December 18, 2021
Everyone knows that free weights are what build real strength and size. However, what type of free weight should you use to maximize your gains in strength and size, the barbell or dumbbell? Everyone has their opinion on what you should use, which is generally guided by heavy bias. Your friend told you to use the barbell, but the Instagram model said dumbbells build the most muscle; so who is right? Both, depending on the circumstances. Both of these are great pieces of gym equipment that can both be used to build huge mass and some seriously strong muscles. However, there are plenty of differences between the barbells and dumbbells, some obvious and some not so obvious. These differences can help dictate which one is the right tool for the right job, which is why we've put together this barbell vs dumbbell comparison.
But first, let’s go over the similarities of barbells and dumbbells (They’re basically only one important one).
They’re Both Free Weights
This is the main similarity between these two implements. But it’s a very important commonality that sets them apart from other gym equipment. This means that you are able to manipulate them through space in virtually any manner you want. This ability allows you to perform an extensive range of exercises compared to machines that almost always limit you to just one. This is why the barbell and dumbbell are the definite preferred choice for building a home gym or workout at home.
In this regards, they both offer similar benefits over machines:
So now, let’s look at how they differ. We’ll first look at some of the more practical issues with them and then look at differences they have when being applied to resistance training.
These differences illustrate practical differences in these two implements which may influence you as a gym owner, trainer, or trainee. It also includes some general differences for your own education to better understand these differences.
1. There Are Various Types of Barbells
When we say “barbell”, the first image that comes to a person’s mind is a long bar with plate-loaded collars. This would be a good general description of a barbell, but there is actually quite a bit of variety.
1) Standard Barbells
2) Olympic Barbells
3) Deadlift Bar
4) Cambered Bars
6) EZ-Curl Bar
7) Buffalo Bar
8) Axle Bar
9) Swiss Bar
10) Hex Bar
And there are many others. All of these have their own unique characteristics and uses. Therefore, if you had a good amount of money (and willing to spend it), you can buy a lot more specialty barbells to enhance your training.
If you want the most versatile bar for your home gym, get an Olympic Barbell with 2″ diameter sleeves, a weight capacity of 700 lbs or more, and a stainless steel or hard chrome finish.
When it comes to dumbbells, your choices are basically limited to the shape of the end and material used. Perhaps a few more minor things, but there’s not too much to think about. If you want dumbbells, we recommended standard hex dumbbells.
2. Barbells Are Used In Competition
Perhaps a bit anecdotal, but when comparing barbells and dumbbells, it’s important to point out that barbells are solely used in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. The only place you may see dumbbells used in any type of competition are in Crossfit or maybe Strongman (they will use what’s called a “circus dumbbell”). Still, barbells have been, currently are, and will almost certainly always be the primary implement used in strength competitions.
This means that you’ll definitely want the barbell to be the main component of your training if you are competing. Even if you’re not, it’s still something to consider when comparing the two.
3. Barbells Are Cheaper And Take Up Less Space
Both are much cheaper by far when compared to buying machines and considering the variety of exercises you can do. However, when comparing the two against each other, barbells are the cheaper option. This due to the design of the two pieces of equipment.
Barbells are plate loaded meaning that you buy one barbell and then a variety of plates that you can use to adjust the weight. The thing to keep in mind is that you can use these plates in any combination you want to make different weights. For example, let’s say you buy:
Even though you bought 3 pairs of plates, this actually gives you 6 different combinations to add to the bar.
If you were to buy this in dumbbells, you would need to buy 6 different pairs. The price also goes up due to having to buy more metal when plates are (can be) made of just rubber. These problems only grow with the more extensive range of weight that you need to buy.
It also means you need to buy substantially more weight. The plates together weigh 60lbs with a 45lb dumbbell equaling 105lbs. The dumbbell’s total weight is 210lbs. This extra weight means more money, which means more room is needed to store your equipment.
If you want to work out at home, the best option is to have your barbell and plates for most of your movements and then just a few dumbbells that you know you can get a lot of use from.
4. Dumbbells May Be Better For New Trainees Or Certain Populations
Something about a barbell can be intimidating to those new to the gym or older populations. This is probably more of a mental block as the trainees have probably seen countless magazines and commercials that have absolute beasts moving serious weight with the barbell. However, some real factors need to be taken into account when training someone for the first time.
The first is caused by the initial starting weight. While some boutique or specialty gyms may have some training bars, your average gym will only have a basic barbell that weighs 45 lbs. If you’re lucky, they may have a women’s bar that weighs 35lbs. Regardless, this can actually be too much weight for some movements for some trainees, especially the older population and upper body movements for women. The hardest exercise to perform will be the overhead press which is notoriously tricky. It can take some trainees a few months before they can press a bar fully over their head with good form.
