Barbell vs. Dumbbell Training
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An age old and common debate around the strength training world is the barbell vs dumbbell argument; which piece of equipment is best for building strength and gaining muscle?
I have seen a lot of very similar answers to the question and I don’t really think many of them are correct.
The answer always tends to be “dumbbells activate more muscles and fix imbalances while barbells are good for going heavy. Therefore, rotate between both”
Now, some of those statements may be correct but I really feel that is a poor answer. In this article I want to explain why and give my reasons for which really is better: barbells or dumbbells.
Barbell vs. Dumbbell Common Arguments
Lifting is full of contradictions and arguments for or against one thing or another.
The age old debate over barbells vs. dumbbells is no different, so here are some common arguments you'll hear for or against one method of training.
This is usually one of they key points individuals like to make when promoting dumbbell training over barbells. The argument is that using each arm individually will fix any strength and size imbalances between your right and left side.
The fact is barbell training should have that exact same benefit. After all, if your hands are placed evenly on the bar, each side is responsible for applying the same amount of force to the bar.
The only time you should worry about an imbalance is if you are using poor technique. With proper technique, barbell training is more than capable of building a very well-balanced body.
But, what about all those times you see the barbell moving like a see-saw?
This is usually down to one side simply being a bit more dominant than the other. The slightly weaker side still needs to apply the same amount of force, it is usually just a bit slower.
Over time, the barbell can correct the discrepancy. However, you are always likely to have one side that is slightly more dominant than the other. That’s just how it goes for most people.
Building Stabilizer muscles
Another argument for the supposed superiority of dumbbells is the recruitment of the stabiliser muscles in your shoulders.
There is no denying the fact they do require extra stabilisation than the barbell and there are studies that show increased activation in the stabiliser muscles.
What people tend to forget is that barbells also require work from your shoulder stabilisers and it will strengthen them. A lot of the time, people dismiss this fact and behave as if stabiliser activation is completely devoid in barbell exercises.
Barbells might not activate those stabilising muscles as much as dumbbells, but they will sure as hell make them stronger. In fact, they will probably make them stronger than they would ever really need to be.
Therefore, in my opinion, making this stabiliser argument a little irrelevant.
Greater Range of Motion
Now, this is the point where I can safely say that dumbbells are better for many exercises.
I am a big proponent of full range of motion training and while barbells can provide a good stretch and range of motion, there are certain cases where the bar gets in the way.
An easy example to take is the bench press; the movement must stop when the bar touches your chest. With dumbbells, you can get a bigger stretch on the muscle since they allow your hands to go below chest level.
Obviously, all of this is only a benefit if you are making a point of using the complete range of motion, which is something many gym-goers do not do.
The major downside to this benefit is that once you get strong, the heavy dumbbells tend to get much longer. These longer dumbbells then get in the way and can prevent you from performing a full range of motion.
Once you reach this point, the barbell is king again.
Higher Muscle Recruitment
There are studies that have shown higher degrees of muscle activation when comparing the barbell to dumbbells for some exercises.
A study on overhead pressing shows dumbbells to activate more total shoulder muscles than barbells.
Another one on the bench press shows varying degrees of activation in different muscles depending on whether a bar or dumbbells are being used. For example, dumbbells showed greater anterior deltoid activation while the triceps were recruited more in a barbell press.
These are all interesting things to look at and valuable information to have. I feel their downfall is muscle activation doesn’t necessarily mean more muscle gains.
There can be no denying the greater potential for heavier weights to be lifted with a barbell.
And, we know what an important driver of hypertrophy lifting heavier weights is. So, while total muscle recruitment may be higher with dumbbells, it might not be higher in the primary muscles you want to build.
It would also only really matter if you could consistently load those exercises with the same amount of weight as you can with a barbell.
When are dumbbells useful?
I know this article seems like a bit of a rant against the use of dumbbells. I guess it kind of is for most situations.
And that is the key right there: MOST situations.
I genuinely believe that barbell training should be the true focus of any strength training program. Particularly for the general population.
With that being said, dumbbells do have their place at times.
As mentioned earlier, any exercise where dumbbells provide the advantage of a greater range of motion is the perfect place to use them.
Other circumstances such as an injury or other issue that makes barbell training painful or impossible could be better suited for using dumbbells.
In such a situation, my aim would be to rehab the problem, so barbells could be used again. But, in the mean-time, dumbbells can be used during that process if you are able to.
Finally, dumbbells would be preferred in any athletic endeavour where they provide a more sports-specific training effect.