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Barbells or Dumbbells
Which One is Better & Why?

Isaac Robertson
Published by Isaac Robertson
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: August 23, 2021

Lifting weights offer many benefits, including strength-building, muscle growth, and fat loss.

But if you don’t choose the right weight, you may not get the most out of your workouts, and you might risk yourself to injury.

As a fitness enthusiast, I want to clear the argument between barbells vs. dumbbells by walking you through the differences and benefits, to help you decide which free-weight is a better fit for you.

Let's go.

History of Barbells and Dumbells

Dumb bells on its stand

The history of barbells and dumbbells plays a big part in the rich evolution of the physical fitness world.

Although they didn't arise simultaneously, both remain popular and beneficial today to all levels of fitness enthusiasts.

The term dumbbell originated in the 18th century as “dumb bell”, when silenced church bells (that had clappers removed) were used for exercise.

Silenced church bells were later remodeled for ease of use and dumbbells resembling modern ones became popular in Europe and America.

Then, during the 19th century, a variation on the dumbbell design appeared, consisting of a bar with fixed weights or fillable globes on both ends. Thus, the vintage "globe" barbell was born.

The use of dumbbells and barbells continually gained popularity, culminating in weightlifting officially becoming an Olympic sport in 1896, and Kasper Berg introducing the modern Olympic barbell with rotating sleeves in 1928.

Related: What Are The Best Barbells For Your Home Gym?

What are the Different Types of Barbells and Dumbbells?

Barbells and dumbbells come in different types according to their bar forms, their weight loads, and the materials used to manufacture them.

Bar Forms

Different kinds of bar forms

Most barbell bars are straight. However, some may have specially curved designs that help lifters perform more safely and efficiently.

Some barbells with different bar forms include:

  • EZ-bar  - It has a wavy middle section that makes the grip easier on the joints. It's more comfortable for wrists and particularly suitable for arm exercises.
  • Swiss bar  - It has a multi-hand grip bar that reduces strain on the shoulder joints, perfect for rows and presses.
  • Hex bar - It has a hexagon-shaped bar that lessens back tension and allows total control of the lifting posture, especially in deadlifts.

Materials Used and Weight Loads

Dumbbells and barbells can also be made from different materials.

Some are made with chrome or cast iron, urethane, and rubber for comfort and style, while some top-of-the-line models are made with stainless steel for solid durability.

Furthermore, the weight loads may either be fixed or adjustable to suit different fitness levels and workout goals.

Fixed weights are permanently attached to the bar and cannot be adjusted.

So, they’re not ideal for getting a complete set of weights, as they will cost you more and they require more space.

In contrast, adjustable dumbbells and barbells have interchangeable weight plates, making them budget-friendly and a real space saver.

The downside is that they may feel a little shaky and uncomfy to use when the weights are not properly secured.

What Are The Differences In Benefits Of Barbells And Dumbbells?

A man lifting a barbell with dumb bells around

Barbell and dumbbell free weights each have their own share of benefits and advantages.

Equipment Accessibility

Dumbbells are a more accessible free weight than barbells, so most people may prefer working out with them.

Dumbbells are among the easiest to use free weights you can get.

And even if you find it more time-efficient to work out with bars, they take up more space, which may particularly bother those who prefer to do home workouts.

Range of Motion

A muscular man lifting a heavy dumb bell

Using dumbbells allows you to move with a full range of motion.

It gives you the freedom to target the particular muscle group you want to train and the comfort in improving posture and body alignment.

While using barbells may also allow flexibility, it can't offer the same range of motion that dumbbells can give.

That's why dumbbells can be a better option for isolation workouts.

Muscular Balance

Barbell exercises are proven to be highly effective in building strength.

“When you’re strength training, the best tool you can use is the barbell.”  - Tom Wright (Personal Trainer and Fitness Coach, Wright’s Karate, Michigan)

However, barbells may not be able to properly correct muscle imbalances.

Dumbbells are a more effective way to target and strengthen your weaker areas.

With dumbbells, you can do unilateral training, which is highly functional in targeting muscle groups on your weaker side.

It allows you to strengthen one part of your body while stabilizing the other side.

Through dumbbell exercises, you can reduce your risk of physical injuries brought about by muscle imbalances. Dumbbells can be used to work on isolated parts of your body in order to create muscular symmetry.

Safety and Stability

A man lifting an EZ bar

You can achieve more stability during strength training by using barbells or dumbbells with proper weight loads, in accordance with what your body can bear.

With barbells, you can do comparably heavier lifting and thus deliver faster workout goals.

However, barbell workouts also entail a higher risk of injury.

On the other hand, you can only use a limited amount of weight with dumbbells, which does less for building strength but makes workouts safer.

Weight Load Efficiency

Barbell exercises can be more effective in building strength than dumbbell exercises because they allow you to lift heavier weights.

Also, barbells may take a while to switch weight plates in between sets, but this gives time for your muscles to recover, which is essential in developing strength.

