With my new workout, my trainer has kept a whole day for the chest. Before this I used to decline dumbbell press and do incline smith bench press.

Current workout has, Decline, Flat and Incline presses with Fly on machine.

My question is how to decide between dumbbells, barbell and smith machine. What I have heard till now is dumbbells offer more range of motion and barbells allow lifting more weight, while the smith machine is useless and one should avoid it.

Is it true? Does Smith machine leave out shoulders altogether? Can doing flat bench press be troublesome for the shoulders?

There is this video which gives tips to bench press and states to keep your traps tight to take the load off shoulder, is that correct? Should I apply it all all my chest workouts? (tip 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LaFVV3y-Fr8)

  • Yes, you should use all of them. However after ripping my rotor cuff, I never did flat bench with anything else but dumbbells. However I did a lot of incline barbell, which made my shoulders freakish. And incline benching 275 for reps as a bodybuilder was impressive among my peers :) Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 14:17

4 Answers 4


In order to understand how to pick the implements, you need to know what they are doing for you. I'll rank the implements in order of difficulty--assuming you have the same total weight, they will feel progressively less difficult:

  1. Kettlebells (KB): Because each hand is loaded separately, you have to work harder to stabilize the KB. Additionally, the KB works the forearms more as you have to work to keep your wrists straight. KBs will force your chest to work harder as the weight wants to pull your arms apart more.
  2. Dumbbells (DB): Has all the challenges of KB, but without the uneven loading of your hands. Your chest is still challenged, and the even loading of the DBs only affects this aspect a little bit. Because you can load this a bit heavier than KBs, you'll find this really the best option for truly working the chest.
  3. Barbell (BB): The barbell loads both arms at the same time, so the chest doesn't have to work as hard to stabilize the bar. Additionally, if you have a dominant arm, it will be doing a bit more work than the non-dominant arm--ensuring it stays dominant. The chest is worked, but to a lesser degree because it is keeping the bar as a whole centered over your chest.
  4. Smith or Bench Machine: The smith machine takes out the stabilization work of even what the BB forces you to do. In essence the only way to hit your chest is to play with the arm placement until you feel it. If your goal is to work the chest, this will be the least effective tool. If your goal is to work the triceps, this will be the most effective tool (for bench or overhead press variations).

There are many variations of pressing, and the specific recommendations for good form vary for each one as well as for your emphasis. However, there are some common guidelines that apply in each case:

  • Tightness: The more stable you can make your body, the more effective you make the exercise. You'll be able to lift more, and work longer. For bench press, you want to make sure your shoulders and hips are in contact with the bench at all times. Whether you worry about an arch or leg drive or not really depends on whether you are aiming for the heaviest bench you can do or you are just trying to get work in. The guy in the video you linked to talked about engaging your lats to keep the shoulders tight. That provides a more stable base to bench from.
  • Power Path: Gravity pulls the bar straight down, so you want your elbows under the bar. Your hand placement will determine where on your chest the bar comes in contact, as long as the line drawn from the bar through your elbows is perpendicular to the floor. If the elbows are in front of the bar or behind the bar you are losing power. NOTE: You'll probably find that the bar will hit the chest around the nipple line, and finish over the shoulders. This is not what your video was referring to when he said don't press into the rack. Finish the rep in the power position, then rack the bar.
  • Shoulders: Raising your shoulders is a good way to tear your rotator cuff. It destabilizes your shoulder and places it in danger. It also makes your base less stable, violating the first bullet point. Keep the shoulders packed in a neutral position (i.e. by engaging the lats). That lets you use the larger muscles that were intended to handle heavier weights to lift rather than the small rotator cuffs.
  • Hand Position: The exact placement is going to be a personal thing, but it should be the position you get the most benefit from. If you are trying to hit your chest, experiment to find what hand position you feel it in your chest most. Contrary to popular recommendations, I found better chest involvement with a closer grip. If your goal is to work with heavier weights, you need to find the position you feel strongest with. For me this was with a slightly wider grip.

Grip recommendations are also a very personal thing. A false (AKA suicide) grip allows you to get your hands positioned wider, but becomes dangerous when you are getting more fatigued. If the bar slips out of your hand, you better have some safeties to protect your chest or you will have some very serious injuries (broken ribs, crushed lung, etc.). A thumbs around grip is more stable, but you won't be able to bench as wide. I personally prefer a thumbs around grip, and still bench in a rack with safeties.

You'll find a couple methods of DB benching: palms facing each other, and arms open (as if the DBs were forming a complete bar). Some people start with the DBs with arms open and then turn them so the palms are facing at the end. In either case, you still need to protect your shoulders, so don't raise them during the lift.

