Comparing barbells vs dumbbells is something that a lot of people think about. So in this post we’re going to tackle the questions of whether it’s better to use barbells or dumbbells for your free weights workout, whether it’s at home or in the gym.
Of course, there’s no simple answer, since everyone has different workout goals and different body compositions. So let’s dissect this topic into a few important sections.
Barbells vs Dumbbells? Depends on your Goals
To decide whether dumbbells or barbells are better for you, we need to think about your workout preferences and what is important to you in your strength training regimen. Here are some of the factors that go into deciding what kind of strength training equipment is best for you:
#1 The Safety Factor
When you hit the gym, your number one priority is probably lifting heavier and performing more sets than last time. However, safety should also be a critical factor when choosing the best strength training equipment – especially if you workout with free weights alone with no-one to spot you.
Using improper form, pushing through injuries, or lifting too heavy can make you more susceptible to strength training injuries. Picture yourself performing a chest press then you suddenly realize you don’t have the upper body strength to hold the weight. There’s very little options other than to push through the pain (putting you at a high risk of injury) or quickly flipping over to onto your side to drop the weight (putting you at a risk of a spinal injury).
However, if you were in this same position with dumbbells, you’d have much more leeway to drop the two individual weights next to you to release your arms. Dumbbells also require you to lift them up from the rack, allowing you to judge the weight from the get go, and helping you to avoid this scenario.
#2 Which Kind of Weights are Most Joint Friendly – Barbells or Dumbells?
If you have weak or sensitive joints and are conscious of preventing joint injuries and pain (which you always need to take into account with your free weights workouts), dumbbells are definitely the winner.
Barbells have a fixed range of motion that can force your joints to move in an unnatural direction. They don’t allow you to move to the side, which can result in immobility issues and irritate recent injuries. Dumbbells create fewer chances of injury as they don’t have a handle that could cause joint or tendon issues. Free weights don’t lock your hands into a fixed position, allowing you to rotate to find the most comfortable and natural position.
#3 Which is Best for Building Strength and Mass?
If you want to increase your muscle mass and raw strength, barbells are better than dumbbells. They have a heavier maximum weight, enabling you to reach a bigger goal in the long-term.
Barbell Exercises use fewer stabilizer muscles than free weights, which allows you to lift much heavier than using two dumbbells. For developing full body strength and power, and for building huge mass, your main goal should be to lift as heavy as possible. But if you’re looking to improve the definition of specific muscles, or build strength in certain movement, barbells will not be as effective as dumbbells.
If you want to increase the size and strength of your bicep muscles, performing bicep curls with a barbell will improve your results compared to using separate dumbbells. The restriction of movement that barbells provide actually benefits you in strength training as you are unable to rotate your wrists (doing so can cause injury), requiring your body to only use large muscle groups at one time.
When lifting a heavy barbell, the weight is evenly distributed, allowing you to have more stability throughout your movements. In simple terms, your body isn’t wasting any energy, allowing you to put your heart and soul into lifting more. Studies have found that you can lift 20 percent more with a barbell than a dumbbell.
#4 Muscle Activation
Perhaps you’re looking to tone-up your entire body and want to get the most out of your workouts with free weights. Each time you pick up a dumbbell, you’re working more muscles at the same time compared to a barbell.
For example, during a dumbbell goblet squat, you have the ability to twist your wrists outward as you lift the weight up, enabling you to activate your biceps and forearm muscles. If you performed this move with a barbell, you would be restricted on supinating your wrists (and for safety, you shouldn’t twist with a barbell), resulting in fewer muscles working at the same time.
Dumbbell exercises use more stabilizer muscles, too, thanks to the greater freedom of movement involved. Though these might be small muscles, it’s best to work them than not to. This can result in lifting lighter weights compared to a barbell, but free weights can target more muscles at one time in a single movement and help you focus on stability.
#5 Variety of Dumbbell Exercises vs Barbell Exercises
Another huge consideration when choosing dumbbells vs barbells is the variety of movements you are able to do during your strength workout. Simply put, there are exercises you can perform with dumbbells that you simply cannot with a barbell. For example, lateral raises, chest flies, rear delt flies, one-arm swings, alternating bicep curls, goblet squats, and more.
These popular exercises don’t just focus on one part of your body, so it’s not a case of saying upper-body workouts should only be dedicated to barbells, for example. So, if versatility is important to you during workouts, dumbbells are the overall winner.
Plus, the barbell vs dumbbells argument also focuses on choosing one type of free weights equipment for your workouts and being without the other. Therefore, you’d have to limit some exercises from your workouts altogether.
It’s also worth pointing out that for a workout to really push you, there should be minimal rest time. And every second should be spent catching your breath rather than adjusting your weight on the barbell as you switch from bicep curls to squats. Dumbbells are much easier to pick up and switch weights without having to adjust them.
So Which is Better – Dumbbells or Barbells?
We’d love to offer one answer to everyone, but the versatility and complexity of the barbell vs dumbbells argument isn’t that simple. Instead, focus on your key goals from the sections above and select the winner weight based on these categories.
There are benefits and weaknesses to both types of weight and careful considerations and safety measures you should bear in mind. If you wish to increase your upper body strength, barbells allow you to do that. Although, you shouldn’t increase the weight all of a sudden as you’re more prone to injuries than using dumbbells.
Barbells are perfect for engaging your stabilizer muscles to target more muscles with one movement. However, you can’t lift as heavy, which makes them less effective for muscle gain.
The verdict? We recommend using a combination of dumbbells and a barbell for different moves and to help you reach your goals. This versatility enables you to concentrate on your safety while building muscle mass and pushing yourself during free weights workouts.
You should also try using resistance bands, which offer a safer workout than free weights but are just as effective for your strength workout.
Check out our blog and our YouTube channel for the most effective resistance band workouts: