Barbell vs Dumbbell- Introduction
If you wonder about the effectiveness of a barbell vs dumbbell for beginners, or at home, you’re in the right place.
Because this article will pit barbells against dumbbells to determine which is best.
Whatever your fitness goal is, strength training is a must.
For example, pumping iron or doing bodyweight exercises overloads your muscles, and they respond by getting bigger and stronger.
But, strength training is good for more than just your muscles; it can be used for burning fat and building fitness too.
It all depends on how you use this powerful training method.
And, there are lots of different ways to strength train, and they all work.
You can lift free weights, use kettlebells, use resistance training machines, do bodyweight exercises, or work out using resistance bands.
Ultimately, your muscles cannot differentiate between a leg press machine and squats with a barbell on your back.
So long as you challenge your muscles, they’ll respond by getting stronger.
That said, each type of strength training has benefits and drawbacks that are worth considering, especially if you’re about to buy your own workout equipment.
Let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
- A Brief History of Dumbbells and Barbells
- Barbell vs Dumbbell – The Great Debate
- Barbells vs Dumbbells – And the Winner Is…
A Brief History of Dumbbells and Barbells
In the battle of barbells vs. dumbbells, dumbbells have been around the longest.
When were dumbbells invented?
Surprisingly, evidence suggests that dumbbells were first used in 700BC in Ancient Greece.
However, the term dumbbell actually comes from 18th Century England.
The original dumbbells were used by church bell ringers for practice.
The bell “clacker” was removed so the bell ringers wouldn’t disturb the surrounding neighborhood.
So, a dumbbell is literally a “dumb” bell, with dumb meaning silent.
Dumbbells have come a long way since they were invented, and you can now get fixed weight and adjustable dumbbells in all sizes and at prices to suit most budgets.
They’re often used in pairs but can also be used singularly.
Barbells are a much more recent invention and have been used for strength training since the mid 19th century.
Around this time, the exercisers of the day moved away from doing high-rep workouts with light dumbbells and started to embrace heavy strength training.
Heavy barbells are easier to lift and balance than dumbbells, so they soon became a popular training tool.
Early barbells were fixed weights, and the bar didn’t have revolving sleeves like modern barbells do.
But, during the early 20th century, plate-loading barbells started to gain popularity, and revolving sleeves were invented.
This made barbells easier to use and suitable for a greater range of exercises.
There are lots of different types of barbells available, including:
- Standard barbell
- Olympic barbell
- Fixed weight barbells
- EZ bar
- Football barbells
- Hex bars which are also known as a Trap bar
- Deadlift bars
Dumbbell vs Barbell – The Great Debate
Not sure whether to use a barbell or dumbbells for your workout routine?
In this section, we compare and contrast these two training tools against several different criteria.
When it comes to building muscle, load is load, and it really doesn’t matter what training tools you use.
So long as you expose your muscles to sufficient stress, they’ll respond by getting bigger.
For example, you could do push-ups, Smith machine chest presses, or dumbbell bench presses, and your pectoral muscles (chest muscles) will grow regardless.
That said, dumbbells often allow you to move your limbs through a greater range of motion than barbells, which may make them SLIGHTLY better for building muscle.
Winner: Dumbbells (but only just!)
Building strength involves lifting heavy weights for lower rep ranges.
While you will get stronger training with dumbbells, barbells are usually better for serious strength training.
For starters, heavy dumbbells can be hard to balance and awkward to lift into position.
Also, the “big lifts” of squats, deadlifts, and bench presses are best done with a barbell, and they’re arguably the best strength-building exercises around.
And with a barbell, you can lift up to 10 percent more weight than with dumbbells as reported in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.¹
So, if you want to get seriously strong, barbells are your best choice.
Improving body composition
Improving your body composition means losing fat and building muscle to your body fat percentage.
If you want to be lean but also look strong and athletic, it’s your body composition you need to work on.
Ultimately, body composition training is all about maintaining or increasing muscle mass, so both barbells and dumbbells are equally effective, and it’s your workout and diet that matter the most.
Winner: It’s a draw!
Improving functional fitness
Functional fitness is fitness that you can use outside of the gym, such as carrying groceries, playing sports, or gardening.
A lot of physically demanding activities use one arm or one leg at a time.
Free weights are better for functional fitness than resistance training machines, and it could be argued that dumbbells are more functional than barbells.
Dumbbell training requires more balance and coordination, and training with just one dumbbell increases core and stabilizer engagement more than barbell workouts.
