Should you get a barbell or set of dumbbells for your gym? There are a few things to know so you can make a good decision for your goals and situation.
Both dumbbells and barbells are flexible tools to build muscle. Dumbbells are better for lighter and isolation exercises. For lifting heavy weights in compound movements, barbells are much more practical and cost effective but barbells require more other equipment to utilize to it’s full potential.
Why is that? And are there other considerations? Keep reading to find out.
What’s the difference between dumbbells and barbells?
There are a few differences between dumbbells and barbells. There are differences in how they look, training results, training options and cost.
First off, dumbbells and barbells look different. Take a look
Barbell: A long metal rod where weight plates can be loaded on both sides. The barbell is lifted with two hands.
Dumbbell: Short metal rod with weights on both sides (usually fixed). A dumbbell is lifted with one hand.
Both are used for resistance training, both can be light, heavy or anything in between. Dumbbells are short, barbells are long. Barbells are loaded with weight plates and most (but not all) dumbbells have a fixed weight.
The differences on the outside are pretty easy to see. But what are the practical differences? What do those differences mean for training?
Training differences between barbells and dumbbells
While the differences see relatively small, there are some pretty big training differences between Dumbbells (DBs) and Barbells (BBs).
There are five areas where dumbbells and barbells are significantly different.
- Maximum & minimum weight
- Range of motion
- Muscle imbalances
- Exercise options
- Injury risk
1. Maximum & minimum weight
Barbells can be loaded much heavier than the heaviest dumbbells. The heaviest dumbbell commercially available dumbbell is about 330 lbs. Even in the most strongman focused gyms, you won’t find anything heavier than about 225 lbs.
On the other hand, loading a barbell with more than 700 lbs. is super easy. It might take a while and require a lot of plates but it’s not uncommon. Most gyms will have enough weights to load up the barbell way heavier than the heaviest dumbbell.
Big dumbbells are super expensive compared to a barbell and weight plates. For the price of two 225 lbs. DBs, you can buy a good quality barbell and a significant amount of weight plates.
The BB and plates gives you way more bang for your buck. DBs are fixed weights so if you pay for 225 lbs. DBs, they’ll always be 225 lbs. The BB and weight plates can be loaded in increments so for the same money, you get way more weight choices.
On a barbell, if you lift 400 lbs. and want to lift 20 lbs. heavier, you only have to buy 2 x 10 lbs. plates and you’re good. Now if you have dumbbells of the same weight (2 x 200 lbs.) and you want to go to 2 x 210 lbs. you don’t only pay for the 10 lbs. extra. You also have to buy the 200 lbs. again. That means that buying heavier dumbbells gets exponentially more expensive than putting more plates on a barbell.
On the other side of the spectrum, DBs can be much lighter. An unloaded barbell still weighs 45 lbs. (some short ones weigh less) or 22.5 lbs. per arm. That’s way heavier than the lightest dumbbells. Dumbbells are as light as 1 lbs. and come in small increments. Sometimes you need something lighter than a barbell to properly target smaller muscles.
Summary: For lifting heavy, barbells are better and cheaper. For very light exercises you’ll need small dumbbells.
In training, one of the biggest differences is the stability factor. Barbells are lifted with two hands where dumbbells are lifted with one hand. That means when lifting a BB, you use both arms to lift the same weight. Grabbing the bar with two hands is inherently more stable than grabbing it with one hand.
This inherent stability causes dumbbells to be more stimulating for the small stabilizing muscles. There are the main moving muscles for a movement but there are also a lot of small stabilizing muscles around that main mover. A DB can move in any direction separately from your other arm. That means the stabilizing muscles have to work much harder to keep the weight going in the right direction.
With a barbell, your arms can’t move as independently from each other which means you need less of the stabilizing muscles. In the long run this can cause the main movers to become too strong for the stabilizing muscles and cause problems.
If strength is your only concern don’t discount dumbbells. Dumbbells will strengthen your stabilizing muscles which allows you to become stronger on barbell lifts as well because you’ll be more stable.
