In this video we take a deep dive in the differences between the barbell bench, dumbbell bench, and smith machine bench press.
The first thing we examine is the difference in muscle activation between the different modalities of bench press. The first article, from 2017, showed that there was a difference in muscle activation depending on which modality you used. The dumbbells activated the chest and biceps a bit more, the barbell activated the triceps a bit more, and the smith machine activated the front deltoid a bit more. The second article was from 2016, which showed little difference between the flat variation of barbell and smith machine bench press. As the angle of the press changes, the muscle activation changed as well, but that is outside of the scope of this video. As a tie breaker, I looked at an older article from 2010 which showed a difference in muscle activation pattern between the dumbbell, barbell, and smith machine bench press. The dumbbells recruited the biceps the most, the barbell bench recruited them the second most, and the smith machine recruited them the least.
What do these muscle activation studies mean for you? Well, unless you’re going into the gym and ONLY doing one variation of press for your entire upper body, it means very little. In a complete program, these minor difference might be interesting, but probably not a deciding factor if you’re doing things like barbell rows, curls, etc.
What I believe DOES make a difference in exercise selection between these 3 modalities of bench press are as follows.
Safety. You need to feel safe when you bench press. If you’re a solo lifter and you simply wont progress on a free weight machine, then you’re probably better off using a smith machine instead of nothing.
Pain. If one of these presses cause a great deal of pain, you need to pick the pain free option until you figure out what’s going on with your underlying pain. In my experience a neutral grip, dumbbell bench press tends to help people build pressing strength in a pain free way.
Range of motion. Some people who are very big up top tend to miss out on valuable range of motion if all they do is the barbell bench press. You can get the additional range of motion by using dumbbells because you aren’t limited by the circumference of your chest.
Again guys I think each of these modalities of bench press, the smith machine, barbell and dumbbell bench press, could serve a purpose in your lifting routine. That being said, I bias towards free weights, and I use a combination of barbells and dumbbells for my bench pressing to get the benefits of range of motion and overload that each of the modalities offer.