Do Barbell or Dumbbell Bench Presses Cause More Stress on the Shoulders?

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Barbell and dumbbell presses are both predominantly chest exercises, but also hit your triceps and shoulder muscles, particularly your anterior deltoids on the front of your shoulders. While both barbells and dumbbells can be used to build size and strength in these muscle groups, you may experience stress on your shoulder joints if you perform them incorrectly or have a pre-existing shoulder issue. Barbell presses, however, tend to carry a higher risk of shoulder strains.

Range of Motion

When you bench press with a barbell, your arms and shoulders are in a fixed position and move through a set range of motion. With a dumbbell press, however, you can alter the movement pattern slightly and your shoulders move much more freely. As you can't vary the range of motion with a barbell press, due to this fixed position, it means you're stuck with an uncomfortable range of motion if you experience pain. When dumbbell pressing though, you can externally or internally rotate your shoulders or bring the dumbbells lower down or higher up your body to find a more comfortable range of motion. If you're suffering from shoulder pain or an injury, replace all your barbell presses with dumbbell ones.

Safer Bench Press Technique

Bench presses may cause more shoulder stress than dumbbell presses, but that doesn't mean you need to eliminate them entirely. Powerlifter and corrective-exercise specialist Mike Robertson recommends keeping your elbows tucked in when bench pressing. Letting your elbows flare out puts your shoulders at a much higher risk of of a strain. You shouldn't let the bar touch too high on your chest either, notes Robertson -- aim to make contact with the bar on your chest just below your nipple line.

Personal Considerations

The idea that bench pressing will destroy your shoulders is a myth, according to strength coach Eric Cressey. Having too much or too little upper-body flexibility, along with having an unbalanced training program and using poor technique, will make bench pressing a poor choice for you. Bench pressing is overly problematic when you have underlying mobility issues, such as a previous rotator cuff injury, impingement or a frozen shoulder.

Training Program and Considerations

The key to keeping your shoulders healthy is to switch between different types of presses, advises trainer Charles Poliquin. Switch from dumbbells to barbells every six workouts. If you train your chest twice a week, then perform bench presses for three weeks, then change to dumbbell presses for six weeks. Start with three to four sets of eight to 12 repetitions in workout one and aim to add weight or reps each session, before switching to dumbbell bench presses in workout seven. Combine these with other chest moves such as push-ups and dips. You can also try setting your bench on an incline or decline for either exercise to target the upper and lower chest more and to see if either variation feels easier on your shoulder. If you do find either bench presses or dumbbell presses cause excess stress on your shoulders, consult your doctor or physio therapist.