Summary: Dumbbells train you in a more complete way since you’ll have to use stabilizing muscles you don’t use with similar barbell exercises.
3. Muscle imbalances
Related to the last point but not exactly the same are muscle imbalances. The stabilizing muscles can be dis proportionally weak compared to the main movers but there can also be imbalances from side to side.
On a barbell, the weights on both sides are connected. That means if you lift one side, the other side will want to move as well. If you’d put both sides of a barbell on scales, both sides should weigh the same. However, when you would grab one side of the bar and lift it off the floor, the weight on the other scale will change. Depending on where you grab the bar it might get heavier or lighter.
That means you can lift more with one arm than with the other. It won’t be a 90%/10% difference but more like 55%/45%. That might not be a big difference from side to side but, if you keep this difference every rep of every set of every workout for a long time, the 55% side will be more developed after a while.
Dumbbells don’t have that problem since the weights move separately. As long as you have the same weight in both hands, there is no way to lift more with one arm.
Summary: Dumbbells are better at preventing and correcting muscle imbalances from side to side.
4. Range of motion
Range of motion is how far a muscle extends and contracts during one repetition. In general, a bigger range of motion is considered better for strength and muscle gains. The longer the movement a muscle has to make, the more effort it costs. Exerting more effort means a stronger and bigger muscle. Another benefit is that you grow strength equally in the whole range the muscle works in and not just a few degrees.
What limits range of motion? It’s usually not your muscles as long as you are healthy without any injuries. The limiting factor is usually a machine that just doesn’t move any further. However we’re talking about DB vs. BB.
On some exercises, the barbell can limit range of motion. The best example is the bench press. On the bench press, you usually go down until the bar rests on your chest. It just doesn’t go further down. But is that the furthest your pecks can stretch? No, they can actually go a little bit further.
Now take a pair of dumbbells and notice there is nothing stopping the weights from going down further, stretching the peck muscle more. That means you’ve got to move them back up further as well and therefore you have a larger range of motion.
Summary: Dumbbells allow you to move the weight with a longer range of motion since there is no bar to stop the weight from moving further down.
5. Exercise options
While you can adapt most exercises to be suitable for both DBs and BBs, there are a few things that are just not possible with one or the other.
Dumbbells have the advantage that you can’t only move them up and down but also from side to side. The best example of this would be the DB lateral raise. This exercise really targets your side deltoids. Sure you can do overhead pressing with a barbell but that doesn’t quite target the side delt in the same way. By being able to move the dumbbells to the side, you can train some muscles in a more targeted way than with a barbell. A barbell will make you use a lot of muscles but it’s more difficult to target one specifically.
Another point for dumbbells is that you can train one side at a time or hold only one side for added instability. Good examples of this are; the DB one arm bent over row. You use one arm at a time to be able to really concentrate on the form.
With lunges for example you can hold a DB in one arm to add instability to the exercise. If the weight pulls you to one side, you’ll have to use muscles to counteract this. Often these muscles are under trained anyways.
Something that isn’t possible with barbells is Olympic lifting. Olympic lifts like the clean and jerk, snatch and others are very technical. They are built around a barbell. Many of the techniques are only really possible to execute with a barbell.
If you’d try to do them with dumbbells, they would probably fly everywhere. Since Olympic lifts require a lot of speed and explosiveness to do properly. Because you have to stabilize dumbbells much better, you can’t put that amount of explosiveness in them and still control them.
Summary: Dumbbells give you more exercise options but if you need/want to train Olympic lifts, there is no substitute for a barbell.
6. Injury risk
Finally we come to injury risk. This is difficult to give to one or the other because there are so many factors. There are some important differences between DBs and BBs regarding injury risks and most of them have to do with the points already named above.
- Barbells can be used for heavy lifting. While heavy lifting makes you strong and big, it also has its risks. The heavier you lift, the bigger the consequences are when you make a mistake. This can be a miss step, form breakdown, distraction or whatever, if a heavy weight starts doing something it shouldn’t be, it’s hard to stop. In an attempt to stop it, it’s more likely you’ll hurt yourself than with light weights.
