You may have heard the gym rats in your life talk about “blasting their pecs” on a bench press day. But strengthening your chest is incredibly important not only for aesthetic reasons but for functional ones as well.
The muscles of your chest are responsible for many different upper body movements: they help lift, lower, rotate, and move your arms in almost all directions. Any time you open a door, carry a heavy box, run your vacuum cleaner, or even breathe, your chest muscles are at work. The stronger they are, the easier it is to move around in the world (and the less susceptible you are to certain injuries).
Any comprehensive fitness programming will include exercises to address chest strength. And the best way to get stronger is to work your muscles against resistance — whether that resistance is from a barbell, weight machines, or gravity. Dumbbells are an especially efficient resistance training choice for upper body work, since your arms must work independently of each other (and your stronger side can’t “cheat” to help move a singular weight source).
If you’re looking for a great way to strengthen all of the muscles in your chest, pick up a pair of dumbbells (here are the best adjustable dumbbells for weight lifting at home), and try 10 of the best dumbbell chest exercises you can do.
What muscles make up your chest?
When we think of chest muscles, the most common one that comes to mind is the pectoralis major — responsible for raising your arm in front of you, lowering your arm to the side, and rotating your arm inward. There’s also the pectoralis minor, located underneath the pectoralis major, responsible for stabilizing the shoulder blade.
Lastly there’s the serratus anterior, located deep under the pectorals on the lateral surfaces of the rib cage, responsible for pulling your shoulder blades forward, which in turn allows you to reach in front of you.
Here are 10 of the best dumbbell chest exercises
1. Dumbbell Chest Press
The dumbbell chest press is a basic but incredibly popular movement. While it targets all the major muscles of the chest, it also works your shoulders and, when done correctly, even your back — making it a super efficient upper body strengthening exercise.
To perform the chest press, grab two moderately heavy dumbbells and place them in front of you. Take a seat on a weight bench, pick up the dumbbells from the floor, and slowly lower yourself onto the bench until you’re lying flat. Bring your arms into a right angle, with your elbow lined up slightly below your shoulder, your wrists neutral, and your knuckles facing the wall behind you.
Squeezing the chest, press both of the weights into the air, straightening your arms. Aim the weights to line up slightly in front of the shoulder, directly above your sternum (think “nipple line”), to avoid impinging the shoulder joint. Slowly lower the weights back to the starting position by retracting (or “squeezing together”) your shoulder blades.
You should be able to perform a set of 10-12 repetitions before needing to rest. If you can perform more, choose heavier dumbbells for your next set.
To add variety to the chest press, perform the exercise alternating between your right and left arm, or unilaterally — performing a set of repetitions on one arm, and then a set on the other.
If you don’t have access to a bench, perform the exercise lying on a mat instead.
2. Dumbbell Chest Fly
The dumbbell chest fly is another very popular choice for strengthening all the chest muscles.
To perform the dumbbell chest fly, select two light to moderately heavy dumbbells and place them in front of you. Take a seat on a weight bench, pick up the dumbbells from the floor, and slowly lower yourself onto the bench until you’re lying flat. Raise both dumbbells into the air, with your palms facing each other and aligned directly over your sternum. With a slight bend in your elbow, slowly lower the weights to the side, keeping your arm position locked, stretching your chest, and retracting your shoulder blades.
Once you’ve reached the end of your range, engage your chest muscles and bring the weights back to the starting position. Perform a set of 10-12 repetitions, reaching muscle fatigue on your final repetition.
To add variety to the chest fly, try alternating between your left and right arm, or perform all repetitions on one arm before moving to the next.
If you don’t have access to a weight bench, perform the chest fly while lying on a mat.
3. Dumbbell Pullover
While the pullover is sometimes used to target the latissimus dorsi (a large muscle in the back), it can also be used to strengthen the chest.
To perform the dumbbell pullover, pick up one moderately heavy dumbbell. Slowly lower yourself onto a weight bench, holding the dumbbell vertically by one end, directly above your sternum. Ground your feet into the floor, depress your shoulder blades, and slowly lower the dumbbell behind your head.
Once you’ve reached the end of your range, engage your chest muscles and bring the dumbbell back to the starting position. Repeat for 10-12 repetitions, achieving muscle fatigue by the end of the set.
If you don’t have a weight bench you can perform the dumbbell pullover on the floor, although your range will be affected. Read what happened when our fitness editor did 50 dumbbell pullovers a day for a week here.
4. Dumbbell Svend Press
Hang out in the gym for long enough, and you’ll inevitably catch someone doing a Svend press. This exercise is frequently performed with plates as a way to warm-up for bench pressing, but it can be challenging all on its own by using a dumbbell or two.
To perform the Svend press, select two light to moderately heavy dumbbells. Hold them by the handles, vertically oriented, and squeeze them together. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart, and engage your core. Bring the dumbbells in towards your sternum, then extend your arms and press the dumbbells away from you in a straight line, keeping them pressed together.
Repeat this motion for 10-12 repetitions, reaching muscle fatigue on your final rep.
To add variety to the Svend press, press the dumbbells away from you diagonally, in both upward and downward motions.