On the other hand, dumbbells are more compact and only need a shorter time to switch weights than barbells. One study has shown that more repetitions with a lower weight are also effective in building muscle [1].

What are Some Barbell And Dumbbell Exercises?

Different exercises can be done effectively using either barbells or dumbbells.

The key is to identify your goals from the beginning to decide which weight type to opt for in order to improve your workout.

Bench Press

A man doing a bench press exercise

Bench presses are excellent chest, arm, and shoulder workouts.

The barbell bench press is great if your goal is to work on a range of muscles in your upper body and build strength.

However, doing a barbell bench press might require you to work with a spotter to watch your posture and ensure the correct weight for your fitness level.

On the other hand, since dumbbells allow you to work with higher reps on a specific muscle, dumbbell bench press may give you more muscle definition [2].

So, if your goal is to develop your pectoral muscles to achieve that sculpted chest, the dumbbell bench press might work better for you.

Overhead Press

Bearded guy doing an overhead press

The overhead press, also known as the "Military Press” or “Shoulder Press," is an excellent upper body exercise for adding muscle size and strength.

Heavier weights are necessary for overhead press, making barbells a better choice for this exercise.

Although using dumbbells may appear safer at first glance, it may not be true at all times.

Dumbbells using heavier weights can be harder to control, which makes them less safe.

Barbells allow you to lift more weight overhead because the bar is more stable.

So, if you're planning to build more muscle size and strength through overhead press, using a barbell is the better option out of the two.

Split Squats

A woman doing a barbell split squats

Most fitness experts agree that using barbells on split squats is more effective than dumbbells due to the higher loads they can take [3].

Due to a limited weight, dumbbell split squats may not work on the posterior chain muscles as effectively as barbell split squats.

However, if you're dealing with back pain, the dumbbell split squat can be a good alternative.

Dumbbell split squats don't load the spine as strenuously as barbell split squats, and can be a handy option when you want to do the exercise at home.

Deadlift

A guy performing a deadlift

A deadlift is a weightlifting compound exercise that affects your body in two ways. It can activate different muscle groups and build strength and power.

Conventional deadlifts use barbells because they once again enable you to add more weight loads to the bar, resulting in more effective strength building.

However, barbell deadlifts can injure your posterior chain, so those deadlifts are usually done with fewer repetitions.

On the other hand, a dumbbell deadlift is easy on your spine. So, you can do more repetitions on a specific muscle and focus on it to train for endurance and muscle gains [4].

FAQs

Can I Substitute Barbells For Dumbbells?

Yes, you can substitute barbells for dumbbells or vice versa, depending on your workout goals.

Barbells are usually used for heavy lifts in sets of 1-6 repetitions. They are proven effective for strength and power building.

On the other hand, dumbbells are better for lighter lifts, promoting higher repetitions of 8-12 range per set. They are excellent for isolation training and muscle growth.

So, if your workout goal is to add more muscles, you can opt for using dumbbells with higher reps. Or you can consider switching to barbell work, with low repetitions but heavier lifts, to build more power and strength.

Do Barbells Build More Muscle Than Dumbbells?

Barbells may not build more muscle mass as effectively as dumbbells.

Although barbells have the most loading capacity, they provide a limited range of motion, which results in lower repetitions during workouts.

If you're aiming for muscle growth, you need to create high metabolic stress in the tissue, which takes time.

Research says that working long enough in sets with an 8-12 rep range is crucial to keep the muscles under tension, and dumbbells can help you with that.

Can You Build Muscle Using Just A Barbell?

Yes. There's a good chance you can build muscle by using just a barbell.

But before you can start training for muscle growth, you need to develop maximum physical strength.

You can achieve this by lifting heavy weight for 2-6 sets of 1-6 repetitions using barbells.

Then, you can start working on growing your muscle size by doing five to eight barbell-based workouts, including compound lifts.

You can do 3-5 sets per exercise with an 8-12 rep range of moderately heavy load, with around 90 seconds rest between sets.

The key to muscle gain is the accretion of overall training volume and pushing yourself close to your limit with evident muscular fatigue after every workout.

Barbells & Dumbbells - The Verdict

Barbell and dumbbell exercises are both competently capable of strength-building and muscle growth.

However, each has its own advantages which may be of interest to the fitness enthusiast. Therefore, opting for one can help you achieve a specific goal.

In conclusion, deciding between barbells vs. dumbbells may not be that hard as it first seems.

Barbell exercises can be better for strength building, while dumbbell exercises give you a better range of motion and better muscle gains.

So, whatever personal workout you may have, there is a free weight that will best suit you.

With a healthy lifestyle and supplements taken daily, you can be sure to get results fast.


References:

  1. https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/news/20120427/high-reps-with-low-weights-builds-muscle-too
  2. https://www.menshealth.com/fitness/a19525230/dumbbell-chest-press-pecs-activation/
  3. https://www.ironmaster.com/blog/dumbbell-squat-vs-barbell-squat-which-should-you-do/
  4. https://www.ammfitness.co.uk/information-advice/dumbbell-deadlift

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