In the world of free-weights, there has often been debate over which classic and well-used weight training tool is best, leading to an unofficial showdown between dumbbells vs barbells. For centuries, people have been trying to decide the winner by analysing every possible feature. Which one is more functional? Which one should you use to train with? When would you use one over the other?
In all honesty both are amazing tools that bring much value to your training, but should you focus on one over the other, or is a mix of both most effective? Let’s have a debate!
Range Of Motion
This is one of the most important factors when it comes to weight training. Essentially it means the total distance the weight travels from your start position to your finish position. Training with a full range of motion will help to keep you injury-free and is also more effective for building size and increasing strength. By decreasing the range of motion, you are eliminating part of the negative stretch of the muscle – meaning less micro-damage and less results.
Typically barbells offer less range of motion because the axis of the barbell gets in the way. Dumbbells however are not connected which means you get a much better, deeper stretch and contraction.
If we take the bench press as an example – dumbbells not only provide a deeper range of motion on the way down, but you can also bring them back together at the top giving you a better contraction due to more adduction of your arms.
The dumbbells win this round!
Max Weight (And One Rep Max)
According to statistics, most people will be stronger when using barbells over dumbbells for the same exercise. Most also find it easier to progress with barbells as they allow you to lift heavier because you don’t need to worry about stabilising the weight and you’re using two hands to move the weight around instead of one.
There is a direct correlation between muscle gain and strength gain – the stronger you get on a particular exercise the faster your muscles have to adapt which forces them to increase in size. Lifting volume is important but getting stronger should be your number one goal when training for size.
Finally, one rep max attempts (the maximum amount of weight a person can lift for one repetition) with dumbbells are almost impossible and should be avoided. You’re far better off using a barbell and a spotter, or a power rack or cage to be safe whilst testing your strength.
The barbells take this one!
Stabilising The Weight
People who lift for strength are always more stable overall, and having good joint stability is crucial to prevent serious injuries. If you’ve never trained with dumbbells and try bench pressing with a pair you’ll find that your arms will most likely shake and you won’t be able to complete half your reps or use half the weight. Trying to move two weights is much harder than one and requires increased focus and coordination which require you to wok those smaller stabilising muscles that ensure your joints stay balanced and help prevent injury.
On the subject of stabilisation, whilst barbells are better than machines, they don’t compare with dumbbells which should be your main focus if you have any chronic injury or you’re trying to prevent one.
Another point to the dumbbells!
Some exercises just can’t be performed with dumbbells because they require an element of explosiveness that can’t be provided by dumbbells. These kinds of exercises are things like snatches, power cleans, deadlifts and squats.
Whilst you can perform squats using dumbbells, it’s not usually advised because you won’t be able to generate much explosive force or lift any considerable weight. A squat performed with 400 pounds is more than achievable for a natural lifter, but squatting with two 200 pound dumbbells on your shoulders or by your side is bordering on ridiculousness!
A point to the barbells!
Correcting And Preventing Imbalances
Generally people blame barbells for muscle imbalances and will then advise dumbbells as a solution -however this is not necessarily true and you can correct your imbalance using barbells.
However, it is much easier to develop those muscle imbalances in the first instance using barbells. Dumbbells force you to use both sides in equal measure, but with barbells it’s possible for one side to dominate therefore doing more work without you realising.
The dumbbells win this round!
Kinder On The Joints
One of the main advantages of using free-weights over machines is that machines give you a fixed range of motion which throws up all kind of risks of injury – forcing joints to move in a forced and unnatural way is not healthy for your joints.
While barbells are generally better than machines when it comes to this, they still don’t allow you to move each side individually from the other and so your body cannot therefore make the small adjustments it needs to ensure the movement is natural, comfortable and safe.
If you have problems with joint mobility, or a recent injury, dumbbells are far better and the magic ingredient to help prevent injury.
The dumbbells take another point!
The Final Round: Decreased Chance Of Injury?
When it comes to building muscle, the one who stays injury free tends to end up with the most gains – that’s just fact. You cannot train when you’ve been injured so you should do all you can to prevent becoming injured in the first place.
Dumbbells are generally safer for beginners as those people will be lifting lighter weights and when they become unstuck they can easily drop them to the floor – something that’s a little harder with a dumbbell. Getting stuck underneath a barbell can become dangerous very quickly, especially if no one is around to help you out.
For advance lifters however, barbells are likely safer, as lifting heavier weights is arguably more safely done with barbells. Attempting to get 150 pound dumbbells in the right position for a chest press really isn’t practical and quite possibly dangerous.
The Final Scores
The Final Verdict
If you were expecting a clear-cut answer for this one, then you’re not going to get it! Dumbbells vs barbells is a lot more complicated than saying one is better than the other.
You could say that if you’re training for increased strength and functionality then maybe barbells are preferable, but if building size and mass are your goals then dumbbells are typically superior.
The conclusion is that mixing and incorporating them both into your workouts will bring value to your training, creating the ideal recipe for building muscle and strength and helping to prevent injury.
If you’re looking to purchase a barbell and would like some advice on what you should look out for, then take a look at my top recommendations. Similarly, if you’re looking for some ideas on the best dumbbells you can get, then my article on The Best Dumbbells To Buy might also help you out.