No bench? No problem.
In this article I will show you the three best dumbbell chest exercises for muscle building that you can do at home even if you don’t have a weight bench.
Instructional videos & a sample bench-free chest workout included.
3 best dumbbell chest exercises without a bench
- Dumbbell chest press
- Dumbbell fly
- Dumbbell pullover
5 best weight bench alternatives
- Swiss/Stability ball
- Portable cooler/ice chest/clothes chest
- Low coffee table/end table
- Firm cushions
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
Later in the article we’ll look at performing these individual exercises in detail, including video tips on form and maximizing your chest activation without a bench.
And I’ll also share a complete “no bench” dumbbell chest workout designed for muscle gains.
Next I want to discuss important points about these top 3 dumbbell chest-building exercises, and tell you about 5 household items that you can use as weight bench alternatives to perform them.
3 essential bodybuilding chest exercises
We can enjoy the beauty of plain, simple, & powerful here.
If muscle building is your goal for your chest, you don’t need to perform a long list of exercises to achieve your goal.
Dozens of male & female bodybuilding and physique champions from days gone by relied on just a few tried & true exercises for each of their major muscle groups during the muscle building phase of their training cycles.
Why should we try & reinvent the wheel here?
And these three exercises – the press, fly, & pullover – have been essential staples of muscle building for the chest since long before I started seriously weightlifting in 1982.
I remember religiously reading the workout routines of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank Zane, Cory Everson, Rachel McLish and others that Joe Weider was publishing in his magazine & training books back then.
And the chest press, chest fly, & dumbbell pullover were always at the core of their chest workouts.
So you’re in excellent company with your “bench-less” dumbbell chest routine built on these three pillar exercises.
Using your dumbbells for the chest press, fly, & pullover exercises will work great for you as long as you maintain good form and perform your reps in a slow & controlled fashion.
In a perfect world you’ll have a pair of adjustable dumbbells or a few pairs of regular dumbbells of various weights.
This is because you’ll likely:
1. be stronger with your dumbbell chest press than with your dumbbell fly,
2. be able to do a dumbbell pullover with more weight than what either your press or fly dumbbells weigh.
If you find that you’re easily blowing past 12 reps for a particular exercise, then you’re too strong for that pair and need something heavier.
5 weight bench alternatives
So what can we use around the house to help us with our chest workout if we don’t have a bench? Here again are 5 alternatives:
- the floor
- a camping cooler/ice chest/clothes chest
- a low coffee or end table
- firm cushions or pillows
- a Swiss/stability ball
All three of our dumbbell chest exercises can be performed with any of these 5 weight bench alternatives, with the exception being that you can’t do a dumbbell pullover on the floor – you need some elevation for your body.
1. The floor
The floor works great for both the dumbbell chest press and the dumbbell chest fly, as you’ll see in the videos I have later on.
Floor chest press range of motion
On the floor the range of motion is stopped a little short during the dumbbell chest press, but you can make up for that by:
- going slower when you lower the weight
- pausing at the bottom, keeping your upper arms just a hair above the floor as you do
Floor dumbbell fly
Your range of motion being cut a little short during the dumbbell fly exercise is actually a real good thing.
While doing flys on a bench, too many people over-stretch their shoulders by dropping the weight and their elbows way below what is safe.
That’s just asking for shoulder soreness that can eventually put a bugaboo in your entire workout program.
So let the floor stop your range of motion; no worries there.
You can also increase the chest activation during the fly by squeezing your pecs together when your dumbbells meet at the top of the motion.
No floor pullover
As mentioned, you can’t do a pullover on the floor.
You need to elevate your laid-out torso for the pullover since you’re lowering the weight down behind your head and need some clearance.
Any of the weight bench alternatives I mentioned will work, and an armless chair will work as well.
2. Cooler / ice chest / clothes chest
Any kind of a box-shaped item that’s sturdy enough to support the weight of you & your dumbbells will work great for all three of these dumbbell chest exercises.
A towel or two is nice to provide a little padding.
Ideally, the box isn’t so wide that it stops the range of motion in your elbows during the dumbbell chest press.
If it does, you may as well use the floor since it’s the more stable of the two surfaces.
3. Coffee table / end table
Low elevated coffee & end tables, outdoor patio tables, etc. can work, but you’ll need a sturdy one here for sure.
The top of the table may be solid enough to support your weight but it’s often the legs that can give out.
4. Couch cushions / firm pillows
Cushions & pillows that aren’t too squishy can elevate your body enough to perform all of these dumbbell chest exercises.
Stiff cushions – like the kind used for outdoor patio furniture – work well at supporting your torso without having too much “give” to them.
5. Swiss/stability ball
If you happen to have one, a Swiss ball is a great “non-bench” option for these dumbbell chest exercises.
