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Should I use dumbbells or barbells for my bench presses?

ironmanmagazine.comQ: I can never decide whether to use dumbbells or a barbell for my bench presses. My training partner argues about bent-over rows as well. He likes dumbbells, and I like a barbell. How do we know which versions are best for building overall mass?

A: When it comes to any type of bench press, dumbbells give you a fuller range of motion, less shoulder stress and a more natural movement.

With a barbell, however, you can statically drive inward with your hands on the bar to get a unique pec contraction throughout the set. Plus, you don’t have to worry about unilateral balance—controlling the weight in each hand—as you do with dumbbells.

So which is better? The answer is—drum roll please—the one you feel the best in your pecs. Period. Argument over.

That goes for any exercise. Use the one that you feel best in the muscle you’re trying to build. That goes for bench presses, pulldowns, rows or whatever.

Some trainees like chest-supported dumbbell rows because the dumbbells can come together at the bottom for more midback—meaning trap—stretch. Other like their hands locked in one position on a bar so they can squeeze the midback harder at the top.

If you still can’t decide, alternate. Use dumbbells at one workout and a barbell at the next.

Now, if you have a hard time feeling either exercise, I highly recommend Pre-Ex 3X, which is preex supersets, or modified preex. The “modified” version is no supersets; you just do 3X or 4X sequences on both exercises, and with either preex method you do a contracted-position exercise first.

For example, cable crossovers before bench presses and bent-arm bent-over laterals before rows. If you can superset the two exercises, you get more density overload—that is, more work in less time. Some gyms are crowded, so you won’t be able to superset. In that case, use the modified version.

You can also use preex at one workout and do the big exercise first at your next workout. I think you’ll find that isolating first can trigger a major mass burst. [Note: The Pre-Ex 3X Mass Workout is available at]

Editor’s note: Steve Holman is the author of many bodybuilding best-sellers and the creator of Positions-of-Flexion muscle training. For information on the POF DVD and Size Surge programs, see the ad sections in this issue. Also visit  and for info on X-Rep, 4X and 3D POF methods and e-books.  IM

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