People have been trying to choose the best tool by examining every feature and advantage available for each for hundreds of years. Which one is more useful? Which one ought to you employ during your training? And under what conditions would you pick one over the other?
Actually, there are no simple solutions to this problem. If you can, use both the barbell and the dumbbell in your workouts because they are both fantastic training tools. But to give you the best advice possible, we’ve asked some reputable fitness professionals to explain when, why, and how to use barbells and dumbbells to accomplish your objectives.
- Barbells are typically better for your heavy lifts, so for sets of 1-6 reps. They also allow you to progressively overload more effectively.
- For accessory lifts, endurance-style training, and muscle development, dumbbells are preferable. Use them for sets of 8 to 12 reps or more.
The History Of Barbells And Dumbbells
Dumbbells appear to have originated in a primitive form in ancient Greece as early as 700 BC, despite the paucity of historical records. Halteres, as they were called then, were small stone implements used by long jumpers. Athletes would swing the weights backward, and then forward before takeoff, to create greater momentum and thrust for the jump.
Let’s skip ahead more than two thousand years. Church bells were first used for physical activity in the 1700s. To silence them, the clappers were removed, and so the name “dumb” bell was born. By the early 1800s, the dumbbell had taken on a more modern appearance (handle in the middle, equal weight on both ends) and was being used in both military and academic settings in Europe. (Interestingly, “Indian clubs,” the forerunner to steel clubs, were just as popular, if not more, at the time in By the turn of the 20th century, dumbbells were a standard feature in gyms across both Europe and Asia.
Apparently in the middle of the 1800s, barbells gained popularity after dumbbells did. However, they quickly understood. The vintage “globe” barbell came first (the weights on the ends looked like planets), followed by the plate-loaded barbell. Weightlifting gained official Olympic status in 1896, when both dumbbells and barbells were allowed in competition. Then, in 1928, a German by the name of Kasper Berg unveiled the rotating-sleeve barbell, which was essentially the modern Olympic bar we are all familiar with today.
Through the rest of the 20th century, dumbbells and barbells continued to evolve as technology and sport science advanced, strength and physique competitions became more and more popular, and the public’s interest in health and fitness exploded. Dumbbells and barbells are still widely used and effective today. They also come in a variety of shapes to suit people of all fitness levels.
The Different Types Of Dumbbells
Dumbbells come in two basic varieties: fixed-weight dumbbells and adjustable dumbbells.
The type of dumbbells you see in commercial gyms are called fixed-weight dumbbells. They typically come in pairs and range in weight from five pounds to more than one hundred pounds, usually in five-pound increments. The weights are immovably attached to the bar and cannot be changed.
You can quickly change the load on adjustable dumbbells by sliding weight plates on and off the handle and clamping them, or by pulling a pin or turning a dial that locks and releases the plates. They, too, typically weigh between five and one hundred pounds in increments of five pounds. Adjustable dumbbells tend to be a little more rickety than the fixed-weight kind (you better make sure the weight is secured, or it can fall off the handle during use), and can be a bit awkward to use (heavy weight often means lots of plates that make for a long dumbbell that can be hard to move around your body), but they’re cost-effective, space-efficient, and a solid choice for a home gym. (A complete set of fixed-weight dumbbells costs a lot of money and takes up a lot of space.)
The Different Types Of Barbells
Both dumbbells and barbells are free weights. They make your muscles work harder than on gym machines, demand more stability and balance, and permit movement in multiple planes. In contrast, machines offer a more consistent environment and more linear and compound variable resistance.
The length and thickness of a standard barbell are 4 to 7 feet. Compound exercises like squats, lunges, and deadlifts are where this piece of equipment shines. The preacher curl, wrist curl, barbell curl, and lying tricep extensions are examples of isolation exercises that can also be performed with it.
Several types of barbells exist, including:
- Standard bars
- Deadlift bars
- Powerlifting bars
- Olympic bars
- EZ bars
- Hex (trap) bars
- Log barbells
- Buffalo barbells
- Cambered barbells
- Swiss bars
- Safety squat bars
- Axle bars
Standard bars are the most popular option and can be used for traditional power and strength exercises, such as the shoulder press and squat. They are prone to slight bending under heavy loads.
Deadlift bars can handle heavier loads and have a longer shaft. For better grip, they are typically coated with steel. They have a slightly smaller diameter than typical barbells.
Powerlifting bars are designed for massive loads and have little to no bend. Olympic barbells are slightly more flexible. They function best during power cleans and other dynamic exercises.
