Dumbbells and barbells are both often used in many muscle building routines, but which is actually better for your muscle gains if you had to chose one ? The truth is that both are popular type of free weights and each has its own unique strength and weaknesses. So you shouldn’t limit yourself to one type or the other, but if you are deciding on using just one then you may find that either the dumbbell or barbell may be more suitable for your particular fitness needs.
The dumbbells are a pair of free weights made up of a grip bar and two circular shaped weights attached at each end. You grip a single dumbbell with one hand and it can either be a isolateral (when you have one hand on each dumbbell and you move each at a different time) or unilateral (when you move each dumbbell at the same time) movement.
Range Of Motion
Most of the times with dumbbells you will have a greater range of motion. For example if your doing a dumbbell shoulder press you can get a greater stretch in your shoulder because you do not have a bar stopping you on the way down. Using dumbbells allows your body to make any adjustments needed to ensure that every movement done feels as natural and as comfortable as possible.
Dumbbells are safer in the sense where you have no spotter and your approaching failure, then you could just ditch those weights by throwing them onto the floor. So if you’re working out by yourself or at home then try to stick to dumbbells to prevent yourself from getting injured.
Strength & Size
With a dumbbell in each hand you’re definitely going to be lifting the same amount of weight on each side so if you have any muscular imbalances then stop doing as much barbell work and start doing isolation work with the dumbbells where you focus on that weaker muscle to allow it to catch up to the bigger/stronger muscle.
If you want to build up more strength and size you must always add and use more weight to progressively overload your muscle. Using the dumbbells for this will be much harder because it goes up in larger increments compared to the barbell. Each dumbbell goes up in 5lb increments for a total of 10lbs and that’s a huge jump whereas barbells have 2.5lb plates that you can put on each end on the bar for a total of 5lbs.
If your main focus is strength/powerlifting then squatting, benching, deadlifting and over head pressing with dumbbells will just not be as practical or comfortable as using barbells. Of course there are variations of each movement when using the dumbbells, but when you progress onwards and start using heavier weight… say 300lbs for the squat, which would be more practical trying to hold 150lbs dumbbells over your shoulders and squatting or using the barbell that is securely on your back ? Obviously the barbell is more practical. Furthermore, if your aim is to become a powerlifter and to compete you won’t even be able to because they don’t use dumbbells to compete.
The barbell is a free weight made up of a much longer grip bar where you place weighted plates on each end of the bar. You grip a single barbell with both hands and it is a bilateral movement (where both limbs are working in unison to move a specific load).
Range Of Motion
There is just no comparison when it comes to the range of motion of the barbell compared to the dumbbell simply because you will always have that bar that limits your movement. For example when your doing a bicep curl once that bar hits your thigh you won’t be able to go any further, but when doing bicep curls with the dumbbell you can go all the way back which allows for a greater stretch in your bicep.
The barbells can be safer when you have a spotter or safety rack and when it’s set up properly, but if not and you know your going to failure or if you don’t know your limits that weight is probably going to crush you. For example if you can’t push any more weight while bench pressing with dumbbells you can just drop them to the sides, but if you get stuck bench pressing with the barbell you’ll be in big trouble.
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Strength & Size
Muscular imbalances are caused by neglecting to do dumbbell work and doing too many barbell movements. For example if your doing a incline barbell bench press it is very possible that your stronger side will be taking around 60% of that weight and your weaker side 40%. This will further that muscular/strength imbalance and to fix this you can move over to dumbbells.
Using the barbell to progressively overload your muscle is nearly always better than dumbbell exercises because you are able to move up in much smaller increments which is one of the keys to consistent progression.
Using the barbell to increase your strength in the squat, bench, deadlift and over head press is always better/more practical than using the dumbbells. The reason for this is because you can use heavier weight when performing these exercises with the barbell and the bar is already in position, but when you start to use the heavier dumbbells it can sometimes become a whole exercise in itself just trying to get those dumbbells from the floor and in position for your first rep. Additionally, for those of you that workout at home, which do you think would cost less and take up less space: Pairs of dumbbells from 5lb – 130lb or 1 barbell with 300lbs in cast iron weight plates ? Of course the barbell would just make more practical sense when it comes to situations like these.
So as you can see there are both pros and cons to using dumbbells/barbells, but which one should you use in your training for maximal muscle gains ? The answer is pretty clear you should use a variation of both and depending on your goals/circumstances you can prioritise one over the other.
If you have anymore questions about dumbbells or barbells for your training then leave a comment below.