Illustration of a man doing the dumbbell bench press exercise during his chest workout.

The Best Dumbbell Chest Exercises & Workout

You can bulk up your chest perfectly well with just dumbbells. In fact, you could make a strong argument that dumbbell chest exercises are better for your chest than the barbell, cable, and machine variations.

Our main Bony to Beastly Program heavily emphasizes dumbbells. Some of our best transformations come from guys working out at home with simple dumbbell home gyms. Dumbbells can be amazing for building muscle.

The trick is to choose exercises that train all the muscle fibres that fan across your chest, ideally while challenging them under a deep stretch. You can combine those exercises into a chest workout, or you could spread them out across the week.

A skinny guy building muscle. Illustrated by Shane Duquette for Outlift.

How to Train Your Chest Muscles

I made a diagram showing the best dumbbell exercises for each area of your chest. I’m not sure if you’re looking for a “Chest Day” or “Push Day” workout, where you train your shoulders and triceps along with your chest, so I’ve included those muscles as well.

Diagram showing which dumbbell exercises target the upper and lower chest muscles (pecs).
  • Mid and Lower Chest: Push-ups, dumbbell bench press, and dumbbell fly.
  • Upper Chest: Incline dumbbell bench press, push-ups, dumbbell overhead press, and front raise.
  • Serratus Anterior: Push-ups are perfect for the serratus.
  • Front Delts: Dumbbell overhead press, dumbbell bench press, and front raise.
  • Side Delts: Dumbbell overhead press and lateral raise.
  • Triceps: Dumbbell overhead triceps extensions and dumbbell skull crushers.

The first thing to notice is that most of the muscle fibres in your pecs attach to the middle of your chest (sternum). This is your largest and most powerful pushing muscle. Let’s start there.

The Best Dumbbell Chest Exercises

The best workouts usually start with the biggest exercises and then work their way smaller. Your mid-chest is the biggest area of your chest, and it benefits from big compound exercises like push-ups and dumbbell bench presses.

Diagram showing how the dumbbell bench press trains the chest through a deep range of motion.

The dumbbell bench press (tutorial video) is arguably the single best exercise for your chest, beating out even the mighty barbell bench press. The first reason it’s so powerful is that it trains your pecs with a deep range of motion, and the most challenging part of that range of motion is at the very bottom when your chest is maximally stretched. That’s ideal for building muscle (full explanation).

It gets better, kind of. The other advantage (and disadvantage) of the dumbbell bench press is that you need to hug the weights in as you push them up. This means that if you fully engaged your triceps, you’d throw the weights off to the side:

Diagram showing why the dumbbell bench press is a great exercise for people with stubborn pecs.

Since you can’t fully engage your triceps, your chest is forced to do more of the work. This makes the dumbbell bench press worse for your triceps but better for your chest, especially if it’s stubborn.

That brings us to the dumbbell fly (tutorial video). The fly is almost identical to the dumbbell bench press, just with help from your biceps instead of your triceps. The other difference is that you bring the dumbbells out wider, making the moment arm on your chest longer, and thus making the exercise even harder at the bottom of the range of motion (full explanation). That’s fantastic.

However, if your chest is already getting plenty of stimulation from push-ups and dumbbell bench presses, you don’t need the dumbbell fly. It doesn’t offer anything different. It’s an optional isolation exercise.

Or, if your dumbbells aren’t heavy enough for dumbbell bench presses, you can switch over to the dumbbell fly. You’ll get more out of less weight.

The Best Dumbbell Upper Chest Exercises

The section of pec fibres that attach to your collarbones is called your upper chest. It’s much smaller than your mid and lower chest, but developing it will help give you a nice upper chest “shelf.” You can’t store anything on it, but it makes for a nice decoration.

Illustration showing a man doing push-ups to build bigger shoulders.

Most exercises that train your mid-chest also train your upper chest. Push-ups are especially good because your elbows are tucked in close, lining up well with your upper chest fibres (push-up tutorial video).

It usually helps to include an upper chest exercise later in your workout. Dumbbell overhead presses can be good for that. So can dumbbell front raises. But if you have an incline bench, the dumbbell incline bench press (tutorial video) tends to make for the best default. If you don’t have an incline bench, try decline push-ups (with your feet raised).

The Best Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

Your front delts work along with your chest muscles to hug your arms in and up. If you’ve already trained your mid and upper chest, you’ve already trained your front delts. But that doesn’t mean you’ve worked them hard enough to stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth.

Dumbbell overhead presses are fantastic for your front delts. They also work your upper chest and side delts hard enough to stimulate a little muscle growth. And they can be pretty good for your abs, upper traps, and serratus muscles, too, making them one of the best lifts for stimulating overall muscle growth.

