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Seated or Standing Dumbbell Presses: Which is Better?

Dr. Paul C. Henning, PhD, CSCS

Some resistance exercises can be done with both barbells and dumbbells (e.g. bench press). Proponents of instability suggest that instability enhances the stress on the neuromuscular system but scientific reports are inconclusive [1]. Utilizing dumbbells instead of barbells forces one to control and balance the weights independently and thus may potentially increase and/or reduce involvement of agonist, synergists, stabilizers, and antagonists [2]. For instance, it has been shown that similar electromyogram (EMG) activity occurs in the pectoralis major and anterior deltoid in dumbbell chest presses compared with barbell despite dumbbell loads were only 63-83% of barbell loads [2, 3].

There are no studies investigating standing vs. seated position as an instability factor for agonists, synergists, and antagonists. In theory, free weight resistance exercises performed standing should increased stabilizing requirements compared with seated exercises [4]. This has been recently shown for core muscles [5], but no clear evidence is available for upper extremity muscles. It’s also unclear how different instability approaches (body position + loading modality) interact with each other with respect to muscle activity and strength.

Recently, researchers compared 1-repetition maximum (RM) strength and EMG activity in barbell and dumbbell shoulder presses performed seated and standing [6]. Fifteen healthy resistance trained men participated in this study and underwent 1-RM and EMG testing with a load corresponding to 80% of the 1-RM. EMG activity was measured in the anterior, medial, and posterior deltoids and biceps and triceps brachii.

Results demonstrated the following EMG differences or trends:

Anterior deltoid: ~11% lower for seated barbell vs. dumbbell, ~15% lower in standing barbell vs. dumbbell, ~8% lower for seated vs. standing dumbbells;

For medial deltoid: ~7% lower for standing barbell vs. dumbbells, ~7% lower for seated vs. standing barbell, 15% lower for seated vs. standing dumbbell;

For posterior deltoid: ~25% lower for seated vs. standing barbell, ~24% lower for seated vs. standing dumbbells:

For biceps, ~33% greater fro seated barbell vs. dumbbells, 16% greater for standing barbell vs. dumbbell, ~23% lower for seated vs. standing dumbbells.;

For triceps, ~39% greater for standing barbell vs. dumbbells, ~20% lower for seated vs. standing barbell. 1-RM strength was lower (~7%) for standing dumbbells vs. standing barbell and ~10% lower than seated dumbbells. It was clear from these results that the greatest stability requirement demonstrated the highest neuromuscular activity of the deltoid muscles, although this was the exercise with the lowest 1-RM strength.

In summary, standing dumbbell presses may be more beneficial for muscular development of the deltoid muscles than more stable alternatives, however, if power output is of higher priority, more stable alternative are preferable. Both standing instead of seated body position and dumbbells instead of barbell as the loading modality increased the stability requirement compared with seated and barbell execution. It’s recommended that trainers include these variations in periodized resistance training programs.


1. Behm, D.G. and K.G. Anderson, The role of instability with resistance training. J Strength Cond Res, 2006. 20(3): p. 716-22.

2. Saeterbakken, A.H., R. van den Tillaar, and M.S. Fimland, A comparison of muscle activity and 1-RM strength of three chest-press exercises with different stability requirements. J Sports Sci, 2011. 29(5): p. 533-8.

3. Welsch, E.A., M. Bird, and J.L. Mayhew, Electromyographic activity of the pectoralis major and anterior deltoid muscles during three upper-body lifts. J Strength Cond Res, 2005. 19(2): p. 449-52.

4. Baechle, T.a.E., RW, Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 2000, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

5. Saeterbakken, A.H. and M.S. Fimland, Muscle activity of the core during bilateral, unilateral, seated and standing resistance exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol, 2012. 112(5): p. 1671-8.

6. Saeterbakken, A.H. and M.S. Fimland, Effects of body position and loading modality on muscle activity and strength in shoulder presses. J Strength Cond Res, 2013. 27(7): p. 1824-31.