This makes having dumbbells extremely useful when first training certain populations as most gyms have dumbbells that go down to at least 5lbs, if not 2.5lbs. Many gyms will even have a smaller set which has dumbbells that weigh 0.5lbs. These can be used to train the biomechanics of a movement while not overloading the muscle too much.
Two, because the barbell fixes the arms once they are holding onto it, learning movement patterns can be a bit more difficult compared to using dumbbells because of the limited mobility. Having a dumbbell being controlled by one arm gives it a lot more room to maneuver. A perfect example of this is the overhead press again. When using a barbell, the trainee has to move their head to push the bar up, which is a bit awkward when first learning the movement. This problem is eliminated with dumbbells as there is no bar that causes issues with the bar’s direction.
Don’t take this the wrong way. The standing barbell press is a fantastic movement that everyone should eventually utilize, it just may take some time to get there, and using dumbbells makes that process much more manageable.
5. There Is More Variety Of Movements With The Dumbbells…Much More
The other clear advantage of dumbbells is that there is a much wider range of movements that you can perform. These movements can be broken down into three main sub-categories of movements.
a) Main Exercises: These are alternatives to barbell movements (dumbbell chest press, dumbbell rows, etc). This includes exercises that either can’t be duplicated with barbells or safer (or more comfortable) to be performed with dumbbells. Some examples are:
b) Isolation movements: It is very difficult to perform isolation movements with the barbell. While there are a good amount, there are many more that can be done using dumbbells. Other than that, you’re limited simply because the bar is unable to move to allow this to happen. Below is just an example of movements that you can perform with dumbbells that are impossible using a barbell:
c) Alternative Or Untraditional Movements: The third group of movements can simply be thought of as untraditional movements. Below are a list of movements that are impossible (or highly unpractical) to do with a barbell.
There are others but this gives you a good idea. While there is some nuance in these, using dumbbells as a general source of weight is much easier than using a barbell due to its awkwardness for many movements.
In order to progress in strength or muscle hypertrophy, you are going to need to implement progressive overload. This is simply the process of adding incremental increase in weight over time to elicit adaptations.
When you first start training, the very general rule to do this is to add 5lbs to upper body movements every week and 10lbs to lower body workouts every week. The vast majority of gyms don’t have dumbbells that jump 2.5 lbs (that would instantly double the amount of money they spend AND space they need) and will usually jump 5lbs. This is a problem as the lowest amount of weight you can jump is 10lbs (As you use two dumbbells). This makes it very difficult to progress on as there are a limited amount of options.
This problem is only exacerbated when you become an experienced intermediate lifter or advanced lifter when you may be using increments of 0.5lbs, or even less, to jump. That’s just not going to happen with dumbbells.
This is yet another reason why barbells are superior when it comes to pure strength training.
We have already established that both can build strength. This question is what is best, so this will be answered in terms of having to choose one. When looking at this as a direct question and ignoring all caveats, the best choice would be…
This is for quite a few reasons. The major one is purely out of practicality. In order to build strength, you need to use heavyweights that are ideally more than 85% of your 1RM.
The problem is that even in most gyms, dumbbells only go up to 100lbs. Even in some of the more “hardcore” gyms, dumbbells will stop at around 150lbs. This is highly problematic for lower body exercises such as deadlifts and squats. Most people who are training to build strength, especially men, will quickly surpass these numbers, leaving them with no other choice than not to use the barbell if they want to build strength.
In terms of training the upper body, the problem comes into setting up with dumbbells. It is very challenging to set up with very heavy dumbbells, especially shoulder movements.
However, things become a little less clear when you examine this question from a physiological perspective. When you are a beginner lifter, it simply won’t matter which you use as both will supply a sufficient stimulus to create growth. A trainee can use either one and progress just fine in strength.
Further, it’s a bit harder to actually define “strength” in a real-world situation. If we take a lifter who uses a barbell and a lifter who uses dumbbells, how can we test them to see who is the strongest? What modality do we use? The lifter who trains with a barbell will lift more with a barbell. The lifter who trains with dumbbells will be able to lift more with dumbbells. This is due to specificity, which simply states your body will adapt to the specific training stimulus you put on it.
Still, the vast majority of strength tests that are performed in the athletic population are done using the barbell. Think about the NFL combine and what the use to test upper body strength.
The only clear thing is that the vast majority of trainees can lift more using a barbell rather than a dumbbell.
The next major question is which one is better for hypertrophy. This question can offer a bit more clarity but still consist of a lot of nuances. When trying to build muscle hypertrophy, the total volume is the main component determining your progress. The most efficient way to create total volume is with moderate reps of 8-12 with 70-80% loads. This means that the issue of needing heavyweights is taken out of the equation.
