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The Humble Dumbbell Chest Workout At Home: 60 Minutes Twice a Week

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Anyone who has read my stuff knows how highly I regard dumbbells. This is particularly true when it comes to chest training, for reasons you’ll discover in the dumbbell chest workout I’m sharing with you today.

The dumbbell chest workout in this article is a perfect union of simplicity and effectiveness. It’s a way to take a single item of equipment, the dumbbell and elevate it to a level that forces serious change in your training and physique.

It’s the kind of thing I use with my personal training clients to bring up lagging body parts.

In fact, for any kind of pressing movement in the early days of working with a new client, almost all of the pressing movements I’ll have them do will use dumbbells. 

Follow this workout in its entirety, and never again will you overlook the humble dumbbell…


The Humble Dumbbell Chest Workout General Infographic

Humble Dumbbell: Benefits of the approach…

You may think of the dumbbell as being a poor relation to the barbell, but it’s really not true. It’ll demand so much more from you, but the benefits will probably exceed a barbell chest workout.

Here are just three of the many benefits of using dumbbells for a chest workout…

Humble Dumbbell Chest Workout Benefits

Benefit 1: You’ll improve your shoulder mobility

When you train with dumbbells you can extend your range of movement beyond your standard barbell range. Think of it – when you train with a barbell you’ve got a bar that extends across your chest, meaning it has to stop when you reach your torso.

Dumbbells don’t have this limit. They can be lowered beyond the chest, so the range of motion increases.

This stretches the anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder) and the chest muscles, allowing you to increase the range of motion that the shoulders are capable of working through.

For those lifters who suffer from shoulder issues because of internal rotation (spending too long at a computer, or driving for example), this is the perfect antidote.

Benefit 2: You can lift heavier – more safely

This is a benefit a lot of people forget… you don’t really need a spotter when you’re lifting with dumbbells.


Sure, there’s always a benefit to having a spotter – motivation for one. But the main reason people use a spotter with a barbell is so they don’t end up in an embarrassing crush situation…

With dumbbells, you can lift to failure and safely lower them to the side, so you don’t end up being crushed. It’s a legitimate way to lower the weights without hurting yourself or damaging the equipment. 

It means you can really push yourself, either with weight or high reps and do so knowing you won’t end up being on a YouTube ‘Gym Fails’ channel…

Benefit 3: You allow for natural movement of the shoulder and arms

Using dumbbells allows for a lot of freedom of movement at the shoulder, elbow and wrist, which helps in multiple ways… 

  • It improves technique
  • The unilateral movement corrects strength imbalances
  • There’s an injury risk reduction, because your movement isn’t limited or governed by the barbell
  • You can be more versatile with the movement – with bench press this can include adding wrist rotations etc

What this means is that by using dumbbells for your chest workout, you can tweak exercises, make them more versatile and personalized. You can also work exercises to your advantage as well, allowing you to maximize the lifts as you do them.


5 Steps to Use the Humble Dumbbell Chest Workout to Build a Solid Chest

This is your ‘ultimate how to’ section. Follow these 5 steps and you’ll have all of the tools to perform the workout well. These 5 steps will help you get the most from it, maximizing the different elements of the workout…

Step 1: There’s two different types of the workout – perform them both

There’s one workout, but it is to be done two different ways – the first one is a high load, low rep workout. This is known as the strength workout. There’s also a lower load, higher rep workout. This is the hypertrophy workout. There’s a couple of reasons for this…

  1. Because it stimulates the muscles in different ways
  2. It helps to keep the workout interesting

On the first point, research by Brad Schoenfeld et al from 2015 compared high and low load weight training for hypertrophy and strength gains. The conclusion they drew from the research was…

‘…both high low and low load training to failure can elicit significant increases in muscle hypertrophy among well-trained young men; however, high load training is superior for maximizing strength adaptations.’

I don’t want you to miss out on the benefits of either, so we’re going to do them both over the course of a couple of workouts in the week. It also helps to prevent boredom because you’ve got two different challenges in the week.

The strength workout will compliment the hypertrophy workout, because it’ll help you to achieve more reps. 

Step 2: Ensure you follow the different movement angles

If you’re new to bench pressing, you may wonder why there are so many different training angles of the exercises. It’s not something you commonly see in other exercises – certainly not to this extent.

It’s because of your physiology. 

Here’s the simple version of the chest muscles…

Anatomy of the chest

But if you want to know a bit more… the chest (pectorals) are split into a couple of different regions – the pectoralis major (the top part) and the pectoralis minor. The pec minor sits below the pec major so isn’t visible, but it’s still very important.

