In the Golden Era, free weights were king. Most gyms didn’t have Smith machines and other machines to help with weight training. Bodybuilders used barbells and dumbbells for different exercises to meet their goals.
If you’ve talked to bodybuilders and lifters, they all have their opinion of what’s better to use. Some will never use a machine, and you will find diehard fans of the barbell and some for dumbbells.
But is one better than the other? In the debate of barbell vs dumbbell, do you think there is a clear winner?
Dumbbells vs. Barbell for Mass
What about building muscle mass, do you think using dumbbells or would a barbell do a better job?
When your muscles increase in size, its because the size of the cells are increasing within the muscle fibers. This is called muscle hypertrophy.
Strength training creates stress on the muscle tissue, signaling a cellular response. That response helps form thicker muscle fibers to withstand the greater stress with increased weights. The result we see on the outside is a gain in muscle mass.
One thing about using barbells for weight training is that you can actually progress with heavier weights faster than dumbbells. This has to do with the weight plate size differences between the two different free weights.
Consider the barbell. You can increase as little as five pounds (2.5 pound weight on each side). With dumbbells, the lowest incremental weight you can increase is ten pounds (five pound weights on each dumbbell).
Why does that matter when it comes to building muscle mass? Increasing rapidly from one weight to the next can cause you to reach strength plateaus. It’s better to progress more frequently with less weight difference if you are looking to build overall mass. Research shows that weekly progression increases overall muscle gains.
Does frequency really matter? When it comes to building mass, research shows that you should train at least once a week. How often after that is a bit fuzzy. People who trained each muscle group three or more times a week compared to just once a week had very modest additional gains.
A minimum once a week is sufficient, and focusing on just mass using the barbell will give you an edge. However, don’t forget the dumbbells as they can provide an alternative stress to the muscles.
Dumbbell vs. Barbell: Weight Comparison
We kind of already gave you the answer for this section already. Were you paying attention?
When it comes to how much more weight you can put up, the winner here is the barbell. But why?
When you’re using a barbell, both your arms are able to hold up the weight when performing the exercise. But when you use dumbbells, they are used independently in each hand.
Even though you can increase the weights more with the barbell, you need to practice your form first. Many people have a dominant side, which means they are usually stronger on that side. When you use both arms to push up the barbell, you might be pushing more with the dominant side.
This causes an imbalance from side to side which does not happen with dumbbell usage. This is especially true for beginners, which is why getting your form down is so important. The same with using a spotter, who can help determine if there is a strength imbalance.
If there is, then you will want to focus on dumbbell usage to eliminate the imbalance. You can do this by increasing the weight on your nondominant side, or by doing more reps on that side. Take note of your muscle size measurements on both sides, and recheck until they are more equal.
Of course, you get greater stability as well with dumbbells than a barbell, which may add to core strength. The body works harder to keep the two independent barbells on the same path than one barbell. Dumbbells also increase functional strength more, which is never a bad thing.
And, when it comes to the weight comparison of barbell vs dumbbell, think about this. There is only so much weight you can physically put up with dumbbells, which is not the case with a barbell.
Barbell vs Dumbbell: Bench Press
When it comes to the bench press, is it better to use the barbell or dumbbells for your workout?
The bench press is the most well recognized free weight exercise used by bodybuilders. This exercise mainly works the following muscles:
- Pectoralis major
- Triceps brachii
- Anterior deltoids
The barbell offers more stability when completing the bench press compared to using dumbbells. This stability and less need for stabilizing muscle usage means that you can lift more weight with a barbell.
You are also able to get higher muscle activation from the triceps brachii using a barbell over dumbbells. Dumbbells work the pectoralis major and anterior deltoids more when doing the bench press.
However, you get a greater range of motion from using dumbbells over the barbell. The barbell limits the path your arms can move. When using dumbbells, you can get your arms closer at the top and below your chest at the bottom. That is, if you have enough range of motion in your shoulders.
Of course, you are limited to the total amount of weight you can put up with dumbbells. They get bulky and hard to manage once you’ve reached a certain limit, and plates only get so heavy. If you are looking to put more weight, you will definitely want to use the barbell to bench press.
