Weight training is split down the middle between the choice of barbells and dumbbells – especially in a home gym.
When you’re using your own money and storage space, you don’t get to choose both every time. So, today, we’re tackling the age-old question: barbells vs. dumbbells?
We’re going to cover the main training differences, the practical differences, and decide what’s best for you. Stick with us, and you’ll be ready to take the plunge on either barbells or dumbbells for your home gym.
- Barbell vs. Dumbbell workout differences
- How to Decide What’s Best for you
- Head to Head Summary
Barbell vs. Dumbbell workout differences
The obvious advantage goes to the barbell when we start discussing maximum weight. The upper load of a standard Olympic barbell is anywhere between 200kg and 420kg depending on the plates you buy.
Dumbbells, on the other hand, are much more limited. You can get super-heavy dumbbells, but they’re far more difficult to find, store, and use. They’re also extremely expensive, and you might still not be able to match the weight capacity of a barbell.
Range of Motion
The main benefit of dumbbells is that they offer an increased range of motion for some of the most popular exercises.
The dumbbell bench press, for example, builds extra range through the shoulders since there’s no bar in the middle to prevent full movement. This also applies to tricep extensions, rows, and other popular exercises.
Dumbbells also have the option of moving your hands away from each other, such as in a flye, which barbells don’t have. Dumbbells win the range question in all three dimensions!
The use of stabilizing muscles is greater in dumbbell training. In particular, single-arm movements add another dimension.
You’re not just moving it up and down or forward and backward – you have to control the lateral movement of dumbbells.
This can be a massive benefit in joints like the shoulders, where stability and control determine your injury risk. This is also one of the main reasons you can’t use the same weight with dumbbells – the stabilizer muscles add a whole new challenge.
The stability and range of motion we just mentioned also add up when we come to the evening-out of muscular imbalances.
In a barbell exercise, you can overlook imbalances because of the use of two hands in the movement of the weight. You can compensate with the barbell.
With dumbbells, you move each weight independently. This requires you to actively stabilize each weight – removing your ability to “cheat” your way through an exercise.
This alone is an excellent way of identifying these imbalances. Dumbbells combine stability with additional range, which makes them a great choice for improving muscular balance. This also helps prevent injuries.
Training & Exercise Versatility
There’s no clear winner when it comes to versatility. There are – for both barbells and dumbbells – different sets of unique exercises to that weight.
Barbells have a wide range of “big” exercises that dumbbells struggle with. You can’t replicate squats, deadlifts, or Olympic lifts effectively with dumbbells. They lack the weight and the full-body integration that makes these exercises work.
The requirement of the whole body working together in the barbell also builds practice in force transfer. Dumbbells lack the weight and symmetry that allows training to build this skill.
It’s also much easier to progress consistently with a barbell since strength and simple technique are the main limiting factors. You’re not limited by the 3-dimensional stabilizer demands that dumbbells require. This makes it easier to overload, week by week, and see consistent muscle/strength gains.
Dumbbells and their unique exercises are defined by the ability to move independently and through large ranges.
This opens up exercises like chest flyes, Arnold presses, pullovers, and wider access to variations of movements. With dumbbells, you can change the angle of a row, curl, or press easily. It trades off the rapid progression of barbells for improving stability development and access to variations.
You can do most exercises on both, but they won’t have the same effects. Unique exercises are pretty rare, but they contribute to what you can do with a barbell or dumbbell and what you should do.
Risk of Injury
Injury risk doesn’t change much between barbells and dumbbells. What’s going to determine the risk of injury is how appropriate the weight and training style is for your experience.
For example, if you’ve only ever trained on barbells, jumping into heavy dumbbell exercises might increase your risk of injury. If you’re adding new range through dumbbells, or new weight with barbells, you’re at increased risk.
It’s an unfamiliar movement that puts you at risk. If you’ve always trained with one piece of kit, then you need to adjust your expectations down and train with lighter weights if you switch.
Final Score: Dumbbells 3 Vs. Barbells 1
But not so fast, you also need to consider your budget, space, experience and goals. Let’s do that now.
How to Decide What’s Best for you
What is Your Budget?
There’s no question about it: dumbbells are limited by the need to buy multiple sets. The market is starting to catch up to this problem with adjustable sets, but top-quality choices are hard to find.
Buying dumbbells to cover the range from 5kg to 32kg, which is relatively standard, will cost well into 4-figures. A barbell, plates, and entry-level rack/bench will have a similar cost but more training options.
