The purpose of this study was to compare one-repetition maximum (1-RM) and muscle activity in three chest-press exercises with different stability requirements (Smith machine, barbell, and dumbbells). Twelve healthy, resistance-trained males (age 22.7 ± 1.7 years, body mass 78.6 ± 7.6 kg, stature 1.80 ± 0.06 m) were tested for 1-RM of the three chest-press exercises in counterbalanced order with 3-5 days of rest between the exercises. One-repetition maximum and electromyographic activity of the pectoralis major, deltoid anterior, biceps, and triceps brachii were recorded in the exercises. The dumbbell load was 14% less than that for the Smith machine (P ≤ 0.001, effect size [ES] = 1.05) and 17% less than that for the barbell (P ≤ 0.001, ES = 1.11). The barbell load was ∼3% higher than that for the Smith machine (P = 0.016, ES = 0.18). Electrical activity in the pectoralis major and anterior deltoid did not differ during the lifts. Electrical activity in the biceps brachii increased with stability requirements (i.e. Smith machine <barbell <dumbbells; P ≤ 0.005; ES = 0.57, 1.46, and 2.00, respectively), while triceps brachii activity was reduced using dumbbells versus barbell (P = 0.007, ES = 0.73) and dumbbells versus Smith machine (P = 0.003, ES = 0.62). In conclusion, high stability requirements in the chest press (dumbbells) result in similar (pectoralis major and anterior deltoid), lower (triceps brachii) or higher (biceps brachii) muscle activity. These findings have implications for athletic training and rehabilitation.