Are Dumbbells or Barbells Better for Building Muscle?

Many gyms are limiting their capacity, access to equipment and providing designated zones for individuals — to encourage social distancing. Limited access to equipment means getting your hands on a barbell could be your one-way ticket to making those post-lockdown gains.

Dumbbells and kettlebells are great for building total-body strength, but if you want to test how strong you are, barbells are the way to go. Barbells allow you to lift heavier with more control since you're holding the bar with both hands and recruiting several muscles at once. 

Do you want to get more ideas about dumbbell barbell workouts? Check it out here.

The Advantages of Barbells

So, first of all, for powerlifting, barbells are better. It's impossible to do back squats, barbell bench presses, and conventional deadlifts with dumbbells. Even if you're just interested in building impressive squat and deadlift numbers, though, that's a reason to favour a barbell. You'll never be squatting or deadlifting as heavy with dumbbells.

But let's say that our main goals are to get bigger, stronger, healthier, and better looking. Even when compared against dumbbells, kettlebells, and bodyweight movements, barbells still have some worthy advantages:

Barbells are incredibly stable and easy to use, making it less likely for the strength of our stabilizer muscles, grip, or awkwardness to limit our performance. We can focus simply on lifting heavy weights, which is great for gaining size and strength.

Barbell lifts are heavier. Barbell lifts tend to be quite a bit heavier than their dumbbell alternatives. For example, someone who can bench press 225 pounds might use 90-pound dumbbells (lifting a total of 180 pounds). Our prime movers are doing just as much work, but lifting a heavier barbell puts more load on our supporting muscles, bones, and connective tissues.

Barbells allow us to lift in lower rep ranges. Because we can pick the barbell up off a weight rack, barbells lifts are often better suited for sets of fewer than eight reps. With dumbbells, on the other hand, the strength required to clean dumbbells onto our shoulders or swing them up into a bench press position can be a limiting factor, forcing us to lift in higher rep ranges.

Barbells can be progressively loaded heavier in small increments. By adding small 2.5-pound or even 1.25-pound plates to the sides of the barbell, we can very gradually make our lifts heavier over time. Dumbbells often go up in five-pound increments. And since dumbbell lifts are lighter, that's often a big relative increase.

Barbells can always be loaded heavier. We can usually load up at least 700 pounds of steel plates with a standard strength training barbell. Even with bumper plates, we can fit up to around 600 pounds. With a dumbbell, by the time we start getting up over a hundred pounds per dumbbell, they start getting unwieldy. That means that even if we hold two dumbbells at once, we won't ever be squatting or deadlifting more then 200 pounds.

Barbells are incredibly efficient. When using dumbbells and kettlebells, we often need to train one limb at a time. One-arm shoulder presses, one-arm rows, Bulgarian split squats, and split-stance Romanian deadlifts. Those are perfectly good lifts for building muscle, but it means doing twice as many sets per workout to get the same effect. Mind you, those sets are often less tiring because less weight is being lifted.

A good way of summarizing the benefits of barbell training is that we tend to gain more muscle, strength, and fitness on a per-set basis. Of course, that doesn't mean they're necessarily better, but it does mean they're more efficient. That's why so many minimalist routines are built around the big barbell lifts.

Because barbells allow us to load progressively heavier weights and safely lift in lower rep ranges, barbells are the standard piece of equipment for strength training. However, barbells are also fantastic for building muscle, and so they're equally great for bodybuilding.

Barbell Workouts

Back squat

Make sure the "J-cups" — the brackets that hold the barbell — are at shoulder height.

With your feet shoulder-width apart or a tiny bit wider, rest the barbell on your traps. Those are the wide, flat muscles that cover the top of your back and the bottom of your neck.

Grasp the bar with both hands facing forward and elbows pointing down. Your arms should form a rough W shape.

Keeping spine straight and core braced, first push your hips back, then bend your knees. Pause when your butt is just below parallel with the floor, push through your heels, and rise to start position.

Barbell row

Hinge forward at your hips until your torso is parallel with the floor.