Ultimately, what you choose to use to bench press is determined by your goals. Are you planning on working your triceps more? Then focus on the barbell bench press. Want to really work your chest muscles? Then you definitely want to put up more reps with dumbbells.
If you want to activate all those muscles, start with the dumbbells and then go for the barbell afterward.
Barbell vs Dumbbell: Shoulder Press
The military (barbell) shoulder press and the dumbbell shoulder press can both be done seated or standing. Out of the two, which one do you think is better?
They both target the triceps brachii and deltoid muscles. And they both have their reasons to outshine the other.
As we’ve learned today, the barbell is able to put up more weight than the dumbbell. So if you are looking to get greater muscle gains, it’s going to be a better exercise.
But, with greater weight comes greater responsibility. If you put up too much weight too soon or your form and stabilization need work, you could cause serious injury. Just to name a few:
- Impingement – inflammation of the shoulder
- Rotator cuff injuries
- Back injuries
If this is something you need to work on, then you should definitely start with dumbbell shoulder presses. You can perfect your form and reduce instability so you don’t risk injury using the barbell. The dumbbells also offer a greater range of motion and they don’t lock the arms into a rigid groove like the barbell does. This will help prevent any possible shoulder injuries that could occur with the barbell.
The reduced weight ability of the dumbbells will also help you focus more on your anterior and medial deltoids. With a focus on primarily the anterior deltoids using the barbell, you can really make your chest gains.
Dumbbell vs Barbell: Squat
So, what do you think. Can you squat more with dumbbells or a barbell?
Squats are instrumental to bodybuilding. They allow you to lay a solid foundation for your training routine, and are fantastic for leg day. If you need a change to your leg routine, be sure to check out this article on best exercises for leg workouts. They’ll have you wobbling out of the gym in no time!
When you use a barbell for squats, the only option you have is a back squat or a front squat. Do you wanna focus on your quads (front squats) or your quads and your hamstrings (back squat)? You can also change the bar level and do low-bar, middle-bar, or high-bar variations.
With dumbbells, you only have the option to do a front squat. But, you have variations on the front squat you can’t do with the barbell.
- Sumo squats
- Split squats
- Overhead dumbbell squats
- Goblet squats
- Dumbbell squat to press
- Narrow stance squat
- Single leg squat
When it comes to comparing the barbell vs dumbbell for squats, there isn’t a clear winner. Both have advantages and put focus on one muscle group over the other.
Since you can do heavier loads with the barbell, it’s much more favored with weightlifters and bodybuilders. Dumbbells squats are more versatile and can be done outside the gym. For this reason, they are great for people who prefer to workout at home.
If you have a bad back or want to help strengthen your core, then stick with the dumbbells. Want a great overall workout? Then start with the heavy barbell and finish up with the dumbbells.
Barbell vs Dumbbell vs Kettlebell
In comparing the barbell and the dumbbell to the kettlebell, do you think you know what’s best?
Kettlebells are relatively new in the fitness world, at least in the U.S. But actually, they have been around in Russia since the 1700s. They were first used as counterweights in markets. People starting throwing them around for fun, and before they knew it, a new free weight had been found.
Kettlebells are limited in size, but can surprisingly go up to just over 100 pounds. They are versatile and some may consider them an all-in-one gym you can take on the go. Kettlebells can be used to static lift but are most often used to swing in explosive exercises.
Thirty one men were included in a four week study training twice a week. Half trained doing an explosive kettlebell swing while the others trained on the explosive deadlift using a barbell.
The results after the four weeks showed an increase in vertical jump height and rep weight. There was not a discernable difference between the kettlebell and barbell in this study comparing jump and body composition. Though when comparing strength, the explosive deadlift won over the kettlebell swing.
In this study, 19 men performed 10 reps each of the squat and lunge with different weights. Out of the dumbbell, kettlebell, and barbell, the kettlebell was more effective on the medial hamstring. Muscle activation was the same for each during the lunge.
Kettlebells outweigh the barbell and dumbbell in certain exercises:
- Get ups
- Front squats
They also are more forgiving on the wrists than dumbbells or the barbell. When it comes down to which is better, the answer lies in what your plans and goals are.
