Free weights are often regarded as the most effective way of building muscle and improving your overall fitness.
But what kind of free weights should you use?
Should you primarily use barbell exercises or dumbbell exercises in your training? Should you mix them?
Today, our discussion pits barbells vs dumbbells.
Welcome to the fourth installment of the WCT Workout Routine Basics, where we cover the most fundamental questions you have always been wondering.
- In Part 1, How Often Should I Workout: Determine Your Optimal Training Frequency, we discuss the optimal amount of times you should exercise and do cardio based on your schedule and goals.
- In Part 2, The 3 Best Workout Splits Of All Time, we go over how to structure your workouts and give you examples of 2, 3, and 4-day templates.
- In Part 3, Free Weights Vs Machines: How To Decide Which One’s Right For You, we cover the pros and cons of the two types of weights and help you determine which you should use in your training.
I highly encourage that you check those out first if you haven’t already.
Today’s post is going to cover:
- The Pros and Cons of Barbells
- The Pros and Cons of Dumbbells
- The Best Barbell and Dumbbell Exercises
- How Much Barbell and Dumbbell Exercises Should You Use In Your Training
Alright, let’s get right to it.
Barbells Or Dumbbells, Which One Is Better?
Like many of the other questions we are answering in this series, it depends.
For the most part, barbells are slightly better than dumbbells in terms of building muscle, gaining strength and creating an efficient workout.
With that said, dumbbells do offer some unique advantages over barbells and are better in certain circumstances.
We will go over each one of these points in more detail.
Is There A Difference Between Barbells and Dumbbells?
First, just a couple of definitions.
A barbell is a 6-7 foot bar that can be loaded with external weight plates on either side.
Most Olympic barbells weigh anywhere from 35 to 45 lbs and can be loaded with enormous amounts of weight.
Barbell exercises, for the most part, are bilateral. This means that you have to train both sides of your body simultaneously when doing a barbell movement.
A dumbbell is a much smaller weight that usually comes with a fixed amount of weight. Dumbbells come in pairs, but they can be used individually or simultaneously.
You can find dumbbells as small as 1 lb each, and you can find really heavy dumbbells up to 200 lbs each. Most gyms only carry dumbbells up to 100 lbs.
As you might imagine, some exercises are best performed with a barbell, and others are best performed with a dumbbell.
Advantages of Barbell Exercises
Barbells provide several advantages over dumbbells. These include ease of use, improved ability to progressively overload certain exercises, and the advantage of being able to lift more weights.
Barbells also take up a lot less space than dumbbells and can be stored without much effort.
1) Barbells Are Very Simple To Use
Barbells are really simple to use. Whatever functional movement you can think of, it can be done by placing the barbell on your back, or in your hands.
With that said, it is important to note that you should be
- Healthy enough to use barbells (no significant injuries)
- Possess sufficient mobility to perform the barbell exercises
2) Barbell Are Easy To Scale/Progression
A barbell weighs anywhere from 35-45 lbs. You can also find smaller, lighter barbells that weigh 15 lbs.
You can then load them up with weights as light as 1 lbs plates, and as big as 100 lbs plates. This makes barbells ideal for progressive overload, as you can increase the weight on the bar slowly over time.
Dumbbells usually come in increments of 5 lbs, making it more difficult to increase the weight slowly.
3) Barbells Allow You To Lift Heavier Weights
You can always lift heavier weights with barbells. This is for multiple reasons.
- You can easily continue to add weight to the bar, (until you run out of room on the barbell sleeves, but most people reading this will never have that problem).
- Almost all barbell exercises require you to use both sides of your body simultaneously, which will always be stronger than either side individually
- Unlike dumbbells, barbells are easy to position. This is because barbells will either be on the floor, on a power rack or on a bench rack.
Dumbbell Vs Barbell Weight Comparison
It is extremely difficult to compare your barbell and dumbbell weights.
As a general rule of thumb, you will be able to lift anywhere from 15-25% more weight with a barbell than a dumbbell. This is primarily because it is much harder to lift heavy dumbbells than heavy barbells.
Advantages of Dumbbell Exercises
Dumbbells have their own unique advantages too.
In general, dumbbells give you a more natural range of motion, are generally safer to use, and help isolate each side of your body.
In addition, dumbbells can be used by themselves, not requiring any racks or benches.
1) Dumbbells Are Safe, Especially For Beginners
Dumbbells are an easy way to add resistance training to your exercise regimen. Unlike barbells, dumbbells generally require you to hold on to them in your hands at all times.
