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Barbells Versus Dumbbells Versus Cables: The Showdown

Barbells Versus Dumbbells Versus Cables: The Showdown
Written by Michael Garrico

When it comes to designing a workout program, there are a great many factors to take into account.

After establishing the primary goal you’ll be working toward – muscle building, fat loss, performance improvement, and so on, you then need to decide upon your workout split.

Once that’s out of the way, then comes time to choose exercises. Exercise selection is key because it determines which muscle groups you’ll work during each set that you perform and generally speaking, the level of hormonal response you’ll get from the exercise in question.

Your body will respond very differently for example to a set of heavy squats compared to a set of leg extensions.

Placing the right exercises in your workout routine in the proper order is paramount for seeing results.

Then once you have that information sorted, it’s time to finish up by choosing your reps, sets, and rest ranges.

But wait – there’s one more point you need to address: equipment selection.

Too many people overlook this element and instead, just do what feels comfortable. But, different types of equipment can have a profound influence on the progress you make, so you want to be sure to choose wisely.

Your Equipment Line-Up

Inside of a gym

“Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but don’t nobody want to lift no heavy-ass weights.” Ronnie Coleman

The main three options that you’ll be able to utilize when it comes to your free weight exercises include:

  • Dumbbells
  • Barbells
  • Cables

You can do both compound as well as isolation based movements with these, so for the most party, they can carry you through your entire workout program.

Some people mistakenly believe that these tools are all interchangeable. They think that a dumbbell chest press isn’t going to be all that much different than a barbell bench press, so they’ll just use whichever equipment happens to be free at the time.

This thinking is incorrect. There is a difference and if you want to optimize the results you get from each session you perform, you need to strategically plan your workout program accordingly.

So let’s walk you through each of these equipment options and go over the pros and cons of each, who is best suited to the various types of equipment and how to be utilizing them in your workout routine.

Once you’ve finished reading this information, you should have a much more clear idea in mind which exercises you should be focusing on in your workout routine.

Barbells

Barbell on a gym floor

Ready to include barbell in your workout routine?

What They Are:

First up on the list are barbells, which, for those who are unaware, are the long poles where weights are attached to either end. When most people think of barbells, then tend to immediately think of bench press or squats because a barbell is usually found in both of these stations.

And, that is very indicative of lifts that are best done using barbells. But, those aren’t the only lifts that can be done using this piece of equipment.

Other exercises can include:

  • Barbell deadlifts
  • Barbell walking lunges
  • ​Barbell split squats
  • Barbell glute raises (glute thrusts)
  • ​Barbell shoulder presses
  • Barbell bent over rows
  • ​Barbell bicep curls
  • Overhead barbell tricep extension
  • Standing barbell calf raises

As you can see, there are a number of different ways to include the barbell in your workout routine.

The Benefits:

So what are the benefits of utilizing a barbell?

More Weight Lifted

The first big benefit that most people will notice is that they can simply perform more weight.

When you are using a barbell you’re going to be very stabilized as you go about each rep because the two weighted sides are attached by the barbell pole. This means you require less stabilization muscles to keep the bar steady as execute each rep.

As energy is not being wasted on this element, you can therefore typically hoist more total weight during each rep that you perform.

It’s not unusual to find that you can lift 10lbs or more pounds over that of what you would lift if you were doing dumbbell based exercises. For those seeking maximum strength gain, that’s a huge benefit.

Low Learning Curve

Woman doing workout in gym.

Most individuals will be able to learn how to perform a barbell based exercise correctly in less than an hour.

The second nice thing about barbells is the fact that it’s relatively easy to learn how to use. The movements you make with it tend to be very fluid, meaning once you have the basic move down, there isn’t going to be a whole lot in addition to that you need to remember.

While there are still form tips and techniques you need to be aware of, you’ll find it’s far less intricate than if you were lifting with dumbbells or cables.

For those who are just getting started into free weights, this can make things a little easier. If proper coaching is given, most individuals will be able to learn how to perform a barbell based exercise correctly in less than an hour. With dumbbells, the learning curve can be a bit steeper in many cases.

Barbells also tend to put you at a slightly lower risk of injuries as well. Now, given the fact that you are lifting more weight with barbells than you are dumbbells or cables, this heavy weight can pose an injury risk on its own simply due to the sheer level of stress coming down on the tissues with each rep.

That said, as far as form and exercise execution mishaps go, you’ll find that these are less with barbell based training. Again, this is largely due to the stabilization factor.

The weight is more stabilized as you move through the exercise therefore you aren’t at as great of a risk of twisting into an awkward position, straining your muscles, tendons, or ligaments as you do so.

For those very concerned about injury risk, barbells may be the superior choice.