  • This is really good. Do you have a degree in a sports-related major? Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 1:44
  • No, I just have experience as a power lifter, and I'm pretty well read. The four recommendations are an amalgamation of different sources from guys who can bench what I deadlift as well as body builders, and others who actually do have a degree in a sports-related major. Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 11:26
  • Ah.....okay; that's still very impressive. Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 12:54
  • Thanks for all the information, I will try and use most of it in my next chest workout! Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 14:00

The reason the Smiths Machine is the least effective is because the machine stabalises the bar for you. The chest press works your chest, shoulders and Triceps. chest Press with Barbell and dumbbells will also recruit many other stabalising muscles. The barbells need the most stabalising as you can imagine.

The Smiths machine will still work your shoulders, but for the above reason dumbbells or barbell may be a better choice.

I haven't heard that doing chest press flat would be troublesome to shoulders, providing your tecnique is correct.

I also haven't heard about the technique for keeping traps tight, but this exercise is for your chest and shoulders, so there seems little point in using the traps to take the weight off of a muscle you are trying to work. Just add another exercise for traps if you want to work those too

  • 1
    One should add that using dumbbells forces you to use both arms equally, which avoids muscle imbalances.
    – user8119
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 11:54

The answer is, "Yes."

You should use all of the above.

The biggest mistake people make when training is assuming one technique is better than another. In reality, it's typically the combination of different techniques that yields the best results. For example, my experience as a fitness trainer was that someone who rotated between dumbbell, barbell, and smith machine would have far more success increasing strength and building muscle than someone who simply focused on one.

Each has trade-offs. A beginner or someone training without a spotter may want to use the Smith machine. It is the most stable solution and many models are self-spotting. The trade-off is that it locks you into an unnatural range of motion.

The barbell is a free weight but as a bilateral movement requires less stabilization than the dumbbells. You can typically load a heavier weight and experiment with various grips. The exercise will focus on the core movement of pressing the weight, unlike the dumbbells that require far more stabilization and coordination/balance.

The dumbbells work well and will involve different muscles. You are likely to engage your core more to maintain balance and stability and typically involve more shoulder as well.

No matter what you do, I HIGHLY recommend hiring a trainer even if just for a single session to train proper form. You can read and watch all of the videos you like, but there is no substitute for someone there who can evaluate your level of fitness and watch your form and provide feedback. I strongly urge this because if you guess and try to do your best there is a chance you could be doing it wrong and creating a bad habit that can set you up for injury later. As for the technique, it is important to learn proper benching technique including how to engage your scapulae because failure to stabilize correctly can lead to rotator cuff injury.

  • I used all three for my last workout, decline with a barbell, flat on the smith and incline with dumbbells, clearly I was able to lift a lot of weight on the smith. But out of the three, barbell bench press felt the most engaging to the chest. Personal trainers are very expensive but there are other trainers around the gym that help me out, I will make sure to ask one to correct my form, thought I hope I am doing it right. Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 14:05

You've been given an extensive answer above.

Since your goal is to spend the least time to achieve the best results, the suggestion will be to alternate between the barbell and dumbbells, starting with the dumbbell.

Starting with the dumbbell prepares your arms' co-ordination. Also, if you get tired during a rep, it would be easier for you to drop them individually.

As you get stronger, you can incorporate barbell into your workout. Why barbell? Well, it's the indisputable king of weight equipment. You need barbells to increase the intensity of the workout. Although the risk of injuring yourself is higher, you'll obtain more bang for your time.

Kettle-bells should be incorporated last into your workout. Because of the uneven placement of the weight (compared to dumbbells and barbells), you'll expend more energy for the same level of weight. If you start with this equipment and can handle large weights with it (without quitting the program), this should provide you the best results on your forearms and comparable results on your chest.

Smith machine? Don't waste your time on it (unless the others are not available, in which case it might be time to subscribe to another gym). The benefits of free weights over machines are numerous and highlighted all over the Internet: here, here, and here are just examples.

Now go burn some goo :).

  • While you give a strict no to smith machine, others said to try all three. Right now I am doing flat press on the smith, I will give it a try with the barbell next week. :) The thing is smith machine sort of feels safe, if you put a little bit more weight on barbells I need someones help to stack it back after last tight reps, and if that someone is not present it feels a bit dangerous. Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 14:13
  • @PrakashWadhwani Yeah, that's the main pro to smith machine: safety. But again, if your goal is to obtain as much result in a shorter amount of time, you want to focus on free weights. Free weights are safe as long as they are done right. Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 14:16

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