Pectoral Major and Pectoral Minor

There’s also a couple of ‘heads’ or anchor points to the pec major muscle – the clavicular head (the top part, which attaches to the collar bone) and the sternal head, which attaches to the breast bone. In pretty rare cases, you can actually see the division of the two heads.

Franco Columbu was famous for his…

Franco Columbu

This unique physiology means the chest muscles respond to different training angles. Research consistently shows us this, with a couple of studies being of particular interest.

David Rodríguez-Ridao et al’s 2020 study into the ‘Effect of Five Bench Inclinations on the Electromyographic Activity of the Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoid, and Triceps Brachii during the Bench Press Exercise’ concluded…

‘The horizontal bench press produces similar electromyographic activities for the pectoralis major and the anterior deltoid. 

An inclination of 30° produces greater activation of the upper portion of the pectoralis major. 

Inclinations greater than 45° produce significantly higher activation of the anterior deltoid and decrease the muscular performance of the pectoralis major.’

This has been echoed by another study in a 2016 study by Lauver et al, titled ‘Influence of bench angle on upper extremity muscular activation during bench press exercise’.

The difference between the two studies though is the Lauver study, the researchers dropped the bench to a decline as well, where they learned that:

‘…the contraction of the lower pectoralis was greater during -15° bench press.’

In English… a flat bench trains the chest and front shoulder. 

A decline bench trains the lower chest. 

As the bench angle is increased, emphasis rises to the upper chest portion, and the shoulders become more activated.

Past 45 degrees, it becomes more of a shoulder and less of a chest exercise.

Activation of Chest Muscles During Bench Press Variations

Step 3: Do this workout twice per week, with at least two days between workouts

The Humble Dumbbell chest workout isn’t a full program – it’s a workout designed to give your chest a boost. It’s not the kind of thing you’ll repeat every day, nor should you want to.

The muscle and strength is built in the down time away from training, so let it rest.

Here’s how I suggest you split your training week up…

Monday: The Humble Dumbbell Strength Workout

Tuesday: A pull/back workout

Wednesday: A legs and abs workout

Thursday: The Humble Dumbbell Hypertrophy Workout

Friday: A pull/back workout

Weekend: Light cardio/Rest

This training format ticks all the boxes. You’re hitting the upper body harder (you could always add an extra leg workout into the week rather than a cardio workout if you’d prefer), but this is easy to tweak.

It fits into an overall training program nicely, without you having to make dramatic changes to the rest of what you do.

Step 4: Don’t do any additional chest work – and up your horizontal ‘pulling’ movements

We’re doing a lot of chest training in this workout, so you don’t want/need to do any more on top of this. That means on your training days away from the Humble Dumbbell program, avoid chest movements like the plague.

No barbells, no bodyweight chest work – you’re doing enough already!

To combat the additional pressing movements and internal rotation of the shoulders, I’d suggest you do some additional horizontal pulling movements. I’m thinking inverted rows, bent over rows, low rows, TRX rows, that kind of thing.

You’ll find plenty of ideas in our cable row alternatives article.

The reason for increasing the horizontal pulling is because it’s the antidote to the pushing and pressing. This helps to improve shoulder strength and stability, preventing injury and making you stronger across the entire shoulder girdle.

You want your chest to rest and recover, so spend the rest of the training time in the week working on other body parts.

Step 5: Don’t mix up the two workouts

I want you to maintain focus during the workouts, so dedicate your time and attention to the outcomes of each one.

There’s a lot of volume in a relatively small area here, so don’t be tempted to mix both workouts together – it’s just too much volume and there’s no additional benefit.

The beauty of the Humble Dumbbell chest workout is that you don’t need much in the way of equipment, and there’s very little in the way of set up. This means you’ll manage to get through the workout quicker than you’d expect, despite the high volume of the training.

Despite that, don’t think “I’ll use the extra time for some more training”! Put the dumbbells down and grab a protein shake!

It’s not only because of the overtraining of the chest either. When you’re performing these exercises, you’re also using your shoulders and triceps too.

These are relatively small muscles and you’ll risk causing injury to them, as well as fatiguing them to a point they struggle to recover in time for your next session.

Two Humble Dumbbell workouts per week are all you need… just do them properly!


Training notes for the dumbbell chest workout

A few thoughts on how the workout is put together, to help you understand the method behind the madness, so to speak!

Consider the movement capabilities of the chest…

The chest is only activated with two movements – a horizontal press and a horizontal adduction of the shoulders. This means we’re limited in terms of what we can do when it comes to mixing up movement patterns. We have to work around varieties of these two.

