Dumbbells vs Barbells: which is better to train with?

This might be one of the biggest, and ongoing, debates in the history of using weights to train. A response to this question has always been searched for, to choose a winner by analyzing every possible benefit and weakness of these tools. Which one results more functional? Which allows you to progress more quickly, lifting heavier weights? When should you choose one over the other?

  • Differences between dumbbells and barbells
  • Benefits and limits of barbell use
  • Benefits and limits of dumbbell use
  • Two classics to be confronted: flat bench and curl

During training, the key to progress isn’t to commit to just one method or just one tool. Let’s start our analysis of the answer: we choose both!

The best solution to obtain real, long-lasting and incremental results is to mix the use of dumbbells and barbells, finding a time and place for both in your training routine.

Difference between dumbbells and barbells

The most intuitive and immediately visible difference between these tools is surely the fact that the barbell is held with both hands and, therefore, doesn’t permit monoarticular movements, while the dumbbells requires each hand to move independently and it’s possible to use just one dumbbells or both simultaneously.

All of the differences and the various pro and cons of using one with respect to the other that we’ll list for using these tools depends on that fundamental characteristic.

Dumbbells vs. Barbells:

  • The dumbbell is smaller and lighter than the barbell
  • A barbell can be lifted by using both hands, while exercises with dumbbells can be done with one in each hand or just one unilaterally
  • Dumbbells have a fixed weight while the barbell allows you to load more weight onto each extremity, creating different and more versatile loads
  • Dumbbells allow a great range of movement and a wider range of exercises compared to a barbell
  • It’s possible to increase strength and work on weakness on just one side of the body by using dumbbells
  • The barbell allows you to lift heaver weights compared to dumbbells, making it more favorable for increasing weight loads
Dumbbells vs Barbells: which is better to train with?

Benefits and limits of barbell use:

While using the barbell, having your hands blocked in a fixed position offers a big advantage that’s not replicable in an equal way with any other training tool: developing strength. It allows us to train the capacity to produce as much strength as possible.

Lifting with a barbell, in which both legs and arms work in unison (like in the back squat, on the bench or deadlift), allows you to reach the maximum weight load possible. This is why lifting world records are recorded using barbell exercises.

Having a more stable load means you can add weight and have more control, obviously by using muscles that are bigger. In other words, when you use a barbell you don’t use the smaller and weaker stabilizer muscles like you do when using dumbbells.

It seems clear then that the barbell is a fundamental instrument for anyone looking to truly maximize their muscle strength. Additionally, from the moment the barbell allows heavy weights it recruits a higher number of muscle fiber, and you could sustain that training with a barbell is crucial in order to maximize earnings in terms of muscle dimension.

To summarize, the barbell is easy to pick up and position at the end of the exercise since you always find it on it’s rack, you can increase loads even by a fraction of a kilogram and it’s easier to maintain a precise trajectory since it’s two heavy extremities are unified by the barbell.

Dumbbells vs Barbells: which is better to train with?

Benefits and limits of dumbbell use

Whether or not you use one or both at a time, dumbbells allow a greater freedom of movement compared to an equivalent exercise with a barbell. They allow you to move your hands independently from one another and to rotate the wrists during movement. This is a fundamental advantage, especially for those who feel pain or tension when they lift weights with a barbell. Since dumbbells allow the arms and legs to find their best positions, it’s possible to avoid feeling the same joint pain that you might feel with a barbell. As a result, avoiding injury (especially for beginners), rehabilitation and strength training are all possible and favored by working with dumbbells.

When you do an exercise with a barbell, the dominant arm can compensate the weaker arm. This can help increase weight, but will accentuate imbalances. The use of the dumbbell develops unilateral force and can help your weak side get stronger. With dumbbells, each side sustains its own weight, so the stronger arm doesn’t compensate for the weaker one.

Dumbbells allow infinite isolation movements, even single articulation. If the goal is maximum muscle growth, you can’t ignore dumbbell exercises, effective for targeting specific muscles.

Two classics to be confronted: flat bench and curl

The flat bench is an optimal pushing exercise for the muscles of the upper part of the body and a valid exercise if done with dumbbells or barbells and it’s difficult to say which is the better version.

To illustrate the difference between these tools, we can analyze the flat bench with dumbbells and barbells. Many individuals have a limited mobility in their joints like shoulders, elbows and wrists, so dumbbells can offer a personalized solution that’s more favorable for movement and help restore mobility. With a barbell, the ROM is limited to the point in which the barbell touches the chest.

Dumbbells allow a very complete motion since they allow inter-rotation and as a result an intense contraction in the pectoral muscles. It’s a recommended variation when the goal is hypertrophy, endurance, or when you notice that one arm is weaker than the other to rebalance strength. When you work with strength, and you need to work with heavy loads, the barbell is the most practical and safe choice. Furthermore, with the barbell you can make smaller weight increments, avoiding periods of stalling during your weight lifting progression.

Another valid exercise with both tools is the curl with dumbbells and the curl with the barbell. In the latter, the setup and the progressions are easier, but the unnatural position of the wrists, nonetheless, can cause pain and increase the risk of injury. The curl with dumbbells, on the other hand, allows greater freedom of movement and a more natural movement without restrictions. Furthermore, this exercise recruits more secondary and stabilizing muscles, allowing a more even and well-rounded conditioning.


Bibliography:

  • Wu, H., Tsai, C., Liang, K., & Chang, Y. (2020). Effect of Loading Devices on Muscle Activation in Squat and Lunge, Journal of Sport Rehabilitation29(2), 200-205.
  • Kohler JM, Flanagan SP, Whiting WC. Muscle activation patterns while lifting stable and unstable loads on stable and unstable surfaces. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Feb;24(2):313-21.
  • Solstad TE, Andersen V, Shaw M, Hoel EM, Vonheim A, Saeterbakken AH. A Comparison of Muscle Activation between Barbell Bench Press and Dumbbell Flyes in Resistance-Trained Males. J Sports Sci Med. 2020 Nov 19;19(4):645-651.
  • Farias DA, Willardson JM, Paz GA, Bezerra ES, Miranda H. Maximal Strength Performance and Muscle Activation for the Bench Press and Triceps Extension Exercises Adopting Dumbbell, Barbell, and Machine Modalities Over Multiple Sets. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Jul;31(7):1879-1887.
  • Núñez FJ, Santalla A, Carrasquila I, Asian JA, Reina JI, Suarez-Arrones LJ (2018) The effects of unilateral and bilateral eccentric overload training on hypertrophy, muscle power and COD performance, and its determinants, in team sport players. PLoS ONE 13(3): e0193841

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