Barbells vs. Dumbbells: What's Better for Mass and Strength Gains? - Old School Labs
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Home » OSL Blog » Barbells vs. Dumbbells: What’s Better for Mass and Strength Gains?

Barbells vs. Dumbbells: What’s Better for Mass and Strength Gains?

June 10, 2019

The barbells vs. dumbbells debate has been around for ages. Most guys tend to favor one over another — and that’s perfectly fine. Each type of equipment has its role and can bring you closer to your goals, whether it’s fat loss, hypertrophy or strength gains.

The question is: which route should you take? Dumbbells or barbells? Most importantly, when to use one and when to use the other?

Bodybuilding legend Tom Platz, for example, was famous for loading hundreds of pounds on the barbell when squatting. You’re probably thinking that dumbbells are great for squats too. The standard squat, the single leg squat, the sumo squat, and the front squat — they all can be done with dumbbells, so why would use a barbell instead?

Each type of equipment has its set of pros and cons. Barbells allow you to lift heavier weights and hence progress faster. The downside is that they carry a higher risk of injury. Dumbbells, on the other hand, are safer and easier to use but can only go up to a certain weight.

Interested to find out more? Let’s take a closer look at the barbells vs. dumbbells debate and choose a winner!

Types of Barbells and Their Function

Both dumbbells and barbells are free weights. Compared to gym machines, they force your muscles to work harder, require greater stability and balance, and allow for movement in multiple planes. Machines, on the other hand, provide a more stable environment and greater linear and compound variable resistance.

A typical barbell is 4 to 7 feet long and 1 inch thick. This piece of equipment works best for compound movements, such as squats, lunges, and deadlifts. However, it can be also used for isolation exercises like the preacher curl, wrist curl, barbell curl, and lying triceps extensions.

Several types of barbells exist, including:

  • Standard bars
  • Deadlift bars
  • Powerlifting bars
  • Olympic bars
  • EZ bars
  • Hex (trap) bars
  • Log barbells
  • Buffalo barbells
  • Cambered barbells
  • Swiss bars
  • Safety squat bars
  • Axle bars

Standard bars are the most popular option and can be used for traditional power and strength exercises, such as the shoulder press and squat. When heavily loaded, they tend to bend a bit.

Barbell
Standard barbells are the most popular type.

Deadlift bars can handle heavier loads and have a longer shaft. They’re typically coated with steel for a better grip. Compared to standard barbells, they’re slightly narrower in diameter.

Deadlift bar
Deadlift barbells can handle higher weights.

Powerlifting bars are designed for massive loads and have little to no bend. Olympic barbells are slightly more flexible. They work best for power cleans and other dynamic exercises.

What Are Specialty Barbells Good for?

Next, we have specialty barbells. Hex bars, for example, are in the shape of a hexagon or trapezoid. This allows you to stand in the center and have better control over your lifting form.

Due to their unique shape, they put less stress on the back and joints. American powerlifter Al Gerard invented them back in the ’80s and used them to protect his back when performing deadlifts.

If your goal is to build massive shoulders, look no further than the Swiss bar. This piece of equipment is perfect for rowing, pressing and other movements targeting the delts and arms. It places less strain on the shoulder joints and allows for a multitude of neutral grips.

The EZ bar is easier on the wrist than other types of barbells and can be used for arm exercises, such as bicep curls and skull crushers. It also allows for a wide variety of grips and feels more comfortable overall.

EZ bar curl
EZ barbells are easier on the wrists compared to other barbells.

Specialty bars make it easier to work your muscles from different angles and bust through strength plateaus. Choosing one over another depends on your anatomy, fitness level, and workout goals. Beginners, for example, may use the hex bar to improve their deadlift and prevent back injuries.

Dumbbell Options

Like the barbell, dumbbells come in different shapes and sizes. They can be used for both compound and isolation exercises, from squats and deadlifts to hammer curls, seated calf raises and reverse flies. Since they allow for unilateral movements, they can help improve your form and correct muscle imbalances.

Depending on your preferences, you can opt for adjustable for fixed-weight dumbbells. These can be further broken down into several categories, including:

  • Fixed hex dumbbells
  • Fixed rubber/urethane/chrome dumbbells
  • Studio dumbbells
  • Spin-lock dumbbells (adjustable)
  • Selectorized dumbbells (Ironmaster, Bowflex, Powerlocks, etc.)

Spin-lock dumbbells, for example, are a popular choice for at-home workouts. They’re virtually unbreakable and allow you to adjust the weight.

Spinlock Dumbbells
Spinlock dumbbells are weight adjustable and perfect for home workouts.

Selectorized dumbbells, by comparison, look and feel like fixed ones and make it easy to increase or reduce the weight due to their advanced locking mechanisms. Their price, though, can be a major turnoff.

Fixed hex dumbbells lie flat on the floor and provide more stability than standard models. They’re typically made of cast iron and can last for years.

Fixed hex dumbbell
The stability of fixed hex dumbbells makes them good for circuit training.

Studio dumbbells are those cute little things that most women use in the gym. They come in bright colors and don’t weigh more than 20 pounds or so. They’re designed for aerobics classes and light workouts.

