You are currently viewing The Great Debate: Barbells vs. Dumbbells in Strength Training

The Great Debate: Barbells vs. Dumbbells in Strength Training

  • Post author:
  • Post last modified:September 25, 2023

Now that the advantages of muscle-building training are receiving the recognition they merit, companies are unveiling more and more tools and equipment to assist you in incorporating resistance into your exercise routines — ankle weights, monkeyfeet, and hand weights, to mention just a few.

However, none of these ‘Instagrammable new fitness contraptions can surpass the tried-and-true originals found in the weight room: barbells and dumbbells.

Weight training with either barbells or dumbbells can decrease the risk of heart disease, enhance body composition, support weight reduction, increase bone density, support mental well-being, and more,” clarifies Rachel Straub, C.S.C.S., Ph.D., co-author of Weight Training Without Injury. These devices can also aid in gaining muscle mass, speeding up fat loss, and improving athletic performance, she states.

But are there situations when training with one type of weight would be superior to training with the other? In truth, yes. Occasionally, the barbell is preferable to the dumbbell, and vice versa. Ahead, strength and conditioning experts compare and contrast the dumbbell vs. the barbell. Here, you’ll discover the specific training advantages of each and when you should opt for one over the other.

What Are Barbells?

If you’ve ever witnessed a powerlifting or Olympic lifting meet, you are familiar with what a barbell is. The same goes if you’ve ever seen rows upon rows of metal rods on the wall of your gym or big-box fitness franchise.

But just in case, here’s a definition: Barbells are lengthy metal bars that are designed to hold weight plates on either end, which are secured by robust clips called collars. Accessible in a wide variety of weights — the most prevalent being 15-, 35-, and 45-pounds — this piece of equipment enables individuals to complete a range of strength exercises, such as barbell deadlift, barbell back squat, barbell clean and jerk, and barbell snatch, to mention only a few.

Barbells are also a piece of equipment employed in a variety of strength sports such as CrossFit, powerlifting, weightlifting, Strongman, and more.

Benefits of Barbells

Need some persuasion to incorporate this new tool into your workout routine? Continue reading. Once you become aware of the total-body, muscle-building, and sport-specific benefits of barbells, you’ll be persuaded to add barbells to your strength regimen asap.

Enable You to Lift Heavier and Heavier

Certainly, some gyms have 100-pound dumbbells lying around. And if you’re exceptionally strong, maybe you’re someone who hurls them around (applause). But broadly speaking, barbells enable individuals to lift more weight than dumbbells do.

The configuration of the barbell facilitates the ability to lift more weight,” clarifies Jake Harcoff, C.S.C.S., chief coach and owner of AIM Athletic. “Instead of needing to purchase a fresh set of dumbbells, you can conveniently include additional weight plates to the bar.”

Being able to consistently scale up the amount of weight lifted is vital since it challenges your muscles, according to Harcoff. Your muscle fibers adjust to the demands placed upon them, so if you want to keep making progress, you must continue to increase the weight. (For what it’s worth: This is commonly referred to as the principle of progressive overload).

Enhance Your Entire Body’s Strength

The majority of exercises performed with barbells are compound exercises (consider deadlifts, squats, bench presses, presses, etc.), which engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously. These multifunctional movements involving barbells “build greater functional strength, force, and power, and yield more value for your efforts in the gym,” shared trainer and physical therapist Bill Kelley, D.P.T., A.T.C, C.S.C.S., owner of Aeries Physical Therapy in South Florida, in a previous interview with Shape.

Utilized for Sport-Specific Training

You might be a former college athlete seeking a new athletic pursuit. Perhaps you are looking for a healthy outlet to channel your competitive spirit. Maybe you became intrigued after watching a weightlifting competition on ESPN.

Whatever the reason, if you have an interest in a sport like Olympic lifting or powerlifting, a barbell is essential. Trying to excel in either of these sports without a barbell would be akin to attempting swimming without a pool.

What Are Dumbbells?

A piece of equipment found in most gyms (yes, even in apartment and hotel gyms!), chances are you have encountered a dumbbell if you have ever set foot in a gym wearing sneakers. Dumbbells are a tool for strength training that consist of a short handle that is situated between two weights.

Advantages of Dumbbells

The perks of dumbbells extend far beyond the fact that they are readily available at most fitness centers. Here, discover why dumbbells are an excellent choice for individuals aiming to enhance their mobility, safeguard their bodies from injuries, and upgrade their home gym.

Enhances Your Range of Motion

By design, dumbbells enable individuals to move through broader ranges and planes of motion compared to barbells, according to Harcoff. “Dumbbells are not connected in the middle by a bar, which provides more degrees of freedom,” he explains.

The wider the range of motion you move a weight through, the more muscle fibers are activated. The outcome? Increased strength gains after recovery.

