There are two pieces of weightlifting equipment that have been elevated to godlike status. If you have ever spent time inside a gym, you will most likely have used both. But which is better?
If you enter two separate gyms and ask the lifters at each, you will get different answers every time. This is because both barbells and dumbbells are incredibly versatile and useful pieces of equipment.
Table of Contents
- Barbells vs. Dumbbells - Which is better for Overall Strength?
- A Brief History of Dumbbells and Barbells
- Why Free Weights are King
- Different Kinds of Dumbbells
- Different Kinds of Barbells
- The Pros: Dumbbells - Range of Motion Excellence
- The Pros: Barbells - The Mass Builder
- Compound Lifts
- Barbells vs. Dumbbells- Do They Use Different Muscles?
- Double Trouble - Utilize Both!
Barbells vs. Dumbbells - Which is better for Overall Strength?
For hundreds of years, people have used both barbells and dumbbells to increase their strength, size, and explosive power. They are both incredibly effective, which has led to numerous arguments on which tool has the most functionality. Which one is best to use during this exercise and which is best to use during that exercise.
These questions cannot be answered simply; there are too many variables at play. In one situation, you might want to use one, in the other, the other.
This article is going to be an in-depth guide. We will discuss the pros and cons of both, as well as what situations you should use them both in.
A Brief History of Dumbbells and Barbells
The ancient Greeks were the first to develop the dumbbell. Back then, they were used by long-jumpers to give them more forward momentum during their jumps.
During the 1800s, they were engineered to look more like the dumbbell we use today, with one weight on each side and a handle in the middle. They became popular due to the ability for a much more flexible range of motion.
The initial barbell was the "Globe" design with two huge spheres on either side that looked like planets. These were quickly phased out for the modern plate system.
By the end of the 1800s, weightlifting was so popular that it became an Olympic sport. Fast forward 30 years, and a young German man created the revolving steel barbell. This was quickly adopted and became the Olympic standard bar that we use today.
Why Free Weights are King
When we first enter the gym, many of us gravitate to the fancy-looking machines instead of the scary-looking free-weight section, full of grunting hulks utilizing the power rack.
These machines are usually great for beginners; they allow you to get that mind-muscle connection that is so important for weightlifting.
Once you begin to evolve in both ability and knowledge, you quickly realize that free weights are the king of the gym. They are the best way to achieve your goals. They give you a better range of motion and are much more effective at progressive overload.
This is where we start to get to grips with the big compound lifts that are a crucial core of any lifter's workout.
Different Kinds of Dumbbells
In a commercial gym, you might run into two types of dumbbells in the free weights section. The first is the traditional fixed-weight dumbbell. They usually come in sets from 5lbs to 100lbs+. They cannot be adjusted, but it doesn't matter because you have the whole range to choose from.
You also might find adjustable dumbbells. These comprise a detachable handle and a range of weight plates. To choose the amount of weight you want to lift you simply slot your handle into the weight.
While adjustable dumbbells are good for their versatility, when you get to the heavier weights, you will want to use fixed weights as the adjustable ones can be a little wobbly. This will be a problem if you have any muscle imbalances.
Different Kinds of Barbells
Fixed-weight barbells are common in commercial gyms. They usually only range from 10lbs to around 40-50. These are great for beginners as they are very secure and do not require you to change the weights. This makes it easier for beginners to get used to barbell exercises like the curl and press.
Next, you have the standard Olympic barbell. This is the most common form of barbell and will most likely be the one you use the most often. In the middle of the bar, there is a crisscross knurl that provides grip.
These are called the "Straight Bars."
Next, you have a range of different designs used for targeting specific muscle groups. You have the EZ bar, which is great for bicep curls and skull crushers, or the trap bar, which is an incredible tool for safe deadlifts.
The Pros: Dumbbells - Range of Motion Excellence
In most exercises, dumbbells have one significant advantage over their brother. Using a dumbbell gives you much greater freedom and range of motion.
If you look at an exercise such as the bench press, which can be done with both pieces of equipment, you will see why.
Having more freedom and the ability to control your movements makes dumbbell workouts a lot safer than barbell exercises, especially for beginners.
You can dump the weight without much risk if you start to fail. This also means you can train harder without a spotter. This is what makes the dumbbell bench press so great.
Finally, dumbbell exercises allow you to isolate both sides of your body. This is perfect for training imbalances. If you feel one side of your body is weaker than the other during essential lifts like the bench press, using dumbbell exercises can help level out your muscle imbalances.
The Pros: Barbells - The Mass Builder
While the dumbbell is perhaps the more versatile piece of equipment, the barbell has its own benefits. Using a barbell will usually lead to a bigger gain in lean muscle mass and strength.
