Barbells vs Dumbbells: Differences Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
May 18, 2022

Among free weight resistance exercise modalities, there are no more famous than the barbell and the dumbbell - two lifting implements that are used in order to provide a comfortable and safe method of imparting resistance to the exerciser’s musculature.

However, certain key differences in how they are used and the exercises possible therein make the barbell and the dumbbell more suitable for certain situations or training methods - requiring the exerciser to understand the difference prior to using one or the other.

These key differences can range anywhere from simple unilateral and bilateral muscle group activation to stability muscle stimulation or even intensity of central nervous system fatigue, all of which have their own pros and cons that must be considered while forming a training routine.

How do Barbells and Dumbells Differ as Modalities?

Visually, barbells are significantly longer than dumbbells - usually totalling 7 feet and 2 inches from end to end if one is using an olympic standard barbell.

This difference in length can significantly alter the mechanics and dynamics of any exercise performed with it, making the barbell place more shear force on connective tissues and muscles during the performance of certain barbell-based lifts.

In addition to this difference in length, dumbbells of the non-adjustable variety will usually come with weight pre-attached to both ends of their handles, a distinction from the standard barbell which usually requires the addition of weight plates in order to increase how heavy it is.

The traditional olympic barbell will also weigh approximately 45 pounds or 20 kilograms, a far heavier amount of weight that standard dumbbell handles without the subsequent attachment of extra weight on both ends.

How do Barbells and Dumbbells Differ Functionally?

Barbells and dumbbells both allow for somewhat different methods of training, resistance loading, maximal weight usage and training stimulus to be performed respectively, with matters like supramaximal loading and the performance of a specific few exercises being saved solely for the barbell, as an example.

Due to the length and weight of a barbell, the exerciser will be required to use both hands in order to grasp it in a stable manner - thereby also forcing both sides of the body’s musculature to activate in a simultaneous manner, something the usage of dumbbells may avoid.

barbell deadlift movement

However, this simultaneous (or bilateral) activation of the body’s musculature will also result in the exerciser being capable of muscular activation and strength output beyond the limits of what dumbbells are capable of inducing, allowing barbells to create a training stimulus somewhat more intense than their unilateral counterparts.

dumbbell deadlift movement

As a counter to this particular advantage, the fixed and straight nature of the barbell and its subsequent path during an exercise will also place more torsion and pressure on the joints of the body, making dumbbells superior in terms of preserving joint health due to their functional characteristics.

Are there Different Kinds of Dumbbells?

For the most part, dumbbells retain the same shape and function regardless of brand or geographic origin; with the largest and likely only difference being whether the weight of the dumbbell is adjustable or whether it has been permanently attached to the handle.

Adjustable dumbbells will usually require a set of weight plates be added to both ends of the handles and secured with a clasp or collar, something that is otherwise not required if the dumbbell is already of a fixed weight.

Occasionally, a certain variation of the adjustable dumbbell dubbed the selectorized dumbbell may be used, wherein the dumbbell, removable weights and handle locks are all contained within a single detachable mechanism that allows for compact handling and efficient weight adjustment - though this particular variation has a maximal weight limit.

Are there Different Kinds of Barbells?

Unlike dumbbells which primarily retain the same shape and function, there are in fact quite a number of barbell variations that are all used in different manners and therefore also produce different types of muscular activation patterns, stimulus, intensities or even levels of complexity.

Apart from the standard straight barbell and traditional olympic barbell, there are EZ curl bars meant to reduce strain placed on the wrists during a supinated hand grip, hex barbells which reduce shoulder and spinal column strain during the performance of certain lifts, specially reinforced powerlifting and deadlift barbells and a dozen other variations of differing function and appearance.

Generally, however, when one is speaking of a barbell, they are referring to that of the olympic barbell previously mentioned earlier in this article - and as such, that is the sort of barbell most training programs are meant to be performed with, unless otherwise specified.

What Exercises Exclusively Use a Barbell?

