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If your go-to chest exercise is the bench press, and you’re looking for a little variety to hit the entirety of your pecs, you’ve come to the right place. Elite trainer Jeff Cavaliere explains the science of how to work every muscle fibre of your pec muscles that’ll result in a full chest muscle-building pump like no other. And the best perk of this pec pumping workout? There is minimal kit required.
‘Here’s a dumbbell chest workout you can do with just a weight bench and some dumbbells to carve out your own classic, symmetrical chest, top to bottom, side to side, without ever stepping foot on muscle beach,’ says Cavaliere.
‘When we think of the Golden Era and its approach to chest training, we often think about training with barbells under heavy loads. However, these icons relied heavily on a wide range of dumbbell exercises like the dumbbell floor press, the dumbbell fly, dumbbell pullover and the incline dumbbell chest press, just to name a few. Don’t think because all you have is a pair of dumbbells or even an adjustable dumbbell, you can’t get the job done.’
Cavaliere goes on to say that this approach will ensure you receive improved range of motion, increased core stability, less impact on the joints and you’ll also be able to keep an eye on differences in strength between limbs.
‘Just because we’re using a pair of dumbbells doesn’t mean we can’t use heavy loads and still train the entire chest. At the end of the day guys, it’s all about stimulating the muscle fibre, your body doesn’t know the difference.’
Get ready to exhaust the entirety of your chest, no muscle fibres are safe.
1a) Flat Dumbbell Bench Press x 5-6 reps to failure and 3 sets
Lay flat on a bench, your knees bent, pushing your feet into the floors. Press a pair of dumbbells into the air, locking out your elbows. Lower the bells slowly until they touch your chest keep your elbows at 45 degree angle, pause here before explosively pressing back up. Repeat.
Cavaliere recommends: ‘We start the chest workout by grabbing a pair of dumbbells and heading to the adjustable bench, this time keeping it flat, as we perform the staple pressing movement for mass – the dumbbell bench press. Here, the focus should be on pressing heavy weights and letting tension overload be the main driver of your chest gains.’
1b) Dumbbell Push-Ups x failure and 3 sets
Hit a strong plank position, with your core tight and hands on your dumbbells, bend your elbows to bring your chest to the floor. Keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle as you push back up explosively.
Cavaliere recommends: ‘I grab a pair of dumbbells that I can use for a dumbbell push-up. The dumbbells allow greater range of motion on every rep, letting me sink my body lower than usual and prolonging that stretch to ensure increasing time under tension that you don’t find with a regular push-up.’
2) Weighted Pause Dips x 6-8 reps to failure into BW Dips x failure and 3 sets
Jump up on two parallel bars with your palms facing inward and your arms straight. Use two boxes or the backs of two sturdy chairs if you’re at home. With the dumbbell on the floor, hook your feet under the top end of the bell and flex your feet with them close together to lock it in place. Slowly lower until your elbows are at right angles, ensuring they don’t flare outward. Drive yourself back up to the top and repeat. When you reach failure, drop the dumbbell.
Cavaliere recommends: ‘And this time, we target the lower pecs with the definitive mass building lower chest exercise – the dip. I take the opportunity to drive growth through tension overload and the addition of weight to the exercise – in the form of a dumbbell held between my feet. I recommend you perform a set with a weight that will cause failure around 6-8 repetitions, making sure that you keep your shoulder blades back and down to prevent issues that could come from doing this with rounded shoulders. Reaching failure, I drop the dumbbell and rep out once again with just my body weight. Again, you should continue to be thinking about tucking those shoulder blades into your back pocket and keeping them there to ensure shoulder safety even when muscle fatigue on the back end of this drop set sets in.’
3a) Incline Crush Grip Dumbbell Press x 8-10 reps to failure and 3 sets
Set the bench on a 30-45 degree angle and hold one heavy dumbbell above your chest with both hands on the grip. Lower the dumbbell to your chest with the elbows close to your body. Explosively push the dumbbell away from you to the beginning position.
Cavaliere recommends: ‘One of the best ways to hit the upper chest, the clavicular fibres, is to prop the bench up to about a 30-degree angle and perform another chest exercise combo that utilises only one dumbbell. This is the crush grip dumbbell press, a variation of the bench press performed from the incline position. The goal here is to grab a dumbbell weight that is a little heavier than what you would normally use on a traditional two handed incline dumbbell chest press, as a single dumbbell held with both hands.’
3b) Decline Push-Ups x failure and 3 sets
Kick both feet up onto a box, bench or bed, creating a strong plank position with your hands on the ground, shoulder width apart. Slowly lower your chest to the ground before explosively pressing back to lockout.
Cavaliere recommends: ‘We can continue to hit the fibres of the upper pecs with yet another body weight chest exercise: the decline push-up. The downward angle of my body here creates an arm travel from low and away to up and in – the same exact angle that is required to maximise recruitment of the upper chest fibres.’
4) Dumbbell Floor Flys x 8-10 reps to failure into Phelps Press (Eccentric Floor Fly) x failure and 3 sets
Lay flat on the floor holding a pair of dumbbells, palms facing inwards, above your chest. With a slight bend in your elbows, slowly lower your dumbbells outwards, and down towards the ground, in a fixed arc. Stop when you feel a deep stretch across your chest, before powering back up explosively. When you reach failure, use the phelps press by tucking the elbows close to your waist to push the weight over your chest, slow the descent to a few counts in order to work some more reps.
Cavaliere recommends: ‘Next up, we have a variation of one of the most iconic chest exercises, but done on the floor instead, the floor fly. The safety net of the floor prevents excessive stress on the anterior shoulder capsule at the bottom of the rep. Use heavier weights than what’s typically used on this movement.’
5) Dumbbell Upper Chest Pullovers x 10-12 Reps and 2-3 Sets
Lie back on the bench and hold a dumbbell above your chest with the arms slightly bent and each palm facing upwards. Extend the dumbbell over your head. Stop for a beat in the stretch position before returning the dumbbell to the starting position.
Cavaliere recommends: ‘Another dumbbell chest exercise that people often confuse as just a back exercise. We’re talking about the dumbbell upper chest pullover. The golden era of bodybuilders knew very well the benefits of hammering the pec minor. Allowing the elbows to flare or drift outside the plane of the shoulders will shift the focus to the lats and minimise the contribution of the pectoralis minor. If you think about squeezing your biceps together throughout the exercise and turning the backs of your hands towards each other as you raise the weight up, you’ll activate the right muscle. Tension is greatest on the pecs when the dumbbell stops at about a 45 degree angle from my body at the end of the rep. Lighter weights are advised here, since the pec minor doesn’t require as much of a heavier load as it does good activation and focused engagement.’
Kate is a fitness writer for Men’s Health UK where she contributes regular workouts, training tips and nutrition guides. She has a post graduate diploma in Sports Performance Nutrition and before joining Men’s Health she was a nutritionist, fitness writer and personal trainer with over 5k hours coaching on the gym floor. Kate has a keen interest in volunteering for animal shelters and when she isn’t lifting weights in her garden, she can be found walking her rescue dog.