If you only have one dumbbell, or if your dumbbells are circular as opposed to hexagonal, perform the Svend press using a single dumbbell: hold the dumbbell in a horizontal orientation, and press into each end with your hands.
5. Standing Cross-body Dumbbell Raise
The standing cross-body dumbbell raise is a great way to target the lower part of your chest.
To perform the standing cross-body dumbbell raise, choose a light to moderately heavy dumbbell. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and core engaged. Holding the dumbbell in your right hand, slightly bend the elbow and slowly bring the weight up with an underhand grip toward the left shoulder, squeezing the right pectoral. Lower back down to the starting position.
Perform for 10-12 repetitions, and then repeat with the left arm.
6. Crush Grip Dumbbell Press
Similar to a Svend press, the crush grip dumbbell press adds an extra challenge to a pressing motion by maintaining a constant contraction of the chest muscles throughout the entirety of the exercise.
To perform the crush grip dumbbell press, grab two moderately heavy dumbbells and place them in front of you. Take a seat on a weight bench, and pick up the dumbbells. Slowly lower to a lying position. Hold the dumbbells in a vertical orientation, with both ends of each bell touching, aligned with your sternum. Squeeze the muscles of your chest as you “crush” the dumbbells together, then press both dumbbells towards the ceiling. Slowly lower the weights back down to the starting position, keeping pressure on the dumbbells.
Repeat for 10-12 repetitions until you reach muscle fatigue.
If you don’t have access to a weight bench, perform the crush grip dumbbell press on a mat.
If you only have one dumbbell, or if your dumbbells are circular instead of hexagonal, use one dumbbell for the crush press: hold the weight in a horizontal orientation and press against each end with your hands.
7. Decline Dumbbell Chest Press
A variation on the standard chest press, the decline dumbbell press targets the lower part of your chest.
To perform the decline dumbbell chest press, grab two moderately heavy dumbbells. Place your feet in the leg braces of a declined weight bench, and slowly lower yourself into a lying position. Aim the dumbbells directly above your sternum, with your knuckles facing the wall behind you. Retract your shoulder blades and slowly lower the dumbbells to your sides, keeping your elbows aligned slightly below your shoulder and forming a right angle with your arms. Press the dumbbells back up to the starting position.
Repeat for 10-12 repetitions, until you reach muscle fatigue.
Depending on the weight you’ve selected, it might be necessary to have a spotter place the dumbbells in your hands prior to beginning and take them from you at the conclusion of your set.
To add variety to the decline dumbbell chest press, alternate between your left and right arms, or perform a full set with one arm before moving to the other.
8. Incline Dumbbell Chest Press
The incline dumbbell chest press is another variation of the chest press, meant to target the upper portion of your chest.
To perform the incline dumbbell chest press, select two moderately heavy dumbbells and place them in front of you. Incline a weight bench so it’s roughly halfway between completely flat and completely upright. Take a seat on the bench, grab the weights, and slowly lower yourself onto the bench.
Bring the weights to your shoulders, with your knuckles facing the wall behind you. Press the weights towards the ceiling, keeping them aligned with the upper part of your chest. Lower back down to the starting position.
Repeat for a set of 10-12 repetitions, achieving muscle fatigue on your last rep.
To add variety to the incline dumbbell chest press, alternate between your left and right arm, or complete a full set with one arm before moving on to the other.
9. Dumbbell Push Up
The push-up is one of the best functional exercises you can do to strengthen the entire upper body. Placing a dumbbell under each hand increases your push-up range of motion, allowing you to work even more of your chest.
To perform the dumbbell push-up, grab two moderately heavy dumbbells and place them in front of you on the floor, vertically oriented. Grab each handle, align your neutral wrists directly under your shoulders, and step back behind you into a plank position. Keeping the core engaged and lower back neutral, slowly lower yourself down towards the floor, making sure that the chest and hips stay aligned.
Once you’ve reached the end of your range, push yourself back up to the starting position. Repeat for 10-12 repetitions keeping optimal form, until you reach muscle failure.
To modify this exercise, drop your knees to the floor. To progress this exercise, select dumbbells with larger diameters to increase your range of motion further.
To add variety to the dumbbell push-up, change your dumbbells’ orientation on the floor.
10. Reverse Grip Dumbbell Chest Press
The reverse grip dumbbell chest press is yet another variation on the standard chest press, meant to target the lower chest region (and give your biceps a run for their money).
To perform the reverse grip dumbbell chest press, choose two moderately heavy dumbbells and place them in front of you. Take a seat on a weight bench, grab the weights, and slowly lower yourself to a lying position. Bring the dumbbells to your side with your knuckles facing the wall in front of you, elbows at a right angle drawn in towards your rib cage. Press the weights toward the ceiling, keeping the dumbbells aligned with your lower chest. Slowly bring the weights back to the starting position.
Repeat for a set of 10-12 repetitions, achieving muscle failure by the end of your set.
To add variety to the reverse grip dumbbell chest press, alternate between
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Jennifer Rizzuto is a freelance writer and certified personal trainer based in Long Island, NY. She covers various fitness-related topics and reviews for Tom's Guide. She also writes sketch comedy and short films, and performs frequently as an actor, singer, and improviser. When she's not writing, working out, or performing, you'll find her trying to convince her husband to get a dog.