Studio dumbbells
Studio dumbbells are great for aerobic classes and light cardio sessions.

If you’re training at home, go for adjustable dumbbells. These accessories take considerably less space than fixed dumbbells and barbells.

Bowflex’s SelectTech 552, for example, can be adjusted from 5 to 52.5 pounds within seconds. You can use them for any exercise that you’d do with fixed dumbbells, including one-arm rows, chest presses, Bulgarian split squats and curls.

Barbells vs. Dumbbells: Muscle Activation and Mass Gains

When it comes to mass gains, barbells are your best bet. With a barbell, you can lift heavier weights and incorporate progressive overload into your training more easily. This helps maximize mechanical tension and prevents strength plateaus while stimulating hypertrophy.

Barbell training
Barbells are better for increasing mass gains.

Furthermore, barbells are more convenient and easier to use than dumbbells when you’re adding a lot of weight. Just trying to get those dumbbells from the floor to your chest can become an exercise in itself. You waste a ton of energy before even performing the first rep.

And that’s not all…

Barbell exercises engage fewer stabilizer muscles compared to their dumbbell counterparts. That’s why most folks can lift about 20 percent heavier with a barbell compared to the total weight of two dumbbells.

Barbell curl
Barbells allow bodybuilders to lift heavier compared to dumbbells.

Another advantage of using barbells is that you can work more muscle groups simultaneously. The weight is evenly distributed, so you have greater stability as you deadlift, bench press, or squat. As energy is not being wasted, you can lift more weight during each rep.

Let’s take the barbell curl, for example. Compared to dumbbell curls, both setup and progression are easier. Plus, a barbell works better for heavy lifting and allows both arms to move together simultaneously.

The unnatural position of the wrists, though, may cause pain and increase injury risk. Additionally, the barbell limits your range of motion.

Dumbbell curls, on the other hand, allow for a greater range of motion and natural unrestricted movement. Additionally, this exercise recruits more secondary or stabilizing muscles, leading to improved balanced and overall conditioning.

Dumbbell curl
Dumbbells provide greater range of motion and natural unrestricted movement.

The downside is that you can only train one arm at a time. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for those who want muscle definition. The barbell, though, is a better choice for mass and strength gains.

Muscle Activation

Both dumbbells and barbells can yield great results depending on what exercises you perform. A 2019 study in the Human Kinetics Journal assessed the effects of barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and weighted vests on muscle activation in squats and lunges.

Male subjects who used free weights experienced significantly better results than those using their bodyweight only. However, no major differences in muscle activation were found among the various loading devices.  

Using free weights in general leads to better results and more muscle activation.

The amplitude of muscle activation depends largely on the exercises you perform. According to Bret Contreras, chest isolation movements — which are typically performed with dumbbells — produce greater pec activity than compound movements for both flat and incline bench presses.

Compared to barbells, dumbbells elicit greater front deltoid activation during seated and standing military presses. The barbell, though, allows for a higher one rep max, which can lead to better muscle and strength gains in the long run.

Dumbbells also appear to be more effective in terms of trap and lat activation. Both types of equipment are equally effective for biceps activation.

If your goal is to build mass, focus on lifting heavier weights. In this case, it makes sense to use the barbell, especially for compound exercises. Dumbbells activate more muscles, but this doesn’t necessarily lead to hypertrophy.

Range of Motion

Training in a full range of motion makes it easier to build mass and strength while reducing injury risk. A partial range of motion translates to less micro-damage, less stretch, and inferior results.

From this perspective, dumbbells are a better choice. Compared to barbells, they provide a greater range of motion and allow your arms to move more freely.

Barbell bench press
A bench press with barbells provides less range of motion compared to dumbbells.

Let’s take the bench press, for example. When you lower the bar to your chest, your hands end up in line with your shoulders and your range of motion is limited. Basically, they are locked in this position.

Dumbbells, by contrast, allow you to squeeze your pecs harder and keep them under tension longer over a greater range of motion. Plus, they require greater stabilization than barbells. As a result, you’ll recruit and activate more muscle fibers.

dumbbell press
Dumbbells require more stabilization compared to barbells which activates more muscles.

The problem with dumbbells is that they’ll get bulkier and more inconvenient as you add weight. This can put you at risk for injuries and limit your range of motion.

Muscular Symmetry

Most exercises performed with a barbell require you to use both sides of your body at the same time. Dumbbells allow for unilateral movements, which helps build muscle symmetry and correct strength imbalances.

Shoulder press
Dumbbells aid in fixing muscles imbalances through unilateral movements.

When you do military presses, for example, you’re pushing the bar with both arms. If your left arm is weaker than the right arm, the latter will overcompensate for the weaker side. This can lead to injuries and muscular asymmetries.

military press
Strength imbalances while using a barbell can lead to injuries.

If you’re typically using barbells, you’d have to focus on lifting harder on the weaker side to catch up. This isn’t always possible. Dumbbells, on the other hand, make it easier to work your weaker muscles and prevent strength imbalances in the first place.

