Dumbbells Vs. Barbells: What’s Better For Strength And Size?

Dumbells and barbells both have their merits, read on to learn what benefits you can get from each.

Akash Vaghela Akash Vaghela · 06 Mar 2018

Training Beginner
10 Mins

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Dumbbells and barbells have been around since the before any of us were born, and they won’t be going anywhere any time soon.

If you want to build your body, you can’t go wrong with training hard, heavy and progressively with dumbbells and barbells. It works, and they’re amongst the best tools available to get the job done.

But ‘tools’ are what they are. They are by no means essential, and don’t override the ‘big picture’ principles that form the foundation of building muscle.

Tools are interchangeable and replaceable, principles are not. To build muscle, we need the following:

  • Progressive overload with perfect form
  • The right exercises for your body type
  • Psychological ‘buy in’ to a program

To abide by these principles, we have many tools at our disposal: dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, bodyweight, machines, odd objects, and so on.

Today’s focus will be on dumbbells and barbells. Both are great tools for building muscle, and nearly all of my programs focus primarily on their use. That being said, I often get asked by clients is which one of these is better.

Is it better to focus on dumbbell or barbell exercises?


As with many questions related to building muscle, it depends. Each have their specific advantages and disadvantages. In this article, I’m going discuss these differences, and explain why incorporating both is likely the best solution.


DUMBBELL ADVANTAGES



Advantage #1: Dumbbells' Are Safer And More Joint Friendly


The number one advantage to using dumbbells over barbells is they’re safer. Rather than being forced into a fixed position, dumbbells allow a natural path whereby the body can make small adjustments to make the movement as comfortable and safe for you as possible.

This is particularly true for shoulder complaints during pressing movements. Many of you may struggle with shoulder pain with barbell pressing variants, but find the same movement to be pain free when using dumbbells.

For example, when I floor press with a barbell, I hear a click in my shoulder at a specific part of the range. When I use dumbbells, I’m completely pain free, and this is likely due to my body’s ability to find the bar path that’s safest.

Another point worth mentioning is that for beginners, dumbbell pressing is much easier to learn than barbell pressing, and there’s much less room for error.


Advantage #2: Dumbbells Can Provide A Greater Range Of Motion


For certain exercises like the bench press and shoulder press, the dumbbell equivalent will allow for a greater range of motion than their barbell counterparts.

This will allow the muscles to contract over a longer range of motion, and create a stronger stimulus for growth.


Advantage #3: Dumbbells Will Recruit More Muscle Mass (In The Upper Body)


When you’re training with dumbbells, the increased instability compared to barbells means you’ll recruit more muscle fibres as well as more of the small stabiliser muscles.

This combined with the extra range of motion dumbbells provide can make dumbbells a superior choice for upper body hypertrophy for many people.

If we look at chest training specifically, using dumbbells allows the upper arm to move towards the midline of the body, and fulfil the main role of the pecs – ‘horizontal adduction’, i.e. moving the arms across the front of your torso. This doesn’t mean you should touch the dumbbells at the top (as this loses tension). Instead, you should press in an arc motion that complements the function of the pecs.

With barbells, you’re limited. Your hands are fixed and your upper arms are positioned slightly out to side of your torso. Due to this positioning, many of you will subconsciously push ‘outwards’ as you press the weight, which brings the shoulders and triceps into play to a greater extent.


Advantage #4: Dumbbells Can Help With Imbalances


Everyone has one dominant side. With barbell movements, your dominant side will ‘help’ out your weaker side, even if you’re not aware of it.

If one side of your body is doing more of the work, it can lead to muscle imbalances, with one side slowly outpacing the other in terms of strength and size.

By using dumbbells, you avoid this problem as each side is working independently and receiving equal tension from the given exercise.


BARBELL ADVANTAGES


Advantage #1: Barbells Let You Go Heavier


It sounds obvious but using barbells allows you to lift heavier loads compared to dumbbells.

For example, if you can bench press 100kg for 5 reps, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to press 50kg dumbbells in each hand for the same.

Generally speaking, because of the reduced requirement of stabiliser muscles, you’ll be able to lift 10-20% more with barbells as opposed to dumbbells.


