Dumbbells vs Barbell: Which Is Better?

A topic of debate among people in the weight training world is dumbbells vs barbell.

Some claim that dumbbell exercises are better and more effective for goals like building muscle and gaining strength, while others claim barbell exercises are the better and more effective choice for these types of goals.

So, who’s right? Let’s figure that out right now.

Dumbbell Exercises vs Barbell Exercises

Just in case any clarification is needed here, dumbbell exercises would obviously refer to any type of weight training exercise performed using dumbbells. For example:

  • Dumbbell presses.
  • Dumbbell rows.
  • Dumbbell deadlifts.
  • Dumbbell squats.
  • Dumbbell curls.
  • Dumbbell extensions.
  • Dumbbell lunges.
  • And so on.

Barbell exercises would be the same sort of movements, just using a different piece of equipment. For example:

  • Barbell presses.
  • Barbell rows.
  • Barbell deadlifts.
  • Barbell squats.
  • Barbell curls.
  • Barbell extensions.
  • Barbell lunges
  • And so on.

Now let’s compare the pros and cons of each and determine which one is best.

Dumbbells Can Allow For A More Natural Movement

With dumbbells, you can move each side individually of the other, which means your body isn’t forced into as fixed of a position as you are with a barbell.

The benefit of this is that it allows you to make whatever minor adjustments you want or may need to make to ensure the movement is as natural, comfortable, and safe for your body as possible… which is key for injury prevention.

Here’s an example.

For me, the incline barbell bench press has never felt “right,” and it’s an exercise that has always caused shoulder pain.

The incline dumbbell bench press, on the other hand, feels perfectly fine.

Why is this? Because I’m able to make adjustments when pressing dumbbells that I am unable to make when pressing a barbell, such as rotating my wrists slightly inward.

This doesn’t make incline dumbbell presses universally better than incline barbell presses, of course. It just makes it the better choice for me in this specific scenario.

Maybe there’s a similar situation where they’re better for you, too.

Dumbbells Can Sometimes Be Safer And Easier To Use

Let me give you two examples of what I mean here.

When it comes to certain lower body exercises, it’s sometimes easier and safer to have dumbbells in your hands rather than a barbell on your back, particularly for a beginner or anyone in the early stages of learning how to preform certain exercises properly.

This is especially the case with single-leg exercises like lunges, walking lunges, split squats, Bulgarian split squats, and step-ups, where balance is such a major component (especially as the set progresses and cardiovascular fatigue becomes a factor).

So, in those cases, some people may be better off using dumbbells instead of a barbell.

And for the upper body, dumbbells tend to be a safer option for chest pressing exercises when a spotter isn’t available.

For example, if you get stuck bench pressing with dumbbells, you can just drop them to your sides without any real problem. But if you get stuck bench pressing with a barbell, you’re in trouble.

Sure, you could ask someone to spot you or maybe just do a better job of knowing when you’re going to reach failure, but generally speaking, dumbbell exercises have an advantage in a no-spotter situation.

Dumbbells Are More Joint/Tendon Friendly

A straight barbell, or really any straight handle or attachment on a machine, is a common cause of joint and tendon issues for a lot of people.

This goes back to what I mentioned earlier about a barbell locking your hands into a fixed position, whereas dumbbells can be rotated to suit whatever is most comfortable for each person.

And that fixed straight-bar position is something that tends to bug a lot of people’s wrists, elbows, shoulders, and the various tendons along the way.

For example, doing triceps extensions (like skull crushers) with a straight bar is a common cause of elbow pain (on the outer side) for many people (myself included).

Switching to dumbbells or an EZ curl bar, both of which allow the wrists to be rotated inward, usually feels much better.

Additional details here: How To Do Skull Crushers And Not Hurt Your Elbows

Biceps curls with a straight bar is the same kind of thing. It bothers many people’s wrists and elbows (on the inner side), but dumbbells or an EZ curl bar feel fine.

Additional details here: Straight Bar vs EZ Curl Bar

And the same goes for various barbell pressing and rowing exercises. A straight bar bothers some people, but dumbbells don’t.

Of course, it’s important to note again that this isn’t a universal thing. Plenty of people will be able to use a barbell for these exercises and never have any problems at any point.

But, for those who do have problems, dumbbells will be the better choice.

Dumbbells Can Help Improve Or Prevent Imbalances

Think about it.

With a dumbbell in each hand, you’re guaranteed that each side is lifting an equal amount of weight each rep of each set.

With a barbell, however, it’s not uncommon for your stronger side to naturally take over to some degree during certain exercises without you even realizing it.

If this happens often enough, it can lead to (or worsen) imbalances in both strength and size.

So, if you happen to notice that you have one side that is significantly bigger or stronger than the other, one way to help prevent/improve it would be by using dumbbells instead of a barbell on the relevant exercises.

Details here: What To Do If One Side Is Bigger Than The Other

Dumbbells Allow For Some Exclusive Exercises To Be Done

In terms of the most common exercises the average person will be looking to include in their workout routine, virtually every barbell exercise you can think of will have a similar dumbbell variation that can be done.

But… the opposite isn’t true.

For example, there is no barbell version of a dumbbell chest fly. You also can’t (realistically) do lateral raises or rear delt flyes with a bar, either.

