When You Should Use Barbells Instead of Dumbbells (and Vice Versa)
Dumbbells and barbells, the two workhorses of free weight training, have their benefits. Dumbbells are small; you hold one in each hand. A barbell is a longer projectile, usually two-handed. Many exercises can be performed with any of them. So how do you choose?
Bars allow more total weight to be loaded
First, let’s look at the biggest advantage of barbells: their size. Some exercises can be done equally well with any type of implement, but when you want to lift something really heavy, you basically have to use a barbell.
Let’s take the deadlift as an example. Beginners can use heavy dumbbells for deadlifts, but even in a well-stocked gym, there are usually no dumbbells over 100 pounds each. It’s only 200 pounds, which is a beginner-only deadlift. And to prepare for lifting 100 lb dumbbells per arm, you need to somehow remove two 100 lb dumbbells from the rack. It will be hard work, both literally and figuratively.
Meanwhile, the bar weighs 45 pounds and is relatively easy to load 45kg pancakes on. Preparing for the 225-pound deadlift (two plates per side) is a no-brainer if you know how .
Same idea with squats: it’s not a problem to load a few hundred pounds with a barbell in a squat rack, but it will be very difficult for you to keep massive dumbbells on your shoulders, even if you can figure out how to get them there. . There are ways to squat with smaller dumbbells (goblet squats are a lot harder than they look), but in order to have only weight on the bar, you need a bar.
Dumbbells can be more comfortable
Barbells require your hands to be in a certain position. You can choose how far apart your hands are, but that’s about it; they are at these points on the bar throughout the entire lift, and they should be aligned with each other.
Dumbbells are much more forgiving. For example, you can do the bench press by tilting the dumbbells towards each other. You can also keep them further apart at the bottom of the movement and bring them together at the top. If you have an old shoulder injury that’s bothering you when you press with a barbell, you may find it easier with dumbbells. Likewise, a straight bar can be uncomfortable for curls, but dumbbells are an easy alternative if you don’t have an EZ (movable type) bar.
Dumbbells have a lower minimum weight
If you are short or less experienced, you may find that an empty Olympic barbell is too heavy for the job. Many beginners can’t press a 45-pound overhead barbell at all. But a pair of 5-pound or even 10-pound dumbbells is not a problem at all, since they add up to 10 or 20 pounds, respectively.
Even if your goal is to do barbell curls, starting with dumbbells will help you build strength to reach that goal.
Barbells allow better control of weight gain
Despite the fact that dumbbells have a lower minimum weight, the transition from one weight to another can seem overwhelming. If you’re benching with a pair of 50-pound dumbbells (100 total), the next size will probably be 55 pounds (110 pounds total), a 10% increase.
Smaller jumps, between 2% and 5%, are often more desirable. If you benched 100 pounds last week with a barbell, you can use a couple of 2.5-pound plates and a 105-pound bench press this week, or even use a couple of microplates and go for 102.5. With dumbbells, you need to hold the lighter weight for longer before it’s time to move up. It’s not the end of the world, but it can be inconvenient.
Dumbbells require less space in the home gym
What if you want to buy your own set of kettlebells for your home? Dumbbells have a big advantage here, as an Olympic-sized barbell is a heck of seven feet long. (Smaller barbells are available for home gyms, but they often can’t be loaded with very heavy weights, depriving the barbell of one of its primary benefits.)
A pair of dumbbells takes up almost no space either when stored or when used. The downside is that you will need different weight dumbbells for different exercises (and to progress as you get stronger on each exercise), so you either need multiple sets or an adjustable set. Adjustable devices that allow quick weight changes (such as Powerblocks) are expensive; those with lockable collars are cheaper, but you will spend more time between exercises changing plates.
So what’s the point? If you want to compete with a barbell, like powerlifting, or if you’re in the mood to lift really heavy weights, you’ll probably be using a barbell for most of your workouts. But if you want to work with lighter weights, and if space is at a premium, you’ll probably gravitate towards dumbbells. In the end, there is no clear winner between dumbbells and barbells, which is why many gyms have both.