Advantage #2: Barbells Are Safer For Lower Reps


While going heavier doesn’t always mean it’s better for you, building muscle does require getting stronger across all rep ranges.

When training in lower rep ranges of 4 to 6 reps, barbells can be safer than dumbbells.

If you’re dumbbells bench pressing for sets of 5, the instability, coupled with the fact you need to hoist the dumbbells into position can increase the chances of something going wrong.

I’ve learnt this the hard way when trying to get heavy dumbbells into position for sets of 5. After a few weeks of no issues, my wrist suddenly gave way while ‘kicking’ the dumbbells into position, and I was out of pressing action for 8 weeks.


Advantage #3: Barbells Allow More Efficient Progressive Overload


The single most important factor in building muscle is applying progressive overload with perfect form.

The easiest (but not the only) way to do so is by lifting more weight. While you can do this with both dumbbells and barbells, it’s far easier to do so with barbells.

This is because the smallest amount you can typically increase the weight of the dumbbells is 2-2.5kg each, or a total of 4-5kg.

On the other hand, you can increase the loading of a barbell by 2.5kg (1.25kg each side), which can make it much easier to progress with over time.

While dumbbells offer many advantages within the exercise itself, this is the biggest limiting factor. Because of the large jumps between dumbbells, many of you will get stuck on a dumbbell weight with the same reps for a long time.

This is where implementing ‘break in’ strategies to jump between dumbbells can work well to create progression.

For example:

Workout | Load | Reps Achieved
1 | 20kg | 12,12,12
2 | 22.5kg20kg | 10,912
3 | 22.5kg20kg | 11,1012
4 | 22.5kg20kg | 12,1012
5 | 22.5kg | 12,11,10
6 | 22.5kg | 12,12,11
7 | 25kg22.5kg | 10,811
8 | 25kg22.5kg | 11,912
10 | 25kg22.5kg | 12,1012


This is just an example of how it may look. People vary massively in how they respond to multiple sets, so it’s important to listen to your body and notice how/if it drops off.


Advantage #4: Barbells Are More Practical For Lower Body Training


When training legs, using barbells are much more practical than dumbbells.

For example, when squatting with dumbbells, you’ll always be limited by how much weight you can hold in your hands. In contrast, barbell squatting (all variants) will allow for more progressive loading and a great amount of weight being used.

I’d say you could build a great upper body with dumbbells only. But it’d be tough to maximise your leg gains with only dumbbells. Yes, single leg exercises and various dumbbell squatting variations are great, but you’d be limited by loading, and the only way around it would be to make up for it with a super high volume of work.

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS: DUMBBELLS & BARBELLS


Now that we’ve examined both parties, which one comes out on top?

Neither!

An effective, well-designed muscle building program will incorporate both dumbbell and barbell work.

If you’re training across a wide variety of rep ranges, keep your lower rep ‘strength’ work barbell focused, and your moderate to high rep ‘hypertrophy’ work based around dumbbell work.

This is a generalisation, as the ratio of dumbbell to barbell exercises will depend on a host of factors including: equipment availability, training experience, injury history and goals.

For example, someone in their 40s with a history of shoulder and knee injuries won’t be going near a barbell much.

But a young guy who wants to build muscle in their 20s with no injury history can attack both barbell and dumbbell exercises with equal measure.

Personal preference must also be factored in. One person may hate the feel of pressing with a barbell, whereas the other may love nothing more than the pump he gets in his chest from barbell bench pressing.

It’s all individual, and that’s where this all comes in full circle.

You need to find the exercises that work for your body type, that you enjoy and that you can safely apply progressive overload with.

Akash VaghelaAkash Vaghela

Akash Vaghela has spent 10+ years transforming bodies and lives around the world, and in May 2017, founded RNT Fitness to serve this purpose. His vision is to see a world transformed, where ambitious high performers experience the power of the physical as the vehicle to unlock their real potential. He’s the author of the Amazon best-sellilng book Transform Your Body Transform Your Life, which explains his unique and proven five-phase methodology, is host of the RNT Fitness Radio podcast, has been featured in the likes of Men’s Health and BBC, whilst regularly speaking across the world on all things transformation.

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