As you design your workout program, there are a number of decisions that you’re going to have to make. You need to choose which exercises to do, how many sets and reps to perform and how long to rest between each set. Once you’ve finally figured it all out, you may think that you’re ready to hit the gym and put it into practice. But there is one other element you may be overlooking.
Should you use dumbbells or barbells?
The fact is, there is no right answer. Rather, there’s a best answer for your given situation. And even then, you should never exclusively use just one piece of equipment (unless you only have that option available). A mixture of machines, bands, balls, barbells and dumbbells is always ideal, because change will keep the body responsive and help prevent the dreaded plateau.
Here are some factors to consider as you debate dumbbells vs. barbells:
How much weight do you want to lift?
If your goal is to gain as much strength as humanly possible, chances are you’ll want to be putting a lot of effort into barbell-based lifting. This is because the major compound exercises – squat, deadlift, clean and press, snatch, etc. – all require barbells to achieve the heaviest weight possible.
When it comes to these compound exercises, you simply cannot lift an equivalent weight with dumbbells as you can with the barbell. For example, your upper body won’t be strong enough to hold those dumbbells at shoulder level as you squat down.
Barbells also allow you to lift more total weight on exercises such as the bench press or shoulder press, because they remove the stabilization element. Dumbbells require a degree of effort to simply stabilize the two separate weights overhead or in front of your body. With a barbell, all of your energy can instead go into pushing your max weight.
When it comes to lifting for strength, the answer is barbells.
Do you want to build core strength?
The next thing to take into consideration is your core muscle activation. Like when you’re using a stability ball, your entire body is going to be less stable during dumbbell exercises, because dumbbells can move side to side or front to back. A barbell, on the other hand, is in a more fixed position.
This means your core muscles are going to be called into play to a much larger degree with dumbbells, which may be a welcome strength component. So while you may get stronger overall using barbells, building core strength is better accomplished with dumbbells.
To take things one step further, doing dumbbell exercises in a standing position will help maximize results. When you’re standing, you have less stability than when you’re sitting – regardless of the exercise. Note: standing (versus sitting) to create de-stabilization can also be employed for barbell exercises.
Are you concerned about injury?
While creating less stability is a great for increasing core strength, it’s not great from an injury-prevention perspective. Your injury risk will generally be higher when doing dumbbell-based training, because there are more directions the dumbbell can move. If your muscles begin to fail and you can’t control the weight, dumbbells may fall forward, sideways or diagonally. This can cause injury to your muscles, tendons and/or ligaments.
Of course, barbell training can certainly be dangerous, as well. However, when it comes to the heaviest lifts (think bench press and squats), you can work off a rack or Smith machine to better control the bar. When used properly, these can greatly decrease the risk of injury.
That said, don’t overlook the fact that you’re usually lifting more total weight when working with barbells vs. dumbbells. Typically, the more weight you lift, the higher your injury risk. With dumbbell-based training, you’re more at risk for a freak injury due to failing a lift and losing control. With barbell exercises, you may be more at risk for joint pain or torn muscles due to the amount of weight you’re lifting.
Whether you’re using barbells, dumbbells, bands or machines, always put safety first. Have a spotter for heavy lifts and stay alert during all strength training exercises
What equipment is available?
If you often work out in a home gym, your choice may be much simpler. Most people can easily pick up a few sets of dumbbells to stock their home, but investing in a whole barbell station plus plates may be less feasible. In this case, dumbbells will be your natural choice – hands down.
Which exercises do you want to do?
The final factor to consider when deciding which type of equipment to use is your exercise selection. You simply have more options with dumbbells than you do with barbells.
Because you can hold a dumbbell in each hand, this allows you to easily do unilateral exercises. Using a barbell, this is nearly impossible in most cases (with the exception of single-leg deadlifts or lunges). Lateral raises are far easier with a set of dumbbells, especially if you want to do two arms at once.
Each type of equipment has their pros and cons, so it’s up to you to decide which will best fit your own needs. Keep in mind that what training is best for you now may be totally different from what’s best for you next year. Never feel too stuck to your routine, because that’s when your progress is most likely to stall. Embrace variety!