The general consensus is that dumbbells are better for muscle hypertrophy for a few reasons:
A good example of this is with the dumbbell chest press and dumbbell overhead press. Both of these movements allow a higher ROM due to the lack of barbells and more planar movement.
The bench press almost occurs 100% in the sagittal plane (think horizontally). You press the bar straight away from your body (correct form actually has some arc, but that’s for a different article). The dumbbell chest press also appears in the sagittal plane and involves horizontal adduction when you bring the dumbbells towards the middle of the body at the top, similar to chest flies. Many bodybuilders like the feeling of squeezing the chest at the top of this movement. This is similar for many movements using dumbbells.
However, these are general thoughts but aren’t necessarily always true. Many studies have found contradictory findings in terms of muscle activation when examining upper-body barbell and dumbbell exercises. However, this may be more “true” with unilateral lower-body exercises (study) as the entire body must be balanced on one foot.
Still, none of this invalidates the fact that increasing volume will ultimately increase muscle growth and can be achieved with either the barbell and dumbbell.
With all that being said, the vast majority of strength and performance coaches will use barbells for strength training (<6 reps) and dumbbells for muscle hypertrophy (>8 reps)
There is reason to believe that adaptations from unilateral exercises have a better transferability to actual athletic performance. This is because the majority of actions that occur in athletics (and in real life in general) occur on one side of the body. Even when a movement does occur bilaterally, it rarely happens evenly as performed with a barbell.
This is why many strength and conditions coaches for athletes will put a lot more emphasis on unilateral exercises. That doesn’t mean they don’t use bilateral movements, just that they will use unilateral exercises more than other populations.
Due to the higher activation of the stabilizer muscles, unilateral movements with dumbbells are the generally preferred form of exercise prescribed by physical therapists and athletic coaches. This is because many of these muscles which help protect and stabilize a joint are activated much less when using a barbell. Lack of strength in these muscles are often the cause of overuse injuries and muscular imbalances.
For example, single-leg lower body movements are some of the best exercises to train the gluteus medius. This is a very important muscle to strengthen to prevent lower leg injuries from sagging hips. Exercises include:
Now while many lower-body exercises “could” be done with barbells, remember, they are generally much safer and easier to perform with dumbbells. This is due to dumbbells:
This same concept goes for upper-body movements, too, especially when it involves the shoulder complex. In fact, there are many trainees who don’t have the shoulder mobility to perform bench press but can press dumbbells with ease.
So we now know the advantages and disadvantages of using barbells. We have also concluded that they are both great tools to be used in any program when used correctly. So what’s the best way to use these in your training?
The easiest way to think about this is that barbells are best used for your heavy strength training. At the same time, dumbbells are more hypertrophic-focused and are best used for moderate and lighter work for accessory and isolation movements. This is not gospel but rather a general guiding line of thought. Here’s how this may look for a pushing day:
One common way to use these two pieces of equipment is to swap out movements for basic periodization. For example, let’s say you have been performing barbell bench press with sets of 5 reps. Things get a bit stagnant, and you want to change things up. You can simply replace the barbell bench press with it’s dumbbells alternative, the dumbbell chest press, and train in the 6-8 rep range. Not only will this provide a different stimulus from using a new implement, you will also work in a diverse rep range.
Another example of this is the barbell movement’s use on one training day and the dumbbell movement on the next training day. This is going to depend on your training split, but ideally, you are training each muscle group twice a week. This would look something like
This way, you don’t have to worry about which is better because you’re using both!
Barbell or dumbbell curls? Barbell or dumbbell bench press? Barbell or dumbbell shrugs?
You could go and dissect each movement but it’s really fruitless in that it depends on what you’re trying to do AND who you ask. For example, frontal shrugs with a barbell have been shown to cause more activation in the trap muscles (study). However, a ton of trainees and coaches prefer dumbbell shrugs due to more ROM and stability control. Plus, you can hold more weight with a neutral grip using dumbbells compared to the prone grip with the barbell. There’s also the fact that you can also do frontal shrugs with dumbbells. It gets confusing.
One of the most important lessons to learn in exercise science is that there is almost never a black and white answer. This applies to this question as well. Both are better options under certain circumstances, and both can be worse choices under certain circumstances. Sometimes we can get too caught up in these trivial matters when working hard is really what matters, Neither are going to work if you half-ass it in the gym!
While it’s an interesting question and is definitely fun to look at, don’t put too much concern into it, thinking that you may be missing out on something.
They are both excellent pieces of equipment that have been used by professional athletes, bodybuilders, powerlifters, Crossfiitters, and your every-day trainee.
The only way you may lose out on some benefits is if you ONLY use one of them! Use both in your program with progressive overload, and you’ll gain some serious strength AND mass.
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