Grab the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart, both palms facing you. Brace core and pull elbows toward the ceiling, bringing the bar to your lower chest. Squeeze shoulder blades together to emphasize scapular strength. Return the bar to the floor between sets.

Bench Press

Place J-cups in position. Lie faceup on the bench with the bar racked above your upper chest. Place hands shoulder-width apart or a little wider.

Lift the bar and bring it down across your sternum, so your arms are at about a 45-degree angle from your chest (not flared out to the sides).

B. Keeping wrists straight, push the bar up and very slightly back toward your head, so it finishes over your shoulders.

Keep shoulder blades contracted, engage glutes, and drive heels into the floor throughout the movement. Position feet, so they're not too far away to engage your glutes.

Deadlift

With the bar on the floor, roll it, so it's practically against your shins. Stand with feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Point toes forward or at 11 and 1 o'clock. Bend your knees a little and your hips a lot as you grasp the bar slightly outside your legs.

Brace core and lift the bar by squeezing glutes, thrusting hips forward, and pulling torso back and up. Be careful not to bend your knees or drop your hips too much or keep your torso too upright.

Overhead press

With feet shoulder-width apart, rest the barbell on your clavicle. Grip it with elbows pointed down and forearms perpendicular to the floor.

Taking care to pull your chin back a little (to avoid smacking it with the bar), drive the bar upward in a straight line, locking out your elbows.

Once the bar clears your head, bring your chin back to its original position, so the barbell is right above your head or even a little farther backward. Reverse the movement. Be careful not to arch your lower back too much throughout the movement.

The Advantages of Dumbbells

One main advantage of dumbbells is that you don't need a gym membership or spare room to use them. A good pair of heavy adjustable dumbbells can fit neatly in the closet of a small apartment.

But let's say that we have access to both dumbbells and barbells. Even then, dumbbells still have some pretty great advantages when compared against barbells:

Dumbbells are easier on our lower backs. Because we can load one limb at a time, and because the absolute loads we're lifting are lower, there's never as much heavy loading on our spines. For most of us, we want to be loading our spines heavy to increase our bone density and strengthen our spinal erectors.

But some people have a history of injury or get a cranky lower back whenever they load their spines too heavy. In that case, dumbbells can be a great way to build muscle without aggravating our lower backs. Even for guys with healthy backs, this generally means that we can handle higher training volumes before feeling fatigued.

Dumbbells are great for building the chest. When we do the bench press with dumbbells, our chests need to squeeze extra hard to bring the dumbbells together instead of just lifting them up. This makes the dumbbell bench press great for building stubborn chests.

Our left and right sides are trained symmetrically. With a barbell, our dominant side can often help our weaker side, at least to a certain extent. With dumbbells, each side is working independently, so giving each side the same amount of stimulation is easier.

Dumbbells all our hands to rotate freely while lifting. This means that we can twist our hands when doing biceps curls, overhead presses, bench presses, and everything else, making the lifts quite a bit friendlier on our joints. Dumbbells tend to produce fewer aches and pains in the wrists, elbows, and shoulders.

Dumbbells prevent us from lifting as heavy as we can with barbells, limiting both the absolute amount of weight we can lift and the rep ranges we can use. A six-rep set of squats, bench press, or deadlifts tends to be fine with a barbell, whereas we might need to bump that up to 10+ reps if we're using dumbbells.

But even though dumbbells don't allow us to lift as heavy, they're often easier on our bodies while still stimulating a comparable amount of muscle growth. The cost of that, though, is that dumbbell workouts can take longer and be more painful. After all, we often need to train one side at a time and lift in higher rep ranges.

Dumbbell Workouts

Dumbbell Romanian deadlift

This deadlift variety is sure to please the hamstrings (or punish them).

Standing with feet hip-width apart, toes facing forward, and dumbbells at your sides, shift your hips back and slightly bend your knees as you lower the dumbbells toward the floor (keep them angled on the outside of your legs).

Maintain a neutral spine while lowering the weight just until you feel a good stretch in your hamstrings. Then, come back up to standing, making sure to contract those glutes and hamstrings on the way up. That's one!

