Dumbbells vs. Barbells: Which is Better?
When you hear the word: ‘gym’, the first thing that comes to mind is usually a dumbbell or a barbell.
Both are commonly used pieces of free weight equipment, but it’s also commonly asked by lifters which is better in terms of building strength and muscle.
In this post we’re going to look into the advantages of each weight type, then draw a conclusion from that.
We’ll also look into how to incorporate them into your routine, and give you some exercises for each major body part using each kind of weight.
Advantages of Using Dumbbells
Minimizing Muscular Imbalances
One of the main advantages of using dumbbells over barbells would be the ability to minimize or reduce your muscular imbalances.
When lifting with a barbell, it’s not uncommon for lifters to favor one side over the other.
For example, your right arm might contribute more to the exercise than you left arm would in a bicep curl if you’re right handed. The same goes for left handed people.
However, this is not the case with dumbbells. Each side will have its own weight to lift, unless you’re doing an exercise that requires only a single dumbbell such as a seated overhead tricep extension.
Since each side has a separate weight to lift, you can’t really favor one side, or at least not by accident. We’ll continue to use the bicep curl example. Each arm now has to lift the same amount of weight, otherwise you won’t be able to do the exercise.
This will gradually thin out or reduce the size of the imbalance, and help build a better rounded and symmetrical physique.
Another thing you can do to speed this process up would be to do more volume on your weaker side.
So let’s say you’re doing 3 sets of 12 on the dumbbell bicep curl. Instead of doing three sets for both arms, you could do an extra set or half a set with just your weaker side every time you do bicep curls, until you feel your imbalance has been minimized.
This is a great and widely used method of reducing and resolving muscular imbalances.
Dumbbells also allow you to train unilaterally, meaning one side at a time. This is also a great way to fix a muscle imbalance.
It’s recommended that you start with your weaker side, and take it close to or to failure.
Then, you’ll either match that number of reps on your strong side, or stop one or two away, to give your weaker side a chance to catch up.
We know, it doesn’t feel good knowing that you’re stopping before your strong side feels like it’s finished for the set. But that’s the thing about fixing a muscular imbalance. If you don’t fix it, your weak side will suffer forever.
Higher Muscle Activation
Another key advantage of using dumbbells over barbells is the higher muscle activation that it elicits in lifters. By this, we mean you would usually recruit more muscle fibers and possibly stimulate more growth if you used dumbbells over barbells on the same exercise.
A study conducted by Déborah de Araújo Farias and colleagues found that: “The DBP elicited significantly greater PM activity vs. the BBP.” Note that the DBP is referring to the dumbbell bench press, BBP refers to the barbell bench press and PM refers to the pectoralis major.
This could likely lead to more muscular hypertrophy, if the dumbbell bench press was used over the smith or barbell bench press.
And it isn’t just for the chest, studies have shown that delt activation is also higher in dumbbell exercises than they are in barbell exercises.
This might be due to the usually larger range of motion, due to freedom of not having to follow a strict movement pattern.
And we know that generally, a longer range of motion leads to more muscle growth.
Let’s look at the flat bench press. If you were to use a barbell your elbows would have to travel in a strict motion, and you wouldn’t be able to bring your hands closer together to get more of a squeeze on the chest.
Your hands would finish quite far apart, limiting the amount of shoulder adduction that you could do.
However, if you were to use a pair of dumbbells, your hands would be free to move wherever you wanted, and you could bring them closer together, to achieve an extended range of motion and more of a squeeze.
Check out Jeremy Ethier’s YouTube video below for a great example of what this looks like!
Another advantage of using dumbbells is that they’ll engage your stabilizing muscles more, as you’ve got a separate weight on each side, instead of a single bar that accounts for both sides.
As the dumbbells are able to move so freely, your stabilizing muscles are going to do a lot more work than they would otherwise in a barbell movement.
For example, a study in 2013 found that lateral or middle deltoid activation was 7% higher in the dumbbell shoulder press than it was in the barbell shoulder press.
We know that the lateral delt often works very hard as a stabilizer muscle, and the difference in muscle activation would be due to the dumbbells being able to move more freely, and requiring more muscle activation to keep it steady and under control.
This would likely also be true for other exercises as well, such as the bench press.
Overall, this extra muscle activation helps to engage more total musculature on the body, and potentially more overall growth, which is a huge advantage to using dumbbells over barbells.
More Natural Movement
Using dumbbells also allows for more natural movement at the joints, which helps to preserve joint health and keep us able to train for longer in our lives. If you’ve lifted before, you’re quite likely to have experienced some kind of wrist or elbow pain sometime in your journey.
Whether it was from bench pressing or barbell rowing, it’s uncomfortable, and not optimal for the longevity of our training.
The fixed bar path of a barbell can limit our ability to move according to our joints’ needs, and can often lead to pain or injury.
However with a dumbbell, you can move the weight however you need to during a rep, and can help you work around past or present injuries, and help avoid them as well.
