When you want to pit your brute strength against another man or woman, you aren't going to the gym to see who can do more lunges. Instead, it devolves into a shoving match, a bench press showdown.

Strong humans waged such contests for millennia in battlefields, gyms, military bases and elsewhere. To paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy: "You know you're a redneck if you've had a bench-pressing competition in your driveway or backyard."

Today we use stages and strongmen contests, flex-offs and street fights. Regardless of the competition setting, the goal is to win, right? Are you better served using a barbell, dumbbells or the Smith Machine?

Set aside preconceived notions and consider this strength issue from all sides and angles. You need the help. If you were content with your pectoral development and bench press prowess, you wouldn't read this article, would you?

Let's break this down category by category, and see how these iron-trade tools stack up in a pec-to-pec comparison.

Assess Strength Factor

You gain strength if you progressively lift more and more weight over time. If you can't lift more, something is terribly wrong. You may be lifting too fancy. You can perform advanced techniques like supersets, drop sets and forced sets, but you need to continually add more weight to the bar to become stronger.

Which of our three lifts works best for strength? In a study published in the Journal of Sports Science, researchers assessed the differences between the barbell, DBs and Mr. Smith. Twelve healthy males performed the three variations, resting 3-to-5 days between sessions.

When the study completed, the barbell loading weight was 3 percent higher than the Smith machine load, and the Smith machine was 14 percent higher than the dumbbell load. Subjects were able to lift 17 percent more weight at their one rep max using a barbell compared to a dumbbell.

The Smith machine has been criticized for locking the user into a certain position that could potentially raise the risk of injury. Keep in mind, this complaint is aimed at squats in the Smith machine rather than bench presses.

The study proves that most individuals can lift more weight by benching with a barbell. Take that route for maximum strength.

Advantage: Barbell

Chicks dig the long ball - and a man hoisting a loaded barbell over his chest.

Make Sure Both Sides Carry Equal Weight

Muscular imbalance is another key issue. Will a barbell-only workout regimen work? Not really. Barbell pressing masks muscular imbalances. The stronger side overcompensates for the weaker side and strength differences will grow.

If you chest press with dumbbells, you become aware of any strength mismatch, because one side will wobble or drop. Balanced body strength leads to superior performance and injury prevention in competitive sports. Even non-athletes need to consider strength imbalances and be concerned with long-term body stability.

Advantage: Dumbbells

Dumbbells are actually Einstein-smart for people like her.

A Symphony of Shred

You must make triceps a top priority if you want big guns. The triceps naturally contain more muscle mass than biceps, making triceps the primary upper-arm muscle.

Researchers noted the electrical activity (muscular activation) was greater in the triceps muscle when performing barbell chest presses compared to the dumbbells. The biceps came into play more when subjects performed the dumbbell lift compared to the barbell and Smith.

This determines which muscles to target when performing chest presses. Build triceps mass with barbells, but if you want bigger, stronger biceps, the dumbbell press gives you two tickets to paradise.

Note that researchers found no statistical difference in the electrical stimulation of the pectoralis muscle or the anterior deltoid across all three lifts. Whatever method you choose will not influence recruitment of chest and shoulder muscles.

Advantage Triceps: Barbell

Advantage Biceps: Dumbbell

Assessing Convenience Factors

If you exercise at home, use dumbbells, unless you have a bench press machine. A full set of barbells and weight plates is optimal.

Most people don't have Smith Machines available in their home gym. In a gym, however, the Smith machine conveniently lets you move a decent-sized load without the help of a spotter. Essentially, the hooks fill the spotter function.

Advantage Home: Barbell

Advantage Gym: Smith Machine

The Smith machine's name may be bland, but it offers a cornucopia of training opportunities.

The Final Verdict

There is no single, correct answer to the question. All modes have pros and cons, so it's important to take a good look at your individual situation and determine which is going to best meet your preferences and goals.

The body responds best to variability over time. Alternate lifts as weeks progress. Take advantage of the strengths of each; sidestep their limitations.

Attack chest and arm muscles with different methods to install movement patterns, promote further strength gains and help avoid plateaus. Be sure you consistently add more weight to the bar. Pay attention to proper form and discover what gives you the best results.

  1. Fimland, MS. Saeterbakken, AH, & Van Den Tillaar, R. (2011). A Comparison Of Muscle Activity And 1-RM Strength Of Three Chest-Press Exercises With Different Stability Requirements. Journal of Sports Science. Jan 7:1-6.

About the Author

Shannon Clark

Shannon Clark

Shannon Clark is a freelance health and fitness writer located in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

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