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In your local commercial gym, you’ve likely got access to a set of dumbbells and a variety of barbells. Both of which allow for free weight exercises including isolation and compound movements. But what is are the key points you need to know when comparing Barbell vs Dumbbell, is one better than the other?
In this article, you’ll find information to help you decide which is the better choice depending on your fitness goals.
Barbells vs Dumbbells – The History
The ancient Greeks were more than just philosophers and artists – they were a creative bunch, and the dumbbell is one of their gifts to fitness. The first recorded evidence of anyone using a dumbbell goes back to around 5th century BC.
The original dumbbells, or “halteres” as they were called back then, were developed for use in long jumping, but their popularity quickly spread to other forms of exercise.
The original barbell evolved from dumbbells back in the mid-1800s and quickly caught on because, once they were invented, they were easy to make. The “globe” barbell was first introduced. This was a barbell with a fixed weight on each end and is different from the plate loadable standard barbell we know today.
The first weightlifting competition was held during the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Both barbells and dumbbells were used in this competition.
Dumbbells and barbells have changed dramatically throughout the 20th century. As technology, sport science, and the public’s interest in health and fitness progressed, strength and physique competitions became more popular and advanced, and dumbbells and barbells evolved along with it.
Today, people continue to use dumbbells and barbells to improve their fitness, increase muscle growth and lose weight.
Types of Barbells
The conventional barbell is the one you see in most gyms. This is a 7-foot Olympic bar that typically weighs around 45 lbs and can be used for many exercise variations. Whilst the Olympic barbell is most common, there are several other varieties of barbells to use. Aside from a shorter version of the standard barbell, which is usually lighter and suitable for a home gym, there are also bars known as speciality barbells.
If you go to a local gym, chances are you will find at least one type of barbell. Depending on the type of facility you visit, they may have a variety.
These include the following:
- Standard barbells
- Olympic barbells
- Hex bar
- Powerlifting barbells
- Axle bar
- Deadlift barbells
- Log bar
- Buffalo barbells
- Safety squat bars
- EZ bar
- Cambered barbells
- Swiss bars
A standard barbell usually lends itself to most exercises for the average gym goer. They can be used in a squat rack for movements such as the barbell curl and front squats and a variety of other barbell work. However, when you consider a seasoned lifter, by which we mean someone who can lift heavy weight. These bars are not the most suitable.
Usually, they are the most cost effective which is why you often find them in most commercial gyms, but they tend not to be very strong so would not be the best option when lifting heavier loads as they do have a tendency to bend. If you go to a specific strength training gym, for example where powerlifters train, they are more likely to have barbells specific for certain movements, such as back squats.
- Recommended Reading – What Is Barbell Knurling?
When compared to a standard barbell, the deadlift bar is usually thinner in diameter and longer in length. It’s specifically designed to bend when pulling a heavy deadlift and the more weight that is loaded onto the bar, the more it will bend as it’s pulled from the ground. The purpose of this is to limit the range of motion for the person deadlifting.
Essentially, the weights do not leave the ground until the lifter is part way in pulling up the bar. It’s worth noting that this only really has an effect when deadlifting heavier weights.
As the name suggests, a power bar, sometimes known as a stiff bar, is designed for powerlifting movements, the squat, bench press and deadlift. They have a limited amount of whip. This means they won’t bend much with heavy loads so if you typically deadlift with a deadlift bar, you’ll likely find that you can’t pull as much weight if you swap this out for a power bar. Conversely, squatting a heavy load with a stiffer bar is more advantageous as it will be much more stable.
So, even though this universal bar caters for the big three compound lifts, it’s not perfect.
The Olympic barbell takes on a similar appearance to that of the power bar, but instead of being used for powerlifting movements it’s better for weightlifting exercises such as the clean and jerk and the snatch. With this in mind, an Olympic bar will have a lower tensile strength than a power bar meaning that it will bend more under load, making it more suitable for its intended purpose.
Types of Dumbbells
You’re unlikely to find a gym that doesn’t have a set of dumbbells. They’re easy to use, allow for a huge variety of exercises and are great for both isolation and compound movements.
Dumbbells allow you to perform unilateral movements (not so easy with a barbell) so they’re great for correcting muscle imbalances and improving strength and coordination across the entire body.
