A common topic of debate among people in the weight training world is whether free weight exercises (which use dumbbells or barbells) are better than body weight exercises or machines. This of course is a topic I’ve already covered here: Free Weight Exercises vs Body Weight Exercises vs Machines
However, if you look specifically at free weight exercises themselves, you realize there is a whole new debate to be had.
I’m of course talking about dumbbells vs barbells.
So, let’s debate. Which is best… dumbbell exercises or barbell exercises?
Well, the truth is that both types of exercises can be equally effective in general for virtually every goal. However, as is usually the case when looking at any weight training topic intelligently, the true best answer is that it depends on a bunch of different factors.
This is because dumbbells and barbells each have their own set of PROS and CONS that can make each better or worse in certain situations.
To determine which is best for you, you’d really need to take it all into account. So, let’s do that…
Dumbbell Exercises vs Barbell Exercises
Just in case any clarification is needed (I doubt there is), dumbbell exercises would obviously refer to any type of exercise done using dumbbells, such as any type of dumbbell press, row, curl, extension, squat, deadlift, lunge, and so on.
And barbell exercises would obviously refer to any exercise that is done using a barbell, such as any type of barbell press, row, curl, extension, squat, deadlift, lunge, and so on.
Now let’s compare the main PROS and CONS of each.
Dumbbells can sometimes allow for a more natural movement than a barbell.
With dumbbells, you can move each side individually of the other, and this means that your body isn’t forced into as fixed of a position as you are with a barbell.
This in turn allows your body to make whatever tiny adjustments it may need to make to ensure the movement is as natural, comfortable and safe for you as possible, and that’s key for injury prevention.
Case in point, the barbell incline press tends to bother my shoulders. The barbell dumbbell press on the other hand… that feels perfectly fine. Why? I assume it’s because dumbbells allow me to adjust the angle I’m holding and/or pressing the weights at in a way that I am unable to do with a barbell.
I have absolutely no problem with any other barbell exercise, but in this specific situation, dumbbells are better for me. Maybe there’s a similar situation where they’re better for you, too.
Dumbbells can sometimes be safer and easier to use than a barbell.
When it comes to certain types of leg exercises, it’s often much easier and safer to have dumbbells in your hand rather than a barbell on your back, especially as a beginner.
This is primarily true in the case of single leg exercises like split squats and lunges where balance is often the biggest issue.
So, in those cases, some people may be better off using dumbbells instead of a barbell, especially early on when you’re first learning how to preform these exercises properly.
And speaking of safety, dumbbells are usually always safer when you don’t have a spotter (and don’t know your limits).
For example, if you get stuck bench pressing with dumbbells, you can just drop them to your sides without any problem at all. If you get stuck bench pressing with a barbell, you’re in trouble.
Sure, you could just ask someone nearby to spot you (unless you train at home by yourself) or just do a better job of knowing when you’re going to reach failure, but in general, dumbbell exercises have an advantage in a no-spotter situation.
Dumbbells can help improve (or prevent) strength and muscle imbalances better than a barbell.
Think about it. With a dumbbell in each hand, you’re guaranteed that each side will lift an equal amount of weight an equal amount of times.
With a barbell, 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) various 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 barbells on the relevant exercises.
Barbell progression is a lot easier and much more ideal than dumbbell progression.
As I’ve mentioned before, the key to weight training is progression, and one of the keys to consistent progression is progressing in small increments.
Now, when you’re ready to go up in weight on barbell exercises, most gyms have 2.5lb plates that you can put on both ends of the bar, which means you’re able to progress in 5lb increments.
With dumbbell exercises, pretty much every gym in the world has dumbbells that go up in 5lb increments EACH dumbbell, which means you’re forced to increase by a total of 10lbs whenever you’re ready to progress.
Now granted, they do make small magnetic weights that can be attached to dumbbells to avoid this problem, but I’ve honestly never seen them in any gym I’ve been in. That means, for the average person in the average gym, you’re stuck trying to progress in 10 pound increments on dumbbell exercises as opposed to 5 pound increments with barbell exercises.
So, in terms of progression, barbell exercises are nearly always better than dumbbell exercises, and that’s a pretty significant category to win.
Barbells are easier to use than dumbbells when the weight gets heavy.
This is mostly the case with pressing exercises (bench press, incline press, overhead shoulder press, etc.).
When you’re dumbbell pressing in the beginner and early intermediate stages, you usually don’t have much of a problem getting those dumbbells up and into position for that first rep.
But what about when you get stronger and stronger and the dumbbells you’re pressing get heavier and heavier?
Let me tell ya… it can sometimes become a whole exercise in itself just trying to get those dumbbells from the floor to over your head for the first rep.
Sure, you could just ask someone to help you get the dumbbells up and into position if you wanted to, but it’s just an extra pain in the ass task that isn’t needed with a barbell exercise.
That’s because with barbell pressing exercises, the barbell starts off in a rack of some sort already in position for that first rep. You just grab the bar off the holders and you’re good to go.
Barbells are often more practical than dumbbells.
Let’s take someone who can squat or deadlift over 200lbs. Should they hold 100+ pound dumbbells in each hand, or just use one barbell with 200lbs of weight on it?
And for those of you who workout at home, which do you think would cost less money and take up less space: dumbbells from 10lbs to 100lbs in 5lb increments, or 1 barbell with 200lbs of weight?
In situations like these (and others), a barbell tends to just make more practical sense.
My Recommendations: Which Exercises Are Best For You?
Like I said before, both dumbbells and barbells are equally effective in general, but there are certain situations where one type of exercise may be a little more ideal for you than the other. And in those situations, you should use what I’ve explained here to pick the exercise that’s best for you.
In all other situations, I personally like to use and recommend a good mix of barbell exercises and dumbbell exercises. That’s why many of the highly effective workouts I’ve included in The Best Workout Routines use both types of exercises successfully.
They may both have their drawbacks, but they both have their positives as well and always avoiding one type of exercise in favor of the other means you’ll always miss out on one set of positives.
I also think personal preferences play a role here too. Some people just like using a barbell or dumbbells more so than the other for whatever reason (they feel the target muscle working better, they feel stronger that way, etc.).
I usually prefer to go with barbell exercises for most of my primary compound movements, and then I’ll often use dumbbell exercises for many of my secondary compound movements and isolation exercises.
So, like I said way back at the beginning, answering any sort of “which is best” question about weight training will always require taking EVERYTHING into account and doing what’s best for YOU, not just in general.
Hopefully this article has explained exactly how to do that in terms of dumbbells vs barbells.