MVP Level Up: 6 Dumbbell Bench Press Progressions for More Gains

When it comes time to train your chest, the prevailing gym rat wisdom is to hit the bench.

The bench press is a classic for a reason: it works, both for building strength and muscle. But there’s more to benching then slapping a ton of weight onto a barbell and pushing for your life. Using dumbbells, for instance, can be a more shoulder-safe option and friendlier for beginners. The implements allow you to work within a larger range of motion than with a barbell. As you progress, the dumbbell bench press also lends itself out to more variations, since you’re able to work unilaterally and switch up your positioning more readily.

Those progressions can be essential for your strength training program, especially if you don’t have access to a wide range of dumbbells or if you want to avoid the heaviest weights at the end of the rack due to issues like shoulder injuries. Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. has a whole war chest (pun intended) of dumbbell bench press variations to help make your chest training more difficult, challenging, and fun without maxing out.

Work your way up through these progressions, only moving on to the next when you feel comfortable completing every rep. Once you master them all, you can stack several of them together for a killer chest challenge.

MVP Level Up: Dumbbell Press

Level 1: Dumbbell Press

4 sets of 10 to 12 reps

First, make sure that you have the basics down pat. Lie back on the bench, making sure your feet are flat on the ground and your glutes and abs are engaged. Drive your shoulders into the bench to create tension in your back, pressing the weight straight up with both hands. Avoid flaring your elbows out excessively when you bring the weight back down to your chest; aim for a 45-degree angle to your torso. Once you can comfortably perform the prescribed reps, move to the next progression.

Level 2: Incline Dumbbell Press

3 sets of 8 to 10 reps

Start by adjusting your bench to an incline position, between 30 and 45 degrees (if you don’t have access to an adjustable bench, go straight to Level 3). Maintain the same basic setup as the flat bench press, but allow the angle to help you work through a wider range of motion at the bottom of the lift.

Level 3: Alternating Incline Press

3 sets of 8 to 10 reps

Now, we bring the core more into the equation by introducing a unilateral element to the exercise. Start by pressing the weight up with both hands, then alternate lowering one side down at a time, while keeping the opposite arm extended up. Pay attention to bracing your core to keep your movements from shifting your torso around on the bench as you lower the weight to each side.

Level 4: Double-Explode Single-Arm Press

3 sets of 10 to 12 reps per side

Level 4 brings some more principles into play, including introducing an eccentric focus to the movement. Ditch one of the weights to work with just one arm at a time (which will make that core challenge a constant through each round). Press the weight up with one arm, extending your non-working arm. Brace your core to keep your torso centered on the bench. Lower the weight down slowly, fighting to maintain proper position on the bench, then press up rapidly twice for one rep.

Level 5: Alternating Eccentric Press

3 sets of 8 to 10 reps

The next step uses some of the same principles as the previous ones—you’ll focus on building that eccentric time, alternating arms. Grab the dumbbell you put aside for Level 4 and press both up. Lower one arm for a slow three count, then hold for a count. Next, lower the other arm at the same rate. Once both are down, press up rapidly twice.

Level 6: Mixed-Style Incline Press

Perform 3 to 4 clusters of reps for 3 sets

For the final variation, you’ll be tasked with taxing your core even more as you press. Start again by pressing both arms up. Perform two reps on the left side, while keeping the right arm extended, then repeat the process on the right. Then, perform another two reps with both arms simultaneously.

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