There is no doubt about the fact that strength training comes with some huge benefits, and it’s about more than just building muscle.
Lifting weights, while muscle growth and strengthening is of course the main benefit that people go for, also helps improve joint health, balance and stability, and yes, even mental health.
What causes some controversy is what type of lifting is best, mainly which equipment provides you with the biggest benefits.
Today, we are talking about dumbbells and barbells, and putting them in a head-to-head comparison to see which training tool is best suited to your goals.
If you’re new to the fitness world and have no idea what either of these things are, no worries, because we will cover all of it in great detail below.
What Is a Dumbbell?
First, we have the dumbbell, a simple piece of equipment that most people should be familiar with.
This is a specific type of strength training equipment that features a short handle, usually less than a foot in length, with weights on either side.
Dumbbells can be made out of metal, plastic, rubber, foam, or a combination of the above.
Professional dumbbells are usually made of metal with a rubber coating, mainly because making a 50-pound dumbbell of a reasonable size would be impossible if plastic or other lightweight materials were used.
Dumbbells generally start as light as 1 pound, and in most commercial gyms usually top out at around 120 pounds, although professional gyms may have units that can be double that.
Some dumbbells, particularly modern ones designed for home use, often have adjustable features. This allows you to combine multiple weight increments into one pair of dumbbells.
What is a Barbell?
We then have the barbell, which is something that you've probably seen if you've watched any Olympic or powerlifting events.
Barbells look like very long metal bars, usually over 7 feet long that are made to hold large plates of weight on both ends.
For safety reasons, these weighted plates are generally attached and secured using clips known as collars. There are two main types of barbell which are Olympic and Standard.
Olympic barbells can accommodate weight plates with a 2" hole in the centre and a standard barbell can accept weights with a 1" centre hole.
The plates used to weigh down a barbell usually come in pretty specific increments ranging from 1.25kg/2.5lbs to 20kg/ 45lbs although this may differ depending on the brand and if you are in the UK or US.
Common Dumbbell Exercises
There are many different exercises that you can do with a dumbbell, most of which target your upper body, Although there are also some lower-body exercises available.
Some common examples of dumbbell exercises include the bench press, the shoulder press, lateral raises, bent-over rows, bicep curls, hammer curls, triceps extensions, shrugs, front raises, squats, lunges, calf raises, goblet squats, Russian twists, side bends, and more.
Common Barbell Exercises
Barbell exercises are not nearly as numerous as dumbbell exercises, but they tend to be far more intense. Furthermore, barbell exercises and lifts are those that you will find in official lifting and Olympic competitions.
Some of the most common barbell exercises include the deadlift, back squat, clean and jerk, snatch, bench press, shoulder press, and others.
Benefits of Dumbbells
Now that we know what the basics of dumbbells entail, let’s determine what all of their major benefits are.
They’re Compact and Convenient
One of the biggest benefits of dumbbells is that they are very compact and convenient. They don't take up much space, which means that they're ideal for use at home.
You can easily create a small home gym with just a few dumbbells, all without taking up way too much space.
Even better is if you get an adjustable pair of dumbbells. This means that you can effectively substitute 12 or more pairs of dumbbells with one single pair that has removable plates.
Addressing Muscle Imbalances
Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of dumbbells is that they are ideal for addressing muscle imbalances. This is because it is easier to notice if one side of your body is stronger than the other.
For instance, if you are performing bicep curls and notice your left arm is stronger than your right. You can make adjustments to try and help strengthen your right arm to equal the left, whether that is keeping the reps and weight the same on both arms to balance the difference out over time.
Being able to address and account for muscle imbalances is a big deal, especially if you want both halves of your body to be equal in strength, plus looking symmetrical is always nice too.
Great for Upper Body Workouts
Although there are plenty of exercises that you can do with dumbbells which can target your legs, lower body, and core, the fact is that they are generally the most popular for upper body and arm workouts.
If you want to train your biceps, triceps, chest, and shoulders, then dumbbells are always a fantastic option to consider.
They Come in All Weight Varieties
Another benefit that you get with dumbbells is that they come in many different weights, as low as 1 pound, and if we are talking about a regular commercial gym, usually up to 120 pounds.