One way to add variety is with the angle of the presses and adductions – incline, flat and decline. You can see from the research I’ve shared earlier that this isn’t just variety for variety’s sake – there are legitimate reasons for the change of lifting angles.

Heavy and hypertrophy – why both?

If this was pure strength, or pure hypertrophy there wouldn’t be need for both workouts. This is an all-rounder though. It’s designed to build both your strength AND muscle mass, so I’ve included both.

The exercises are the same because they’re effective. I also don’t believe in lots of exercises just for the sake of it. If I can’t justify the inclusion of something, it goes. Like all the best albums… all killer, no filler!

Considering shoulder health

Chest training programs have a habit of causing shoulder issues if you’re not careful. The selection of exercises in this program allows you to execute the movements with a full range.

This range stretches the chest and the anterior deltoid (front of the shoulders), which helps to keep the shoulder healthy. 

Stretching the chest doesn’t just help the shoulders stay healthy. By stretching the chest and shoulders you help to improve posture and reduce the chances of head and neck discomfort. 

Warming up

The warm up has to be complementary to the overall workout, and the workout itself is focussed on a small area. That’s why the warm up is going to be the same for both workouts, whether it’s the strength or hypertrophy one.

We’ll warm up with dumbbell push ups. These increase the range of movement of the chest and shoulders beyond ‘normal’, so they both promote blood flow and mobility of the relevant body parts. 


Humble Dumbbell Chest Workout – the exercises

Next up is the workout itself. There are 7 exercises in the workouts, which includes one warm up exercise. They’re the same exercises across both workouts, but the set and rep numbers will differ.

The warm up will be the same for both.

Humble Dumbbell Chest Workout – Strength

In the strength workout you’ll perform 5 sets of 5 of the pressing exercises. On the fly exercises, we’re going to shoot for sets of 6-8. The reason for this is there’s a slightly elevated risk of injury when you’re doing heavy abduction work at the shoulder.

You should be hitting failure at the end point of 5 or 8 reps. If you’ve got more reps left in you, go harder and heavier.

The final exercise in the list is the single arm press – this is also done for a set of 8. The reason for this is balance. A really heavy dumbbell will force you to over-rotate, compromising form and making balance a big issue. 

ExerciseSetsReps
Dumbbell Deficit Push Ups412
Flat Dumbbell Bench Press55
Decline Dumbbell Bench Press55
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press55
Flat Dumbbell Fly56-8
Incline Dumbbell Fly56-8
Single Arm Dumbbell Press58 (per side)

Humble Dumbbell Chest Workout – Hypertrophy

This workout is a numbers game. We’re after intensity here – higher reps, with a strict rest period of 1 minute. I don’t want you to worry about pushing big weights, I want you to hit failure at the end of every set. That may see you lifting a lot less than on strength day, but that’s fine – our goals are different here. 

Your aim here is intensity, so you should be reaching the point where the final few reps are really tough and you need that rest. All exercises here (with the exception of the warm up) are for 10-12 reps. If you’re exceeding those numbers, it’s time to nudge the weight up. 

ExerciseSetsReps
Dumbbell Deficit Push Ups412
Flat Dumbbell Bench Press510-12
Decline Dumbbell Bench Press510-12
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press510-12
Flat Dumbbell Fly510-12
Incline Dumbbell Fly510-12
Single Arm Dumbbell Press510-12 (per side)

To make life easier for you as a reader (and to stop me repeating myself), I’ve listed the exercises only once for both workouts, because you don’t need to read the same description twice!


Humble Dumbbell Chest Strength Workout Infographic 1

1. Dumbbell deficit push ups

This is our warm up, because the dumbbell deficit push up really forces a stretch across the chest. It also engages the pectoral muscles through a huge range of movement, making it a fantastic warm up exercise for a chest workout.

I’m not especially bothered about this being a tough exercise – you should feel a good pump after the four sets, but not complete exhaustion. It’ll get easier as the weeks go on.

Equipment needed for deficit push ups:

  • Dumbbells

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Adjustable Dumbbells

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Classic
Read our best adjustable dumbbell guide here

These are the dumbbells we recommend for ‘most people’.

We have spent over 50 hours of research and compared over 100 dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells make sense for most home gyms as they save space.

The Nüobell dumbbells go all the way to 80lbs per hand. This means they are much more versatile than most 50lbs adjustable dumbbells. You can use these for heavy shrugs, squats and bench press etc.

