November 09, 2020 10 min read

As two of the most common free weights, the barbell versus dumbbell debate has raged on for decades with no signs of stopping.

Without a machine in sight, your muscles are challenged in new ways with these two types of free weights, ensuring that your stabilizers put in their fair share of work as well. But as you can probably already guess, the ubiquity of the barbell and the dumbbell would never have gone this far if they weren’t both useful in their respective ways. 

And as always, it comes down to your individual goals. The barbell versus dumbbell debate can only be answered by one person: you. Below is the information you need to make your decision. 

Where Did They Come From?

We can thank the Greeks for a lot of things, and the dumbbell is one of them. First recorded around 700 BC, dumbbells (or “halteres”) were used by long jumpers to swing backward and then forward before jumping.

The term “dumbbell” comes from the 1700s when the clappers of church bells were allegedly removed and used for the exercise. Since the bells were now silent, the word “dumb-bell” was born. Their popularity took off alongside the similarly popular “Indian clubs” which we still have to this day with steel training clubs.

Then came the barbells in the 1800s, although we’re not quite sure exactly when and where. The originals looked like the old-timey spherical barbells where sand was poured into either end for the load. By 1928, the German’s had come up with what we all know and love today—the revolving sleeve barbell.

However, not all free weights are built equal.

Dumbbell Variations

Dumbbells come in all shapes, sizes, and sometimes even colors. Their shape and ease of use make them extremely adaptable to a wide variety of exercises—even those not traditionally done with dumbbells.

For example, turning a barbell bench press into a dumbbell bench press. Or how about turning a bodyweight exercise such as the chin-up into a weighted one? Just wrap your legs around the dumbbell.

Their two most basic forms are fixed-weight dumbbells and adjustable dumbbells. As their names suggest, the former has a set weight that you can’t change and the latter allows you to change the load. Some dumbbell varieties include:

  • Fixed hex dumbbells
  • Studio dumbbells
  • Selectorized dumbbells
  • Spin-lock dumbbells
  • Fixed rubber/chrome dumbbells

Generally, the adjustable ones are more useful for home gym workouts.

People working out with barbells in a gym.

The Different Types of Barbell 

The conventional barbell is the 45-pound, 7-foot, Olympic barbell found in any self-respecting gym. These are obviously considered adjustable since the ends are meant to fit standard Olympic plates. While these are the de facto barbell, there are several other varieties as well.

For one, there are the shorter fixed-weight barbells that are usually reserved for exercises that don’t require much weight, or for beginners. With these, the name of the game is convenience.

Depending on the type of gym you go to, you might be surprised to find out how vast the world of barbells really is:

  • Olympic barbells
  • Standard barbells
  • Hex barbells
  • EZ barbells
  • Powerlifting barbells
  • Deadlift barbells
  • Axle barbells

…to name just a few. But now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s take a look at the dumbbell and barbell in relation to one another.

Dumbbells and Barbells

The major difference here is how you’re able to use each piece of equipment. Every other difference, benefit, and drawback stems from this.

With the barbell, you’ll (almost) always be using it by grasping it with both hands. This allows you to move a greater amount of weight and gives you more control over it as well. This means fewer stabilizer muscles are needed, and your larger muscles take the brunt of the force. We’ll talk about this more later, but at the end of the day, the barbell will allow you to lift heavier.

Dumbbells on the other hand require each side of your body to move unilaterally to move the weight. Whether you have a dumbbell in one hand or both, your arms are going to have to move separately. This requires a lot more stabilization muscles to be engaged, and you’re also not going to be able to activate the big muscles. 

However, this does allow you to hit each side individually, therefore making sure your muscles have left/right symmetry. And if you use just one dumbbell at a time, your core will also be engaged to keep you stable throughout the motion.

Let’s take a closer look at each individual weight.

All About Dumbbell Exercises

We’ll start off with the point we just mentioned above. Dumbbells allow you to train unilaterally, which means a couple of different things.

For one, each side of your body will be able to develop on its own. Each one of us has a stronger and weaker side, and if your arms are connected to the same bar, your stronger side will also make up for the weaker at least a bit—no matter how hard you try. Since they’re separate, dumbbells fix this issue. But what does it mean for you?