- Dumbbells can strengthen your stabilizing muscles more than barbells. Stabilizing muscles can help protect your joints while exercising. The stabilizing muscles keep your joints in the right place so they keep working correctly.
- Machines are often seen as bad for you because they force you to follow a set movement which might not suit you. Barbells are better but dumbbells can be moved completely freely so your body can follow the most natural movement pattern.
- If you’re using dumbbells that are too heavy, there is a bigger chance of things going south because you’re lacking the stabilizing strength to control the weight.
- However, all of this also depends on what you’re used to. An advanced lifter is less likely to hurt himself BB squatting 500 lbs. than a beginner chest pressing 30 lbs. dumbbells.
In the end everyone is different, try what works for you. There is no point in using a barbell if it’s going to get you injured and vice versa. People that don’t get injured can keep training and have more strength and muscle in the end.
Summary: Dumbbells require more stabilization which is better for joints and total strength in the long term. However, dumbbells are also more likely to get out of control and cause harm. However, barbells are used for heavier weights which means the consequences might be larger if the weight gets out of control. There is no clear winner.
Are dumbbells better than barbells?
When you’re reading all of the above, you might think that dumbbells are always a better choice. And while it’s true that there are some great training benefits to dumbbells, that doesn’t means barbells are useless. Both have their uses. So what are those considerations and which one is best for you?
What’s best for your home gym?
What do those differences mean for your home gym? What should you get?
There is a lot of information on what’s the best and how to make a decision below. If you don’t want to read all that, here is the breakdown;
Dumbbells or Barbell for a home gym? Most people will be best served by a combination of light dumbbells and a barbell for heavier lifting. If you only have space or budget for one: Dumbbells are the more versatile choice that takes up less space. However, if you want to lift more than about 140lbs. in total, barbells will be much cheaper.
If you can only pick one, go for dumbbells if you’re a more “casual” exerciser that is aiming for moderate muscle growth and wants the option to do many different exercises with just a dumbbell and bench.
If you want to get big and strong, a barbell with bench and power cage is a better option since you can lift much heavier with that setup.
How did I get to that conclusion? Keep reading to find out all the details.
Let’s take a quick look at the differences again;
- Maximum & minimum weight: Winner: Barbells for heavy weight/dumbbells for light weights
- Stabilizing muscles: Winner: Dumbbells
- Range of motion: Winner: Dumbbells
- Muscle imbalances: Winner: Dumbbells
- Exercise options: Winner: Dumbbells
- Injury risk: Winner: Draw
So, while for most people a barbell is one of the first things they’ll buy for their home gym, there are actually a lot of good arguments to get a set of dumbbells. There are many benefits to training with dumbbells that can help you out in the long run.
How to decide?
To get a clearer view of what’s best for you, here are some questions you can ask yourself. If you know the answers to these,
What’s your budget? Probably the biggest constraint for most people that build a home gym is money. You want to get the most bang for your buck because you can only spend a dollar once. If you have a budget that allows buying a full set of dumbbells and a barbell + weights, go for it. You can have the best of both worlds and have the widest range of options. If you can only pick one, it actually depends on how heavy you intend to lift which one is more cost effective.
How much space do you have? After money, space is a problem for many home gym owners. If you’ve got the money but not the space, getting both is still a problem. A full rack of dumbbells takes up space but so does a barbell and plates. Also, if you’re using a barbell, you’ll need a power or squat rack to use it properly. Those take up a lot of space.
Dumbbells in a rack will take up less space than a barbell on a power rack.
What kind of exercises do you prefer?
There is a large overlap in the exercises you can perform with dumbbells and barbells. You can adapt many exercises to be performed with both dumbbells and barbells.
However, there is a difference between the two, as already described above. If we generalize the differences, there are a few key points to take away.
Dumbbells are more suitable for ‘smaller’ exercises. Smaller can mean lower weights or isolation exercises. Isolation exercises are exercises that target a single muscle group like bicep curls. For those exercises you often use lower weights which means barbells are often too heavy while dumbbells are available in lighter forms.