The main reason they are the top pick is because of their shape. They actually feel like real dumbbells and are not awkward to lift like some others.

How to do deficit push ups:

  • Set your deficit to an appropriate width and height. Wider and higher means more pectoral engagement.
  • Start with arms fully extended and lower yourself down through the movement.
  • Lower yourself until you’ve reached full depth. You’re looking for more than 90 degree elbow bend and a full stretch of the chest.
  • Slowly press yourself back up to a straight arm position.
  • Repeat as many times as required.

2. Flat dumbbell bench press

The dumbbell bench press is my favorite of the traditional chest exercises. I like it because the free weight element forces stability on both sides of the body, so is particularly good for creating functional balance.

Word of warning here – dumbbells are significantly harder than barbells to press, so they don’t translate equally. If you’re pressing 150 LBS on the bar for example, don’t go for 2 x 75s. Shoot much lower and build up.

Maybe start with the 50s or so.

Equipment needed for dumbbell bench press:

  • Dumbbells
  • Bench

REP AB-3000 Bench

REP AB-3000 Weight Bench
Read our best weight bench guide here

This is the weight bench we recommend for ‘most people’.

We compared over 70 benches against 12 criteria. This is our highest-ranked flat, incline & decline (FID) bench.

Some adjustable benches can be a bit wobbly when on the incline. But the AB-3000 is very sturdy.

With a height 18mm it’s comparable to benches that cost twice as much.

How to do dumbbell bench press:

  • With a dumbbell in each hand, lie back and position them over your chest
  • You can use either an overhand or neutral (palms facing each other) grip
  • Slowly lower the dumbbells towards your chest, bending your elbows outwards until you reach a good stretch
  • At full depth, pause and push the dumbbells back up to a full extension
  • Repeat as many times as necessary

3. Decline dumbbell bench press

Decline dumbbell bench press isn’t as popular as other forms of the lift, but it’s a very effective way of hitting the lower chest as we’ve seen from the research. Don’t decline too far though – a 25KG plate or two, or 15 degree decline is perfectly suitable.

If you don’t have a bench that can decline, simply stack plates, benches or something similar underneath to create a sufficient angle (as seen in the video). As always, lift well, lift hard and keep your form good.

Equipment needed for decline bench press:

How to do decline dumbbell bench press:

  • Set your bench to a decline – don’t go too steep, because you want a good range of movement
  • Take your dumbbells, lie back and position your hands slightly wider than your torso
  • Slowly lower the dumbbells to your chest, bending your elbows outwards until you reach a depth around 1 inch from your lower chest
  • At full depth, pause and push the dumbbells up to a full extension of the elbow
  • Repeat

Note: not enjoying this exercise too much? Consider switching it up with some of our decline bench press alternatives.


4. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

An incline dumbbell bench press is a great variant of the exercise for a number of reasons… It stimulates the upper chest more. It forces each side to work independently, so you don’t bias one side.

It allows a greater range of movement. It’s easy to learn.

In short, it’s a great exercise and ideal in any dumbbell chest program. 

Equipment needed for incline dumbbell bench press:

How to do incline dumbbell bench press:

  • Set the bench to a slight incline – the steeper the incline, the more you involve the shoulders
  • With a dumbbell in each hand, lie back and position them over your chest
  • You can use either an overhand or neutral (palms facing each other) grip
  • Slowly lower the dumbbells towards your chest, bending your elbows outwards until you reach a good stretch
  • At full depth, pause and push the dumbbells back up to a full extension
  • Repeat as many times as necessary

Humble Dumbbell Chest Hypertrophy Workout Infographic 2

5. Flat Dumbbell Fly

The dumbbell fly is a great way of challenging the chest. It includes a pectoral stretch, an eccentric contraction of the muscles and controlled internal rotation at the shoulder.

The dumbbell fly is a very popular exercise in bodybuilding circles because it’s a perfect way to add variety and challenge the muscle fibers in a new way. We’re not going too hard here – we don’t want to stress the shoulders too much. 

Equipment needed for flat dumbbell flyes:

How to do flat dumbbell flyes:

  • Set the bench flat
  • Pick the dumbbells up, lie back and hold them directly in front of you
  • Lower them slowly out to the sides, maintaining an almost-straight arm throughout the movement
  • When you feel a full stretch, pause and pull the dumbbells back up and to the center,  under control throughout
  • Repeat as many times as necessary

Note: check out our (dumbbell) chest fly alternatives or our alternatives section if you want to learn more about exercise alternatives.