Little Need For Equipment

Finally, the last big advantage of the barbell is the fact that you don’t need a lot of equipment to get going. With cables, you’re going to need a full cable set-up with a pulley system and a weight stack, which is simply impractical for most home gym systems.

With dumbbells, you can definitely get these into your home without trouble, but unless you are purchasing exchangeable dumbbells, you’ll need multiple sets in order to accommodate to the amount of weight you are lifting.

With barbells though, all you need is the single barbell and then a few weight plates and you can make any combination of weight that is needed.

Colorful dumbbells

These cute dumbbells are waiting for you!

Granted, if you want to advance your training you’ll also want to get a bench press stand and squat rack in place (or a simple cage system), but beyond that, you really don’t need much more to get a full workout in. This makes them quite appealing for the home gym owner.

Now that you see the main benefits of barbells, let’s look at a few drawbacks.

The Drawbacks:

Only One Way To Gauge Progress

The first big drawback to using barbell based training is that the only way you can really see improved progress with it is by loading more weight on the bar.

While this should always be the goal for any weight lifting workout program, keep in mind that if you are constantly adding more and more weight, eventually it will take a toll on the joints, placing undue stress on them and possibly leading to injury.

Strength Imbalances Are Common

A second disadvantage to barbell based training is that it’s easier to develop strength imbalances with this type of training and not realize it.

Because you are simply pushing up one bar with both limbs (either the arms or the legs), if one side is stronger than the other, that stronger side may be overcompensating for that weaker side without you noticing.

The more often you train this way, the stronger that one side is likely to get and this strength disparity will go unnoticed until you decide to switch things up and move into dumbbell based training. By this point, it will take a lot more work to correct.

If strength imbalances do start to occur, this can increase your risk of injury.

Note that those who are at the greatest risk for strength imbalances tend to be those who perform jobs that involve manual labor and are constantly working with one side of their body, or athletes who perform sports that have them favoring one side (such as hockey players).

The Spotter Requirement

The final disadvantage of barbell based training is that you normally will almost always want to have a spotter present when training, especially for the heavy lifts such as bench press and shoulder press.

If you were to fail and couldn’t get the barbell up, you can’t just drop the weight to either side of the body like you would dumbbells for instance. Instead, that barbell is coming down and there’s a good chance it’s coming down on you – leading to great injury.

Having the spotter there can help give you that extra push to get the weight up when you need it. This requires training with a partner or another person always in the house, so could be seen as a downside to some people.

Fortunately, if you do workout in a public gym, you can usually ask any gym-goer for a spot and they will typically comply. But if you need a spot for every set, this could get tiring after a while. Having a designated workout buddy is the better choice.

Who Should Use Them:

So who is best suited to using barbells?

The best candidates for using barbells are those who:

  • Are looking to get as strong as possible
  • Want to have minimal equipment in their home gym
  • ​Do not have any strength imbalances currently at play
  • Have access to a spotter or workout buddy

If you find yourself in this list, barbells are an excellent choice for you. Now let’s move on and talk about dumbbell based training.

Dumbbells

Black and white photo of dumbbells in a gym

You don't need fancy equipment to build muscle strength.

What They Are:

Dumbbells are the smaller hand weights that you pick up that have a smaller bar with two weight plates (or weighted ends) attached to either side. Dumbbells come in a wide variety of weight ranges all the way from as little as 1lb. to 150 lbs. or more.

Usually they are found in 5 pound increments except at the lower levels where you can find them in 2.5 pound increments or the higher levels, where they tend to jump by 10 pound or greater increments.

Dumbbells are what most people tend to think of when they hear the term ‘free weights’ and are the weighted methods that many use to kick-start their workout program.

You can perform mostly all the same exercises with dumbbells that you can perform with barbells in addition to more. These exercises include:

  • Dumbbell squats
  • Dumbbell deadlifts
  • ​Dumbbell walking lunges
  • ​Dumbbell split squats
  • ​Dumbbell standing calf raises
  • ​Dumbbell chest press
  • ​Dumbbell chest fly
  • ​Dumbbell bent over row
  • ​Dumbbell single arm row
  • Dumbbell shoulder press
  • ​Dumbbell Arnold press
  • Dumbbell bicep curl
  • Dumbbell hammer curl
  • ​Dumbbell lateral raise
  • Dumbbell front raise
  • Dumbbell reverse fly
  • Dumbbell tricep kickback
  • Dumbbell tricep extension

The list of exercises done using dumbbells is quite long, so there is no shortage of ways to challenge your body using this piece of equipment.

The Benefits:

Let’s look at the key benefits you’ll notice when using dumbbells with your training routine.