Also, for lateral movements (sideways), barbells are completely impractical while dumbbells are suitable.
Barbells are more suitable for compound exercises. That means exercises that use multiple muscle groups in one movement. Examples are the squat, deadlift and bench press. Yes, you can do all those exercises with dumbbells but a barbell is a better tool for these if you want to lift heavy.
How heavy are you going to lift?
The heavier you lift, the more you’ll need/want a barbell and plates. Barbells can be loaded heavier than the heaviest dumbbells. It’s also much cheaper to lift heavy with a barbell than with dumbbells since an extra plate is much cheaper than buying a whole new dumbbell where you don’t only pay for the EXTRA weight.
The crossover point where barbells are cheaper is actually quite low. Let’s put the costs next to each other.
|Weight plates: 400 lbs.||400||1.78||712|
That allows you to lift anywhere from 45lbs. (empty bar) to 445lbs. with 5lbs. increments and even includes a decent quality barbell and power rack.
Now let’s take a look how far we can get with dumbbells for that same $1262. Starting from 20lbs., since that’s close to the same weight per side as an empty barbell going up in 5lbs. increments from there. I’ve taken a set of average priced dumbbells for this comparison.
|20 lbs. DB pair||48|
|25 lbs. DB pair||55|
|30 lbs. DB pair||65|
|35 lbs. DB pair||88|
|40 lbs. DB pair||95|
|45 lbs. DB pair||100|
|50 lbs. DB pair||120|
|55 lbs. DB pair||130|
|60 lbs. DB pair||145|
|65 lbs. DB pair||160|
|70 lbs. DB pair||180|
So for close to the same amount of money, you can have the option to;
A: Lift weights from 45 to 445lbs. (22.5 to 222.5 lbs/side) in 5 lbs. increments with a barbell and plates.
B: Lift weights from 20 to 70 lbs. per side in 5lbs. increments.
If you don’t want to lift anything heavier than 70 lbs./side or 140 lbs. total, go for dumbbells. If you want to lift more than that, barbells are much cheaper.
If you want to lift something lighter than 22.5 lbs. you’ll need dumbbells. The lighter dumbbells are much cheaper though. A set of dumbbells with weights from 5 to 25 lbs. will set you back about $250, less if you get adjustable ones.
Which exercises do you want to do? Are you only interested in Olympic or powerlifting style lifts? Get a barbell. If you’re training for general fitness or bodybuilding, dumbbells are a better choice, since they offer more options for muscle isolation.
Can we find a conclusion in all that information? Yes, dumbbells have many training benefits. They are more versatile and take up less space if you take the whole setup into account. However, dumbbells get prohibitively expensive once you start lifting heavy.
A barbell starts becoming a much more cost effective way of lifting weights above about 140 lbs of total weight. That’s a weight you’ll hit pretty quickly if training seriously. Most untrained people can bench press that much within a few weeks of training. Besides that, a barbell is just way more practical to lift heavy weights.
So which one to pick? If you have to pick one, I’d advise the following: If you’re sure you’ll never need any weight above about 70lbs./side, go for dumbbells. Otherwise barbells are a more practical and cost effective option.
However, for most people a combination of lighter dumbbells and a barbell setup for heavier lifts is a much better option. Start with a barbell setup and get a set of dumbbells that goes from 5 to about 30 lbs. If you really need to save money, get a set of adjustable dumbbells with screw collar. From there you can always add weight plates or dumbbells once you need them.
Can you build muscle with only dumbbells? Yes, dumbbells are a great tool to build muscles and can be just as effective or even more as gym machines or dumbbells if used correctly. If your gym’s dumbbells are limited in weight, doing more repetitions and sets are a great way to increase muscle growth
Can you build muscle with a barbell? Yes, barbells are a great way to lift heavy weights. Lifting heavy weights is a great way to build strength but also muscle. Barbell exercises are also great for compound movements which target a lot of muscle mass at the same time.