There’s a reason why the bench press is one of the “big three” strength exercises (along with the squat and deadlift): It not only nails one of the body’s largest muscle groups (the pecs), but also hits two key upper-body movers and shakers (the triceps and shoulders). And if you trade the barbell for a pair of dumbbells, as you will in the bench press variation on this page, you’ll add an element of instability that will increase muscle activation throughout your core. Ready to give it a try? Here’s how to perform it with perfect form.
Target muscles: Chest, as well as the triceps, shoulders, and core.
How to do it: Lie on a flat bench holding a pair of dumbbells directly above your chest with your palms facing forward. Your head, upper back, and butt should touch the bench, and your feet should be flat on the floor. Slowly lower the weights to the sides of your chest, keeping your elbows close to your body (not flared). Pause, and then push the weights back up to the starting position.
Make it easier: Use lighter weights, or ditch the bench and perform the push-up.
Make it harder: Use heavier weights, or perform the alternating dumbbell bench press (lowering one arm at a time) or the single-arm dumbbell bench press, using a single dumbbell to work one side of your body at a time.
Bonus tips: Keep your upper arms at a 45-degree angle to your body as you lower the weights. Doing so will reduce the stress on your shoulders. (Flaring your elbows—the most common mistake people make when performing the bench press—has the opposite effect.) Similarly, don’t arch your back as you press the weights up (it will increase the stress on your spine). Instead, actively press your back into the bench and keep your abs drawn in.