up your abs and glutes to help you build a stable base.

How to Do It:

  • Begin by laying down on the bench holding your dumbbell in one hand. Press the dumbbell over the chest. Once you have the dumbbell raised, shift your body so that one half of your body is off the bench—including one glute, half your torso, and half your head.

  • Squeeze the abs to stay balanced, and squeeze the shoulder blades into the bench.

  • Drop the elbow slowly to lower the dumbbell to your chest. Drive your feet into the ground and maintain a tightness through the glute stay balanced.

  • Press up to return to the starting position.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps per side


Double Explode Incline Press

Why: Varying up your classic exercises is a great way to increase your strength. This new take on the incline press will challenge your incline press.

How to Do It:

  • Sit on the incline bench holding one dumbbell. Extend your other arm to help to keep yourself balanced on the bench.

  • Press the weight up, just like a standard incline press. Hold for a beat.

  • Lower the dumbbell down slowly under control for 1 to 2 seconds.

  • Immediately fire your chest to press up for 2 quick press reps (this is a cluster).

  • Finish the prescribed reps, then switch sides.

Sets and Reps: 3 to 4 sets of 5 to 6 rep clusters


Dumbbell Floor Press

Why: Don’t have a bench? Hit the deck with the dumbbell floor press. Plus, if you struggle with shoulder problems, the dumbbell floor press will help you strengthen your chest without putting your shoulders at risk.

How to Do It:

  • Prop the dumbbells on your hips and rock back. Keep the feet flat on the floor, driving through the heels. Maintain a squeeze through the abs so your back stays flat to the floor.

  • Create a 45 degree angle through your armpit, as to not flare the elbows out too wide.

  • Press the dumbbells up to straight arms at the top. Lower back down with control.

Sets and Reps: 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps


Overload Incline Press Dropset

Why: To build muscle, you need to lift heavy and put your muscles under tension. This incline press dropset does both of those things.

How to Do It:

  • Set up for a round of standard incline press reps, using a pair of dumbbells heavy enough that you can manage only 6 to 8 reps with good form.

  • Press the weight up for those 6 to 8 reps, or until your form starts to flag (if you can perform more than 8 reps, that’s your sign to grab a heavier set of dumbbells).

  • Put one of the dumbbells aside. Use both hands (and momentum from your knee, if needed) to raise the other dumbbell into the press position. Squeeze your core and extend your non-working arm out to the side for balance. Lower the weight down slowly, for 3 to 4 seconds.

  • Use the other hand to press the weight back up into position before the next rep. Repeat for 3 to 4 reps.

  • Switch arms to complete 1 round.

Sets and Reps: Repeat for 3 to 4 total rounds, alternating which arm you start on for the eccentrics each time.


Deficit Shoulder Tap Pushup

Why: You can’t build a good chest day with the classic pushup. Adding a dumbbell into the mix allows you to find more depth in your pushup, and the shoulder tap trains some stability though the shoulder. Men’s Health trainer, Mat Forzaglia, of our 20-Minute Muscle series, shows us how it’s done.

How to Do It:

  • Grab one dumbbell. Set up into a high plank with one hand balancing on the dumbbell. Squeeze your abs and glutes to prevent your hips from hiking up or dragging down.

  • Drop in for a push up, flaring your elbows down and back behind you—think about creating a 45 degree bend through the armpit.

  • After you press back up, take the hand not holding the dumbbell to tap the other shoulder. This is where balance will come into play and core strength. Tightly squeeze your abs and glutes to ensure that your body stays square to the ground.

  • Return your tapping hand to its original position to hit another rep.

Sets and Reps: 3 to 4 sets of 8 reps on each side


Eccentric Focused Mixed-Style Incline Press

Why: Focusing on the eccentric, or muscle lengthening, portion of a lift can significantly improve muscle strength and size. This eccentric focused incline press exercise will do just that.

How to Do It:

  • Sit on the bench holding the dumbbells in each hand. Press both arms up to get into the starting position.

  • Perform 2 explosive press reps with one arm, holding the press position with the other. Squeeze your core to keep your torso in position on the bench. After the reps, switch and repeat the process for 2 reps with the other arm. Repeat twice without stopping for 6 reps on each arm.

  • Once you’re finished with the explosive alternating reps in the press position, lower both weights slowly through the eccentric portion of the press, taking 3 seconds to reach the bottom position.

  • Press just as slowly up, taking 3 seconds to reach the top, then squeeze your triceps and chest to finish the rep. Repeat for 4 to 6 reps.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets


Hollow Body Dumbbell Press

Why: This movement will not only get you a great chest pump, but it will also strengthen your core—the base of all exercises.

How to Do It:

  • Get on the ground with one dumbbell. Get into a hollow body position (butt and lower back on the ground, feet and upper torso raised), holding the weight in one hand. Extend the other arm to help keep your balance.

  • Press the dumbbell up and hold it in position for 5 seconds. Squeeze your core to keep a solid base.

  • After the 5 count, perform 5 single-arm presses.

  • Finish the 5 reps, then press up again and hold the weight up for 4 seconds.

  • Perform 4 press reps.

  • Continue this pattern until you have just 1 rep.

  • Rest as needed, then use the other arm to press

Sets and Reps: 3 rounds per arm


Incline Press Challenge

Why: Ready to step up your training? Try this incline press challenge to burn out your chest with a high volume work.

How to Do It:

  • Sit on the incline bench with the dumbbells raised to be pressed.

  • Press the weight up with both arms overhead. Perform 2 more reps with the left arm, while keeping the right arm extended overhead.

  • Repeat with 2 reps with the right arm, keeping the left arm elevated overhead.

  • Perform 2 reps with both arms. That’s 1 cluster.

Sets and Reps: Do 4 sets of 3 to 4 clusters to finish the challenge.

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