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Dumbbells vs Barbells for Building Muscle and Strength

dumbbells vs barbells for building muscle and strength

The barbell and the dumbbell are the two most popular pieces of training equipment in any gym around the world, and for good reason. They’re both extremely versatile and can be used to perform a variety of free-weight movements to target pretty much every single muscle. If all you had to train with was a barbell and some weights, or a set of dumbbells, you really don’t need anything else to build muscle.

Although both of these pieces of equipment are extremely versatile and can be used to perform a wide array of different exercises, there are some pros and cons to each of them. In this article, we will discuss the main differences between barbells and dumbbells, including the pros and cons of each of them and give you some general guidelines when deciding whether you should use dumbbells or barbells to perform a particular exercise.

The Main Differences Between Barbells and Dumbbells

Although both of these pieces of equipment can be used to perform very similar exercises, there are some major differences between the two. First, the length and shape of these two pieces of equipment are quite different. A barbell is a long, straight bar with weights attached to both ends, whereas a dumbbell is a shorter bar with weights attached to both sides. The way you grip and hold on to these two pieces of equipment differ as well. When using a barbell, both hands are placed on the bar in an overhand or underhand grip. Dumbbells, on the other hand, are held in each hand independently. There is also a difference in the way the weight is distributed between these two pieces of equipment. Since both hands are placed simultaneously on one singular barbell, the weight is distributed evenly between both hands. However, with dumbbells, the weight is distributed independently to each hand, which allows for unilateral training where the left and right hemispheres of the body are not equally distributed.

These inherent differences between the two, which include their shape and length, the way they’re held, and the way the weight is distributed, result in unique pros and cons for each when it comes to improving strength and building muscle. Let’s discuss the benefits of each independently.

Unique Benefits of Dumbbells

Dumbbells are extremely versatile. Some of the inherent benefits of dumbbells over barbells include the fact that they allow you to train with a greater range of motion, can help improve muscular imbalances by training muscles independently, and dumbbells allow you to move through more “natural feeling” movement patterns, which can help reduce pain or discomfort. 

First, let’s discuss range of motion. Since you hold each dumbbell independently in each arm, you can train many exercises with a greater range of motion compared to the same exercise using a barbell. For example, when you perform a barbell bench press, your range of motion is inherently limited by the bar touching your chest at the bottom of the movement. Even if you have good mobility and you want to increase the range of motion, it’s impossible. However, dumbbells allow you to maximize the range of motion as much as you’d like on a chest press because there is no bar connecting the two dumbbells that prevent you from lowering the weights past your chest.

Why does this matter? Well, for two major reasons. There is plenty of scientific evidence showing that full range of motion training is beneficial for hypertrophy compared to partial range of motion.[1] The benefits of full range of motion training seem to be specific to training muscles in their lengthened position (e.g., the chest at bottom of the bench press, the quads at the bottom of a squat). Some barbell exercises allow you to maximally lengthen the target muscles, but some, like the barbell bench press, don’t. Therefore, for some muscle groups like the chest, dumbbells may be superior for muscle growth. Second, a greater range of motion can help you improve your mobility and flexibility, which are important if you care about the way your body moves and not just how much muscle you can build.

Aside from improving range of motion, dumbbells can be really beneficial for improving muscular imbalances because they train muscles independently. Let’s use the chest as an example again. You’ve probably seen people doing the bench press and you can tell that one of their arms is stronger than the other because the bar is slanted. The issue is that since both hands are holding the same bar, the stronger arm can compensate and “help” the weaker arm. On the other hand (pun intended), the stronger side of your body cannot compensate for the other because the dumbbells are not connected. Therefore, if you have one side that’s significantly weaker, it will work extra hard to “catch up” when you use dumbbells, which is one of the great benefits of using dumbbells because they can help prevent or fix some of these imbalances.

Lastly, dumbbells allow you to train through a more “naturally feeling” movement pattern, which can help reduce pain and discomfort. Again, when you use a barbell, your hands are in a fixed position. The wrists cannot rotate at all throughout the movement, which can feel uncomfortable during certain exercises. For example, it’s common for people to report shoulder discomfort when they do a barbell bench press or overhead press. However, those same people report minimal to no discomfort when performing the same exercise using dumbbells. When you use dumbbells, your wrists are free to move and rotate throughout the exercise which can help reduce the amount of stress and discomfort being placed on certain joints, which can be really helpful to allow you to perform exercises in a manner that is unique and beneficial to you.

It seems like there are a ton of benefits of using dumbbells over barbells, and that’s because there are! We can argue that for particular muscles where dumbbells allow you to train through a greater range of motion and reduce discomfort, they may be better for hypertrophy of those muscles. The chest is a perfect example. It would be difficult to make an argument that from a muscle growth perspective, the barbell bench press is better than the dumbbell chest press. That being said though, there are benefits of using barbells over dumbbells as well. Let’s go ahead and discuss those.