There’s the aesthetic dimension. If your right arm is obviously more jacked than the left, it’s going to be a slow and painful process trying to correct that with a conventional barbell (and lifts that require one). That’s not a problem with dumbbells.

But also there’s the strength dimension. Every lift you do is going to be limited by something. In a perfect world, it would always be limited by the muscle group you’re trying to engage—but that’s not always the case. If one side of your body is significantly weaker than the other, that’s going to be the limiting factor when it comes to your lifts. So, it follows that if you correct that imbalance, you’ll effectively improve a bunch of your lifts in one fell swoop.

The second aspect of “separated weights” is the mobility factor—namely, your range of motion (ROM). With the barbell bench press, for example, the movement bottoms out when the bar touches your chest. This isn’t actually your full range of motion, however. 

Since your ROM is limited by the barbell, you’re not able to stretch the necessary muscle fibers as much as you’d otherwise be able to. Furthermore, it does nothing for developing your joint mobility and overall flexibility.

With dumbbells, that becomes a non-issue since there is no bar as a limiting factor. You can go down as far as you want in the movement, and you’ll get a full, deep stretch in your muscles and joints. This can help you avoid injuries over the long term and improve your bigger lifts in the short term.

A More Natural Movement

The increased mobility with using dumbbells also allows for a more natural movement pattern when you’re doing exercises.

Since your arms aren’t attached to a bar, you can independently rotate your wrists throughout each motion. This allows your joints and limbs to go through more natural motions during a lift, instead of having to follow the path the bar takes. The fact that the EZ bar exists is a testament to that fact. 

In terms of longevity, this means that you’ll avoid any joint pain and injuries over the long term due to stress and unnatural movement patterns. This factor goes hand-in-hand with injury prevention and rehabilitation.

Furthermore, the motions you're able to perform with dumbbells allow for several isolation exercises that you normally wouldn’t be able to do with a barbell. Exercises such as lateral raises and triceps kickbacks can only really be done with a dumbbell. And while they’re sometimes criticized for not providing any functional benefits, they’re still terrific at targeting specific muscle groups.

A man working out with dumbbells in a gym.

Dumbbells and Safety

There’s a lot to say about dumbbells and safety—at least as they relate to barbells.

Since barbells use more weight, it makes sense that they’ll be more dangerous. Especially if you’re doing a heavy bench or squat, there’s a lot less room for mistakes than if you were using dumbbells, which is why a spotter is always useful. But it doesn’t just come down to the weight.

Using a barbell puts you on a set path during the lift and there’s little space for changing your grip or posture. The opposite is true for dumbbells since you can always adjust or even throw the weights down to your side. They’re much more forgiving and there’s always a way out if you’ve done something wrong.

However, that also doesn’t mean we should run into dumbbell workouts without a care

It’s necessary to use proper form with dumbbells since that can affect the long-term health of your joints and also your immediate safety. While the increased ROM with dumbbells is generally a good thing, if you go down too far in a dumbbell bench press you can tear a pec, for example. Due diligence is required and a firm grasp on how far you can push your body.

All About Barbell Exercises

Barbells are all about brute strength, so there’s not as much to say about them as dumbbells—especially since we’ve already brought up barbells as they relate to dumbbells. 

With your hands gripping a single bar, strength is the major benefit of using a bar. There really isn’t a better way to duplicate it than with the good old barbell. This is particularly true when you’re looking at high-end strength. 

For one, barbells don’t require the use of stabilizers as much as dumbbells do. This allows your big muscles to take center stage and be the stars of the show. And since the lift isn’t limited by how strong your stabilizers are (aka, the little muscles), your bigger muscles are able to put in more effort. And the more effort they put in, the bigger they grow. 

The increased weight that we can load onto a barbell also means we’re able to work out at lower rep ranges. If you’re familiar with hypertrophy versus strength training, you know that strength training requires us to lift heavier weights at these lower rep ranges. You’ll never be able to challenge your muscles enough with a dumbbell if you’re looking for massive strength gains.