6. Incline Dumbbell Fly

The incline dumbbell fly is the same technique as the flat dumbbell fly, with the obvious exception being the level of incline. The incline forces the shoulders to do more of the work, so bear this in mind.

You still want the incline to be significantly lower than 45 degrees though – it’s the chest we’re trying to hit here. 

Equipment needed for incline dumbbell flyes:

How to do incline dumbbell flyes:

  • Set the bench to the incline of your choosing
  • Pick the dumbbells up, lie back and hold them directly in front of you
  • Lower them slowly out to the sides, maintaining an almost-straight arm throughout the movement
  • When you feel a full stretch, pause and pull the dumbbells back up under control
  • Repeat as many times as necessary

7. Single arm dumbbell bench press

The single arm dumbbell bench press may be the most beneficial type of bench press there is. It’s single-sided, which means there’s no way a dominant side can take over the movement. It’s anti-rotation, because the core has to engage to prevent the torso from rolling to one side.

It’s also excellent for chest and shoulder health because the extra range of motion helps to stretch. Although it takes longer to train each side individually, it’s really worth it in this case. 

You’ll lift a lot less weight this time, but that’s OK – you want to challenge your balance, but not compromise it.

Equipment needed for single arm dumbbell bench press:

How to do single arm dumbbell bench press:

  • With a dumbbell one, lie back and position them over your chest
  • You can use either an overhand or neutral (palms facing inward) grip
  • Slowly lower the dumbbell towards the side of your chest, bending your elbows outwards until you reach a good stretch
  • Engage the core throughout to prevent your torso rotating to the side 
  • At full depth, pause and push the dumbbells back up to a full extension
  • Repeat as many times as necessary

Those exercises are the Humble Dumbbell Chest Workout in its entirety. It’s a simple, but very effective workout. It doesn’t need much equipment, but like all the best programs it will deliver results when you apply enough effort in the right direction. Go hard and enjoy the results!


Humble Dumbbell Chest Workout – Bonus Tips

Some tips based on 20+ years of experience running this kind of program for clients…

Humble Dumbbell Chest Workout Bonus Tips

Run the program for 8 weeks…

I tend to find that around 8 weeks is sufficient for this kind of thing. I don’t like to focus on one body part for too long – you stress the connective tissues and the movement patterns too much if you do excessive work in the same spot.

Muscle tissue is adaptable, but the connective tissues are less so. Give them a break.

Allow longer rest periods on the strength days

The strength workout on the program will take longer because you’ll need the extra rest between sets. This is despite fewer reps. You need to be resting long enough to hit good sets one after the other.

For most people that may be 90 seconds to 2 minutes, but if you need to take longer, do so. Be rested enough to go hard!

Constantly seek heavier weights

Progression in this program is measured by the increase in strength and the muscle size. This will be dependent on the amount of effort you put in. As soon as you’re hitting 90+% of your designated reps with a weight, put it up.

Aim for an increase of 2-5% per week if you can. At first this will be easy, but as the program runs it may slow down. This is fine – just keep pushing!

Make sure you balance the pushes with pulls

Shoulders can be resistant and sensitive to change. If this amount of chest work hurts, increase the shoulder work. You can perform lots of face pulls and horizontal rows. Too much pushing and not enough pulling is a shoulder imbalance waiting to happen, so make this a real priority.

Be humble!

If you’ve been used to doing all of your pushing and chest exercise with a barbell, this is going to kick your ego in the nuts. You’ll be lifting a lot less than you’re used to, because the unilateral exercise is so much harder.

The good news is it’s also beneficial, so take the hit, drop the weights and you’ll rebuild your strength. Go back to the barbell after 8 weeks and see your numbers again… they’ll be higher.

Expect DOMS

Even if you’ve been a dedicated chest trainer for decades, expect some delayed onset muscle soreness at first. It comes from a change in stimulus, which is likely what you’ll be doing with this workout.

If you don’t get it, great – lucky you. If you do, you’ll be fine. Get your protein and water in, then be careful in your next session.


Humble Dumbbell Chest Workout: The bottom line

This is a straight-to-the-point workout. There’s no fluff or filler with it. Don’t confuse that with ineffective though – it has just had the extras stripped away. Run the program for 8 weeks and watch what happens.

If you’ve put the work in, you’ll be very surprised at the results, in a very good way!

Write down or print out the exercises and get busy! We’d love to see your results…

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Steve Hoyles is a certified personal trainer and gym owner. Since graduating with his Sports Science degree in 2004 he's worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. His writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries as he inspires to help as many people as possible live a healthy lifestyle.

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