Barbell vs dumbbell – which is better? Are you better off using one or the other? There are definitely points to be made on both sides, and each implement has its fans. However, the surprising thing is that the debate between barbell vs dumbbell might not actually be a debate at all, and this question might not really have an answer.
If you’re going to compare barbell vs dumbbell, you have to first know what each one is good for. In particular, you have to know what each one is good for that the other one isn’t. For instance, to say that the barbell is a versatile piece of equipment doesn’t really matter, as the dumbbell is just as versatile (if not more so).
The two main things that the barbell has going for it is that you can load it heavier and in a more progressive fashion (read about progressive overload here). If putting up the most amount of weight is your goal, you simply have to use a barbell. No other piece of equipment (maybe save for a leg press) allows you to overload your muscles to the same degree that a barbell can.
At the same time, the barbell allows for the most minute of progressions. When using dumbbells (unless you have the adjustable at home dumbbells), you have to go up by 5lbs each, which is 10lbs total. If you’re using less than 100 total pounds between the two, then this can be quite a jump, depending on the exercise.
On the other hand, barbells allow you to go up by only 5lbs. In fact, if you have access to fractional plates, you can increase by increments even smaller than that. Admittedly, you can get magnetic fractional plates for dumbbells too, but they’re harder to come by and not always as safe.
Regardless, if you’re using any sort of progression that requires precise loading (e.g. – increasing by the smallest of increments or using a weight that’s rounded to the nearest 2.5% of your 1RM – calculate your one rep max here), then a barbell and plates are going to be your best option.
To continue the barbell vs dumbbell discussion, you now have to consider the advantages a dumbbell presents. While a barbell lets you use more weight, it also locks you into certain positions and / or ranges of motions. This is not the case with dumbbells.
For example, consider the bench press. The best anatomical position for this movement is for your upper arms, elbows, and wrists to all form a roughly 45-degree angle with your torso. This is the easiest on all your joints, saves the most wear & tear, and still causes great overall muscular stimulation.
While you can tuck your elbows with a barbell, it’s not very comfortable and can still cause inflammation. However, with a dumbbell, this position can easily be made much more natural. In fact, you can even add supination to the movement pattern to increase muscular contraction.
Speaking of muscular contraction, EMG studies have shown that muscular activation tends to usually be much higher when using dumbbells. This is because movement patterns are much more natural, the aforementioned supination, and that greater ranges of motion can be utilized.
Muscular activation is also higher when using dumbbells because they’re less stable than barbells are. For example, when bench pressing, instead of both arms pressing a singular barbell, you have to independently maintain and balance a dumbbell in each hand. This means having to brace the core more, as well as keep the shoulders and arms tighter. This need for added stabilization is why you can’t lift as much with dumbbells, but also why they can potentially lead to more muscular development.
In the end, you should just pick the right tool for the right job – it doesn’t have to be barbell vs dumbbell. As was just mentioned, you can potentially get superior chest development using dumbbells. You won’t be able to use as much weight, but if you build yourself up to doing the incline dumbbell press for sets of 10 reps with 100+lbs dumbbells, you’re still going to be pretty stout.
The squat is arguably the best leg exercise you can do. Goblet squats are excellent, but most will top out on them pretty quickly and will then have to switch over to using barbells. That said, you could still build strong legs via heavy Bulgarian split squats.
However, if you wanted to deadlift to build a superior back and posterior chain, a barbell is simply just necessary. There’s no dumbbell alternative that can come close in weight, and the small plates on dumbbell deadlifts make them disadvantageous to the lower back unless you have blocks to set them on. Conversely, some isolation movements (e.g. – laterals) can really only be done with dumbbells.
If you’re trying to pick a winner between barbell vs dumbbell, there really is no need. Barbells are “superior” in some ways, while dumbbells are “superior” in others. The onus really isn’t on either implement to be “better” than the other – it’s on you to use the right tool for whatever you’re trying to achieve.