Dumbbells Or Barbells: Which One For Your Gym?

When buying gym equipment, the decision between barbells and dumbbells is quite a difficult one. Which one is best for you? Here’s what you need to know.

A set of dumbbells and a weightlifting bench is the best and most flexible setup for the majority of people. If you want to do very heavy compound movements like squat, deadlift and bench press, a barbell is better. However, most barbell exercises can be done with a dumbbell but not vice versa.

Below you can read exactly how to choose what’s best for you and what the differences are between barbells and dumbbells.

Dumbbells Or Barbells For Your Gym?

Let’s start with the important part you really want the answer to, if you have no gym equipment at all, should you get a barbel or some dumbbells? 

If you want to do heavy compound exercises (deadlifts, squats, rows, overhead press) for big strength, get a barbell and weight plates. 

If you want to have more exercise options, work out a bit lighter, focus muscle size and good strength, get a set of dumbbells. 

Of course there are a lot of caveats to that statement but that gives you the headline idea. Ideally you would get both a barbel and set of dumbbells although you can create a full body workout with either one. Dumbbells and barbells are complementary to each other so having both is not a terrible thing. However, many people don’t have the money and/or space to get both so you have to pick. 

Most barbell exercises can be done with dumbbells although not as heavy but not all dumbbell exercises can be done with a barbell. The exercises that can be done with both a barbell and dumbbells, are slightly different between the two types of weights but it’s close enough for most cases to not make a difference. 

That means picking dumbbells gives you more exercise options. The dumbbell setup is also smaller (but not necessarily cheaper) than a barbell setup. 

If you are looking for the best cheap and small home gym setup, a set of adjustable dumbbells and adjustable bench is hard to beat.

Pros and Cons Of Dumbbells And Barbells

Let’s quickly look at the pros and cons of both barbells and dumbbells. Below that, you can find all the differences in detail. 

Pros of Dumbbells

  • Easy to use for everyone
  • Can be used for many exercises
  • You only need a bench to get a complete workout
  • Loads arms and legs individually which prevents/corrects muscle imbalances. 
  • Dumbbels can be used with a greater range of motion on some exercises. 

Cons of Dumbbells

  • A full set is expensive (adjustable a lot cheaper)
  • Can’t be used for very heavy exercises. 
  • The weights are fixed.

Pros of Barbells

  • Can be used for very heavy lifting
  • Can be loaded with weight plates to any weight you like. 

Cons of Barbells

  • Somewhat limited in the amount of exercises you can do with them.
  • A power cage, bench and weight plates are necessary other equipment. 
  • Higher weights require better lifting technique 
  • Trains both arms/legs at the same time which gives the opportunity for muscle imbalances.

Differences 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 very 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?

While the differences seem 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.

  1. Maximum & minimum weight
  2. Stability
  3. Range of motion
  4. Muscle imbalances
  5. Exercise options
  6. 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.

Image of a man lifting a barbell outside

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.

2.     Stability

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.

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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.

Image of a man using dumbbells outdoor

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.  


Hey, I'm Matt. Welcome to HomeGymResource.com. After working out in many different gyms for almost 20 years and helping people build their own home gyms, i've learned a few things i'd like to share with you.

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