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Barbells vs Dumbbells: Which is Best for Muscle & Strength Gains

Barbells vs Dumbbells

It has been shown time and again that resistance training, particularly with free weights, is one of the most effective ways to build both muscle and strength.

There are numerous studies [1] proving this fact.

Now, when people say “free weights” they will usually mean both barbell and dumbbell exercises. But which is the best? Or would a combination of both be the most effective?

The truth is that both barbell and dumbbell exercises are effective for numerous goals, but that doesn’t answer the question. Therefore we are going to look at the advantages of both types of free weight before finally answering the barbells vs dumbbells debate once and for all. [toc]

Differences Between Barbells & Dumbbells

Dumbbells are a small free weight that consists of a grip bar with two disc-shaped weights that are spaced wide enough to fit your hand. Typically they will be used with one in each hand.

The barbell is much wider, with the weights spaced much further apart. You will use the barbell gripped with both hands.

There are other differences apart from how they both look. For example:

  1. You will generally be able to lift more using a barbell
  2. Dumbbells will usually require more stabilisation
  3. There is more potential for different angles and functionality using a dumbbell

In simple terms, a barbell is more of a fixed weight, while a dumbbell is freer.

Barbell Advantages


There are numerous advantages to be gained from using a barbell, these include:

Advantage #1: You Can Lift More Weight

When compared you will likely be able to lift more weight using a barbell compared to dumbbells.

For example, if you were able to bench press 200 pounds for 5 repetitions it would be highly unlikely you would be able to dumbbell bench press 100 pounds in each hand.

There is a reason for this. Using a barbell uses fewer stabiliser muscles, allowing you to lift more weight.

Advantage #2: You Can Progress Faster

If you want to get bigger and stronger then you need progressive overload [2].

Progressive overload is a gradual increase in volume, intensity and frequency. For example, the amount lifted and the number of repetitions undertaken.

To achieve this you will need to incrementally lift more and more weight, which you can do with both a barbell and dumbbells. However, it is easier to achieve using a barbell.

The reason for this is that often dumbbells will only increase in weight 10 pounds at a time (5 pounds each dumbbell), whereas with a barbell you can increase the weight 5 pounds at a time.

This makes it easier to see steady progress and to build more muscle and strength gradually over time.

Advantage #3: They Are Safer With Heavy Weight

Safety is paramount when lifting heavy weight, otherwise, you are at a higher risk of injury.

To reduce the chances of injury you should aim to perform each exercise using perfect form, with each rep performed in a controlled manner.

It has been suggested that with certain exercises you are able to maintain better control over your movements when using a barbell compared to a dumbbell. For example the bench press and military press.

With these exercises, you are able to lock yourself into position, often with the help of a squat rack or similar platform.

Using a dumbbell you will need to hoist the weight into position, which will increase the chance of injuring yourself.

Advantage #4: They Are More Practical With Certain Exercises

Even though certain exercises can be performed with both a barbell and dumbbells, the reality is that certain exercises are better suited for use with a barbell, for example squatting.

Yes, you can perform dumbbell squats, but to see muscle growth heavier weights are required, which will be more difficult when using a dumbbell.

You will also find that most gyms will not have dumbbells that weight over 100 pounds, therefore limiting the weight that you can lift.

Dumbbell Advantages


Using a dumbbell also has its own advantages, which include:

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Advantage #1: They Use More Stabiliser Muscles

One of the advantages of using a barbell is that you can lift more weight, as you don’t need to use your stabiliser muscles.

While this has some benefit, it has been shown that building strength in your stabiliser muscles will help boost your overall strength and ultimately increase the amount you can lift.

The best way to increased strength in your stabiliser muscles is by using dumbbells.

It has also been shown that using dumbbells for certain exercises will increase muscle activation. For example, when comparing a bench press and a dumbbell bench press [3].

Advantage #2: They Are Safer For Newbies

If you are new to lifting weights then using a pair of dumbbells is probably a safer way of learning the movements needed to build muscle and strength.

Rather than loading up a barbell and “ego lifting” grab a pair of light dumbbells and perform the exercise with proper form.

Advantage #3: Better Range of Motion

To see those gains you should aim to perform each exercise using a full range of motion. Something that a barbell sometimes won’t allow.

When performing certain exercises, for example, the bench press or shoulder press, the dumbbell will provide a greater range of motion than its barbell counterpart.

Advantage #4: Helps With Symmetry

A common issue found in the lifting community is that one side of your body will be stronger than the other, this essentially means that one side of your body is doing more work than the other.

These muscle imbalances can cause injuries to occur, which is why I would recommend using dumbbells to correct the issue.

Dumbbells ensure that each side of your body is working independently. So you will no longer see uneven muscle development or strange asymmetries. Often shown in the size of your arms, in particular, your biceps and triceps, and occasionally with the developments of your pectorals.

General Thoughts

It is important that you understand whatever type of weight you use, whether it is a barbell or a dumbbell that you are only going to build muscle and strength if you follow a varied, but regular workout routine.

I would recommend that you aim to workout 5-6 times per week, with the more volume or sets shown to cause the most muscle growth [4].

Your workouts may involve full body workouts or an upper/lower body split. This will depend on your own preferences.

You should not work out for longer than an hour, nor should you workout for more than 6 days of the week. Although active rest will be ok. Remember that rest is important if you wish to grow.

Adequate nutrition is also important, so I would recommend checking out our bulking and cutting guides.

Most important of all is to lift using proper form, failure to do so will lead to injury and a loss of your hard-earned gains.

Barbells vs Dumbbells: Which is Best?

If you were expecting a straight forward answer then you are going to be disappointed. It is a little more complicated than saying one is a better choice than the other.

Both the barbell and dumbbells have their pros and cons, but if you choose to use one over the other then you are making a big mistake.

Personally, I would recommend that you use both. Using both will ensure optimal muscle growth, while also helping to minimise potential muscle imbalances and injury.

What you choose to lift with also comes down to personal preference. Some people will opt to lift using a barbell, while others will choose to use dumbbells instead.

Sometimes they will feel their choice works the muscle better, or that they feel stronger. Personally, I tend to use a barbell for the bigger compound movements, with a dumbbell for isolation exercises.

Again, this is your choice. Do what is right for you!

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