Differences Between Barbell And Dumbbell Exercises
When using a barbell, you’ll typically hold it in both hands. As we’ll discuss in the next section, this allows you to stabilize the weight you’re lifting to a great degree, and that makes it easier to lift heavy, providing maximum overload to your muscles. Weightlifting sports (like Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, and CrossFit, for example) where the barbell is used in competition are the ones where training with a barbell is most useful. The hands move independently when using dumbbells, though. You can choose to lift one or two dumbbells at once, but because your hands aren’t attached to a single bar, any lift will have a wider range of motion, which will make stabilizing it more difficult.
When carrying out one-arm dumbbell exercises, such as, one-arm dumbbell rows, one-arm dumbbell concentration curls, etc.), where the non-working side is not holding a dumbbell, you’re training “unilaterally” (one side at a time). A weak side can be targeted with unilateral training, which also helps a muscle group’s range of motion. Additionally, it works your body more naturally than other exercises do. We frequently have to use one side of our bodies while supporting the other (for example, when running, throwing, punching, etc.).), so dumbbell exercises are highly functional.
Benefits Of Using A Barbell
One significant advantage that a barbell provides that you really can’t replicate to the same degree with any other exercise tool is strength. Specifically, high-end maximal strength, or the capacity to exert the greatest amount of force.
Maximal loading is possible with barbell lifts that require both legs and arms to work together, like the back squat, bench press, and deadlift. Due to the lack of interest in DUMBBELL bench presses, world records are only lifted using a barbell. Such increases in overall strength, however, necessitate compromise in other areas. A lifter with a 300-pound one-rep max (1RM) on bench press probably won’t be able to press a pair of 150-pound dumbbells, because stabilizing the two weights is too difficult.
“A more stable load means you can add more weight and control it a bit more with larger muscles,” says John Rusin, PT, DPT, CSCS, is the proprietor of the online fitness resource John Rusin Fitness Systems (DrJohnRusin.com). In other words, using a barbell won’t require as much use of your weaker, smaller stabilizing muscles as using dumbbells does. The muscles that are the strongest and most powerful bear the bulk of the load during barbell exercises. (Do Barbells and Dumbbells Use Different Muscles? has more information on stabilizing muscles. below.)
It’s pretty clear, then, that the barbell is a critical tool for anyone looking to truly maximize muscular strength—including competitive lifters, athletes in strength-speed sports like football, basketball, and track and field, and any gym enthusiast with lofty 1-rep max (1RM) goals. One could also argue that barbell training is essential for maximizing gains in muscle size because the barbell can support heavy loads and large weights recruit more muscle fibers. It’s difficult to find a bodybuilder or other physique athlete who hasn’t used it at least occasionally.
What Functions Do Specialty Barbells Serve?
Specialty barbells are the next category. Hex bars, for example, are in the shape of a hexagon or trapezoid. You can better control your lifting form by standing in the middle as a result.
They’re easier on the joints and back because of their unusual shape. They were created in the 1980s by American powerlifter Al Gerard, who used them to safeguard his back during deadlifts.
Look no further than the Swiss bar if your goal is to develop huge shoulders. This piece of equipment is ideal for exercises that target the arms and delts, such as rowing and pressing. There are many different neutral grips possible and it eases pressure on the shoulder joints.
The EZ bar can be used for arm exercises like bicep curls and skull crushers and is less strenuous on the wrist than other kinds of barbells. Additionally, it supports a wide range of grips and is more comfortable all around.
Benefits Of Using Dumbbells
Dumbbells offer more range of motion (ROM) and freedom of movement than a comparable barbell exercise, whether you’re using one or two at once. Let’s use the bench press with a barbell and a dumbbell to demonstrate these ideas.
Your range of motion (ROM) is only as wide as the bar when it touches your chest at the bottom of the lift when using a barbell. Due to the lack of a bar at chest level, you can lower your hands when using dumbbells. Increased joint mobility is the obvious advantage of greater ROM. “Many individuals and athletes have limited mobility in joints like the shoulders, elbows, and wrists, so dumbbells can offer a more movement-friendly motion and help restore that mobility,” says Even-Esh.
When using a barbell, your hands are in a fixed position; you cannot rotate your wrists or otherwise alter the orientation of your hands during a set. Dumbbells, however, allow you to freely move your hands independently and rotate your wrists at any point during the movement. If you have injuries that flare up when you lift with a barbell, this is a crucial benefit. Dumbbells may not cause you to feel the same joint pain that barbell lifts do because they let your arms and legs follow their own best routes. Therefore, using dumbbells rather than a barbell allows for greater possibility of injury prevention, rehabilitation, and general more joint-friendly strength training.
In comparison to barbell exercises, ROM and freedom of movement can also be extremely important for assisting you in gaining more muscle.