If you cannot perform the exercise, you can easily drop the dumbbells. As a result, you do not need to have a spotter.
With barbell exercises, you can get pinned by the weight if you are not careful.
2) Dumbbells Allow For More Exercise Variety
Because dumbbells are free to rotate independently, you can do several exercise variations by modifying your grip.
In addition, some exercises are better performed with dumbbells than with barbells.
For example, rows, lateral shoulder raises, and different curl variations are more comfortable with dumbbells.
3) Dumbbells Isolate Each Side Of Your Body
This advantage is obvious. Dumbbell bench presses will show you if you have any significant strength or stability imbalances between either side of your body.
Barbells, on the other hand, can hide discrepancies as almost all exercises use both limbs simultaneously.
4) Dumbbells Allow For A More Natural Range of Motion
You can always do dumbbells exercises with a much larger range of motion than you can with barbells.
The ability to rotate the dumbbells and move them in multiple dimensions will help you achieve more work with each repetition.
Other Barbell/Dumbbell FAQ
Are Dumbbells or Barbells Better For Mass / Bodybuilding?
Muscles are built by providing your body with a progressive stimulus, allowing for recovery, and then adapting to the stimulus.
Both barbells and dumbbells are sufficient at building muscle, but barbells are better.
This is because barbells allow you to progressively overload your body in an easy manner.
Anyone who has used heavy dumbbells knows how painful it is to use them (i.e. get into the starting position of the lift).
With that said, they are both great.
If you only have access to barbells, then use barbells. If you only have access to dumbbells, then use dumbbells.
But if you have access to both, you should use both.
Are Dumbbells or Barbells Better For Strength?
Barbells are slightly better than dumbbells for building strength.
You build strength by working in the 3-8 rep range.
Once you reach a certain level of strength, it will be difficult to get your dumbbells into the right position.
Which is Better For Chest / Bench Press?
Barbells and dumbbells are pretty much equivalent when it comes to chest exercises, but dumbbells are slightly better.
This is because dumbbells allow for a larger range of motion, which activates the chest more than the barbell alternatives.
In addition, there are more chest exercises that you can do with dumbbells (such as dumbbell flys and dumbbell pullovers) that you cannot do with barbells.
This is not to say that barbell chest exercises aren’t good.
Barbell chest exercises allow you to lift more weight, which will also provide a good amount of chest activation.
Which is Better For Biceps?
If bicep growth is your only goal, then dumbbells are better than barbells for biceps.
The biceps are a very small muscle, and benefit the most from specific bicep isolation exercises.
With that said, you should only focus a small percentage of your training on isolation exercises. You are far better off using compound exercises such as the barbell row for the majority of your training so that you could train multiple muscle groups at the same time.
Do Dumbbells Build More Muscle Than Barbells?
Muscle is gained when you use the principle of progressive overload.
Just as long as you are doing more weight, more reps, or more sets as time goes on, (and recovering and eating appropriately) you will build muscle.
You can do this with dumbbells, barbell, or your own body weight.
Which One Is Better For Beginners?
Barbells and dumbbells are equally good for beginners.
Learn how to use both types of weights when starting your exercise journey, as they both have their unique advantages.
How To Include Barbells and Dumbbells In Your Training
When setting up your exercise program, it is a pretty good idea to use both barbells and dumbbells in your training.
As with many things in the fitness world, there are many ways to skin the cat. You can do
- 80% barbell exercises, 20% dumbbells
Some exercises are much better performed with barbell exercises.
For example, you will get more out of the big four, The Squat, The Bench Press, The Deadlift and The Overhead Press if you do them with a barbell.
These are the movements (along with all of their variations) that respond the most progressive overload.
With that said, barbell exercises can be quite taxing to your body. This is why itâ€™s best to perform your barbell exercises first in the workout, followed by dumbbell exercises.
Additionally, if you would like to perform a much less intense workout, then you should primarily use dumbbell exercises. The beauty is, you can perform the same exercises with dumbbells as you would barbells.
Dumbbells are a simple way to give your body and your mind an easy alternative.
In The WCT Strength Program For Busy Professionals, we include a wide variety of both barbell and dumbbell exercises.
The Top 5 Barbell Exercises
1) The Squat (and its variations)
In order to reap the benefits of the most effective exercise known to us, you should perform The Squat with a barbell.
Again, this is assuming you have adequate mobility to perform this exercise with added resistance, and you do not have any significant injuries.
Can you squat with dumbbells?
