Barbell vs Dumbbell Training: A Comparison

Free weights are an excellent training tool that have been used by bodybuilders and other athletes for over a century. There’s a reason they’ve stood the test of time, and despite all the features of many exercise machines, serious lifters swear by their free weights.

When it comes to free weights, you have two basic options with barbells and dumbbells. Although you can perform the same types of exercises with both pieces of equipment, the experience when you use them is much different. Here are the differences of barbell training and dumbbell training, although with the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Barbell Training Allows You to Lift More Weight

Barbell Training Allows You to Lift More Weight

On any exercise that you perform, you’re going to be able to lift more when you’re using a barbell than with dumbbells. How much of a difference is there? This varies depending on the exercise and the lifter, but it’s typically a difference of about 20 percent. If you can bench press two 100-pound dumbbells, you’ll probably be able to bench press 240 pounds with a barbell.

There are two reasons why you can lift more with a barbell

Because of the design of the barbell and the way the weight is spread out, it doesn’t tax your stabilizer muscles as much as two dumbbells would. It’s more difficult to keep dumbbells stable since the entire weight is in a smaller area.

Since both your hands are gripping the same barbell, it allows your dominant side to do more of the work. With dumbbells, your dominant side can’t pick up the slack for your weak side.

Dumbbell Training Prevents Asymmetry in Your Muscles

Being able to lift more with barbells has its pros and cons. One of the issues it can create is asymmetrical muscles because your dominant side is getting more of a workout than your weak side. This usually won’t be a significant difference, but it’s something to keep in mind, especially if you’re interested in bodybuilding.

Barbell Training Gives You More Options

The barbell is the more versatile tool than the dumbbell for a few key reasons.

With barbells, you can use as much or as little weight as you want, and weights are available in small increments. You’re only limited by what your gym has. That’s also true with dumbbells, but it’s rare to find gyms with very heavy dumbbells past the 100 to 150-pound mark. That means if you want to squat or deadlift 400 pounds, you’re probably going to need to use a barbell, because
finding a set of 200-pound dumbbells is unlikely.

Certain exercises are awkward to perform with dumbbells. This includes the aforementioned squat and deadlift. Even if you had dumbbells heavy enough for these exercises, they feel much more natural when you’re using a barbell.

It’s easier to progress in weight when you’re using a barbell because of the smaller weight plates. Barbell weight plates usually come as small as 2.5 pounds, and with one on each side, you’re adding just 5 pounds to your lift. Dumbbells tend to come in 10-pound increments. Those extra 5 pounds matter quite a bit when you’re trying to improve on your one-rep max.

Dumbbell Training Allows for Greater Range of Motion

Dumbbell Training Allows for Greater Range of Motion

The size and shape of a barbell results in a limited range of motion. This isn’t a problem for most exercises, but you can get a greater range of motion when you use dumbbells, and this will stimulate your muscles more. Bicep curls, the bench press and the shoulder press are three examples of exercises where you can get more range of motion by grabbing a pair of dumbbells instead of a barbell.

Both Types of Training Have Advantages in Terms of Safety

Your training habits have the most significant effect on how safe you are while you lift. By asking for a spot when necessary, warming up properly and learning the correct form for each exercise, you can prevent injuries.

But there are also safety advantages with both types of training.

With dumbbells, there’s little risk of getting trapped under a weight like there is with a barbell. If you get to the bottom of a rep when squatting or bench pressing using a barbell and you can’t press the weight up, you’re in a difficult position. Without a spotter, you’ll need to tilt the weight plates off one side at a time. You can guide a dumbbell down to the floor at any time if you feel like you can’t complete the rep.

Barbells allow you to start the lift in a natural position. The same isn’t true of dumbbells, as you may need to hoist the weights into the correct position, which is an unnatural movement that could easily cause injury.

Grab and Go with Dumbbell Training

Although there are adjustable dumbbells that use weight plates similarly to barbells, most are a set weight. You can just go up and grab the weights you want. With a barbell, you always need to load the weight plates you want, which means it will take a little bit longer.

Both Options Can Deliver Excellent Results

The good news is that you don’t need to choose between barbell and dumbbell training. Both have their benefits and you could see results no matter which type you choose.

Since barbells allow for smaller weight progressions and let you lift more overall weight, you’ll find that most serious lifters work with the barbell more. The dumbbell is a good choice for supplementary exercises, such as isolation work. It’s also helpful for beginners who are more focused on form than on lifting heavy.


If you can only do one, you’re better off with the barbell. But the best choice is to use both, see what kind of results you get and adjust your routine as necessary.