Some time ago, I wrote an article discussing whether free weight exercises (which use dumbbells and barbells) are better than machines. This is a topic that I’ve already covered here: The Truth About Free Weights and Machines.
However, if you only consider free weight exercises themselves, you recognize there is another debate to be had.
Which is best… Dumbbell exercises or barbell exercises?
In general, both types of exercises are equally effective for every weight training goal. However, as we delve deeper into the topic, the best answer depends on a few different factors.
This is because dumbbells and barbells each have their own set of pros and cons that can make each better or worse depending on the situation.
Dumbbell Exercises vs Barbell Exercises
Just to clarify; dumbbell exercises would refer to any type of exercise performed using dumbbells (dumbbell press, curl, squat, deadlift, etc.) and barbell exercises would refer to any type of exercise performed using barbells (barbell press, squat, deadlift, etc.) – I’m guessing most of you know that already.
Now let’s compare the pros and cons of each.
Dumbbells usually allow for more natural movement than a barbell. With dumbbells, your body isn’t set into a fixed position as you are with a barbell. This allows you to move each side individually to the other.
This lets your body to make the small adjustments it may need to ensure the movement is natural, comfortable and safe. This in turn helps prevent injury.
Example: The barbell shoulder press tends to bother my shoulders. The dumbbell shoulder press however feels absolutely fine. Why? I assume it’s because the dumbbells allow me to adjust the way I’m pressing the weights that I am unable to do with a barbell. I don’t have a problem with any other barbell exercise, but in this situation, dumbbells are better for me.
Dumbbells are safer and easier to use compared to a barbell in some situations. When performing certain leg exercises, it’s often easier to have dumbbells in your hand rather than a barbell on your back, especially if you’re a beginner and learning how to do exercises properly. This is especially relevant to single leg exercises such as lunges and split squats where maintaining balance is often the main focus. Also, dumbbells are safer when you don’t have a spotter and you don’t know your limits.
Example: If you get stuck bench pressing with a barbell, you’re in trouble. But if you get stuck bench pressing with dumbbells, you can just drop them by your sides. Of course, you can ask someone to spot you or do a better job of knowing when you’re near to failure, but in general dumbbells have an advantage when you have no spotter.
Dumbbells help improve strength and muscle imbalances better than a barbell. When using dumbbells you’re able to lift an equal amount of weight an equal amount of times. With a barbell, it’s normal that your stronger side will naturally take over during certain exercises without you even noticing. If this often occurs, then you’re at risk of developing various imbalances in size and strength. So, if you notice that you have one side bigger and stronger than the other, one way to prevent or improve it would be to use dumbbells rather than barbells on the relevant exercises.
Barbell progression is easier than dumbbell progression. Progression is key when weight training and one of the main elements of progression is progressing in small amounts.
When you’re ready to increase the weight on barbell exercises, most gyms have 2.5lb plates that you can put on both ends of the bar, meaning you can progress in 5lb increments. However each dumbbell often goes up in 5lb increments meaning you’re forced to increase by a total of 10lbs when you’re ready to progress. Therefore in terms of progression, barbell exercises are always better than dumbbells exercises.
Barbells are easier to use when the weights are heavy. This is particularly relevant to pressing exercises such as bench press, overhead shoulder press, incline press, etc. When you’re a beginner/ intermediate level it’s normally not a problem getting them dumbbells up and into position for your first rep. However as you progress more, the heavier the weights get. This is when it can become difficult or a whole exercise in itself, trying to get those heavy dumbbells from the floor and into position ready for your first rep. You could ask someone to help you get the dumbbells up and into position if you wanted to, but it’s just a pain in the ass task that isn’t needed with a barbell exercise. This is because with barbell exercises, the barbell starts off on the rack, and therefore already in position for that first rep. All you need to do is grab the bar off the rack and you’re ready to go.
Barbells are more practical than dumbbells. Just say you can squat over 250lbs. Should they hold 125 + pound dumbbells in each hand, or just use one barbell with 250lbs of weight on it? And for those of you that want to workout at home, which do you think is the most cost effective solution that takes up less space? Dumbbells from 10lbs to 125lbs in 5lb increments, or 1 barbell with 250lbs of weight? In these situations, the barbell is more practical.
Dumbbells or Barbells? Which is Best for You?
As I’ve already said, both dumbbells and barbells are equally effective in general, but there are certain situations where one type of exercise may be more ideal for you than the other. And in such situations, you should use what I’ve explained here to pick the exercise that’s best for you.
In all other situations, I like to use a mixture of barbell exercises and dumbbell exercises. They may both have their weaknesses, but they have their positives as well and always favouring one type of exercise over the other means you’ll always miss out on one set of positives.
Personal preference should play a role here too. Some people prefer using barbell or dumbbells more than the other for their own reasons.
I tend to use barbell exercises for my primary compound movements, and dumbbells exercises for secondary compound movements and isolation exercises.
So, like with any sort of “which is best” question about weight training, it’s always best to take everything into account and do what’s best for you, not just in general.