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Some of my best chest development came from heavy dumbbell presses of every kind: flat, incline, decline, superset and giant set. Not one offseason workout goes by that I don’t include at least one of them.
For total chest development, you need a variety of movements, angles and stresses from free weights, machines and cables, but mass is best maximized by means of a barbell and dumbbells. The former distributes stress over the entire chest area, enhancing the chest’s shoulder tie-ins, symmetry of right and left pecs, and the coordinated strength of the lats, shoulders and pecs, all of which accrue to maximum strength; more strength means bigger muscles.
As a bodybuilder, though, you need more. All of the muscle bellies in each bodypart must also be developed individually to their maximum size and shape, but this can be accomplished only if they are totally fatigued individually. In the chest, this means the right and left pec complexes must be fatigued independently of each other, yet equally.
That’s where dumbbell presses come in. You can leverage your body and cheat during a barbell press, but dumbbell presses keep your pecs honest. One pec cannot help the other lift its weight. They’re on their own, but being on their own does not mean they can act on their own. They’re a balanced team, and if they don’t perform as such, you won’t be able to press either of the dumbbells or, worse, you’ll lose balance and tear a muscle.
In a dumbbell press, each dumbbell concentrates all of its poundage into its respective pectoralis complex more comprehensively than a barbell, a machine or cables. With a barbell, one pec robs some of that isolated stress from the other; a machine isolates that stress through a narrow plane of the pecs; and cables sacrifice the mass-building advantages of progressive resistance (and a higher maximum-resistance point) inherent with free weights, for consistent resistance.
My three most hallowed training principles are (1) to use the most weight possible, (2) with the most correct form, (3) through a full range of motion. Nothing comes closer to satisfying all of these criteria than dumbbell presses. The freedom of movement with dumbbells allows them to be lowered farther than a barbell and, as they are brought together at the top, the pecs can be more powerfully smashed against each other like a vise, popping them upward into higher peaks than any other movement can produce. The higher those peaks, the deeper the hardness of each pec.
With dumbbell presses, the maximized combination of these principles can also be applied through different angles, which develops strength and size in a vast array of upper-body muscles: An incline hits more of the shoulder complex, and a decline directly works the lower pecs, triceps and upper lats.
In other words, the possibilities are endless; I use them all. In one workout, I might do straight sets of flat dumbbell presses with 200-pounders and, in the next, I might superset them, inclined, with dips, pushups, cable crossovers or dumbbell flyes. Every which way, dumbbell presses work. Just make sure you get a total stretch at the bottom; then, by “pulling” your pecs together, power them all the way to the top and squee-ee-eeze hard!