Q: I can barbell bench-press 260 pounds for six reps. What should I be able to handle for the same reps and effort level using dumbbells? And what advantages and disadvantages do the dumbbell bench press offer?
A: Initially, you’d need to learn the technique and adjust to the exercise. The dumbbell bench press is tricky, and you’ll have to use dumbbells that you can handle very comfortably. Keep barbell benching in your program until you’ve mastered the technique of dumbbell benching and are training it hard—then you can focus solely on the dumbbell variation.
You’ll need at least a few weeks before you can use 80 to 85 percent of the 260 pounds: 105 to 100 pounds per dumbbell. Although 50 percent of 260 pounds is 130 pounds, bench-pressing a pair of 130-pound dumbbells is much harder than benching a 260-pound barbell. The 80 to 85 percent, divided into two, is a fair approximation per dumbbell, generally speaking, for comparing the two variations in terms of effort level, rep speed, range of motion and rep count.
There are some advantages with the dumbbell version. First, provided there are suitable dumbbells available, you can probably do it whenever you want and avoid having to wait your turn at the bench press stations. Second, the dumbbell variation doesn’t require a power rack or other safety setup, but you’ll still need a spotter. Third, the ’bells provide more potential than a barbell does for optimizing hand and wrist positioning—a barbell fixes the hands into a pronated position.
The dumbbell bench press does, however, have several disadvantages. First, getting two heavy dumbbells into and out of position is difficult—and potentially dangerous—unless you have at least one competent assistant. Second, there’s a greater chance of overstretching on the lowering phase than with a barbell. Third, balance is tricky, and if you lose control over one or both dumbbells during a set, you can sustain a serious injury. In addition, the floor and equipment can be damaged if you drop the dumbbells. Of course, the barbell bench press can be dangerous if not done correctly, inside a power rack with pins properly positioned (or using some other safety apparatus).
Editor’s note: Stuart McRobert’s first byline in IRON MAN appeared in 1981. He’s the author of the new BRAWN series, Book 1: How to Build Up to 50 Pounds of Muscle the Natural Way, available from Home Gym Warehouse (800) 447-0008 or www.Home-Gym