Yes, but it wonâ€™t be as effective at building muscle and strength as barbell squats. Dumbbell squats are great for individuals who are rehabilitating an injury or want to perform a lighter, less intense squat variation.
Of these, Goblet Squats are probably the best.
2) The Bench Press (and its variations)
The Bench Press is one of those exercises that respond well to both barbell and dumbbell variations.
The barbell allows you to lift significantly heavier weights, however, it does lock your shoulders into a fixed position.
If you do not pay attention to proper shoulder and scapular placement while pressing (like we describe in the Bench Tutorial), then you can be placing your shoulders in a compromised position.
Can you bench with dumbbells?
The downside to Dumbbell Bench Press is that it becomes more difficult to get into the starting position as the dumbbells you lift get heavier and heavier.
3) The Deadlift (and its variations)
You simply cannot perform a major deadlift exercise with dumbbells and expect to get great results.
The Deadlift trains more muscle groups than any other exercise and (generally) allows you to lift the most amount of weight.
You simply cannot find dumbbells heavy enough to elicit the same stimulus.
The only acceptable deadlift alternative that can be done with dumbbells is the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift which we discuss below.
4) The Overhead Press
The last of the big four is the Overhead Press. This exercise is difficult!
The main benefit of performing a barbell overhead press is that it strengthens the shoulders and arm muscles while teaching core stability.
However, some individuals will find that their shoulder mobility may limit their ability to do overhead pressing with a barbell without joint discomfort.
In these cases, a dumbbell overhead press is perfectly acceptable.
The Top 5 Dumbbell Exercises
1) Incline Dumbbell Press
Of the dumbbell pressing exercises, the Incline Dumbbell Press is by far our favorite.
1) The incline angle changes the way your pressing muscles contract, which shifts the burden to your upper chest and shoulder muscles more than a flat bench press.
2) You can easily change the incline angle increasing the difficulty of the exercise while still providing a slightly different variation to the exercise.
2) Bent Over Row
There are about one thousand and one ways to perform a Dumbbell Row.
The simplest one is the Bent Over Single Arm Dumbbell Row.
In our opinion, dumbbells are superior to barbells for rowing exercises as it is much more comfortable to get into a good starting position with the dumbbell.
In addition, it decreases the chances of â€˜cheatingâ€™ or using excessive momentum to lift the weight which often happens during barbell rowing exercises.
3) Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Some people can only perform the overhead press with dumbbells.
This is because everyoneâ€™s shoulder joints are built differently, and have varying degrees of mobility.
Because the dumbbells allow your shoulders to rotate freely, you are less likely to be limited by your shoulder mobility.
In addition, you can rotate your shoulder and perform a neutral grip press which will train your shoulders in a different manner.
The only downside is that the Dumbbell Overhead Press becomes extremely difficult to perform as the weight becomes heavy.
4) Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
No list is complete without a solid posterior chain exercise. The best of the best is the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift.
Obviously, you wonâ€™t be able to lift a ton of weight with this exercise but you donâ€™t have to. This exercise trains the hamstrings, glutes, and low back muscles simultaneously.
In addition, you can do it one leg at a time to increase the demands of the movement, while also training core stability and balance.
5) Dumbbell Split Squat
The lunge is by far the easiest way to train your legs. Just like dumbbell rowing, there are numerous lunge variations you can perform to elicit different stimuli.
One of the most effective variations is the Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat.
It requires very little space and minimizes the hassle of awkward dumbbell positioning. You only have to keep the dumbbells held by your sides.
Just make sure that your technique is adequate, as we describe in the tutorial.
The Bottom Line On Barbells Vs Dumbbells
In order to reap the most benefit of strength training with resistance, it is ideal to use both barbells and dumbbells in your training.
Barbells are best for lower body exercises, to build strength and lift heavier weights.
Dumbbells are best for those who are rehabbing from an injury, for upper body exercises that have more mobility requirements, and to increase the number of variations you can perform on any given exercise.
If in doubt, start with a 50/50 split. Perform half of your exercises with barbells and the other half with dumbbells or your body weight.
And donâ€™t forget, barbell exercises are much harder than dumbbell exercises. Always perform them first in your workout.
Now we turn it over to you.
Do you prefer barbells or dumbbells?
What percentage of your workout uses barbells?
Which are your favorite dumbbell exercises?
Comment below and let us know!
Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT
Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, NASM Certified Personal Trainers, and founders of The White Coat Trainer: a resource dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy professionals using time-efficient strategies. Their advice has been featured in My Fitness Pal, Prevention, Livestrong, Reader’s Digest, Bustle, The Active Times, and more. Learn more about them here.