There are a few different ways to do the dumbbell overhead press. It’s common for people to do them seated, bringing their elbows out to the sides. We recommend doing them standing, bringing your elbows down in front. It’s a more athletic way of doing the exercise, you’ll stimulate more full-body muscle growth, and you’ll work your shoulders through a deeper range of motion.

Here’s Marco teaching a 1-arm dumbbell overhead press. That makes for a great default. If that range of motion is tough on your shoulders, try doing them kneeling (tutorial video). If you’re confident with your technique, you can try doing them more explosively (tutorial video).

Lateral raises are great for your side delts. You can train them along with your chest if you want. Rear delts are a pulling muscle, so we’ve included those exercises in our article on dumbbell back exercises.

The Best Dumbbell Triceps Exercises

It’s common for people to train their triceps along with their chest. That’s especially important when you’re using dumbbells. Dumbbell pressing exercises don’t work your triceps as hard as barbell exercises. Push-ups can somewhat make up for that, but your triceps will still lag if you don’t include triceps extensions.

Fortunately, dumbbell triceps exercises are ideal for building muscle (tutorial video). The dumbbell overhead triceps extension is fantastic. It challenges your triceps under a huge stretch, stimulating a ton of muscle growth in all 3 heads. If overhead extensions are too hard on your elbows, you can do dumbbell skull crushers instead.

Don’t Forget Your Serratus Anterior!

The serratus anterior is the oft-forgotten muscle underneath your armpits. It’s surprisingly large—almost as big as your lats—and incredibly important. It helps to keep your shoulder joints stable and healthy. I suspect it also pushes the shoulders out a bit wider, making them broader.

The best exercises for your serratus are the ones that don’t keep your shoulder blades tucked back. Most people bench with tucked shoulder blades (which is fine), preventing their serratus from being stimulated properly.

To work your serratus, I recommend including some push-ups and overhead pressing in your routine. Goblet squats can also help.

The Dumbbell Chest Workout

If you’re a beginner, I recommend following a 3-day full-body workout plan. You’d include a couple of chest exercises in each of those full-body workouts, keeping your chest growing steadily all week long. We’ve got a beginner full-body workout guide here. You can do the full routine with just dumbbells.

If you already know how to lift weights and full-body workouts are becoming too difficult, you can split your body into different muscle groups, doing a 4-day or even 5-day workout split.

If you’re packing all your chest exercises into a “Chest Day” workout, it might look something like this:

ExerciseSetsRep Range
Dumbbell Bench Press3–5 sets8–12 reps
Decline Push-Ups3–4 setsAMRAP
Dumbbell Overhead Press3–4 sets8–15 reps
Overhead Triceps Extensions2–3 sets8–15 reps
Lateral Raises2–3 sets10–20 reps
*AMRAP = As Many Reps As Possible

This is just a default workout routine, so feel free to swap out exercises for similar variations. That’s what the earlier sections of the article are for.

I recommend doing these workouts twice per week, training quite hard, and getting almost enough rest between sets. That might mean doing these workouts every Monday and Thursday, stopping 0–2 reps shy of failure and resting 1.5–2 minutes between each set.

You’re free to modify the routine as you see fit. If you want to learn more about how to program workouts for muscle growth, we have a full article on hypertrophy training.

The Bony to Bony to Beastly Dumbbell Workout Program.

Alright, that’s it for now. If you want more muscle-building information, we have a muscle-building newsletterIf you want us to walk you through the entire process of building muscle, check out our Bony to Beastly Program. It includes a 5-month dumbbell workout routine, diet guide, recipe book, tutorial videos for every exercise, and one-on-one support from us in our online community.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell. He's a certified conditioning coach with a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained 70 pounds and has over a decade of experience helping over 10,000 skinny people bulk up.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

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  1. Sebastian on December 12, 2023 at 12:38 pm

    Awesome! Pushdays are in my opinion the only workout which can be done with dumbbells equal effective and even more time efficient than with barbells and maschines. You are only at disadvantage if you want to go real heavy at low rep ranges.

    • Shane Duquette on December 12, 2023 at 1:26 pm

      Yeah, dumbbells aren’t as good for heavier strength training, but they’re great for hypertrophy and general strength.

      I agree about Push Days, too, especially if we’re talking about a Push/Pull/Legs Split. If you’re doing it the Bro Split way, you can have awesome Shoulder Days and Arm Days with dumbbells.

  2. Sebastian on December 12, 2023 at 3:06 pm

    I agree on the bro splits. From the outside look competive bodybuilders use way more dumbbells than barbells, so makes totally sense.

    • Shane Duquette on December 12, 2023 at 4:37 pm

      Totally! Barbells can also be a bit hard on the joints and tendons. That isn’t a problem if you aren’t training that intensely. Your joints and tendons will recover. They’ll grow back stronger and tougher. But if you’re a bodybuilder training 2+ hours every day, you need to be really careful about that extra stress. So you get bodybuilders favouring dumbbells, cables, and exercise machines.

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