The round shape and air cushion is comfy and also helps engage your core as you use your hips & legs to stabilize yourself during the exercises.
I was poking around on Amazon and saw popular models like this one that only cost in the neighborhood of 20-25 bucks.
If you plan to get one, be sure to get the right size for your height:
4’11” – 5’4” 55cm
5’5” – 5’11” 65cm
6’ – 6’7” 75cm
You just need the upper body support
With all of these weight bench alternatives except the floor, you’ll be using your legs and hips in a bridge kind of position, while the cooler/table/cushions/Swiss ball supports your upper body.
For the floor you just lay down, bend your knees, and bring your feet towards you a little.
And so in summary, you can see how easy it is to use something else in your home if you don’t have a weight bench.
And all 3 of these dumbbell chest exercises can give you great muscle building results without one.
Let’s get into them right now.
Top 3 dumbbell chest exercises
Here we’ll look at each of these dumbbell chest exercises in detail.
There’ll be video demonstrations showing how to perform them on the floor as well as while using one of the weight bench alternatives we just looked at.
Dumbbell Chest Press
On the floor
Here’s how to perform the dumbbell chest press on the floor, courtesy of T-Nation.
Note the 45 degree angle of the arms & dumbbells.
This position is much better for your shoulder joints than bringing the dumbbells way back in line with your neck.
(By the way, I wrote a detailed article here on heydayDo on the dumbbell floor press, including a guide on correct setup, a how-to instructional video, and discussion of its several benefits.)
On a Swiss ball
Great demonstration & tutorial here from Scott Herman.
It’s important to keep that strong bridge position with your hips & legs that I talked about earlier.
It’s good for your core and it stabilizes you during the exercise.
Note also how he gets on the ball and walks out his feet to the proper body position.
On a camping cooler
Nice video from The Buff Dudes putting an ordinary household item to use in a chest building workout.
(The dumbbell chest press section runs from 0:22 – 0:57. This link here should take you to that spot.)
On the floor
Here pro athlete trainer Jeff Cavaliere demonstrates the dumbbell floor fly and teaches you how to get more out of the exercise too.
(The dumbbell floor fly tutorial runs from 4:33 – 5:40.This link here should take you to that spot in the vid.)
On a Swiss ball
Using the stability ball again, this time for the dumbbell fly.
Note how she walks out her feet and sets up her legs & hips the same way as in the previous Swiss ball video.
On a cooler
The Buff Dudes guy uses the narrow side of the cooler and drops his hips below his waist to accentuate the stretch and the range of motion.
His point about concentrating on your chest muscles during this exercise is a good one.
(The dumbbell pullover demonstration runs from 2:35 – 3:18. This link here should take you right to that spot in the vid.)
On a stability ball
This video only shows like 3 reps’ worth of the dumbbell pullover on a Swiss ball, but it was the only pullover video using a ball that I thought was worth sharing with you.
The guy is already in position with his legs & hips bridged when they start the video.
But you know how to get there from having seen the two previous dumbbell exercises using a stability ball.
On a …bench (?!)
I almost feel like I’m cheating by using a tutorial video where the bench is being used.
However, I sincerely believe Jeff Cavaliere passes along some heap big knowledge that can be applied to any dumbbell pullover you do, regardless of what you use to perform it on.
He gives a couple of real good tips on form to make sure you’re activating your chest muscles as much as possible while doing this exercise.
(The dumbbell pullover section runs from 3:31 – 4:32. This link here should take you right to that spot.)
A no-bench dumbbell chest workout
Alright alright alright…it’s my favorite part of the show: workout time.
The volume (sets & reps scheme) I’m dialing up with this workout makes it ideal for use in any training schedule where you’re working all of your major muscle groups twice a week.
I follow ACSM strength training guidelines
This workout’s choice of exercises, volume, order of the exercises, & training frequency is based on the principles recommended in the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) Guidelines for Resistance Training.
5-10 minute dynamic stretching/flexibility warmup
Dumbbell Chest Press 4 sets x 8-12 reps
Dumbbell Flys 3 sets x 8-12 reps
Dumbbell Pullovers 3 sets x 8-12 reps
Dumbbell Push Ups* 1 set to failure
It’s great to close a chest workout with a set of push ups to failure, and doing them with dumbbells is a nice way to wrap up a dumbbell chest workout too.
For any of you whose wrists squawk at you while doing regular pushups or other pressing exercises, being able to grip the dumbbells during the push up is a big help in that regard.
*If you’re unsure how to do dumbbell push ups, here’s a clear & brief instructional video.
It shows both the standard version and the easy version, for those of you whose upper body strength can’t do regular push ups yet.
Related dumbbell workouts & exercises here on heydayDo
I hope my article on performing dumbbell chest exercises without a bench is helpful to you, and that the workout I designed is useful too.
I wish you well on your fitness journey; let’s go.