The heavier loads also lend themselves well to more complex, compound movements. Paired together, this makes barbell workouts especially efficient at gassing out your muscles. While dumbbells are excellent for getting into “hard to reach” muscles and properly engaging them, barbells do the opposite. They can challenge your biggest muscle groups (and multiple at a time) to a great extent, while also being capable of engaging several smaller muscle groups. 

When it comes to a bang-for-your-buck training regime, the barbell is difficult to argue with.

The Verdict

As we said at the beginning, there’s no penultimate “better” way to train when comparing dumbbells and barbells. They’re both useful in their own respects, and it’s always going to be up to the lifter to decide how to go about their training and building muscle. 

When it comes to the muscles worked, there are a few differences that you might want to consider taking into account. 

For one, using a dumbbell in place of a barbell will allow you to twist your wrists in different directions through a movement. This generally hits your muscles at different angles (or different heads) or is also good at working your forearms when it comes to doing certain curls.

The biggest difference, however, is in how many stabilizing muscles either piece of equipment uses. Dumbbells need quite a bit of stabilizers to keep the weight moving in the path it’s supposed to. Barbells, not so much.

That’s part of the reason you’re going to be able to lift more weight with a barbell than with the dumbbell. It also means that dumbbells will engage a greater scope of muscles (in terms of the target muscles and stabilizers); while a barbell will hit your biggest muscles, harder. This will dictate where the most muscle growth happens. The bigger muscles are more obvious, so if you build muscle there it’s a definite way to gain mass.

The trick is in committing to a goal and walking the fine dumbbell/barbell line towards it. 

Exercises for Dumbbell Training 

To get you started on your dumbbell journey, we’ve assembled some of our favorite dumbbell exercises down below for you to try out.

Shoulder Press

Your shoulders can never get too big, so it’s a good idea to give them as much attention as possible.

The shoulder press primarily engages two parts of your delts, but muscles such as triceps, traps, and rotator cuffs are also used throughout the movement. 

To perform the shoulder press, stand tall while holding a pair of dumbbells. Your arms should be up with the dumbbells at about shoulder height and palms facing away from your body. Initiate the movement by pressing upward and twisting the palms to face each other.

Tricep Kickback

If you’re looking to fill out your shirt sleeves any time soon, developing the triceps is your ticket to the gun show. The triceps kickback is a fantastic way to gas out your triceps after a workout. 

Begin by standing upright with dumbbells in either hand. Slightly bend the knees and engage your core while you hinge forward at the waist. Your torso should end up being almost parallel to the floor. Initiate the movement by bringing the dumbbells backward so your arms and back form a straight line together. Pause at the top of the movement and slowly return to the starting position.

Exercises for Barbell Training

Deadlift

With so many different fantastic exercises to choose from, we’ve settled for the deadlift. It’s one of the best movements you can do to develop explosive power and full-body strength. It primarily focuses on the strength in your lower back, your grip, and the hips.

Begin by standing behind a bar with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Push your chest out and bend the hips backward. Your back should remain straight along with your head. Grab the bar with an overhand grip and pull your shoulders down and back. Initiate the lift by pressing your feet into the ground and continue until your hips lockout.

Barbell Row 

Chances are you’re already giving your chest a heavy workout regularly, but it’s also important to make sure that your back is getting just as good of a workout. The barbell row is the way to do so since it not only requires a strong pull starting from your back but also the strength to keep yourself in a bent-over position. This is a prime move for a strong back and strong core.

Begin by grasping the bar at shoulder-width apart, using an overhand grasp. First, bend your knees and then follow up with bending your hips. Your torso should be at about a 45-degree angle to the ground. Without moving your upper body or swaying, pull the bar up until it touches your stomach. Pause for a moment before slowly lowering it back down into the starting position. Make sure that your core is engaged throughout the entire movement.

A Workout Routine to Reach Your Goals

Whether you opt for the barbell curl or the dumbbell curl is less important than having a clearly defined goal and sticking on the path towards it. A greater range of motion, fixing muscle imbalances, and compound lifts are part of every training routine, so a healthy mix of barbells and dumbbells is the surest way to get the best of both worlds.

Just make sure you’re always putting muscle activation at the front of your mind and supporting it with enough recovery and wholesome foods. 


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