Though the majority of exercises are just as capable of being performed with a set of dumbbells as they are with a barbell, a certain few make exclusive use of the barbell’s various advantages and as such are otherwise impossible to perform properly with any other form of exercise implement.

pin press

These are usually heavy compound exercises such as high resistance deadlifts, pin presses which require the length of the barbell to perform properly, the free weight hack squat or even most back row variations that require synergistic muscle group activation difficult to achieve with just dumbbells.

What Exercises Exclusively Use a Dumbbell?

Unlike barbells, dumbbells are capable of allowing an exerciser to perform exercises that only utilize one side of the body, or otherwise require a level of mobility and range of motion difficult to achieve with the unbending length of a standard barbell.

single arm dumbbell row

Such exercises may be performed for the purposes of one sided rehabilitation, such as would be the case in muscular imbalances or injuries, or even free weight exercises meant to be performed with only one side of the body at a time.

Movements like the bent over dumbbell row which requires a bilateral muscle group activation, the chest fly which involves moving the hands in a manner that barbells make impossible and the lateral raise which requires free mobility are all examples of exercises that may only be performed with the use of dumbbells.

Unilateral and Bilateral Training

The terms unilateral and bilateral training refer to the act of utilizing both or only one side of the body respectively, meaning that the majority of the force would be recruited from a single limb at a time and thus move less weight and take longer to complete a set - though with the benefit of allowing greater mind-muscle contraction and control.

Due to the fact that the barbell is far too long to comfortably use with only a single side of the body at a time, it is only capable of being used in exercises of a unilateral nature, with movements like the barbell squat, bench press and barbell row only being possible with said barbell.

Conversely, the fact that dumbbells may be used either as a single dumbbell or as a pair allows it to interchangeably be used for both unilateral and bilateral training, allowing exercisers that are injured on one side or wish to improve their mind-muscle connection to still perform resistance exercises without being hampered.

Skeletal Muscle Co-Activation Differences

When an exerciser lifts a free weight exercise implement such as a barbell or dumbbell, muscles referred to as agonist and antagonist muscles activate in a directly opposing manner in order to stabilize and secure a joint placed under stress by resistance - in this case, by the exercise itself.

Individuals comparing their relative strength between a dumbbell and barbell will find that they move significantly less weight with a pair of dumbbells that they would be capable of with a barbell.

This is due to the fact that, during free weight exercise, skeletal muscle coactivation is a significant factor as the body works to stabilize not only itself but also the weight being moved, expending a significant amount of energy by doing so and therefore reducing the amount of weight that may be moved per repetition.

As such, individuals seeking to induce more muscular stability training stimulus in themselves may find that replacing barbell exercises with dumbbell exercises will meet their needs best - with the opposite being true for athletes wishing to load as much weight as possible.

Progressive Overload Differences

A limiting factor of dumbbells is in the fact that they are often of a fixed weight - and that, even if of the adjustable dumbbell variety, generally will have a maximum weight far lower than what a barbell is capable of carrying, as well as larger increments between total weights.

In terms of inducing progressive overload in an exerciser, this equates to the barbell being far superior for slowly increasing the weight of the exerciser’s lifts as time passes - with dumbbells requiring a larger “jump” between progressions and therefore increasing the risk of injury or slowing down the exerciser’s progress.

This is most noticeable in intermediate to advanced level weightlifters wherein a strength progression of 1.25 kilograms or 2.5 lbs per week is easily done with a barbell but quite difficult with a set of dumbbells - stalling their progress or requiring that the exerciser utilize some form of workout programming to get around increasing their weight progression too rapidly.

Which is Better for Rehabilitation and Recovery?

In terms of athletes undergoing active recovery or physical therapy patients wishing to induce a dynamic recovery stimulus, it is the dumbbell that is the superior choice of equipment for such endeavors.

This is because of the free moving and bilateral nature of the dumbbells, with the barbells locking the exerciser into a certain bar path that requires both sides of the body be activated; something that may otherwise not be possible for individuals with one-sided injuries or mobility issues.