Low Intimidation Factor

The first big benefit to utilizing dumbbell based exercise is the fact that many beginners do find them slightly less intimidating. Even though barbell based exercises may be easier to learn at first, the fact is, the lowest weight you will be lifting with barbell is usually 45 pounds, which is the weight of the bar.

For some new trainees, this is still a considerably amount of weight and may not be something they can comfortably handle.

With dumbbells, they can lift as little as just one pound, which is far more appealing. So for this reason, dumbbells may be a better place to start out with until they develop the base strength needed to do more advanced lifts.

Great Core Involvement

The second big advantage to dumbbell-based training is the fact that you do need those stabilization muscles. Now, we identified the fact that barbell based training didn’t need stabilization muscles as a benefit, so how can using those stabilization muscles be a benefit as well?

Realize that it all depends on your goals. If your goal is maximum strength gains, you ideally want as little stabilization requirements as possible. On the other hand, if your goal is balance and agility improvement, calling those stabilization muscles into play is going to get you those benefits.

Likewise, you’ll also integrate more core muscle activation into most dumbbell based exercises, so if getting a stronger core is your goal, you’ll find you can do this slightly better with dumbbell based exercises.

Do note though, whenever you do standing barbell exercises (such as a standing barbell shoulder press), you will get good core activation as well, so it all depends on how the exercise is being performed.

Those who are looking for sports performance improvement for instance, may benefits lightly more from dumbbell based training because of this.

The next nice benefit of dumbbell-based training is that you will recognize those strength imbalances we spoke about earlier.

Since each arm or leg is responsible for each weight on its own, if there is a strength disparity, you will see it right away. This allows you to then train immediately to fix this imbalance, preventing future injuries from developing.

Great Variety

Black and white photo of dumbbells in a gym

Grab a pair of dumbbells and prepare to sweat!

Next, dumbbell based training gives you plenty of grip change options. For instance, with the barbell-based curl, your hands are locked into position on the barbell. There is no way to change the hand position so you are essentially ‘stuck’ there.

With dumbbells however, you can turn your palms inward to perform a hammer curl, which will target the muscles from a slightly different angle. This proves to be a way to continue to make progress without necessarily increasing the weight on the bar.

Likewise, with the shoulder press, you can do a standard shoulder press exercise or you can do the Arnold press, where the hands are actually rotating as you perform the exercise. This cannot be performed with a barbell.

By using dumbbells, you’ll therefore get more variety into your workout program, which can help you both increase your overall results as well as prevent workout boredom. That may, in time, make it easier for you to stick with the protocol at hand.

The Drawbacks:

So as you can see, there are many benefits to training with dumbbells as well. Let’s now look at a few disadvantages.

Less Optimal For Strength Gains

The first big drawback to training with dumbbells is the fact that you won’t be lifting as much weight in most cases. This means, strength progress may not be as great as it would be with barbell based training.

If that is your primary goal, you may therefore be at a disadvantage by training with dumbbells too often.

Greater Risk For Form Related Injuries

The second drawback is the fact that because you aren’t as supported as you are doing barbell based exercises, there is a greater risk for form-mishap related injuries.

For instance, if you accidentally twist your arm in a manner you shouldn’t while pressing up a heavy load doing the shoulder press, this could place great strain on the shoulder and cause a tendon or muscle to tear.

Because you require so much more stabilization, this puts you at a greater risk for these types of injuries.

High Equipment Requirements

Another drawback of barbell based training is you’ll need a lot of dumbbells to complete your workout routine.

Unless you again have exchangeable dumbbells as noted, you’ll need a variety of different weight levels to ensure that you are being challenged on every single exercise that you perform. This can make setting up a home gym rather challenging.

So while dumbbells are very good, they aren’t 100% perfect.

Who Should Use Them:

The people who are best suited to dumbbell based training include:

  • Those who are looking to optimize sports performance
  • Those who want to increase their stabilization and core activation
  • Those who like a lot of variety in their workout program
  • Those who are new to free weight lifting and aren’t able to lift 45 pounds or more yet

Now that you have a better idea of dumbbell based training, let’s talk about the third type of training you can do, cable training.

Cables

Woman in gym doing exercises with cables

Cable exercises allow for free movement in your arms and put constant tension on your muscles that you can't get with dumbbells.

What They Are:

Cables are a training tool that you’ll typically only find in the gym setting as it’s simply too hard to own in a home gym setting. You’ll find a cable attachment that is attached to a large cable pulley, which is then attached to a weight stack.

You have various types of attachments you can use with the pulley system – ropes, V-bar handles, straight bar handles, and so on. This gives you plenty of different training opportunities.

