Learn the Neutral-Grip Dumbbell Press for More Shoulder-Friendly Benching

The bench press is perhaps the most iconic chest-building exercise out there. But there are many lifters who fall victim to shoulder pain with the traditional barbell bench press. Even if your shoulders can handle the prescribed path of the barbell, it may not be your best bet for isolating your pecs and triceps and minimizing shoulder recruitment. If the overhead press is one of your big lifts, it might be important for your recovery to keep your shoulders out of your horizontal presses as much as you can.

Credit: MDV Edwards / Shutterstock

Whatever your reasons for wanting to maximize the emphasis on your chest and triceps while letting your shoulders chill, the neutral-grip dumbbell press is a noteworthy bench press alternative. Because your palms are facing each other, it decreases the strain and stress on your shoulders. It can also help increase loading demands on your triceps and chest. The grip makes it an effective way to build your chest and overall upper body strength.

How to Do the Neutral Grip-Dumbbell Press

You perform the neutral-grip dumbbell press pretty much exactly like you do the dumbbell press. But, as the name suggests, you’ll rotate your hands into a neutral grip with your palms facing each other. This form tweak decreases the stress on your shoulders and increases the loading on your chest and triceps. 

Step 1 — Set Up the Lift

A person holds dumbbells above him on a bench.
Credit: J2FIT Strength & Conditioning on YouTube

Grab a pair of dumbbells, one in each hand. Sit down at the end of a bench. With the dumbbells resting on your thighs, lie back. Extend your arms to press the dumbbells up above your shoulders.

Coach’s Tip: Try to lie back and go into the press immediately. This will allow you to use some momentum to get the weights to the start position.

Step 2 — Lower the Weights

A person lowers dumbbells toward his chest with a neutral grip.
Credit: J2FIT Strength & Conditioning on YouTube

Lower the weights under control. Make sure to keep your elbows tucked into your body rather than flaring them out. Your elbows should be directly over your wrists. The dumbbells should touch the sides of your lower chest at the bottom.

Coach’s Tip: Don’t drop your elbows as far as they can possibly go to avoid overtaxing your shoulders. You can stop when the weights touch your chest slightly.

Step 3 — Press the Weights Upwards

A person completes a neutral-grip dumbbell press.
Credit: J2FIT Strength & Conditioning on YouTube

Push the weights upwards by extending your elbows. Make sure that your elbows do not flare out during the press. Keep your shoulders on the bench.

Coach’s Tip: Aim to feel this in your triceps and chest muscles. 

Benefits of the Neutral Grip-Dumbbell Press

Benching pressing with a neutral grip is a powerful way to build muscle. You’ll improve your pressing lockout strength. This move also adds chest volume to your routine without extra wear and tear to your shoulders.

Build Bigger, Stronger Chest and Triceps

Like other horizontal presses, the neutral-grip dumbbell press targets your chest and triceps. The difference between this exercise and others is that by taking a neutral grip, you remove a lot of the potential stress that may be placed on your anterior shoulders.

By taking a neutral grip, you place your shoulder joint into less of a horizontally-abducted position, decreasing the stretch on your shoulders. Shifting the emphasis from your shoulders increases the demands on your chest and triceps. This isolation is helpful when you’re trying to build a big chest. It’s also helpful when you want to add more volume to your chest training without over-stressing your shoulders.

Train Around Shoulder Pain

Training around injuries is often a part of a lifter’s journey. At some point, you will likely need to be smart and address injuries, build strength, and correct imbalances. The neutral-grip dumbbell press is one of the exercises that many lifters use to build a strong chest while recovering from surgery or shoulder injuries.

Whether you have pain or shoulder discomfort when barbell bench pressing or you’re reintroducing pressing after injury, the neutral-grip dumbbell press is a good place to start.

Target the Middle and Lower Pecs

While this neutral-grip dumbbell press may not be a lower pec movement specifically, it can help you isolate more of the middle and lower pec muscle fibers.

When you bring the weights down toward your lower chest, you shift emphasis to your lower chest muscle fibers. And even though you don’t want to overextend your range of motion, you can still lower the dumbbells farther than you can a barbell. This increases the loaded stretch on your muscles to strengthen the middle and lower pecs even further.

Muscles Worked by the Neutral-Grip Dumbbell Press

The neutral-grip dumbbell press emphasizes the major pressing muscles of the upper body. The neutral grip is used to minimize shoulder involvement, especially the front delt, increasing the demands on the chest and triceps.

Pectorals

Your chest muscles, also known as your pecs, are used during most pressing movements. Using a neutral grip doesn’t change that. By turning your palms toward each other, you minimize the amount of shoulder abduction. This takes out some of your shoulder musculature from the movement and places more loading demands on the chest and triceps.

Triceps

You use your triceps during the neutral-grip dumbbell press to extend your elbows and support your chest. Most pressing exercises involve your triceps, but taking a neutral grip allows you to target them even further to build your lockout strength without stressing your shoulders.

Anterior Shoulders

Many lifters choose the neutral-grip dumbbell press specifically to minimize shoulder involvement. That said, your anterior delts are still involved to some extent. They’ll help stabilize the lift and assist with the overall motion. But they won’t take over the movement so long as your grip remains in neutral.

Who Should Do the Neutral-Grip Dumbbell Press

The neutral-grip dumbbell press can be a beneficial pressing exercise for anyone, regardless of their sport or training experience. 

Strength Athletes

The barbell bench press is an essential exercise for powerlifters, for whom it’s a competition lift. Even though powerlifters need to bench with a barbell for their sport, the exercise can sometimes leave the shoulders feeling beat up. Pressing with a neutral grip can add quality volume to a powerlifter’s chest training with less shoulder strain. 