While it is entirely possible to perform half-repetitions or static hold exercises with barbells for the purposes of recovery and rehabilitation, dumbbells are just as capable of doing so with few of the drawbacks involved in using barbells.

In addition to this, the majority of standardized barbells weigh an approximate 45 pounds or 20 kilograms, which may be too heavy a weight to allow proper recovery for many patients. 

This is not the case with dumbbells, as many dumbbell brands have such implements at weights as low as 1 pound or 0.6 kilograms, a perfectly suitable weight for actively recovering individuals.

For individuals wishing to correct a muscular imbalance - the dumbbells are the clear winner, for the sole reason that they are capable of training only one side of the body at a time, something impossible with a barbell alone.

When Should Barbells be Used?

Generally, barbells serve the purposes of moving large amounts of weight in a more convenient manner, for performing exercises of an explosive or otherwise power-based nature, or for the performance of certain movements that require the specific function and characteristics of the barbell itself.

These purposes are most noticeable in such exercises like the clean and jerk, the deadlift or the bench press, all of which utilize the unique aspects of a barbell to help the exerciser meet their training goals in a manner that the dumbbells otherwise cannot.

As such, the many benefits of barbells may be most taken advantage of by athletes or other exercisers training at a high intensity, individuals wishing to exercise in a more efficient manner, or run of the mill gym goers making use of progressive overload in small and measurable increments.

When Should Dumbbells be Used?

In the case of dumbbells, one may maximize their effectiveness and usefulness when performing exercises that take advantage of the many advantageous characteristics of the dumbbell - with such attributes like its capacity to facilitate one-handed movements, move in a wide range of motion or even aid in physical rehabilitation making dumbbells uniquely effective in certain situations.

These are most often seen in light weight accessory exercises that move in large mobility-requiring ranges of motion, such as dumbbell lateral raises, chest flyes, arnold presses and a variety of other exercises of a similar nature.

arnold presses

Dumbbells are also an excellent choice in the execution of dynamic physical rehabilitation, especially in the case of muscular imbalances or an exerciser who is a novice to free weight resistance exercise - both of which are remedied over time by the light weight and bilateral nature of dumbbells.

Conclusion

Though both sides of the barbells vs dumbbells debate have their own valid points, it is in fact a meaningless argument; as they are two entirely different kinds of resistance equipment that serve unique functions entirely on their own, with the usage of one not precluding the other.

For the best possible training results, exercisers will find that heavy compound movements that make use of barbells combined with specific and targeted isolation work with dumbbells will work best for the purposes of inducing muscular hypertrophy, strength development, athletic improvements and any number of other benefits.

References

1. Solstad TE, Andersen V, Shaw M, Hoel EM, Vonheim A, Saeterbakken AH. A Comparison of Muscle Activation between Barbell Bench Press and Dumbbell Flyes in Resistance-Trained Males. J Sports Sci Med. 2020 Nov 19;19(4):645-651. PMID: 33239937; PMCID: PMC7675616.

2. CAMPOS, Yuri de Almeida Costa; SOUZA, Hiago Leandro Rodrigues de; SILVA, Sandro Fernandes da  and  MARCHETTI, Paulo Henrique. THE USE OF BARBELL OR DUMBBELL DOES NOT AFFECT MUSCLE ACTIVATION DURING PULLOVER EXERCISE. Rev Bras Med Esporte [online]. 2017, vol.23, n.5, pp.357-360. ISSN 1517-8692.  https://doi.org/10.1590/1517-869220172305166571.

3. Saeterbakken, Atle & Tillaar, Roland & Fimland, Marius. (2011). A comparison of muscle activity and 1-RM strength of three chest-press exercises with different stability requirements. Journal of sports sciences. 29. 533-8. 10.1080/02640414.2010.543916.

4. Farias DA, Willardson JM, Paz GA, Bezerra ES, Miranda H. Maximal Strength Performance and Muscle Activation for the Bench Press and Triceps Extension Exercises Adopting Dumbbell, Barbell, and Machine Modalities Over Multiple Sets. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Jul;31(7):1879-1887. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001651. PMID: 27669189.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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