The bench press is one of the most popular exercises completed in gyms up and down the country. Whether it is using a bar or dumbbells I tend to see people doing the same exercise time and time again with no variation in exercise, tempo, or rep range.
People tend to get caught up in how much weight they’re lifting instead of the actual adaptation they’re looking to achieve. They miss the whole point of enhance muscular contraction and motor unit recruitment. So the reps are lazy and they end up just meandering through the set.
Related: Listen Up Bro: 3 Reasons to Ditch the Barbell Bench Press
Dumbbell bench pressing allows you to work stabiliser muscles that benching with a bar does not; furthermore it gives a great opportunity to really work the pecs hard at the top of each and every rep.
The dumbbell bench press is a fundamental exercise that most gym rats use as part of their chest routine and rightly so. As a fundamental and frequent exercise it’s paramount for progression and continuous adaptation to look at variations that can enhance this exercise.
So I wanted to share with you some of my dumbbell bench press variations to showcase different options to add some variety into your program. These are some of my favourite variations and really contribute to a great training response.
Continuous Tension Sets
When it comes to strength training, a full range of motion is typically recommended for every movement in order to reap the most benefit. However, there are a couple of things which you must consider in your quest for unparalleled size and strength.
Bodybuilders understand the importance of keeping tension on the working muscles and increasing the time under tension for each and every set. One advanced method they use to achieve this is called continuous tension sets, which is a technique that is in direct contrast to locking out every repetition.
In ‘Supertraining’ by Mel Siff, continuous tension sets are defined as:
"Any set in which each repetition is done smoothly without ballistic bounce, cheating or significant pause at either end of the motion. Characteristically, the movements are executed fairly slowly without the joints locking completely at any stage of the exercise."
In order to perform the continuous tension technique, stop right before lockout at the top of the movement and immediately move into the eccentric phase of the next repetition.
Continuous Tension Sets (with Slow Negatives)
If you wish to further increase muscular tension and metabolic stress, a slow negative (lowering the weight for a count of 3-5 seconds) can also be incoporated with the previous technique. This method takes advantage of the continuous tension sets by keeping the muscle loaded while increasing the time under tension.
Eccentric training can be especially beneficial as this phase causes the most muscle damage and leads to greater rates of protein synthesis post-workout. Thus, when you incorporate both phases (eccentric and concentric), this will lead to large amounts of muscular damage and metabolic stress.
Band Resisted DB Bench Press
This is a great exercise to bust through a strength plateau. Your triceps and chest will experience tremendous force as you experience the greatest resistance from the band at lockout due to the nature of accomodating resistance.
Band Resisted DB Bench Press (Bands Anchored)
With the conventional dumbbell bench press the pec major acts against the weight to adduct the humerus to the midline. The load acts vertically across the system (intermuscular coordination) of the chest, triceps and shoulders.
In this variation we've added a lateral force vector to the system which drives the arms and dumbbells away from the midline of the body. As you can imagine, this will create an insane muscular contraction as you fight against the bands in order to keep the dumbbells on their intended vertical path.
One-Arm DB Bench Press
This is an exercise that will create superb full body tension and offers a lot in terms of anti-rotational core strength. It’s also a great accessory exercise to improve your regular bench numbers.
Don’t be fooled that it looks simple; you will need to ensure that on the very first rep you create massive full body tension. Keep the reps per set at 8 or under to avoid getting sloppy.
This is a very underutilised exercise that I highly recommend whether your goal is strength or physique orientated.
Studies have shown that your body can tolerate up to 1.75 times more weight eccentrically than it can concentrically. If you emphasise the eccentric portion of your lifts, then you’re certain to increase muscle growth.
Don't mistake what I'm saying though, I’m certainly not suggesting you limit yourself to eccentric only training. I’m suggesting you take advantage of your body’s potential to handle more weight while still doing the full movement.
Related: How To Add Eccentric Training To Your Program
Slow negatives allows more time under tension during the eccentric phase (where we can handle more load). The great thing about this is it allows you to workout at a higher intensity and higher intensity means greater stress, which means greater adaptation.
Isometrics are unique in that they produce a greater level of activation than normal due to potentiation of all available motor units.
The most important cue for this variation is to ensure that you're pushing the dumbbell heads together and contracting your pecs hard throughout the entire duration of the repetition.
If you're really feeling dangerous, you can have a partner try to add a small amount of pressure (just below the wrists) to pull the dumbbells apart, I do this with my clients and find it helps to fully contract the pecs.
Slow Negatives with Isometric Holds
Combining both slow eccentrics and isometric work on each rep creates a highly effective and challenging exercise. You get the added benefits from both eccentric training as well isometric training.
However, be forewarned, this exercise can be very taxing if done correctly. I highly recommend you have a training partner spot you for the entire duration of your set as loss of control of the dumbbell might result in serious injury.
Drop Set (x3) – Last Set Fast Reps
In a straight set (8 to 12 reps with one weight), it can be tough to hit all available muscle fibers. Typically you only use the minimal number of fibers required to lift a specific weight for a specific number of reps.
By adding a drop set (stripping off 10-20% of the weight and continuing the set), you begin to recruit reserve fibers. In doing so, you are hitting stubborn muscle fibers which only amplifies muscular hypertrophy. The primary focus of drop setting, therefore, is to shock the muscle by adding stress to a standard set.
In this exercise after 8 reps I drop the weight by 15% for the second set of 8 and then finally a further 15% for the third set. In this example I try to complete the third set with fast reps. This intentional change of speed in the movement of this set is to ensure that the third set is completed with a number of reps.
In my own experience, by the third phase if you keep a controlled tempo you will struggle to complete more than a couple of reps. This third phase could contribute to new gains but, it will also help to build tremendous mental fortitude as drop sets are just as much a test of your body as they are of your mind.
The typical muscle building mantra is slow and steady, while keeping each rep smooth and controlled. Whilst that is sound advice, we can manipulate even more muscle growth by utilising the full range of rep speed.
By completing reps in less than 3-4 seconds we start to incorporate the fast twitch muscle fibers which have the highest potential for growth.
hey! very interesting thank you!