A person lies on an orange bench and performs a neutral-grip bench press.
Credit: Vladimir Sukhachev / Shutterstock

Competitive strongmen and strongwomen and weightlifters all need upper body pressing strength and muscle mass. They also need to keep their shoulders healthy to compete with main overhead lifts. This move helps you train the larger pressing muscles of your upper body while not over-stressing your front delts. That’s especially helpful when you want accessory exercises that will help you get stronger without eating into your recovery.

Regular Gymgoers

You don’t have to be a competitive athlete to benefit from a lift that will make your chest and triceps stronger while alleviating shoulder strain. Whether you’re just learning how to use a barbell safely or have a lot of experience but your shoulders don’t respond well to barbell work, the neutral-grip dumbbell press can help you get your upper body pressing in safely.

Neutral-Grip Dumbbell Press Sets and Reps

You can program the neutral-grip dumbbell press like any other dumbbell press. You can train it with heavy loads to increase pressing strength or with more moderate loads to increase hypertrophy and technique.

To Build Strength

If you are looking to build strength with the neutral-grip dumbbell press, you can do so by training with heavier loads in the five 10 rep range. Dumbbells can be challenging to use for anything less than five reps, as the very heavy loads can make it difficult to set up.

A person performs an incline neutral-grip dumbbell press.
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Ideally, you can use this exercise to complement heavy bar pressing, such as with a barbell or Swiss bar. Then, you can use this dumbbell move as an accessory to bolster strength. But even on its own, the five to 10 rep range with heavy dumbbells will serve your strength goals well.

To Build Muscle

You can build muscle in a variety of rep ranges. However, training the neutral grip dumbbell press in the eight to 15 rep range is a good bet for muscle growth. In this rep range, you are able to use heavy enough loads to achieve muscular loading, yet still rack up enough volume for a great hypertrophy stimulus. Make sure you’re approaching failure with each set to maximize your muscle-building potential.

Neutral-Grip Dumbbell Press Variations

The neutral-grip dumbbell press is tough to replace when you do it properly. That said, you can change the angles of other presses or bring your hands in closer together to place even more emphasis on various muscle groups.

Incline Neutral-Grip Dumbbell Press

Performing these on an incline bench can help increase upper pec development and add some pressing diversity to your program. 

By performing the neutral-grip dumbbell press on an incline, you also increase the range of motion at your elbow joints. That adjustment recruits your triceps even more to boost lockout strength.

Close-Grip Neutral-Grip Dumbbell Press

The close-grip neutral-grip dumbbell press is executed pretty much the same way as the original. The difference is that you’ll squeeze the dumbbells together as you press. When you do this, you will start to feel your triceps and inner chest muscles engage even deeper.

Make sure you keep your elbows tucked near your rib cage. This positioning will help place even more emphasis on your triceps while minimizing any unwanted shoulder involvement.

Neutral-Grip Dumbbell Press Alternatives

In the event you do not have dumbbells or want to go so heavy that handling the load with dumbbells is prohibitive for you, look no further than these neutral-grip dumbbell press alternatives.

Swiss Bar Bench Press

The Swiss bar is a speciality bar that you can use to perform a bench press with your hands in the neutral position. The Swiss bar has different grip options, all of which are parallel to the torso.

This bar allows you to press with heavy loads without being limited by shoulder discomfort or the awkwardness of extremely heavy dumbbells.

Close-Grip Barbell Bench Press

The close-grip barbell bench press is a good option if you are looking to lift heavy with a barbell but spare your shoulders more than you can with the standard, wider-grip bench press.

Some lifters may have issues with placing their elbows out more in the press, so the close grip bench press can help minimize injury risks or discomfort. Additionally, it can be used to train the triceps and keep the front deltoids out of the movement as much as possible.

Close-Grip Push-Up

You can do the close-grip push-up to develop many of the same muscle groups as you do in the neutral-grip dumbbell press, all while saving the shoulders. Like the neutral-grip dumbbell press, the close-grip push-up keeps your elbows tucked in close to your body. This positioning decreases the stress on your shoulder joints.

For added stimulus, you can also perform these push-ups on a deficit or incline by as placing your hands or feet on a bench, a pair of dumbbells, blocks, or plates. Adding a deficit will increase your range of motion and therefore place more demands on your muscles, which is great for growth.

Final Word

The neutral-grip dumbbell press is a great shoulder-saving bench press option for lifters at any level. You’ll isolate your chest and triceps while sparing your shoulders added stress from chest day. Whether you are a strength sport athlete or regular gymgoer, try adding the neutral grip dumbbell press into your chest training and feel the results for yourself.

FAQs

The neutral-grip dumbbell press is a pretty standard lift. The only difference between this and other dumbbell bench pressing exercises is that your wrists are rotated so that your palms are facing each other. Nonetheless, you might still have some questions. Here are the answers.

Is the neutral-grip dumbbell press safe to do with bad shoulders?

If you have shoulder pain and discomfort when doing bench pressing, chat with a doctor about your limitations. If you’re given the all-clear, try this variation out. While it may not be the end all, be all, it might allow you to train your chest and triceps with less discomfort than standard pressing exercises.

Does the neutral-grip dumbbell press target the lower pecs?

Taking a neutral grip does target some of the lower pec muscle fibers. But you’ll still be hitting your pecs as a whole. If you want a more specific lower pec variation, try performing these on a decline bench.

Is there a neutral-grip dumbbell press variation with a barbell?

Yes. But instead of a traditional barbell, you’ll use a specialty bar called the Swiss bar. The Swiss bar has handles that are vertical, and place you in the neutral grip position.

Featured Image: MDV Edwards / Shutterstock

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