You’ll notice that the exercise line-up using cable pulley’s is quite a bit different than that using dumbbells and barbells. While you can do many of the standard moves such as squats, lunges, or deadlifts with cables, it will be very awkward to do because the weight is coming at you from an angle. You’re really best leaving these exercises to the dumbbells or barbells.

Instead, the main exercises you’ll perform with cables include:

  • Leg raises
  • Glute kickbacks
  • ​Cable crunches
  • ​Low cable curls
  • ​Overhead tricep extension
  • Tricep rope press down
  • ​Tricep straight bar press down
  • Lat pull-down
  • ​Face pulls
  • High cable chest fly’s
  • Glute pull-thru’s

Most people will not use cables strictly as their main type of equipment for their workout session but rather, use it for complementary exercises.

Let’s take a look at the benefits of using cable pulleys and then look at the disadvantages that this type of training system has.

The Benefits:

The first big benefit of cable training is the fact that you’ll maintain constant tension on the muscles at all times.

Continual Tension = Great Results

This is very different from both bicep and dumbbell based training where there is a point in the exercise where tension is highest (usually where gravity is at it’s greatest) and then the tension will decrease again as you move along with the rest of the rep.

With cables, as you are working against the weighted cable system, you can keep the same amount of total tension on the muscle at all times, thus working the muscle fibers to an overall greater degree.

Many people really like this benefit of cables and choose to work their lagging muscle groups using them for this reason.

Low Risk Of Injury

The second benefit to cable training is your risk of injury due to dropping the weight is really quite low.

With barbell based training, we spoke about how you may fail and have the bar coming down on you – an incident that has an unfortunate ending.

With dumbbell based training, while you can drop the weights to either side of you, you do still run the risk of dropping the dumbbell down on the body and causing injury to set in.

With cables however, as you never have any weight overhead, this risk is simply not there. You’ll instead let go of whatever attachment you are using and it’ll snap back to the weight stand.

As long as you aren’t in the road of the attachment, there is simply no injury risk present.

This doesn’t mean, however, there is no injury risk present due to faulty performance. If you use poor form during these exercises, that can still leave you injured.

Plenty Of Variety To Prevent Progress Plateau’s

The final benefit of cable pulleys is the fact that for isolation exercises, they give you better variety.

There are some exercises that you can do with cables that you just can’t do with dumbbells, such as a rope tricep press down, so including cables in your workout routine will help add more variety into your workout, combating boredom and preventing a plateau.

The Drawbacks:

On to the drawbacks, perhaps the biggest drawback of the cable system is the fact that you can’t perform most compound lifts very well.

Lack Of Compound Lift Options

While you can still work the major muscle groups to some degree, you simply aren’t going to get the strength benefits that you’d get doing exercises like squats, deadlifts, barbell bent over rows, and the barbell shoulder press.

These compound moves are hard to replace in a workout program therefore a workout using just cables would hardly be considered complete.

Insufficient Maximal Loading For Strength Gains

A second drawback to using cables is that because they require a high degree of stabilization, you won’t be lifting huge loads of weight while using them. If you are using them as your primary lifts, you’ll simply stagnate in progress after a short while.

Potential For Back Injuries

Finally, the last drawback to using the cable pulley system is that if your posture is not correct while doing the exercises, because of the fact the weight is usually being lifted from an angle, this can place more stress and strain on the back, leading to a high incidence of back injuries.

You must really take form seriously when using cables, just as you would any other heavy weight exercise. Many people often think that because they aren’t lifting very heavy weight, they don’t need to worry about form quite as much. This is not the case, however.

Who Should Use Them:

So who should focus on using cables? Cables are good for those who:

  • Prefer more variety in their workout program
  • Have lagging muscles they want to bring up
  • ​Want to especially focus on isolating their hip muscles as cables are a good way to do this
  • Are focusing on performing plenty of isolation based work where they want constant tension being placed on each muscle

Conclusion

So as you can see, there is a time and place for each type of equipment. There is no right or wrong here – one type of equipment you must use in each situation.

Inside of a well equipped gym

Today I'm doing my favorite lower body exercises...

Rather, you need to think about your goals, the exercises you want to do, and what benefits are most important to you and use this to guide your exercise selection decisions.

An ideal workout program should include all three types of equipment to realize maximum benefits. Remember that you are never stuck using just one type of equipment but rather, should interchange them in order to accomplish different goals.

If you do that, you’ll get the best of all three worlds and have a very complete workout program on your hands.

About the author

Michael Garrico

I’m a 29-year-old personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Miami, FL. I’ve spent the last 10 years staying at the forefront of the health and fitness industry.

In that time, I’ve helped hundreds of people shed the excess weight and get into shape, maintaining their healthy new lifestyle through proper training and eating habits.

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