Dumbbells and Unilateral Training

Most people have a dominant side that will help out their weaker side during training — even if they are not aware of it. Over time, this imbalance may become visible, affecting your strength and overall performance as well as your physique.

curl
Unilateral training is credited for taking your workout to the next level.

One way to prevent these issues is to incorporate dumbbells into your workout routine. Unilateral training not only helps correct strength and muscle imbalances, but it can take your workouts to the next level.

According to the Journal of Applied Physiology, this training method has collateral effects. Researchers suggest that working one side of the body will increase strength on the opposite side as well. Additionally, it improves core stabilization, leading to enhanced athletic performance.

For example, a 2005 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research has found that unilateral chest presses led to greater core stabilization in the trunk and greater muscle activation compared to the barbell bench press, which involves bilateral movements. Furthermore, unilateral shoulder presses were more effective at activating the back stabilizers than bilateral presses.

dumbbell chest press
Flat dumbbell press can be done in a unilateral manner

Other studies indicate that training one limb at a time activates the muscles to a greater extent than bilateral movements. This approach may also help prevent injuries by strengthening the sometimes neglected stabilizers and correcting imbalances. Plus, dumbbells are easier to handle than barbells, which can further lower the risk of injury.

Unilateral training also helps improve your balance and coordination. At the same time, it allows you to isolate muscle imbalances and avoid overusing your dominant side. If you’re consistent, the results will follow.

In a 2018 six-week study published in PLOS One, athletes who performed unilateral lunges experienced a greater increase in their vastus medialis and adductor major muscles compared to those who did bilateral squats. The latter, though, reported greater gains in the posterior femur and vastus lateralis.

These findings show that unilateral training can lead to hypertrophy.

Safety

In the barbells vs. dumbbells debate, the latter gets extra points for safety. Dumbbell training is easier on the joints and allows for more natural movements. This makes it ideal for beginners as well as for those trying new exercises.

dumbbell incline bench press
Dumbbell exercises are safer as the weights are easier to maneuver.

The dumbbell shoulder press, for example, is easier to learn for a newbie than the barbell overhead press. If you can’t complete a rep, you can simply drop the dumbbells on the floor. A barbell, on the other hand, can be difficult to maneuver, especially when you’re squatting or lying on your back.

spotter assistant
With barbells, some exercises require a spotter for the sake of safety.

Plus, barbell exercises, such as the skull crushers, back squat, and chest press, often require a spotter. With dumbbells, you’re in full control of the movement.

Exercise Variety

Both dumbbells and barbells allow for a wide range of exercises. A barbell is more suitable for heavy compound lifts, while dumbbells make it easier to isolate specific muscles. In general, you can use dumbbells for most exercises that would otherwise require a barbell. Let’s see a few examples:

  • Dumbbell bench press
  • One-arm dumbbell deadlift
  • Dumbbell squat
  • Dumbbell overhead press
  • Reverse lunges
  • Dumbbell rows
  • Arnold press
  • Standing dumbbell calf raises
  • Dumbbell front raises
  • Dumbbell biceps curls
  • Wrist curls
  • Lying triceps extensions
dumbbell rows
Rows can be done with both barbells and dumbbells.

Some movements can only be performed with dumbbells:

  • Goblet squats
  • One-legged deadlifts
  • One-arm bent-over rows
  • One-arm swings
  • Dumbbell scaption
  • Alternating biceps curls
  • Triceps kickbacks
  • Lateral raises
  • Lying fly
  • Chest fly
  • Dumbbell thruster
  • Chest pull-over
  • Russian dumbbell swings
  • Single-arm dumbbell snatches
  • Bent-over dumbbell reverse fly
  • Renegade rows
Thrusters are one of the dumbbells – only exercises.

It’s easy to see why dumbbells are such a popular choice among gym goers of all fitness levels. They’re easy to handle and can be used for hundreds of different exercises. Not to mention the convenience factor. You can work out anywhere, anytime without being tied to a gym.

dumbbells hiit
Dumbbells provide the option of exercising anywhere

Barbells vs. Dumbbells: Our Verdict

Now that you have a clear picture of barbells vs. dumbbells, you may wonder what’s best for your workout. Both options have advantages and drawbacks. Plus, certain exercises can only be done with either dumbbells or barbells.

Barbell curls
Alternating between barbells and dumbbells, even for the same exercise, boosts your fitness journey

As you progress in your fitness journey, your body adapts to exercise. That’s why it’s important to keep your muscles guessing by constantly changing workout variables, such as the number of reps and sets, loading devices, weight, and intensity.

Ideally, start your training session with barbell exercises and finish with isolation movements using dumbbells. Alternate between the two and see how your body reacts. If you have a weaker muscle group, prioritize dumbbell exercises. To gain size and strength, perform heavy lifts with a barbell.

dumbbell curl
It is always the wiser choice to use dumbbells as a beginner then progress to barbells.

Looking for inspiration? Try this old school bodybuilding workout. It includes basic movements that use both barbells and dumbbells. Or check out Sergio Oliva Jr.’s epic upper body routine for some really cool training hacks!

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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