As with barbells, dumbbells come in several categories such as:
- Studio dumbbells
- Fixed hex dumbbells
- Spin-lock dumbbells (adjustable)
- Selectorized dumbbells
- Fixed rubber/urethane/chrome dumbbells
Spin Lock Dumbbells
Adaptable for any workout, spinlock dumbbells, also called selectorized dumbbells, are adjustable allowing you to change the weight of the dumbbell by adding or removing small amounts of weight. These tend to be for home gyms as opposed to a commercial gym.
Fixed Hex Dumbbells
Fixed hex dumbbells, as the name implies, have fixed ends and are hexagonal in shape. The benefit of this is that they do not roll when on the ground making them suitable for floor-based resistance exercises.
Studio dumbbells tend to be smaller, lighter, and coated in neoprene of different colors. These are designed for light strength training or aerobics-based workouts. They usually range in weight from around 2lbs to 25lbs.
Barbell vs. Dumbbell: What Are the Functional Differences?
Dumbbells allow you to isolate muscles independently and on differing sides by performing unilateral exercises. They can help build symmetry and correct strength and muscle imbalances on either side of your body.
It’s common for most people to have strength imbalances, this means that if you perform an exercise such as a barbell military press, the more dominant side will take over leading to this side becoming even stronger whilst the weaker side will take longer to improve.
Imbalances like this can lead to a host of problems such as rotator cuff injuries and muscle strain. On the contrary, dumbbells make it much easier to address strength imbalances, helping to prevent such injuries.
Range of Motion
Dumbbells allow for a greater range of motion when compared to barbells. This makes them more user-friendly, whilst also reducing the likelihood of injury.
Barbells, on the other hand, allow a partial range of motion. It leads to less dynamic stretching, less micro-damage, and varied results. They don’t allow your arms to move as freely as if you were to use dumbbells.
If you take the bench press as an example, when using a barbell, you can only bring your arms down so far before the bar reaches your chest, thereby limiting the range of motion.
In comparison, dumbbell bench presses require much more stability and can be dropped down much deeper resulting in more upper body activation. This typically makes them harder to execute when compared to a barbell bench press when the same weight load is applied.
Research has shown that the muscles also tend to be activated differently. When pressing dumbbells, the lifter would typically bring the dumbbells together at the top of the movement. This arc motion lends itself to more activation of the biceps.
When pressing with a barbell, the weight moves with a fixed plane of motion and recruits more of the triceps at the bottom of the exercise. This means that a lifter would likely be able to bench press more weight on a barbell than with dumbbells.
If you weren’t sure about which type of weight to use for a particular exercise, a 2019 study in the Human Kinetics Journal assessed the effects of dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, and weighted vests on muscle activation in movements such as lunges and squats.
The study found that free weights provided the greatest improvement in strength. While there were no major differences between various loading devices, the use of free weights resulted in improved results when compared with bodyweight-only training.
The flat bench press is one of the most effective free weight chest exercises you can perform. However, you can increase pec activity significantly by performing isolation movements with dumbbells instead of barbells.
Whilst you can use both barbells and dumbbells for the same exercises, dumbbells offer more flexibility. For example, when performing the military press, dumbbells allow for greater front deltoid activation than barbells. The would also recruit more stabilization muscles.
Barbells do allow for a higher one-rep max that is beneficial for improved strength and muscle gains. This would make barbells better for strength training due to the ease of linear progression.
When you become stronger, it’s natural to move onto lifting heavier weights. Whilst dumbbells can reach up to 100kg per dumbbell, the reality is most people won’t be able to make use of these. Typically, dumbbells allow for isolation movements which recruit smaller muscles groups and won’t often be used for movements such as squats and deadlifts.
If you compare a dumbbell bicep curl with a barbell back squat, you’ll likely be able to squat considerably more weight than you can bicep curl. This, of course, is because your biceps are going to be much weaker when compared to your posterior chain, which are the muscles activated during a squat.
If you want to squat 100kg, you’ll need to be able to unrack a barbell from a squat rack as squatting 100kg with a pair of 50kg dumbbells is not practical, nor is it very safe. When you lift heavy weights, making marginal increases in the weight load makes this easier for progressing.
Incremental weight loading can be done on a barbell by adding weight plates as low as 0.25kg, these are known as fractional or change plates. Small weight adjustments are not so easy with dumbbells, this is because dumbbells usually increase by 1kg at a minimum.
Advantages of Using Barbells
Barbells are a great way to build muscle and burn fat, but that’s not all they do! Here are five more reasons you should be using barbells in your workouts.
- Barbells can be loaded with additional weight in small increments making them better for compound lifts.
