Barbells vs Dumbbells - See Which One Suits You Better

Isaac Robertson
Published by Isaac Robertson | Co-Founder & Chief Editor
Last updated: June 22, 2024
FACT CHECKED by James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Our content is meticulously researched and reviewed by an expert team of fact checkers and medical professionals. They ensure accuracy, relevance, and timeliness using the latest reputable sources, which are cited within the text and listed at the end of the article. Before publication and upon significant updates, we confirm factual accuracy, committed to providing readers with well-informed content. Learn more.

Lifting weights offers 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 risk injury.

As a fitness enthusiast, I want to clear the argument between barbells vs. dumbbells. I talked with other fitness experts and spent hours going through online information. I'll walk you through the differences and benefits, to help you decide which free-weight is a better fit for you.

Let's go.

Quick Summary

  • To optimize your weightlifting routine, consider barbells for building strength with heavier weights and dumbbells for a greater range of motion and targeting muscle imbalances.
  • Barbells and dumbbells come in various forms and materials, offering different benefits and challenges to suit individual fitness levels and goals.
  • According to Historical European Martial Arts Resources, the use of dumbbells and barbells in weightlifting gained widespread popularity in the 18th century, leading to weightlifting becoming an Olympic sport in 1896.
  • In my experience, incorporating both barbells and dumbbells in workouts provides a balanced approach to strength training and muscle development.

History of Barbells and Dumbells

Dumb bells on its stand

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.

According to the Historical European Martial Arts Resources, the use of dumbbells and barbells continually gained popularity. It culminated in weightlifting officially becoming an Olympic sport in 1896, and Kasper Berg introducing the modern Olympic barbell with rotating sleeves in 1928 [1].

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

Weight plates on a yellow rack

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 uncomfortable 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.

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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 & Fitness Coach, Wright’s Karate, Michigan)

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

Through my training, I've realized the unique advantage of dumbbells in addressing muscle imbalances.

Unilateral training with dumbbells has been a key part of my routine, allowing me to focus on strengthening my left side, which has always been slightly weaker than my right.

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

Reflecting on my strength training journey, I've found that barbell exercises have a significant edge in building strength.

The ability to load up heavier weights on a barbell has been crucial in my progress, especially when working on compound movements like squats and deadlifts.

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. According to WebMD, more repetitions with a lower weight are also effective in building muscle [2].

Check out this thorough research into the best adjustable dumbbells on the market if you want to get some for your home gym.

Psychological Aspects of Using Barbells vs. Dumbbells

I've noticed how barbells and dumbbells can impact us psychologically.

When I first started lifting, I gravitated towards dumbbells because they seemed less intimidating and easier to handle. Their smaller size gave me a sense of control, especially when I was learning new exercises.

On the other hand, barbells, often associated with heavier lifting and more complex movements like squats and deadlifts, might seem daunting to novices.

However, for seasoned lifters, the use of barbells can bring a sense of accomplishment and challenge, pushing them to achieve new personal records.

The choice between barbells and dumbbells can also influence our motivation and engagement in their workout routine. Dumbbells offer a wide range of exercises that can target specific muscles, making workouts more engaging.

On the other hand, for individuals driven by goals like increasing their overall strength or improving performance in specific lifts, barbells can provide a straightforward, goal-oriented approach that keeps them motivated.

Accessibility and Practicality

Setting up my home gym was a game of balancing space and budget. I found dumbbells to be a perfect fit due to their compact size.

They didn't just save space but also offered the versatility needed for a full-body workout, something I greatly appreciated as I juggled between different exercises.

Adjustable dumbbells, in particular, are space-efficient and can replace multiple sets of fixed-weight dumbbells, making them ideal for small spaces.

Barbells, while offering the advantage of heavier lifting, require more space due to their length and the need for a rack for certain exercises.

However, for individuals focused on strength training, investing in a barbell and a basic rack can be a valuable addition to their home gym.

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 [3].

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 [4].

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.


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 [5].


Can I Substitute Barbells For Dumbbells?

Yes, you can substitute barbells for dumbbells or vice versa, depending on your workout goals. If your workout goal is to add more muscles, 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.

Can You Build Muscle Using Just A Barbell?

Yes, you can build muscle by using just a barbell. You can do 3-5 sets per exercise with an 8-12 rep range of moderately heavy load, with around 90 seconds of 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.


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About The Author

Isaac Robertson
Co-Founder & Chief Editor
Learn more about our editorial policy
James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
James Cunningham, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Sport & Exercise Science from University of Hertfordshire. He's a Health & Performance Coach from London that brings a unique blend of academic knowledge of health supplements and practical exercise experience to the table for his readers.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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