That’s not to say that barbell training won’t improve functional fitness; it’s just that dumbbells simulate the demands of everyday life a little more.
If you want to develop both sides of your body evenly, train your limbs one at a time, improve your balance and coordination, and learn to stabilize your joints, dumbbells are the way to go.
Range of exercises
There are hundreds of different free weight exercises that you can use to keep your workouts varied and interesting.
There is no need to do the same exercises over and over again.
In many cases, you can do your exercises with a barbell OR dumbbells, so they’re both similarly useful.
That said, you can also do most dumbbell exercises using just one weight, effectively doubling the number of exercises available.
In contrast, there are very few single limb barbell exercises.
If you want to pack your workouts with lots of different exercises, dumbbells are probably the better choice.
However, if you’re going to do back or front squats, conventional deadlifts, and other essential compound exercises, a barbell is your best choice.
Safety is a crucial strength training consideration.
After all, working out with weights should be good for you, and if you keep having accidents or getting injured, you could end up missing more workouts than you complete.
Dumbbells are potentially safer than barbells, especially when training on your own.
For example, when doing bench presses, if you cannot complete a rep with a barbell, it could come crashing down across your chest.
But, if you are using dumbbells, you can just lower the weights out and down to the floor and won’t get crushed.
That said, if you do things like squats and bench presses in a power rack, any risk of getting pinned by a heavy barbell is negated.
Dumbbell exercises also tend to be a little more joint-friendly than the same exercise done with a barbell.
They allow you to move your limbs independently, modifying the range of motion to reflect your flexibility and limb length.
Winner: Dumbbells – assuming you don’t have a power rack
Which is easier to live with – barbells or dumbbells?
Barbells tend to be pretty long, which means you’ll not only need a large training area space but plenty of storage space too.
Also, you’ll probably need a squat rack and maybe even a power cage if you want to train hard and heavy.
In contrast, dumbbells are more compact, so you can use them in a smaller space.
Also, if you want to store your dumbbells, you can keep them under a bed or in a closet.
To get a good dumbbell workout, you only need a bench, and even that’s not compulsory.
There are plenty of standing and floor exercises you can do with dumbbells.
Unless you’ve got a spacious garage gym or similar, dumbbells will probably be easier to live with.
Suitability for beginners
On paper, at least, barbells are better for beginners than dumbbells.
That’s because working out with dumbbells usually requires more balance and stability, which are fitness traits a lot of beginners have yet to develop.
Barbells are more stable, which makes them easier to handle for most strength exercises.
However, balance and stability improve very quickly, and most beginners should have no problem training with dumbbells providing they start with lighter weights.
In truth, barbells and dumbbells are both suitable for beginners, and it’s the amount of weight and choice of exercises that are more important.
Winner: It’s a draw!
Dumbbell vs Barbell Workout | Which Builds More Muscle?
Barbell vs Dumbbell – And the Winner Is…
Based on our criteria, dumbbells are better than barbells, but that’s not necessarily the case.
The winner actually depends on what you are training for.
If you are a powerlifter or Olympic lifter, even if you are a beginner, barbells are best because those are the tools of those two strength sports.
However, dumbbells are probably best if you are a budding bodybuilder, and especially for upper body training.
That said, if you are a powerlifter who lives in a small apartment, you may have to make do with a pair of dumbbells because you don’t have space for a seven-foot bar and power rack.
You’ll just have to practice your main lifts in a gym.
So, in the age-old battle of the barbell vs dumbbell, there is no clear winner.
The best piece of equipment is the one that’s right for YOU!
Think about what you want to train for, consider your goals and circumstances, and then choose the training tool that will work best.
If you are especially interested in building overall strength for your entire body, you now know that a barbell is the best choice for major compound movements like squats and deadlifts.
But, which barbell should you choose?
So, the next step is to learn about the 12 Types of Most Common Barbells and How to Select the Right One for you.
Therefore, whether you go to a gym or are creating a home gym, you will select the best bar for your primary goal.
- 12 Types of Barbells Explained + How to Choose the Right One
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- The 12 Best Deadlift Accessory Exercises to Fix Your Deadlifts
- 7 Best Cardio Exercises for Bad Knees + Low Impact Workout
- Top 10 Ironclad Ways How to Lose Weight After 50
- Beginner Powerbuilding Program; Strong Workout + Free PDF
- 5/3/1 for Beginners – Jim Wendler’s Classic Strength Program