They are also a lot better for progression as you can load them up with plates as small as 1lb. This makes the barbell incredibly efficient when it comes to progressive overload. This is why everyone loves the barbell bench press.
Another benefit, which is one of the reasons why so many people love the barbell, is that you can lift heavier weights. Using both sides of your body allows you to lift stronger and more secure. They are easier to position, and the lifts are usually simpler to accomplish, with less risk of instability.
Compound lifts are movements that utilize as many muscle groups as possible. This allows us to build strength in multiple muscles at once. They also give us a lot more stabilization and improve co-ordination and mind-muscle connection in an incredible way.
Squats - THE ESSENTIAL LIFT - Improves size and range of motion
Squats are perhaps the most important of the compound lifts and are almost symbolic in nature. A heavy-weighted barbell or dumbbell drops you down, and you have to give everything to push yourself back up.
In this compound lift, we prefer to use a barbell. This is an exercise where you want to be able to go as heavy as you possibly can, and utilizing a barbell is the way to do this.
Deadlift - Full Body Strengthener
No exercise solicits such a hearty groan from experienced lifters as the deadlift. This lift utilizes a massive percentage of your back muscles, as well as your quads and hamstrings. Deadlifts cause more injuries than any other compound lift. For beginners, a trap bar will be the best piece of equipment to use, but as you progress, you should swap to using a barbell.
Bench Press - Chest Day is the Best Day
The bench press is perhaps the most loved of all of the compound lifts. You lie on a bench and lift either a barbell or two dumbbells away from your body. It's simple and extremely effective. While this exercise gives more satisfaction when you are using a barbell, we prefer to use dumbbells to make use of the fuller range of motion. This also removes the need for a spotter.
Military Press - Shoulder Savagery
The military press is one of the best exercises for building those boulder shoulders. It is a tough lift that requires balance and strength. If you are doing standing military presses, using a barbell will feel more natural. If you are doing seated military presses, dumbbells are a lot safer.
Leg Press- Explosive Power
If you want to build explosive power in your legs, utilizing squats and leg press in your leg day routine will give you the best results.
Curl - Bicep Bulge
There is nothing as showy as doing bicep curls with a barbell in the squat rack... don't be that guy. While curling with a bar will allow you to lift heavier, the range of motion is limited. This will mean that your biceps aren't as activated as they are during a dumbbell curl. For this reason, we prefer to use dumbbells to get that full extension.
Bent-Over Row - Pull, not push.
For your lats, forearms, and biceps, the bent-over-row works wonders. This makes it the perfect compound lift for back and biceps splits and for training grip strength. This is an exercise that we feel has to be done with a barbell; it just doesn't feel right any other way.
Barbells vs. Dumbbells- Do They Use Different Muscles?
For most exercises that can be done with both a dumbbell or a barbell, you will engage the same muscles either way.
Both the barbell bench press and the dumbbell bench press, for example, will engage the chest and triceps. Both forms of bicep curls work the biceps.
The thing that might change is the level of activation and stabilization. You will get more activation in your glutes during dumbbell squats, for example.
Double Trouble - Utilize Both!
The best way to leverage the benefits of both tools is to craft a workout routine that utilizes both of them.
For 4-8 weeks, you should utilize a heavy barbell workout, using a barbell for your compound lifts, then using dumbbells for supporting exercises due to their incredible range of motion.
After 4-8 weeks, swap it around. Start by doing your compound lifts with dumbells and then doing supporting work with a barbell.
Swapping your workouts like this has a huge range of benefits:
Plateau Busting - Building Muscle and Losing Weight
If you are stuck at either a strength or fat loss plateau and your workout seems to have lost its effectiveness, swapping up your routine can work wonders.
Our bodies are incredibly adept when it comes to normalizing what we do every day. If you use the same workout for months on end, your body begins to adapt to it.
So, swap it up and reap the benefits!
If you are prone to injury during a specific lift, you could relieve a lot of the pressure by swapping your workout. If you start to get sore elbows or joints from lifting heavy on the bench with a barbell, switching to dumbbells can prevent over-working those joints.
Beat Your PR's
If you have stalled and are not progressing as much anymore, it may be due to weak stabilizer muscles. This happens regularly when people do not do supporting workouts for their main lifts.
If your main lift utilizes a barbell, swapping to a dumbbell can help train weak parts of the body, bringing them up to scratch.
If your main lift utilizes a dumbbell, swap to a barbell as you will be able to overload your muscles and lift a little heavier.
Barbells and dumbbells. Both have a pedigree in the weightlifting world; we wouldn't be where we are now without them.
Perfecting our bodies and our minds requires us to take a proactive approach towards our education. Hopefully, after reading this article, you will now have the knowledge to make the most of your training.