“You can look at this as a sliding scale,” says Rusin. “The highest level of rotational requirement, where we can truly explore space, is bodyweight training. And then on the other end of the spectrum is machine training, where you essentially lock yourself into place, have little to no freedom of movement, and move a weight from point A to point B on a strict range of motion through a specific pattern. On a scale, dumbbell exercises are more comparable to bodyweight exercises than barbell movements are. Despite the many benefits of both pieces of equipment, dumbbell exercises are preferred if you want to bulk up, especially when working in the 8–12 rep hypertrophy range.”
Muscular balance from side to side (left to right) can be achieved by using dumbbells, which is another important advantage. Your stronger arm can make up for your dominant one when performing a barbell exercise. Your ability to lift the weight may be aided by doing this, but any imbalances you may already have will only be exacerbated, possibly even resulting in injury. The stronger arm cannot compensate for the weaker one when using dumbbells because each side carries its own weight. Although unilateral exercises can be used to further isolate each side, particularly the weaker one, this is still relevant when doing bilateral dumbbell exercises (both arms lifting the weights at the same time).
A lagging side can be quickly identified and corrected with dumbbell training. “Using dumbbells develops unilateral strength, which can help bring up your weaker side [usually your non-dominant side],” says Owner and competitive amateur bodybuilder Bill Shiffler of Philadelphia’s CrossFit Renaissance (crossfitrenaissance.com). “Overall, this will be advantageous and will also allow you to lift more weight with a given movement when you load up a barbell. Bench presses with dumbbells, for instance, can strengthen bench presses with barbells.”
Dumbbells can also be used for a variety of isolation (single-joint) exercises, including chest flyes, delt raises, and triceps kickbacks. If maximizing muscle growth is your goal, you cannot exclusively use a barbell to perform these moves. These exercises often get bashed for not being “functional,” but even non physique-focused lifters should make some use of them. They can influence overall performance and injury resistance and are very effective at targeting specific muscles.
“There’s huge value and ROI to performing isolation movements, regardless of what your goals are,” says Shiffler. “Barbells simply cannot penetrate muscles the way dumbbells can.”
Dumbbells are available in various sizes and shapes, just like the barbell. From squats and deadlifts to hammer curls, seated calf raises, and reverse flies, they can be used for both compound and isolation exercises. Since they allow for unilateral movements, they can help improve your form and correct muscle imbalances.
Depending on your preferences, you can opt for adjustable for fixed-weight dumbbells. These can be further broken down into several categories, including:
- Fixed hex dumbbells
- Fixed rubber/urethane/chrome dumbbells
- Studio dumbbells
- Spin-lock dumbbells (adjustable)
- Dumbbells with adjustable resistance (Ironmaster, Bowflex, Powerlocks, etc.)
Spin-lock dumbbells, for example, are a popular choice for at-home workouts. You can change the weight and they are essentially unbreakable.
Selectorized dumbbells, by comparison, look and feel like fixed ones and make it easy to increase or reduce the weight due to their advanced locking mechanisms. But one of the biggest deterrents to them is their price.
Dumbbells: Are They Safer Than Barbells?
When compared to barbells, dumbbells are less awkward to use and don’t allow you to use the same kind of crushing weight. They mostly also lend themselves to safer activities. For instance, even Even-Esh and Shiffler believe that the one-arm dumbbell snatch is a safer variation than the more challenging Olympic barbell snatch. However, this does not imply that dumbbell exercises are injury-free. When performing triceps extensions, presses, or curls with dumbbells, poor form can cause injury just as easily as when using a barbell. “Thinking that dumbbells are an inherently safer implement to use in your program can be a mistake,” says Shiffler.
By pushing the range of motion on dumbbell chest presses or flyes too far, for example, it’s not unusual to pull or tear a pec. And even just getting into position for those exercises—rocking back onto the bench to get into position or rocking back to a seated position at the end of a set—can be challenging.
Having said that, the barbell should generally be given more respect. “Any athlete and individual must earn the right to train with a barbell,” says Even-Esh. “Squats, deadlifts, military presses, bench presses, snatches, and cleans call for a strong base of strength and proficiency in proper movement. I want to see a strong foundation established through calisthenics, resistance-band work, sled work, dumbbells, and kettlebells before someone can perform basic barbell lifts.”
It’s just that the barbell is a more harsh tool. The path of your range of motion is severely constrained because there is no room to modify your hand/arm position during a set. You risk getting hurt if your shoulders, knees, or lower back are not up to the task. Because of this, back squats and deadlifts cause far more back injuries than their equivalent exercises using dumbbells.