Now, sure, these certainly aren’t required exercises that anyone will truly need to be doing by any means (in fact, outside of athletes who need to perform specific exercises in competition, there is no such thing as a “required exercise”).

But, these additional options are still a small advantage dumbbells have over a barbell.

Barbell Progression Is Much More Ideal

One of the biggest keys to an effective workout routine is progressive overload, which basically means increasing the demands being placed on your body and gradually getting stronger over time.

And to make this kind of progression happen optimally, smaller weight increments are ideal.

Meaning, if you can lift 100lbs on some exercise and you’re ready to go up in weight, things will go much more smoothly (and safely) by going to 105lbs rather than 130lbs.

And this is an area where barbell exercises have a big advantage.

Because when you’re ready to increase the weight of a barbell exercise, most gyms will have 2.5lb plates that you can put on each side of the bar, thereby allowing you to progress in 5lb increments.

With dumbbell exercises, however, most gyms have dumbbells that go up in 5lb increments per dumbbell (50lbs, 55lbs, 60lbs, etc.), which means you’re forced to increase the weight by a total of 10lbs every time you’re ready to progress.

Sure, they do make small magnetic weights that can be attached to certain dumbbells to solve this problem, but most gyms don’t have them, and most people won’t go through the trouble of bringing their own.

And I know some really amazing gyms do have dumbbells that go up in 2.5lb increments (50lb, 52.5lb, 55lb, etc.), but again, that’s extremely rare.

That means, for the typical person in a typical gym, you’re stuck trying to progress in 10 pound increments for every dumbbell exercise vs 5 pound increments for every barbell exercise.

That gives the barbell a big advantage in this category.

A Barbell Is Easier To Use When The Weight Gets Heavy

As you gradually get stronger over time and the weight you’re lifting gets heavier and heavier, there will come a point on certain exercises where a barbell simply becomes more ideal than dumbbells.

For example, when you’re doing various chest and shoulder presses, you need to be able to get the dumbbells up and into the starting position.

This is relatively easy when you’re at the beginner or early intermediate stages, or training in a higher rep range (which means the weights will be a little lighter), but as you get more advanced, or if you’re training in lower rep ranges, getting the dumbbells up for that first rep can be a problem.

Speaking from experience, it can sometimes become a whole exercise in and of itself just trying to get those dumbbells from the floor to over your body/head for the first rep.

And sometimes, it’s just not possible at all without a spotter.

Of course, there are some tricks you can use to help make this easier, and you could also ask someone to help you get them up and into position, but it’s still an advantage that a barbell has over dumbbells.

After all, with barbell pressing exercises, the bar starts off in a rack of some sort where it’s already in the position you need it to be in for that first rep.

And for a lower body exercise like squats, when it gets heavy enough, holding a heavy bar on your back is going to be a lot more ideal than holding the same amount of weight in your hands. Yes, even with straps.

Another Factor To Consider: Mind-Muscle Connection

If your goal is to build muscle, then your ability to properly engage the target muscle groups and sufficiently feel them working is an important part of what you need to be doing.

No, getting a massive pump or feeling super sore the next day isn’t an important thing (and may very well not be important at all).

However, you do need to actually use the muscle groups you’re intending to use.

Here’s an example.

If you’re doing a back exercise like a bent over barbell or dumbbell row, and you feel virtually nothing in your back yet feel it a ton in your biceps… that’s a problem that needs to be fixed, because you’re not sufficiently training your back in this scenario.

Additional details here: How To Use Back Muscles During Back Exercises

The same goes for any sort of chest press where you feel it mostly (if not entirely) in your triceps and/or shoulders rather than your chest. That may be nice for your triceps/shoulder growth, but it’s going to suck for actually making your chest grow.

Why am I telling you this, you ask?

Because some people are able to better engage the target muscle groups and create that mind-muscle connection with certain exercises more so than others.

For some, it might be a dumbbell exercise that best allows them to make this happen. For others, it may be a barbell exercise. It varies.

So… Which One Is Better?

Is it a barbell, or is it dumbbells?

The answer is: it depends.

I know we all like having definitive answers to questions like these, because then you can conclusively know which one thing is “the best” and start doing it.

Unfortunately, that outcome is hardly ever the case.

That’s because barbells and dumbbells each have pros and cons that make them the better option in certain cases.

And many of those cases will vary from person to person, program to program, and even exercise to exercise. Not to mention, there’s also personal preferences to take into account, as well as factors like the mind-muscle connection stuff I mentioned a minute ago.

So, as annoying as this answer may seem, it’s the only truly accurate answer there is.

My Recommendation

Generally speaking, though, both a barbell and dumbbells have the potential to be equally effective with all else being equal.

But when all else isn’t equal? And one option will indeed be a better choice for you?

That’s when you should use everything I’ve explained in this article to determine which type of exercise is the “best” choice for you in that specific case.

As for me personally, that’s exactly how I approach it, which is why I end up using a combination of dumbbell and barbell exercises in my own workouts, as well as in the workouts I design for others (like the ones included in Superior Muscle Growth).

What’s Next?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jay is the science-based writer and researcher behind everything you've seen here. He has 15+ years of experience helping thousands of men and women lose fat, gain muscle, and build their "goal body." His work has been featured by the likes of Time, The Huffington Post, CNET, Business Week and more, referenced in studies, used in textbooks, quoted in publications, and adapted by coaches, trainers and diet professionals at every level.