Fitness

Barbell vs Dumbbell vs Cable
The Pros & Cons Revealed

barbel
Written by Isaac Robertson

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.

Picking and 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.

Barbell or dumbbell? What are the difference between these? What about cables? 

1. ​Barbells

Barbell on a gym floor

Ready to include barbell in your workout routine?

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.

​The barbell is the simplest looking piece of equipment in the gym, but it’s one of the most complex to learn how to use.

​Mark Barroso, Aaptiv

Barbell Benefits: The Pros

1. More Weight Lifted

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.

2. Low Learning Curve

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. 

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.

With dumbbells, the learning curve can be a bit steeper in many cases.

3. Lower Injury Risk

Barbells also tend to put you at a slightly lower risk of injuries as well. 

injury

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. (1)

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.

4. Little Need For Equipment

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.

Barbell Drawbacks: The Cons

1. 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.

2. 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.

train-to-failure

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).

3. 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. 

barbell-spotter

Instead, that barbell is coming down and there’s a good chance it’s coming down on you – leading to great injury.

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.

Who Should Use 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

​Here are some barbell exercises to get you started.

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.


2. ​Dumbbells

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.

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.

Black and white photo of dumbbells in a gym

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

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

​Dumbbells allow the user to focus on one arm or leg at a time, which is one way to initiate strength gains by using a heavy overload.

​Pete McCall, ACE Fitness

Dumbbell Benefits: The Pros

1. Low Intimidation Factor

barbell-equipments

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.

2. Great Core Involvement

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?

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.

3. Strength Imbalances

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.

4. Great Variety

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. (2)

With dumbbells however, you can turn your palms inward to perform a hammer curl, which will target the muscles from a slightly different angle.


Black and white photo of dumbbells in a gym

Grab a pair of dumbbells and prepare to sweat!

This proves to be a way to continue to make progress without necessarily increasing the weight on the bar.

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.

Dumbbell Drawbacks: The Cons

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

1. 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.

2. Greater Risk For Form Related Injuries

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

As 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.

3. 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.

Who Should Use Dumbbells?

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

​Here are some dumbbell workouts that you can do to get you started.

3. ​Cables

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 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.

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.

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.

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

​Cable machines activate your core muscles – abs, lower back, hips and obliques in order to allow you to isolate the targeted muscle that you are working.

​Cummings Centre

Cables Benefits: The Pros

1. 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.

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.

2. Low Risk Of Injury

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.

3. Plenty Of Variety To Prevent Progress Plateau’s

man-pushing-himself

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.

Cable Drawbacks: The Cons

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.

1. 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.

cable-bicep-curl

2. 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.

3. 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 Cables?

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

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

​You can also watch this video to get you started in cable workouts.

Dumbbells vs Barbell vs Cables: Who Won?

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.

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.

Inside of a well equipped gym

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

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.


​References

​1. Ulrika Aasa, Ivar Svartholm, Fredrik Andersson, Lars Berglund, Injuries among weightlifters and powerlifters: a systematic review, retrieved from https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/51/4/211
2. Pete McCall, 5 Benefits of Dumbbell Training, retrieved from https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/expert-articles/5675/5-benefits-of-dumbbell-training

About the author

Isaac Robertson

I’m a personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Indianapolis, IN. I’ve spent the last 8 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. You can read more about me here​.

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