Free weights are a great way to build strength, build muscle, and improve overall fitness. But there are different types of free weights you can choose from when setting up your workout routine. Namely, there’s the debate between barbells and dumbbells.
Is it better to train with barbells or dumbbells? Is one better for a particular goal? And which is better for things like core strength, or safety?
That’s what we’re going to clear up in this article. Read on for more.
Barbell vs Dumbbell: What's the Difference?
A barbell is a long, straight metal bar, which gets loaded with weight on each end. Generally, the bar is unloaded, and you’ll be able to load plates on the end to make it up to your desired weight.
Your gym might also have some fixed-weight barbells as well, which tend to be shorter and lighter than an unloaded barbell.
Dumbbells are shorter and designed to be lifted in one hand. They’re almost always a fixed weight, and your gym will likely have a rack filled with dumbbells of different weights.
In short, barbell = long, made for two hands, and dumbbell = short, made for one hand. That’s the practical difference.
Explaining which one (if any) is better is a bit more complicated.
Is One More "Effective" Than the Other?
There’s no right or wrong answer for which is “better” or more effective between dumbbells and barbells.
It depends largely on your goals - such as whether you primarily want to build functional strength, increase muscle mass, or strengthen your core. Even then, both dumbbells and barbells can be effective.
At the end of the day, for most of these desired outcomes, you just want to be lifting heavy things.
It doesn’t matter a whole lot if you’re doing a dumbbell leg workout, kettlebell swings, a plate, or even carrying a bag of groceries, as long as the resistance on your muscles is the same.
There are some slight differences in how effective each method is for different goals, though, which can come into play if you’re concerned with fully optimizing your workout routine. We’ll go through these differences next.
Barbell vs. Dumbbell for Strength Gains
Barbells are generally better than dumbbells at improving strength.
This is because, with strength workouts, your goal is to lift as much weight as possible. Barbells allow you to lift more overall weight than dumbbells.
This is partly because you activate much more of your body in most barbell-based lifts, compared to dumbbells, which are more often used for isolation exercises. With more muscle groups working, you’ll be able to withstand more weight.
Studies back this up. One study in particular shows a 17% higher one rep maximum for barbell bench press vs dumbbell bench press.
Barbells are also more versatile for strength workouts, because you can keep adjusting the weight by adding more plates, whereas with dumbbells, you’re usually limited to whichever fixed-weight dumbbells are in front of you.
This makes progressive overload (slowly increasing the amount of weight you lift over time) easier, as you can make more incremental increases in weight.
Barbell or Dumbbell for Muscle Gains
Barbells vs dumbbells for gaining muscle is a bit harder to decide.
For overall muscle growth - we’re talking pure gains - barbells are better. This is for the same reason they’re a little better for strength training; you can lift more weight overall, increasing resistance, and thus increasing hypertrophy.
But dumbbells will help you gain more all-round muscle and definition. Let’s say for example you’re trying to build muscle in a specific area. You’ll be able to target that area for muscle growth better with isolation exercises using a dumbbell.
Barbells may help you gain more raw muscle, but it’s harder to fix muscle imbalances. So if you have any specific needs for certain areas that you want to beef up, dumbbells might be the best option.
Which is Better for Training Core - Barbells or Dumbbells?
The main area that dumbbells become more effective is with training your core.
With a barbell, the bar helps stabilize the weight for you. There’s not so much range of movement possible - you’re generally just pushing or pulling weight in a fixed direction.
With dumbbells, you don’t have that stability. That means you need to activate a lot of “stabilizer” muscles in your core to assist with the lift, and keep the weight steady throughout the range of motion.
The potential range of motion is larger, which means more effort for your core to keep the weight on track.
So while you may be able to lift more weight overall with a barbell, you may get more functional strength from lifting with dumbbells, due to the increased core activation.
Are Dumbbells Safer than Barbells?
A lot of people will say that dumbbells are safer than barbells. This is due to the fact that you usually lift less weight with dumbbells, which people associate with less risk of injury.
There is some merit to this. Broadly speaking, with lifts you can do with either tool (such as barbell bench press vs dumbbell bench press), it’s a little safer if you do it with dumbbells and a lower overall weight.
But it’s not as simple as saying dumbbells are always safer than barbells. You can injure yourself with either if your form isn’t correct. And if you try to lift the same weight with dumbbells as you do with a barbell, you’re at a higher risk of injury, because stabilizing the weight is more difficult.
Bottom Line on Barbell vs Dumbbells
The final word on the barbell vs dumbbell debate is that both are a great way to work out.
You can use both to improve strength, build muscle, build power, and achieve a lot of fitness goals. So you shouldn’t spend too much time stressing over whether a gym has more of one or the other.
You can do all of this effectively with other pieces of equipment too, such as kettlebells or Bulgarian bags. The bottom line is just to lift heavy things.
That being said, there are benefits to each. To truly optimize for strength and overall muscle growth, barbells are best. While dumbbells are a better way to build core strength, correct muscle imbalances, and build all-around definition.
But remember that either one is better for strength, hypertrophy, core, cardio, fat loss, and overall fitness than sitting on the sofa.