Advantages of Using Barbells
Lifting More Weight
When it comes to lifting the most weight, the barbell is the clear winner. This is likely due to the lesser need for stabilization during a barbell movement when compared to a dumbbell movement.
Like we’ve mentioned earlier, it’s much easier to have both sides on one bar, than it is to have a dumbbell on each side. It does mean your stabilizing muscles may be less engaged, but it does also make barbells the overall better choice if your main goal is to gain strength in your compound lifts.
And there are scientific studies that have proven this as well, such as this one by Brad Schoenfeld and colleagues which found that maximum lifting capacity on the barbell bench press is usually approximately 20% higher than that of the dumbbell bench press.
There have also been studies that found similar results with the barbell and dumbbell overhead press as well.
Due to this, the barbell allows for more potential overloading of the muscle than the dumbbell does, which may also lead to better muscle growth through mechanical tension.
Easier To get Into Position With
If you’ve ever done a set of heavy dumbbell bench press or heavy goblet squats, you’ve probably experienced the challenges that may come with just trying to get in and out of position.
Often times you have to carry the dumbbell and maneuver it to get into position. When we’re going heavy on the dumbbells, this can prove extremely challenging sometimes.
Whereas with a barbell, you’ll generally have access to a rack, and easily be able to get in and out of position. You don’t have to waste too much extra energy unracking the bar on a bench press, or too much energy walking out of the squat rack with the bar on your back.
This extra conserved energy could actually go a long way over the course of an entire workout, and allow you to use it in the places where it actually matters, such as your sets.
It’s no good expending energy trying to get into position, when it doesn’t lead to any more muscular growth in the areas you’re trying to target.
More Efficient Progression
When it comes to progressively overloading the muscles, the barbell is much better than a pair of dumbbells would be.
With a barbell, you’ve got the ability to slap on a 2.5lb plate or a 1.25kg plate on each side, whereas you’ll likely have to go up in 2.5kg or 5lb increments on each side with a pair of dumbbells, unless you’re lucky and your gym has literally everything.
If your gym is like the one many of us here at Gympulsive go to, the dumbbells go up in 2.5kg or 5lb each time.
This makes dumbbells less efficient at allowing for progressive overload, as you’ll likely have to wait weeks before being able to move up in weight, and also probably hit more plateaus due to that.
The efficient overloading of a barbell allows you to increase weight more frequently, and therefore theoretically lead to better strength and muscle gains over time.
This is definitely a major advantage of using a barbell over a pair of dumbbells, as you really won’t build any significant amount of muscle without progressively overloading.
So Which is Better?
Well, we hate to say it but both have their time and place in any effective training routine.
As a general rule of thumb, barbells will be better for heavy compound lifting and dumbbells will be better for smaller compounds, and more hypertrophy-focused lifts.
A workout should consist of barbell movements, dumbbell and also some machine movements as well. Barbell and dumbbell movements first, before machine work.
However if you were to only pick one, we would say dumbbells are the slightly better choice.
We say this because you can still lift heavy like you do with barbells and gain strength, but they’re also potentially more optimal when it comes to building muscle.
However the main reason would be the benefits of joint health. Like we mentioned above, dumbbells allow for more naturally movement, which will be friendlier on your wrists, elbows and so forth.
You can move the weight around however you need to to make an exercise more comfortable and safe for you, and that will help you stay in the gym for longer, with good, healthy joints for your everyday activities.
That’s why we would pick a pair of dumbbells over a barbell if we were only given the choice of one.
Incorporating Them Into Your Program
When you do come to incorporate these two weight types into your program, it’s common practice to do heavy compound lifting such as squatting, benching and deadlifting with barbells, due to the potential to lift more weight.
These heavy lifts should be done at the start of your workout, in the 4–8 rep range. However you can go lower of higher if you have specific goals, such as those who compete in powerlifting.
You’ll also likely want to rest longer here, in the 3–5 minute range to allow for maximum lifting capacity without wasting too much time.
Dumbbell exercises should come next, and these would be your slightly lighter compounds, such as an incline bench press, goblet squat or overhead tricep extension.
These should generally be done in the 6–12 rep range, and rest times can be optimal anywhere from 2–3 minutes.
Like we said earlier, it’s a great idea to utilize both weight types, and give yourself the best chance possible to gain both strength and size.
What Exercises Can You Do?
We’ll give you two possible exercises with each weight type per major body part, starting with the largest ones (dumbbell exercises first, then barbell exercises).
- Goblet Squat
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts (Single Leg if Too Light)
- Barbell Back/Front Squats
- Barbell Conventional/Sumo Deadlifts
- Dumbbell Bent Over Rows
- Dumbbell Shrugs
- Pendlay Rows
- Barbell Hyperextensions
- Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
- Dumbbell Flyes
- Barbell Bench Press
- Barbell Floor Press
- Standing Dumbbell Arnold Press
- Dumbbell Lateral Raises
- Barbell Military Press
- Barbell Rear Delt Rows
- Dumbbell Overhead Tricep Extensions
- Hammer Curls
- Barbell Curls
- Close Grip Barbell Bench Press
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