“I suggest staying clear of a barbell if you’re someone who already has a great deal of injuries, or if you have noticeable muscle imbalances, as a barbell can tend to make the imbalances more prominent,” says Iron House, a home-gym design and remodeling business in Alpine, New Jersey, is owned by Jim Ryno (Iron-House.co). “When a client wants to perform 1RM attempts and is primarily interested in serious strength gains, I tend to lean toward using a barbell.”
Are The Muscles Used By Barbells And Dumbbells Different?
You will always work the same target muscles in any exercise, whether you use a barbell or dumbbells. For instance, the quadriceps are the main muscle group worked in both a barbell back squat and a dumbbell goblet squat, with the glutes and hamstrings also getting some attention. The biceps are worked by both barbell and dumbbell curls. However, depending on how your body moves—and as already mentioned, you move differently when using dumbbells versus a barbell—the degree of activation will change.
For instance, form requires that your torso be more upright when performing the dumbbell goblet squat than when performing a back squat. That emphasizes the quads and de-emphasizes the glutes and hamstrings for many people. When curling dumbbells, you have the option to supinate (twist) your wrists outward as you bring the weight up, whereas curling a straight bar does not allow you to do this. Consequently, your biceps and forearm muscles may be more fully activated.
Apart from different movement paths and ranges of motion, dumbbell exercises differ from barbell moves in one major way: they utilize more “stabilizer” muscles than barbell variations, due to the greater involved with ROM and freedom of motion. When coaches and trainers refer to stabilizers, they typically mean relatively small muscles, such as the gluteus minimis and piriformis in the hip area or the rear delts, rotator cuff, serratus anterior, and levator scapula in the upper body.
Since stabilizers are smaller and weaker than prime movers like the pecs, lats, quads, and glutes, the less you have to rely on them during an exercise, the more weight you’ll be able to move. You’re only as strong as your weakest link, so when using dumbbells instead of a barbell for a particular movement, your stabilizers are the limiting factor.
Therefore, it can be said that barbell exercises maximize the larger muscles while dumbbell exercises activate more muscles overall (both large and small). The latter, however, is not necessarily the best for gaining size.
“I’m really not a huge believer that the barbell deadlift, squat, and bench press are really best to build muscle, just because of the way they fit on the body,” says Rusin. “We tend to get better peak targeting of muscles and a stronger mind-muscle connection when we are not locked into a position during these exercises, which restricts our natural rotation through space (or freedom of movement). When we lock that rotation, our attention naturally shifts to a strength emphasis pattern, with the objective of moving a load from point A to point B becoming more the overall objective.”
Rusin prefers dumbbells over barbells, as implied, and bases this preference on the quality of the movements.
“I tend to not program barbell moves for anything over around 6 repetitions,” he says. “The barbell has the highest loading capacity, but poor movement quality is what prevents most people from performing longer rep ranges. On heavy barbell lifts, people frequently falter in the midsection, and the core is the first muscle group to wear out and develop a weakness, usually after you’ve completed about six repetitions. You can build muscle using any rep scheme, but working in the 8–12 rep range is crucial because, first, the weight is heavy enough to create mechanical tension, and second, the sets are long enough to keep the muscles under tension for the duration necessary to significantly increase metabolic stress in the tissue—another factor for growth. That’s what actually produces the supposedly ideal stimulus for muscle gain (hypertrophy).”
In other words, combine low-rep barbell work with high-rep dumbbell work to create the ideal environment for muscle growth.
Barbells Vs. Dumbbells FAQs
Can You Build Muscle With Dumbbells Instead Of Barbells?
Barbell exercises use fewer stabilizer muscles than dumbbell exercises do. Because of this, most people can lift more weight with a barbell than they can with two dumbbells put together. Barbells allow bodybuilders to lift more weight than dumbbells do.
What Are The Distinctive Features Of Dumbbells And Barbells?
Although you can use dumbbells for some exercises, a barbell is required for others. The ability to lift heavier weights is another advantage of using barbells. A barbell can carry more weight than a dumbbell because it is handled with two hands rather than one, making it safer to use with heavier weights.
What Advantages Are There To Purchasing Dumbbells As Opposed To Barbells?
The Benefits of Using Dumbbells Whether you use one or two dumbbells at once, using dumbbells gives you more strength, flexibility (ROM), and mobility than a barbell exercise.
It matters less whether you choose the barbell curl or the dumbbell curl as long as you have a goal in mind and continue to work toward it. A balanced mix of barbells and dumbbells is the most reliable way to get the best of both worlds because a wider range of motion, correcting muscle imbalances, and compound lifts are all essential components of every training regimen.