Let’s consider the dumbbell versus barbell bench press as an example. When performing a barbell bench press, you can only lower the bar until it touches your chest. However, when using dumbbells, you can lower them further, past your body, says Harcoff. The ability to lower the dumbbells more allows for a greater breakdown of the entire pectoral muscle fiber, making the dumbbell variation more effective in strengthening the entire chest musculature, he states.

Aid in Correcting Muscle Imbalances

Don’t resent the messenger, but it’s likely that one leg is stronger than the other, as well as one arm being stronger than the other.

Most individuals have a dominant foot that they lead with when walking or running, as well as a dominant arm (and hand) that they rely on for opening doors or picking things up off the ground, according to Straub. While some differences in strength between limbs are normal, a significant disparity can increase your risk of overuse injuries and hinder your performance in the gym — or worse, make your daily tasks more challenging.

Training with dumbbells can help uncover these muscle imbalances and assist individuals in addressing them, she explains. When you perform exercises such as the single-leg Romanian deadlift, the dumbbell overhead press, the dumbbell bench press, and dumbbell biceps curls, it will become apparent which side is weaker. Continuously training both sides using a weight and repetition scheme that the weaker side can handle will help bridge the strength gap, says Straub.

On the other hand, “during the barbell variation [of these movements], the stronger side can compensate for lifting more weight than the weak side, which will not actually rectify the imbalance between sides,” she adds.

Convenient to Add to Home Gyms

If you’re one of those fortunate individuals with an entire basement or carport that you can transform into a garage gym, this does not apply. However, most people cannot accommodate a barbell, a set of weight plates, or a squat rack in their residence. “Dumbbells are more obtainable for individuals who exercise at home, as they require less space and equipment compared to barbells,” states Straub.

Choosing Between a Barbell vs. Dumbbell

Need assistance in deciding which strength training tool suits you best? Here’s some guidance.

Ideal for Beginners: Dumbbells

Stepping into a weight room can be daunting regardless of your fitness level. However, what can be even more intimidating is entering the squat cage within the weight room and determining what to do inside it.

To clarify: Every individual, regardless of their experience level, belongs in the weight room and in the area of the weight room where they desire to be! Nonetheless, barbells necessitate some knowledge to be used safely, as improper form and lack of body awareness can lead to injury when lifting heavy equipment. To prioritize safety, Harcoff suggests that beginners seek the guidance of a personal trainer who can educate them on barbell usage. Alternatively, individuals can stick to using dumbbells for the time being.

Optimal for Muscle Growth: Barbell

If your primary focus is achieving significant muscle growth and the resulting strength (insert flexed-arm emoji here), the barbell is the ideal weight-room tool. “Since you can lift more weight with a barbell than with dumbbells, the barbell is the superior choice for muscle hypertrophy,” explains Straub.

Ideal for Those on a Budget: Dumbbells

For most individuals, solely owning a barbell does not offer many advantages. “If you purchase a barbell, you will also need weight plates and most likely a rack or squat rig,” notes Straub. While this may not be a big deal for those with unlimited financial resources, it can be a significant financial burden for individuals on a budget. That’s why she recommends dumbbells for individuals with limited spending capacity.

Ideal for Runners: Barbell

By now, most runners have heard that incorporating strength training into their routine is essential for achieving their running goals. Well, it’s true.

Strength training helps runners fortify their connective tissues, which helps prevent injuries, according to Harcoff. It also enhances overall power output, enabling you to sprint faster.

The barbell is a superior tool for improving power output, as it allows you to practice explosive movements like the clean, snatch, and jerk, which strengthen your fast twitch muscles.

Over time, this can enhance the velocity with which you transport behind to the end mark, affirms Harcoff. Additionally, due to the fact that barbells are simpler to augment weight to, they can possess a more substantial influence on your muscular fibers, as well as your additional connective tissues.

So, Which Is Superior – Barbells vs. Dumbbells?

Conversely, there are a handful of instances when a jogger will reap greater benefits from dumbbells. A jogger who is inexperienced in weight training, for instance, should adhere to dumbbells. That’s primarily because, for these novice lifters, a typical 45-pound barbell may be overly burdensome, he asserts, whereas the 5-, 10-, or 15-pound dumbbells obtainable at their gym are just ideal.

Dumbbells are also ideal for joggers who possess noticeable muscle asymmetry between their two legs. Once again, dumbbells are more adept at rectifying imbalances than barbells.

At the culmination of the day, it’s impractical to bestow the title of Best Strength Training Tool upon either the barbell or the dumbbell as they both merit the highest accolades. Nevertheless, your level of expertise, fitness objectives, and spatial requirements may render one of the implements more fitting for you individually when compared to the other. The barbell is most suited for athletes specializing in strength sports and those endeavoring to achieve substantial strength gains, while dumbbells are more advantageous for neophyte strength trainers, individuals seeking to diminish their susceptibility to injury, and those who engage in exercise within the confines of their home.

However, assuming you possess access to both strength tools, strive to incorporate both. “Both the dumbbells and barbells possess their merits, which expounds upon why the most comprehensive program encompasses both,” concludes Harcoff.