True or False: Dumbbell Chest Presses Result in Greater Muscle Activation than Barbell Press

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True or False: Using Dumbbells Result in a More Muscle Activation than a Bench Press

By: Robbie Durand

Most lifters will choose a dumbbell bench press over the barbell bench press due to it’s greater muscle activation of the chest.  It’s common knowledge that training on an unstable service will result in greater muscle activation than on a stable surface.  This is due to one has to balance themselves which requires greater muscle activation than on a stable surface. The problem with this is that you usually have to use a much lighter weight when using a dumbbell press compared with a bench press.  So what happens if you had subject’s train with maximal weight in the bench press and dumbbell press? Would there be a difference in muscle activation of the chest with maximal weights being used despite the different surfaces trained on and different joint stability exercises?

Norwegian researchers got twelve trained male students to do bench presses at maximal weight:

-a barbell, bench presses

– Smith machine bench press, and

-dumbbell presses,

iStock_000043834522_SmallAt the end of the study, when the researchers analyzed the data collected from the electrodes that were placed all over the subject’s chest, arms, and shoulders they were shocked.  The load lifted with the free barbell was slightly (~3%) higher than with the Smith machine.  To the researcher’s surprise, there was no difference in the activation of the chest and shoulder muscle when all three exercises were performed with maximal weight, but there were differences in other muscles activated. At the same time, the dumbbell chest press activated the triceps less than the other two exercises did. This is probably attributable to the increased stabilization demands for this exercise to maintain the integrity of the joint.

Key points: So if your using a maximal weight, there does not seem to be a difference in muscle activation between the three exercises.  Don’t get too caught up in the exercises that may be superior for muscle growth than others.  A key point in the study was that with maximal load, there was no difference in the chest activation of the three lifts, but different muscle activation in the arms.

Saeterbakken AH, van den Tillaar R, Fimland MS. A comparison of muscle activity and 1-RM strength of three chest-press exercises with different stability requirements. J Sports Sci. 2011 Mar;29(5):533-8.