Dumbbells vs Barbells: Which Is Better?

Unsure whether to pick up a pair of dumbbells or the barbell at the gym? We’ll tell you all you need to know about both to help you decide!

Dumbbells vs Barbells: Which Is Better?
Photo by Delaney Van / Unsplash
7 min. read 2/21/2023, 6:38 PM

If your fitness goals are related to strength, resistance, or muscle building, chances are that you’re already familiar with the most popular weights and gym machines. However, choosing the best one for your goals can be somewhat difficult – especially when it comes to dumbbells and barbells!

These free weights are basic equipment in any gym, and while both seem to work for the same general strength-training purposes, they have different uses and benefits, which is why it’s crucial to understand their differences. But… does this mean one is better than the other?

In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about dumbbells and barbells, their benefits, and when you should use them depending on your goals and fitness level to help you decide which one is better for an effective fitness journey. So keep reading!

The difference between dumbbells and barbells

As you probably already know, dumbbells and barbells look and feel very different. Dumbbells are designed to be lifted with one hand, meaning that they’re smaller in size and usually have a fixed weight between 5 and 25 lb. You can also find heavier dumbbells at the gym for the more advanced lifters that want a tougher challenge.

Barbells, on the other hand, are designed to be lifted with both hands. The standard bar is long enough to fit a comfortable grip, and its weight can range between 10-15 lb for home gym bars to 45 lb for Olympic ones. You can then load weight plates on both ends to make it as heavy as you’d like.

The difference in both size and load makes these weights incredibly effective for different reasons…

Benefits of using dumbbells

  • It’s a safer option for beginners.

Dumbbells are smaller and lighter than barbells, making them not only convenient to take with you anywhere but also very easy to use. Because of this, beginners often begin their journey with the lightest dumbbells before moving up to heavier ones while their muscles get progressively more used to the intensity of weight training.

  • It improves functional strength.

Doesn’t matter if you train with one or two dumbbells at once, you’re still training each side of your body separately and recruiting smaller muscles to keep your stability and coordination. Because of this, you’re able to develop your functional strength, which is your body’s ability to perform everyday tasks with ease.

  • It’s great for fixing muscle imbalances.

Training both sides of your body separately has another great benefit, and that is being able to fix any muscular imbalances that you might have. Since your left-side muscles aren’t supporting your right-side muscles and vice versa, you’re able to compare both sides, spot weaker muscles, and tweak your workouts in order to fix the imbalance.

Benefits of using barbells

  • It strengthens the whole body.

Since the barbell is on the heavier side and requires the activation of larger muscles, most of the time you’ll be performing compound movements with it. Exercises such as barbell squats and barbell bench presses recruit many muscles, not only helping you strengthen your whole body at once but also shortening your workout time.

  • It allows you to lift heavier weights.

Unlike dumbbells, barbells are designed to hold up to 300 lb and even more. This means that the barbell will be by your side for a long time, allowing you to gradually increase the weight as your muscles get stronger so you can keep challenging them throughout your strength training journey and push them to the limit.

  • It improves athletic performance.

Barbells are lifted with both hands, recruiting a great number of muscle groups that support each other at once. This helps improve the connection between your muscles and your brain and teaches your body to move in sync, improving your overall athletic performance.

When to use barbells vs. dumbbells

Everyone is different and no fitness journey looks the same, meaning that no one will use dumbbells and barbells for the same purposes and to the same extent – not even those with the same fitness goals!

Which one you use and when will depend on your current fitness level and what you want to achieve, so here’s a general guide for you:

Dumbbells to begin a strength-training journey

If you’re new to strength training and haven’t lifted heavy before, or even if you’ve lifted before but some time has passed since then, the best way to start is with dumbbells.

Dumbbells offer the resistance needed to put your muscles under the right amount of stress to make them stronger. If the first thing you do is grab a barbell because that’s what other people are doing, you’ll risk injuring yourself and even others around you because you’re not used to that level of weight and stability just yet.

Barbells to maximize strength

For those who have already started a strength training journey and whose goal is to increase their strength by pushing their muscles to the limit, barbells are the way to go.

This isn’t to say that dumbbells don’t help increase your strength, because they definitely do, but during barbell exercises you don’t need to recruit as many stabilizer muscles, allowing you to focus on exerting as much force as possible. This makes them more effective at helping you max out your muscles through progressive overload.

Dumbbells to improve muscular symmetry

Muscle growth and strength don’t happen symmetrically because of many factors, such as using our dominant arms and legs in our daily lives, bad exercise form, unbalanced workout routines, etc.

To help fix muscular imbalances and increase symmetry, unilateral exercises are the way to go, which is why dumbbells are the best choice. While barbells make your muscles work in unison, dumbbell exercises can give each side a more independent workout and help the weaker side catch up to the stronger one.

Barbells to build muscular mass

If muscle hypertrophy is your goal, then you need to push your muscle fibers to the point of damage so your body can build newer muscle on top, and the best way to do this is with heavier weights.

Like with strength, you can also build muscle mass with dumbbells, but barbells offer significantly greater resistance during exercise. This means that your muscles will be put under much more stress, promoting hypertrophy.

Dumbbells to increase range of motion

To be able to perform a wide variety of exercises effectively, you need to work on your flexibility and range of motion, but barbells follow a fixed path without leaving much room for freedom of movement.

Dumbbells, on the other hand, offer a greater range of motion because your movement isn’t constrained by a fixed path. This kind of training recruits more stabilizer muscles that help you keep your movement controlled, increasing your range of motion as you move in different angles and directions.

Barbells to train for competitions

If you’re training for a strength or muscle-related competition, your body needs to be at its peak, and the right way to achieve this is by focusing on barbell training.

This kind of training is heavier and more intense, which keeps your muscles working harder to prepare for what’s about to come. This is particularly true for powerlifting and weightlifting competitions, which already involve heavy barbells that you need to be able to lift effectively.

So… Which one is the winner?

When it comes to lifting weights, there really is no clear winner. Dumbbells have great benefits and so do barbells, and they work best when paired together in a well-rounded strength training routine.

If you only train with dumbbells, maxing out on exercises and improving your size and strength will get tricky with time, but if you only train with barbells you’ll risk constant muscular imbalances and a limited range of motion. Make sure to include both in your workouts so you can achieve your goals in no time!

Need some exercise ideas for a workout that includes both dumbbells and barbells?

The One Fitness app is here to help!

The app features weekly goal-focused workouts with a combination of compound, isolation, and unilateral movements created by Iulia herself to help you achieve your fitness goals. Simply download the One Fitness app and try our 7-day free trial today!