Dumbbell hang clean and press

Don't take this one to the laundromat! Get down in a squat position and hold a dumbbell in each hand outside your ankles, palms facing your feet. With vertical shins and a neutral spine, move upward to a standing position while pulling the dumbbells up.

Next, forcefully drive the dumbbells up toward your shoulders using your hips and legs. As you come in for the catch, squat slightly to bring the weight to your shoulders with a neutral grip (palms facing your body).

Explode the dumbbells off your shoulders overhead. Then, lower the dumbbells back down.

Single-arm dumbbell snatch

Stand in a wide-squat stance, holding a dumbbell in your right hand in front of your knees. Drive the dumbbell up, keeping it close to your body, and thrust it up with your hips. When the dumbbell reaches chest height, fully extend your legs.

Squat back down, so your body is under the dumbbell. Drive the dumbbell up overhead into a full lockout position. This should be one quick movement. Think explosively!

Dumbbell front squat

Take some pressure off that back. Start this with feet hip-width apart, holding dumbbells on your shoulders with a neutral grip and elbows up. Next, hinge back, keeping your back straight like you're sitting on an imaginary bench (come on, work with us here).

Lower your body until your hips are below your knees. Complete the move by driving through your hips as you come back up to the standing position.

Dumbbell pistol squat

This exercise isn't for the faint of heart (so, beginners, try it sans dumbbells first). Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell sideways with both hands. Extend your left leg out in front of you and squat down on your right leg, moving the dumbbell straight out.

Go all the way down (and we mean all the way down) until your butt touches your ankle. Then, return to starting position and repeat for reps on both sides.

Dumbbell floor press

Who said presses need a bench? Lie on your back with feet flat on the floor and a dumbbell in each hand. Position the dumbbells at your shoulders and rest your elbows on the floor. Push straight up, bringing the dumbbells directly overhead. Return to starting position.

Both barbells and dumbbells are perfectly ideal for building muscle. If you have access to a barbell and the lifts feel good on your joints, they tend to be a more efficient choice, and they're better for building strong backs and lower bodies. On the other hand, dumbbells tend to be better for our chests and some stabilizer muscles.

If you live in a small house or apartment, though, if you already have aches and pains, or if you want a cheaper setup, then you'll be able to build just as much muscle with a good pair of adjustable dumbbells. You'll be able to gain just as much size and strength, become just as fit, look just as good.

Barbell and Dumbbell FAQs 

Once equipped with the right knowledge, the barbell can form the basis of any resistance-based workout, as it is the most versatile piece of equipment that is found universally in almost any gym. The barbell provides access to an arsenal of compound exercises.

Did you expect a straight answer? Well, you are not going to get one here! Dumbbells versus barbells are far more complicated than saying one is better than the other.

The correct answer is that a MIX of both is ideal and optimal for muscle building and strength purposes, and they are both REQUIRED to help you get results and prevent injuries.

If you are training for more strength and functionality, perhaps barbells will be your best friend, but dumbbells are generally superior if you are training strictly towards building size and mass.

All in all, you need BOTH of them in your lifting program but what you need far more than the right exercises is a clear mind. So whatever equipment you decide to choose, whichever exercise you decide to perform, make sure you pause for a minute or two before you start lifting and get your mind right.

Your goals dictate the range of reps you should perform and for how many sets you should do them: To develop maximal strength, lifting incredibly heavy for 2–6 sets of 6 or fewer reps is ideal while lifting heavy-to-moderate weights for 3–6 sets of 8–12 reps is the way to go when it comes to building muscle size.

Due to the full-body nature of complexes, you can use them as technique practice every day or as part of your warm-up before a strength session. Use just an empty barbell and perform two to four rounds of six to eight reps on cleans, deadlifts, overhead presses, squats and good mornings.

Though we could do thousands of different exercises in the gym, barbell training comprises just four exercises, the so-called "Big Lifts." These compound movements — the squat, press, deadlift, and bench press — should make up 90% of any athlete's strength program, regardless of their level of advancement.

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