by Jim Cordova
If you have delved into the fitness world for some time, you may have become familiar with the debate as to which piece of equipment is best when it comes to selecting barbells, dumbbells, or machines in the quest toward optimal chest stimulation. Truly this is a hard matter to solve given that, throughout bodybuilding history, many individuals have attained world class pectoral development by primarily using any one of these three apparatuses. Despite a deep conviction that dumbbells are much better suited with respect to the design of the musculature of the pectoral region, I must make it clear that I am not trying to establish their usage as ideal for everyone. If barbells are working well for you, by all means keep using them. Yet, for those of you that have pounded away with barbell presses in vain for years on end, I surely can relate! And in this article I am going to share what I believe to be a solid method for turning your concave chest region into mountains of muscle!
I have achieved better development in the last two years through the intelligent utilization of dumbbells than I had for the previous twelve with barbell work. Don’t get me wrong, on occasion I do feel that barbell presses are worthwhile, particularly when remaining in the “sweet spot” for mass building. Yet, when it comes to an optimal path of travel and a fuller range of motion (ROM), I am certain that dumbbells are superior to barbells for most people. They allow you to move the weight in a much more natural plane with regard to the design of the chest. This significantly lowers the chance for rotator cuff injury and drastically reduces the incorporation of the front deltoids and triceps, especially during the upper half of the press when compared to barbell work.
You should not be deceived into thinking that you will reduce the potential for hypertrophy because you will be using less overall weight when using dumbbells versus a barbell. For starters, pressing with a single bar creates a sort of synergistic-momentum, allowing you to push greater overall poundages. Furthermore, you are reducing the force generated by other muscle groups, such as the shoulders and triceps, when using dumbbells.
I find that dumbbells are better suited to develop the fiber near the sternum ("inner chest"), giving them a fuller, more developed appearance since you can move the weight according to the fiber direction of the muscles and bring the arms in toward the midline of the body as you approach the top of the press. As a result of giving up barbell presses in favor of dumbbells, I have noticed that my inner pectoral region is much fuller, enhancing the illusion of a pronounced line between the chest muscles. Overall, dumbbells seem to yield a much bigger bang for your buck in terms both providing the mass and shapely look that most weightlifters strive for in addition to minimizing the potential for injury.
When doing dumbbell presses for mass building, I avoid pausing and perform the reps in a 'piston-like' fashion. At the top of the movement, my hands move inward and I stop about four inches from locking out my arms, though I might not even reach this high when aiming more for mass building. While we’re on the subject of rep style, it is wise to switch the rep cadence based on your goals. However, you must keep in mind that the chest is designed for power, and to activate the greatest amount of fiber, you should perform with an explosive rep style the vast majority of the time. If you desire to place a greater emphasis on shaping, separation, and detail, simply slow down your tempo, changing the rep style to a more contractile type of exertion.
Some feel that bringing the dumbbells together to squeeze the chest at the top of a pressing movement aids in development, but I believe this to be counter-productive particularly when pressing for mass building. The strongest contraction occurs when the arms reach forward and the chest is in the shortened position. This means it is impossible to achieve this when pressing for mass because your shoulders should remain back and down against the bench to maximize power and fiber stimulation. While I do squeeze the chest at the top of a press on occasion, I do so when implementing a more contractile style of repetition, doing so for the purpose of pressing for more shape and separation.
Because the pectoral muscles bring the arms across the chest, you should find that tension has been reduced when the arms point straight up against the direct downward force of gravity when using free weights. You will feel the tension significantly increase as you bend the upper arms to bring the dumbbells back down to the starting position. For this reason, I find that dumbbells aren't the ideal tool to work the top half of the ROM when pressing. Conversely, machines put much more stress on the top half of the ROM than dumbbells and barbells, allowing for a much stronger contraction simply because most machines are designed to place tension at this portion of the press. As a side note, you might find it best to categorize your objectives into general models of mass building and shaping, relying on power style repetitions for mass building and utilizing more of a tension style of repetition through a fuller ROM for shaping.
Applying these tips should allow you to make leaps and bounds toward developing a pair of outstanding pectoral muscles. There is much more to it, however, as these tips are merely basic in nature. My passion to turn it into a strong point has moved me to search long and hard for the methods required to do so. The utilization of advanced techniques will be necessary if you ever expect to maximize your potential for size and development and turn your pectoral region into a treasure chest!