- Barbells can be easier to handle, especially with heavy weight, this is because they can be racked to a specific height.
- Barbells allow for exercises that work large muscle groups, such as squats and deadlifts. This makes barbell exercises better for building strength gains and muscle mass.
Advantages of Using Dumbbells
Dumbbells are a great tool for building strength, stability, and flexibility. They’re also very affordable, which makes them a great option for people who are just starting with their exercise program.
Here are some of the advantages that dumbbells have over other types of weights:
- Dumbbells provide a more natural movement for exercising muscles than barbells or machines do, which move in a fixed plane of motion. You can move them through their full range of motion and use them in a variety of ways to target your muscles from different angles.
- Dumbbells tend to be available in increments from as little as 2lbs to as much as 100lbs per dumbbell. This means that you can start with lighter weights and work your way up as your strength increases.
- Dumbbells can address any muscle imbalances ensuring you build equal strength and muscle symmetry.
Exercises for Barbell Training
Below are a couple of examples of exercises best performed with a barbell.
A barbell row is a form of resistance training that primarily targets the muscles of your upper back and core. It can also improve your grip strength.
By adding weight to this exercise, you can develop strength in other areas of your body, including your arms, legs, buttocks, and abdominal area.
How to perform a barbell row:
- Take hold of a barbell with an overhand grip that is slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Stand up straight with your feet about hip-width apart and knees slightly bent.
- Keep your back straight, and hinge forward at the hips to about 30 degrees.
- Brace your core to provide stability.
- Keeping your head and chest up, pull the weight up towards your chest. Hold at the top for a couple of seconds.
- Slowly lower the weight back down to the starting position and repeat.
The deadlift is a technical compound movement that, when performed correctly, will target a huge number of muscle groups across the body, as well as firing up your central nervous system.
How to deadlift:
- Position a barbell on the ground with the desired weight distributed equally on either side.
- Stand with your feet positioned just under the barbell.
- Keep your feet around shoulder width apart with toes pointing slight out.
- Push your glutes back and bend at the knees so you can reach the bar.
- Take hold of the barbell using an overhand grip.
- Keep your spine neutral with your head and chest up throughout the exercise.
- Your hips should be lower than your shoulders to prevent your lower back from rounding.
- Brace your core and push through your heels to pull the weight up. Don’t pull the weight using your arms.
- At the top of the movement, don’t overextend (bend backwards).
- Keep your shoulders down and back, squeeze the glutes and hold for a second.
- Push your glutes back and bend at the knees to return the bar back to the ground before repeating.
Exercises for Dumbbell Training
Below are a couple of examples of exercises best performed with dumbbells.
The dumbbell bicep curl is an effective exercise for isolating and working the biceps brachii, the two headed muscle in the upper arm. This exercise will also engage the forearms to a small degree.
How to perform a dumbbell bicep curl
- Start by standing upright, feet shoulder width apart, with a dumbbell in each hand.
- Hold the dumbbells in a neutral position so they are down by your sides with your palms facing towards you.
- Slowly bring the dumbbells up towards you and rotate your arms as you go.
- At the top of the movement the dumbbells should be at the top of your chest with your palms facing towards you.
- Hold at the top and slowly drop them back down to the starting position.
If you have to use momentum and find yourself swinging the dumbbells up, then they could be too heavy. In this instance, start again with a lighter weight.
- Recommended Reading – Hammer Curl Variations To Supersize Bicep Growth
Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
The shoulder press is a compound upper-body exercise that primarily works your delts, and to a lesser degree activates the triceps, traps, and rotator cuff.
How to do a seated dumbbell shoulder press:
- Choose your dumbbells and set the height of the back pad on an adjustable bench to its highest level.
- Take hold of your dumbbells and take a seat on the bench.
- Hold the dumbbells at your shoulders, your palms should be facing away from you. This is your starting position.
- Keeping your back against the pad, push the weights straight up towards the ceiling and bring them together.
- Make sure to keep your wrists straight throughout.
- Hold at the top, before lowering back down to the starting position and repeating.
When it comes to which type of free weight is best, there’s no clear-cut answer. Both dumbbells and barbells each have their own distinct benefits making them valuable pieces of gym equipment. By making use of both for a variety of exercises, you’ll reap far more benefits than if you stick to just one type of free weight.
As with any workout routine, it’s important to incorporate a wide range of exercises which target different muscles groups. This will help to limit any chance of plateauing and ensure that you continue to increase strength and muscle mass. It’ll also help to build a well-balanced physique.