Dumbbells vs Barbells (Which is Better and Why)

Dumbbells and barbells are super efficient equipment for muscle building. However, they are different in many aspects, such as the range of motion and purpose of use. In this article, I’ve shared a comparative analysis between dumbbells vs barbells that will help you decide which one you should prefer the most and when.

Doing the right workout for the right muscles with the right equipment will help you boost your strength and gain.

When I was a beginner, I was confused about which equipment I should prioritize for muscle building, whether a machine, barbell, or dumbbell?

Then someone told me you should do free weights workouts. And to do free weight exercises, you primarily need two pieces of equipment – dumbbells, and barbells.

However, I also went deeper to find the difference between them. But I did not find the exact answer that could solve my query. So I decided to incorporate barbell and dumbbell exercises in my overall workout routine.

It’s been a couple of years since I’m working out consistently using both pieces of equipment.

I observed that both are important and different from each other.

The barbell is better for mechanical tension, whereas the dumbbells are better for muscles activation.

That was my experience only, but how about research and other opinions on barbell vs. dumbbell. Let’s uncover all into this article.

Barbells vs Dumbbells: The Differences

After a couple of hours of research, I’ve compiled the six differences between dumbbell workouts and barbell workouts.

So, let’s see one by one.

1. Range of Motion During Dumbbell and Barbell Workouts

Push Pull Legs Split

Dumbbells allow a greater range of motion and stabilize and engage different muscles at once—the better the range motion and the more your muscles contract.

Let’s take an example of a dumbbell curl. A dumbbell provides a full range of motion and restricts excess movement during the curl.

On the other hand, the barbell limits the range of motion.

A better range of motion improves the movement of a specific joint and enhances your flexibility.

You can use light dumbbells to rehabilitate an injury if you have recently been injured.

For the range of motion, dumbbells are preferable to barbells. So if you want to isolate your muscles specifically, you can do dumbbell exercises.

2. Activation of Stabilizers and Primary Mover Muscles During the Dumbbell and Barbell Exercises

EZ Bar Bicep Curl Workout
EZ Bar Bicep Curl Workout

Barbells are great for engaging primary movers muscles, while the dumbbell exercises engage more stabilizer muscles.

The primary movers are the muscles where you feel the maximum effect of the exercises. They are highly engaged throughout lifting, curling, pushing, pulling, and rowing.

On the flip side, stabilizer muscles aren’t directly involved in moving the weights.

They keep the body parts stable and steady so that the primary movers can work efficiently.

Chest, lats, quads, and arms are examples of primary movers, while the muscles located under the larger muscles are stabilizer muscles.

For instance, the delts work as stabilizer muscles during the bench press. When you do the press, the pectoralis major and the triceps work as the primary movers and move the load.

However, your delts work as the stabilizer muscles that support the primary movers and help you perform the bench press efficiently.

Barbell strengthens primary movers, and dumbbell builds up stabilizer muscles. Primary movers allow you to move the weight, and stabilizer muscles support it. So you can use both pieces of equipment to work out safely and efficiently.

3. Barbells vs Dumbbells For Strength

You can lift more weight using the barbell compared to dumbbells.

A barbell allows you to lift 17 percent more loads than the dumbbell press during the bench press – shown in a study published on the National Institute of Health.1 A comparison of muscle activity and 1-RM strength of three chest-press exercises with different stability requirements – Journal of Sports Sciences

For example, if you do the dumbbell bench press with 30kg, then you’ll be able to do the barbell bench press with 35 kg.

Barbell allows you to lift/press heavier weights than dumbbells.

4. Dumbbell vs Barbell For Mass

Lifting heavier weights and increasing the load over time will help you build muscles.

Both barbells and dumbbells are essential for muscle growth. However, barbells will help increase overload and do compound movements.

Barbells help you lift heavier weights and incorporate progressive overload into your workout training.

Using progressively heavier weight is the simplest and the most effective way to increase the amount of mechanical tension.

So, exercising with heavier weights in a controlled manner through a full range of motion promote muscle growth.

Barbells are crucial for gains, but we can not skip dumbbell exercises. Some muscle-building workouts you can only perform with dumbbells, such as dumbbell press, dumbbell rowing, and lateral raises.

Barbells are suitable for progressive overload, compound exercises, and muscle growth. On the other hand, dumbbells allow you to do various isolation workouts, playing crucial workouts in hypertrophy.

5. Muscle Activation in Dumbbell vs Barbell Workouts

Most of the compound exercises are done with barbells, and they work on multiple muscles at once. For example, the barbell sumo deadlift is a compound workout that works on thighs, glutes, core, and back.

So, if you want to work on various muscles simultaneously, you can do barbell exercises. And to activate your one muscle specifically, you can do dumbbell exercises.

6. Muscle Imbalances

If you have one side stronger than the other, you may feel muscle imbalances during the workout.

However, you can control muscle imbalance and reduce the risk of injuries by using the right equipment.

The dumbbells can be helpful in that case. They are free to use both sides equally. You can even use it one at a time.

If you have one side strong and the other weak, you can use dumbbells to balance your strength.

However, your stronger side may dominate the poorer during the dumbbell exercises.

So, if you feel, your one side is stronger than the other, you can use a dumbbell to target your weaker muscles more efficiently.

Dumbbells vs barbells – Conclusion

  1. Dumbbells allow a better range of motion and stabilize than barbells.
  2. Barbells are great for engaging primary movers muscles, while the dumbbell exercises engage more stabilizer muscles.
  3. Barbell allows you to lift and press heavier weights than dumbbells.
  4. Barbells are suitable for progressive overload and compound exercises. On the other hand, dumbbells allow you to do various isolation workouts. Both are essential for stregth and hypertrophy.
  5. If you have one side strong and the other weak, you can use dumbbells to strengthen your stunted muscles.

Dumbbell and barbell workouts are both crucial for strength, gain, and mobility. And I hope you understand which one and when you should use dumbbells or barbells.

You can also create a personalized workout plan to build muscles or lose weight by combining the barbell and dumbbell exercises.

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Murshid Akram
I'm an online personal trainer, fitness blogger, and fitness enthusiast. I love researching and writing about exercise and nutrition. I share science-based, practical, and logical information that can help you achieve your desired fitness goal.

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