Unique Benefits of Barbells

There’s a reason why the barbell squat, bench press, and deadlift, which are all barbell-based exercises, are considered some of the “best exercises” for overall strength and muscular development. Barbells have one major inherent benefit over dumbbells, in that they allow you to use significantly more weight. Although it’s only one variable, it’s a really important variable that shouldn’t be underestimated when it comes to strength and hypertrophy.

The length and shape of the barbell make it easier to maintain balance and stability during an exercise, which allows you to produce more force and lift heavier loads. When it comes to lifting maximal weight, you want an environment that is as stable as possible. Dumbbells are more difficult to stabilize because the weight is concentrated in a smaller area (i.e. the hand holding the dumbbell). This can make it more difficult to maintain proper form and control during exercises, especially at higher weights. For example, pretty much everyone can bench press more total weight than they can dumbbell chest press. 

Aside from being more stable, there are exercises that are inherently easier to perform with heavy weights using a barbell. For example, performing squats with a dumbbell past 100 lbs is really difficult for most people. It’s awkwardly shaped and there really isn’t any comfortable way to hold it. On the other hand, you can easily load a barbell and place it on your back to perform a squat. For this reason, some exercises, particularly for the lower body, are much easier to perform and progress using a barbell than a dumbbell.

When it comes to strength development, the fact that you can use heavier weights with a barbell is a huge bonus. If you want to get really strong you should be lifting really heavy weights on a regular basis, which is easier to do using a barbell. In the context of hypertrophy specifically, the amount of weight you use is important, but it’s not the only determinant of whether you’re going to build muscle or not. Again, other variables like range of motion, are also important. That being said, if you’re using heavier weight in a more stable environment, you are producing more force, which can be beneficial for hypertrophy. Furthermore, progressive overload, which means making your workouts slightly harder over time, in some instances can be achieved easier using a barbell than a dumbbell. This is because barbells can typically be loaded with smaller weight increments (e.g., adding 2.5 lbs) compared to dumbbells, and the fact dumbbells are less stable, which is amplified at heavier loads.

On paper, dumbbells have “more benefits” than barbells. However, the fact that barbells allow you to use heavier loads is incredibly important for strength and muscular development, which makes barbells a really useful tool to help you get jacked.

Since both of these pieces of equipment have their own unique benefits, it’s probably a smart idea to include both in your training rather than just choosing one or the other. Let’s discuss how to include both barbell and dumbbell-based exercises in your training and go over specific situations in which one may be better than the other for you.

Deciding when to use Barbells and when to use Dumbbells

As previously mentioned, a well-structured program includes both barbell and dumbbell-based exercises. You should include both in your programming to get the benefits of each of them. For example, you can include some sort of barbell and dumbbell bench press in your training rather than just choosing one or the other. That being said though, there are some situations in which one may be slightly better than the other.

If your main goal is to get as strong as possible, then you should probably rely more heavily on barbell-based movements for the previously discussed reasons. Aside from building strength, barbells are definitely better for overall lower-body exercises like barbell squats and deadlifts. Exercises like Bulgarian split squats or lunges can be performed with either a barbell or a dumbbell, but if you’re going to train your legs using a squat, it’s almost always better to use a barbell than a dumbbell. Now in other situations, you may want to use dumbbells instead of barbells, especially if the barbell-based variation of that movement causes you any sort of discomfort. For example, earlier we discussed how the barbell bench press causes shoulder discomfort for many people but dumbbell chest presses do not. 

One way incorporate both into your workout, is to use a heavy barbell movements first and then follow that up with dumbbell-based exercises with higher repetitions. For example, you could start your chest workouts with a barbell flat or incline bench and then do the opposite angle using dumbbells at a higher rep range.

Conclusion

Overall, both dumbbells and barbells are versatile pieces of equipment that can be used to perform a wide range of exercises to build muscle and improve strength. Each has its own unique set of benefits and drawbacks. Dumbbells can provide a greater range of motion, help improve muscular imbalances, and allow for more natural feeling movements, whereas barbells can allow for heavier loads and can be more suitable for compound movements. Ultimately, the decision on which equipment to use depends on the individual's goals and preferences, and it is recommended to incorporate both into a well-rounded training program to build muscle and strength.

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References

1. Schoenfeld, Brad J, and Jozo Grgic. “Effects of range of motion on muscle development during resistance training interventions: A systematic review.” SAGE open medicine vol. 8 2050312120901559. 21 Jan. 2020, doi:10.1177/2050312120901559

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