Gym wisdom suggests that you can build a big chest by bench-pressing a lot of weight.
If you find that barbell training doesn’t give you a bigger chest, dumbbell work is the answer.
Strengthen Your Chest with Dumbbells
Dumbbell training is not as popular as using a barbell, but it is a better way to get bigger and stronger pecs while being less likely to get injured.
We are going to show you the best exercises and workouts to develop your chest using dumbbells.
What Are The Benefits of Working My Chest With Dumbbells?
It’s twice as hard to stabilize two weights in your hands at once, says Dr. John Rusin, author of Functional Hypertrophy Training. This is a good thing because it forces the smaller muscles in your shoulder joints to work harder to stabilize the weight, while the bigger muscles have to work to control the weight. This type of training provides the following benefits for chest development.
Dumbbells allow for a greater range of motion than barbells, meaning that they can help you to gain size and athletic performance. A study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggests that larger ranges of motion lead to more muscle growth.
Your joints are subject to less stress when using dumbbells. It’s interesting how the human body looks symmetrical, but there are actually slight differences in the right and left sides of the shoulders, hips, wrists, and other joints. When you force the body to move in perfect symmetry, such as when lowering a weighted bar in the middle of the chest, one side always takes on more stress. If this is done often enough, the joints on that side will start to experience discomfort.
Dumbbells are better than other types of weights because they allow each side of your body to follow its own path. This is because your wrists are free to rotate and your elbows and shoulders can move naturally. This way, the exercise is customized for your body and the stress is placed on your muscles instead of your joints.
Doing dumbbells instead of a barbell gives you a more balanced development and strength. This is because humans are very good at compensating by throwing a little more stress onto their stronger side while favoring their weaker one. However, with dumbbells, your right and left sides have to stabilize and push with equal force, which eventually evens out the strength on your two sides. If you need extra work to bring up your weaker side, dumbbells make it simple to do a few more reps with it.
Smartphones work the user’s brain harder. A 2017 study found that when users are trying to complete a task on their smartphone, the brain has to work harder to prevent the phone from drifting outward. That’s not something you need to worry about when your hands are connected by a steel bar. The study found that when users are trying to complete a task on their smartphone, the brain activates the pectoralis major—the impressive slab that makes up most of the chest musculature—more effectively than both the barbell bench press and the Smith machine bench press.
8 Best Dumbbell Exercises for Combat Sports Performance
Here are some of our favorite chest moves that can be replicated with dumbbells, courtesy of Rusin. We categorized them by the area of the chest they emphasize most.
Exercise #1: Goblet Squat
The goblet squat is a great exercise to build the quads and core for many reasons. The front rack position places more emphasis on the quads and forces you to maintain a tight core, which is important for combat sports.
The goblet squat is a good way to learn how to squat correctly. This movement helps you to get the hip movement needed for a full-depth squat, and that helps you feel comfortable squatting down deeply.
Goblet squats are a good option for people with tight shoulders, as they do not put the shoulders in a painful or compromised position. Although the person has to hold up a dumbbell, it is not as difficult as other squat variations.
How to Perform a Goblet Squat:
- Grab a dumbbell and place it in front rack position
- Place the feet just outside of hip width
- Actively screw your feet into the ground
- Push the hips back slightly and drop down into the bottom of your squat position
- As you do this, try to push the floor apart
- Drive up from the bottom position and lock out your hips.
Exercise #2: Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
The next dumbbell exercise that is good for combat sports athletes is the dumbbell Romanian deadlift. This exercise works on the muscles in the back of the body, which is often a weak area for fighters, but is important for power. The muscles in the back of the body include the glutes, hamstrings, erector spinae, posterior deltoids, traps, and more.
This exercise targets the hamstrings and glutes, and also requires you to keep good posture by using the muscles in your mid and upper back. This exercise is good for building the muscles in your lower extremities and helps improve posture.