The challenge for dumbbells is that cheap ones aren’t adjustable, and adjustable ones aren’t cheap. The need to buy multiple sets adds a huge expense, while only buying a few pairs really limits what you can train.
For this reason, barbells are a more economical choice for most home gyms.
If you can get a decent 7’ Olympic bar, you can get plates second-hand at reasonable prices. Prioritize spending on the bar, not the plates, since the bar is doing all the work. The plates are dead weight.
How Much Space Do You Have?
Barbells are great for storage space if you have a dedicated home gym setup. For example, if your garage has the space for a squat rack and barbell, you’re going to be able to store it all with a pretty small footprint. You can leave the bar on the rack and stack the weights.
A rack of dumbbells has a long footprint in a dedicated setup, and the storage rack adds real expense.
However, suppose you’re limited by working out space. In that case, you’re training in the house without dedicated gym space – dumbbells might be better. You can train almost anywhere with a pair of dumbbells, and storage of one pair is very easy. You can just put them down somewhere.
The challenge is figuring out what space you’re limited on: working out space or storage space. Barbells and racks will maximize storage space but only work in a garage or other dedicated space. Dumbbells require very little workout space but storing a rack of them can be difficult.
What is Your Experience and Strength Level?
One thing to keep in mind is what you’re most experienced with and your personal preference.
If you’re not directly buying to train for one hard-and-fast goal, then you can go by preference.
One way of approaching this is going in the face of your experience; trying something new. Alternatively, you can use the type of equipment you’re more experienced and confident with.
You can build new stability and range with dumbbells. You can use barbells to build top-end strength and safe, dramatic overload.
Mixing up what you’ve always done with new training methods is an effective choice. So is sticking with what you know and are comfortable spending money on.
The point is that they both offer benefits and have their drawbacks. It’s your hard-earned cash going into these different types of weight training tools. You can stick with what you know or find excitement and new results in a different type of training.
What Are Your Workout Goals?
The kind of workouts you’re looking to do will be the main factor in choosing what kind of equipment you need.
There’s no way around it: barbells are the strength implement. You can’t build the same kind of muscle and strength across the whole body with dumbbells that you can with heavy barbell exercise.
This makes them perfect if you’re training for maximal strength or for a sport that requires huge amounts of strength. They’re also an easy and cost-effective way to get big, strong, and powerful on a budget.
Dumbbell variations of squats and deadlifts will be great for getting in shape. They can help to build some muscle, preserve your joints, and improve sports performance. However, they can’t challenge the barbell variation for the amount of strength and power they build.
The limitations of weight, stability and availability make it difficult. It’s just not what dumbbells were designed for!
On the other hand, dumbbells are superior for mid-level exercise and improving conditioning. Dumbbells are perfect for HIIT and ‘functional fitness’ routines: they demand stability and control without the risks of barbell conditioning.
Dumbbell variations with longer ranges and lighter weights are perfect, turning a restriction into a benefit. They’re perfect if you’re not trying to maximize your full-body strength gains.
Head to Head Summary
- Much greater weight capacity for strength and power development
- Barbell variations (squat, deadlift, and Olympic lifts) are far superior to DB versions
- Price and equipment-versatility are great if you have space
- Easy storage in a home gym setup
- Requires a committed home gym space for setup
- Relies on other kit for best results, like a squat rack or bench
- Reduced range in some exercises like bench press or rows
- Improved range is useful for some exercises
- Asymmetry helps control imbalances and improves stability training
- Unique exercises like flyes aren’t possible with a barbell
- Easier for small spaces and very low budgets
- Individual DB storage is easy
- Doesn’t require kit like a squat rack
- Price and requirement for a whole set is huge
- Dumbbell storage racks are enormous
- Stuck with the same weight until you make another purchase
- Adjustable dumbbells can be expensive per kg
There’s an old strongman saying, “get strong on barbells, get fit with implements.”
This is perfect here.
Get a barbell if you’re trying to maximize strength; get dumbbells if you’re looking for fitness training options.
Barbells offer singular experiences for those with space. The ability to build strength and power with the barbell is unmatched. The weight capacity is a key factor, and dumbbells can’t match up.
Dumbbells offer a completely different training experience. They’re perfect for lighter, conditioning-heavy training. Also, they are specifically useful for upper body exercise with great shoulder control focus. This is most important in the bench press, military press, and rows.
Once you know which will suit your training goals, the priorities are all logistical and financial.
Dumbbells require little space to use, but a full rack will be very expensive and take up a ton of space. Barbells require supporting equipment and more space to use but can set up a lifetime of strength training with little cost and space.