This means that you can do virtually any type of exercise because there will always be a dumbbell of the appropriate weight for you and for that specific type of exercise.
They’re Great for All Fitness Levels
What many people should also be able to appreciate about dumbbells is that they are ideal no matter what fitness level you are currently at.
There are super lightweight dumbbells that work well for basic exercises so that kids and seniors can easily get their movement in.
There are of course also much heavier dumbbells, which can be used for more serious training purposes, for those who are experienced and have been training for a number of years.
Developing Functional Strength and Balance
The other main benefit of dumbbells is that they allow you to build balance and functional strength.
These are free weights, which means that they force you to balance, and that automatically comes with several benefits.
Benefits of Barbells
Now that we know what makes dumbbells so attractive, let’s find out why some people gravitate more towards barbells.
One reason why many people choose barbells is because they allow you to keep lifting heavier, which is true for two reasons.
First, when compared to a dumbbell, the design of a barbell allows you to lift much more weight, potentially hundreds of pounds more.
Related: How Much Does an Olympic Bar Weigh?
With dumbbells, because they have a short handle, you just can’t lift that much. Barbells by themselves are also designed to hold onto hundreds of pounds with ease.
Full Body Workouts
Although dumbbells may have a lot of exercises you can do with them, if you want to target your legs, back, and core with maximum intensity, it is the barbell that you need. There’s just nothing like doing a barbell squat or deadlift to build big legs, core, and back muscles.
Related : Leg Press vs Squat - Pros & Cons
Professional Weightlifting Training
If you are planning on doing any level of professional training, whether for fun or serious competition, it is the barbell you need. If you want to do Olympic lifting or powerlifting you will need a barbell.
Learning Proper Technique and Balance
Another great aspect of barbells is that they allow you to train your balance and proper lifting technique, something that dumbbells don’t always allow for.
Major Differences Between Dumbbells and Barbells – Which Is Right for You?
Let’s now talk about the biggest differences between barbells and dumbbells. By taking these differences into account, you can then decide whether it is the barbell or dumbbells that are right for you.
Dumbbells often top out at around 60kg/ 130 pounds, but you can easily load several times that amount onto a barbell.
If you just want to do some light or medium lifting, and you want to slowly scale up, then dumbbells are fine.
However, if you want to keep lifting heavier and heavier, potentially hundreds of pounds, then the barbell is right for you.
The Type of Training
If you are just doing basic training for the sake of exercise, then dumbbells are perfectly fine.
However, if you are seriously training for an Olympic or powerlifting event, then you absolutely need to start working out with a barbell. Although lifters and competitors of all sorts also use dumbbells, the lifts done in official competitions are usually barbell lifts.
A barbell is a great tool no doubt, but it also takes up a lot of space. Consider that you need the bar, a rack for safety and storage, and a whole lot of weight plates, which also take up space.
For most average people, having a full barbell setup at home is not an option. However, if we are talking about dumbbells, these are small and compact, therefore perfect for home use. Even better is if you can get an adjustable dumbbell.
The Fitness Level
Dumbbells are great for people of all fitness levels, although usually more for those on the lower end of the spectrum, whereas the story is more or less the exact opposite with barbells. That said, people of all fitness levels can use both types of weights given the right circumstances.
Variety of Exercises
Another thing that stands out about dumbbells is the sheer number of exercises that can be done with them. There are dozens of them, and you can train your whole body with them.
Barbells also have many exercises that can be done with them, although not quite as many due to the size of the barbell.
For example, with a dumbbell, you can focus on your shoulder rotator cuffs with several different exercises such as a dumbbell external shoulder rotation. But performing this exercise with a barbell would be virtually impossible.
Although it is certainly possible to use both of these exercise implements to train your whole body, dumbbells are generally used more to target the upper body and arms, whereas barbells are fantastic for the back, core, and legs (although they can work wonders for the upper body and arms as well!).
Related: Learn about 9 different leg machines at the gym
Dumbbells vs. Barbells – Final Answer
Realistically, when it comes to getting weight training, using a combination of both dumbbell and Barbell exercises will likely give you the best results.
However, if you are looking to isolate certain muscle groups, you will likely want to use dumbbells. But if your goal is to increase your overall strength then the barbell might be your best choice so you can perform heavy compound movements that will work multiple muscle groups at once.