How to Perform a Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift:
- Place your feet shoulder width apart
- Pick the dumbbells up off the ground and stand tall
- Lock the hips out
- Slightly bend the knees
- Lock the shoulders down and back
- Push the hips back until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings
- When that stretch in the hamstrings becomes too much, extend the hips and return to the top position
- Reminder: Keep the chin tucked when performing this movement
Exercise #3: Dumbbell Bent Over Row
The next exercise is the dumbbell bent over row. This is a great dumbbell exercise for athletes who engage in combat sports because it strengthens the mid and upper back, which are typically weak areas for fighters. This exercise can also help to increase the shoulder complex’s structural integrity.
The dumbbell bent over row is one of my favorite exercises to perform. I like to do it with two dumbbells at once in a hinged over position. This not only works both sides of my body at once, but also engages my core muscles to help me stay stable in this fixed position.
How to Perform a Dumbbell Bent Over Row:
- Start with the dumbbells in your hands
- Hinge the hips back until the chest is parallel to the ground
- Make sure the chest is up and the chin is tucked
- Get a good stretch in the lats
- Drive the elbows past your trunk getting a good squeeze at the top
- Lower back down and repeat
Exercise #4: Incline Fly-Press
Standard flyes work well for developing muscle, but they can be tough on the shoulders. Rusin recommends bending the arms while lowering the weights; this keeps the stress on the pecs while taking it off the shoulder joints.
1. Place a flat exercise bench on top of two or three heavy barbell plates, with one end of the bench raised higher than the other.
2. Sit on the bench with your head at the elevated end, holding two medium-heavy dumbbells at arm’s length above your chest, palms facing inward.
To lower the dumbbells, bend your elbows and squeeze your shoulder blades together until your chest is stretched and your elbows are at a 90-degree angle. If you experience shoulder pain, limit the range of motion.
Start by contracting your pecs and straightening your arms fully. Reverse the movement back to the starting position.
Exercise #5: Slight Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
The incline bench press is a standard move that puts your hips in a flexed—or bent—position, according to Rusin. However, this position takes your entire lower body out of the exercise. To remedy this, you can elevate the bench just a little bit to incorporate leg drive into the movement, in the same way you would perform a flat barbell bench press. This effectively turns the move into a full-body exercise, allowing you to handle more weight.
The incline exercise also works the pec fibers that attach more strongly to the clavicle.
To perform this exercise, you will need to lift one end of a flat exercise bench so that it is supported by two or three heavy barbell plates, or a small box or step. The angle of the bench should ideally be 30 degrees or less.
1. Lie on the bench with your head at the elevated end and hold two dumbbells at arm’s length above your chest.
Slowly raise the dumbbells by bending your elbows and drawing your shoulder blades together on the bench. The dumbbells should be close to the sides of your chest in the down position, with your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your torso—not straight out to the sides.
After holding the dumbbells in the extended position, return to the starting position by pressing them back up and flexing your chest.
Exercise #6: Propulsion Squat
This next exercise is specific for combat sports and is called the propulsion squat.
The propulsion squat has many benefits for the user. First, it allows for a full range of motion due to the athlete’s heels being raised. This allows you to work the muscles of the quads, hips, and hamstrings through a larger range of motion. It also activates the adductors due to the pad being held between the legs. The adductors play a role in hip extension, movement quality, and rotational power. Therefore, building them up would correlate to your combat sports performance in many ways.
How to Perform a Propulsion Squat:
- Place the heels on an elevated surface
- Squeeze a block between your knees to activate the adductors
- Grab your dumbbell and place it in front rack position
- As you lower down, drive your legs into the block
- Drive through the heels on the way up
Exercise #7: Split Stance Hinge
A split stance hinge is a single-sided variation of a hinge exercise, which is similar to a dumbbell Romanian deadlift. It strengthens and tones the hamstrings and glutes, but focuses on one leg at a time.
This exercise is beneficial for combat sport athletes because it can be applied to takedowns and grappling.
How to Perform a Split Stance Hinge:
- Stand about two feet away from the wall with your back turned to it
- Place your foot against the wall so you’re in a split stance
- Squeeze the backside glute so it stabilizes your pelvis
- Grab your dumbbell with same side arm of the foot that’s against the wall
- Push the hips back and extend the chest forward
- Get that stretch in the hamstrings
- Drive through into hip extension
- Repeat on both sides for desired reps