Which to Choose?
If you’re looking to increase strength, then you want to use the barbell. Looking to perfect your explosive form or a particular exercise, like the snatch? The kettlebell is your choice. Want to maintain balance and work your sides individually? Then look no further than the dumbbells.
Do you have dumbbells already and thinking about getting kettlebells? Consider a tool like this if space is an issue. This product turns any dumbbell into a kettlebell, so you can try them out before you commit.
Barbell vs Dumbbell vs Machine
What comparison would be complete without also taking a look at the good ‘ol gym machines. Do you think a machine outweighs either the barbell or dumbbell?
Some gym machines have been around almost as long as free weights. To some, they serve a great purpose. They take away the need for a spotter or trainer. But, is that a good thing?
In most instances, it’s not. Mainly because each machine does isolation exercises in a circuit. You’d have to use up to six different machines to work the same muscles as one rep of a squat!
Still, they are in gyms for a reason. It’s a great alternative for
- Those just starting out
- People who are intimidated in a traditional gym setting
- Don’t have a spotter/trainer
- Need to practice form before hitting the free weights
But most bodybuilders and weightlifters tend to use free weights like barbells and dumbbells for their workouts. Machines also limit your range of motion, even more so than the barbell does. However, machines have their place in the gym and even bodybuilders admit to using them.
We’ve featured several videos of Olympian and OSL Ambassador Breon Ansley. You can check out his videos, where he uses a combination of machines, dumbbells, and barbell to train.
Not surprisingly, machines are able to reproduce consistency with greater accuracy than free weights. As a stationary object with its own range of motion, this makes sense in this context.
In comparing hormone response, free weights produced greater hormonal changes doing the squat than the leg press. The hormones analyzed before and after each exercise:
- Growth hormone
to determine if using a machine over free weights will help them excel in their sport.
We’re going to highlight a few to compare using free weights to the Smith machine. Let’s see if we have a winner.
In testing peak and mean power, 23 track and field athletes completed 1 squat rep to compare. The findings showed free weights were much better for peak and mean power than the Smith machine.
Here, the barbell vs dumbbell vs Smith machine were compared for repetition performance and muscle activation. Nineteen men performed the bench press using each method, 10 reps for four sets. Then, they completed a triceps extension for 10 reps and four sets.
As expected, max reps were reached during the dumbbell bench press. The triceps extension volume increased after the barbell bench press over the dumbbell or Smith machine. The pectoralis major was activated the most from the dumbbell bench press.
The Smith machine was greatest in activation for the anterior deltoid. Triceps were most activated with the Smith machine and barbell than dumbbells. And the biceps got the most activation from the dumbbell bench press.
For the triceps extension after the other weights, the barbell bench press was the winner.
When comparing muscle recovery of the three different bench presses, twenty seven men were analyzed. Of the three methods, most saw triceps soreness with the Smith machine and barbell but not dumbbells. Elbow extensor soreness was most pronounced in the barbell bench press. Researchers note comparable recovery of overall muscle soreness in all three methods.
As we can see, the barbell, dumbbell and Smith machine all have their place in helping lifters achieve goals.Planning and training adaptations are critical for athletes especially. If you’re looking for more information on Smith Machines, our friends at Ratingle wrote and excellence guide you can check out here
The Bottom Line
Both dumbbells and the barbell have their place in bodybuilding and weightlifting. Depending on your workout goals, you might choose one over the other.
You can definitely lift heavier with a barbell, which could potentially open you up to injury. Lower weights mean more reps with dumbbells, and increased muscle activation in some exercises.
For best results, mix them both together to give yourself a well rounded workout at the gym. If you are working out mostly at home, whether home is a small Chicago apartment or a huge penthouse in Los Angeles, dumbbells are more affordable and take up less room. But once you max out on weights, you’ll have to start going to the gym to increase your gains.For best results, mix them both together to give yourself a well rounded workout at the gym.
Also, don’t discount kettlebells and the Smith machine. Love them or hate them, they have a place in the gym and can help you achieve your gains.
Ready to weigh in? What do you think is better – dumbbells or the barbell? Let us know why in the comments!