It’s an age-old debate that’s been going on since way before the internet has existed: are barbells or dumbbells better for building muscle?
One of the reasons it’s been such a contentious topic for so long is that both types of training apparatus have certain pros and cons, which we’ll be discussing below.
Before we attempt to come to a verdict on which one is best, however, let’s first take a quick look at the different types of barbells and dumbbells and what the advantages of each are.
Barbells vs Dumbbells: What's The Difference?
There are two basic types of barbells: plate-loaded barbells, where the weight can be manipulated by adding or subtracting weight plates, and fixed-weight barbells, where the weight cannot be adjusted.
Plate-loaded barbells are by far the most common type of barbell -- the standard Olympic barbell is what you’ll be using on exercises like the bench press and squat in most commercial gyms.
It’s above 7 feet long, weighs 45 pounds, and has rough grooves -- known as knurling -- in the middle. The outer part of an Olympic barbell has smooth 2’’ diameter sleeves, where standardized weight plates can be loaded to increase resistance.
Fixed-weight barbells, in contrast, are considerably shorter than Olympic barbells in general, and as the name implies, cannot be adjusted. They generally range from 15 up to 150 pounds and can usually be found on a dedicated rack in most professional gyms.
While they may be more convenient than Olympic barbells when it comes to loading them, fixed-weight barbells are more limited in terms of the types of exercises they’re best suited for.
In addition to the traditional straight bar, both plate-loaded and fixed-weight barbells can also come in a number of specialized forms, specifically designed to improve safety, comfort, and performance on certain exercises.
Common examples you’re likely to come across in your average commercial gym include the EZ-curl bar, trap bar, safely squat bar, and deadlift bar, just to name a few.
Just like with barbells, there are also adjustable and fixed-weight dumbbells. Fixed-weight dumbbells are what you’re likely to come across in most professional gyms.
They come in pairs and can range anywhere from 2.5 pounds to 200+. Most commercial gyms will have at least a set of 5 to 50 pound dumbbells and you’ll likely find a dumbbell set that goes well over 100 pounds in most serious gyms.
In contrast, adjustable dumbbells are the more common choice for home gyms; they can be easily adjusted by adding or subtracting weight plates and they take up far less room than an entire rack of fixed-weight dumbbells (not to mention they cost way less).
Barbells vs Dumbbells: What Are The Benefits of Each?
When it comes to packing on size and strength, barbells hold several potential advantages over dumbbells, which is why barbell exercises tend to be the centerpiece of most traditional muscle-building workout routines.
Benefit #1: You Can Lift Heavier Weights With Barbells
When it comes to building substantial amounts of lean muscle mass, lifting heavy weights is a tried and true approach, and nothing allows you to lift heavier weights than barbells.
On top of helping to recruit more muscles, performing heavy compound barbell movements also helps to put your muscles under more mechanical tension -- more muscle recruitment combined with more mechanical tension equals greater size and strength gains.
Research suggests that, on average, people are able to lift around 20% more weight using a barbell in comparison to when they use dumbbells on the same exercise.
To put that into perspective, let’s say you’re able to bench press 250 pounds using a standard barbell. With dumbbells, however, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to successfully perform the same exercise using 125 lb dumbbells in each hand.
That’s because barbells are much more stable than dumbbells; you don’t have to use as many stabilizer muscles to perform the lift, which means you can focus more on moving heavy weights and less on trying to keep the implements you’re working with balanced and stable.
Just getting heavy dumbbells off the rack and up into position to perform your exercise can be a workout in and of itself, whereas barbells require significantly less energy to get things going (on top of allowing you to lift more weight).
Benefit #2: Barbells are Better for Progressive Overload
The concept of progressive overload is at the core of most muscle-building programs, and revolves around the idea that in order to make significant gains in size and strength, you have to gradually increase your training volume over time -- in many cases increasing your training volume ultimately means increasing the amount of weight you’re lifting.
Because barbells can be adjusted in smaller increments -- you can add as little as 2.5 lbs to each side -- they may be better suited for avoiding plateaus over the course of your muscle-building journey.
In contrast, dumbbells can usually only be changed out in 5-pound intervals which means you’ll be adding a total of 10 pounds (compared to 5) to your lift if you take the step up to the next set of dumbbells. Such a large jump makes it more likely that your progress will stall out at some point.
Benefit #3: Barbells are Better for Explosive Exercises
On top of being better suited for avoiding plateaus, barbells may also be the better choice when it comes to performing exercises that require power and explosiveness.
Lifting heavy on muscle-building exercises like deadlifts, squats, and power cleans, for example, requires a certain amount of power and explosiveness that’s simply not possible to generate with dumbbells.
Benefit #4: Barbells May Be Better For Building Size and Strength Your Legs
Barbells are also the better training apparatus when it comes to building size and strength in your legs. Nothing is better than exercises like the deadlift and squat when it comes to beefing up your hamstrings, quads, and glutes, and while you can technically perform these exercises with dumbbells, it’s far more cumbersome.
In contrast, using a barbell to perform compound leg-dominant lifts is much less awkward and will ultimately allow you to lift heavier weights with less difficulty, which at the end of the day, will help to improve your muscle-building potential.
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Benefit #1: You Have a Greater Range of Motion With Dumbbells
Compared to barbells, you have a greater range of motion with dumbbells, which has certain benefits to offer when it comes to the muscle-building process.
While barbells may allow you to lift heavier weights, dumbbells allow you to train in a full range of motion, which can help you to attack your muscles from angles that don’t get worked as hard with a barbell.
Ultimately, working in a full range of motion helps to cause more microscopic damage to your muscle tissues -- the more damage you cause, the greater your muscle-building potential is. Dumbbells may be particularly advantageous on certain exercises like the bench press, where your range of motion is inherently limited with a barbell.
For example, as soon as the bar hits your chest on the traditional bench press, it’s the end of the negative portion of the movement, however, with dumbbells, you can extend your range of motion several inches further, helping to make the movement significantly more challenging and effective.
Benefit #2: They’re Better for Muscle Activation
One of the biggest potential advantages that dumbbells have over barbells when it comes to building muscle, is that they may elicit more muscle activation, particularly on certain exercises.
For example, one 2017 study involving the bench press looked at the effects of barbells vs dumbbells on pectoral activation. At the conclusion of the study, the researchers ultimately found that compared to barbells, participants consistently saw significantly higher muscle activation when using dumbbells on the bench press.
On top of that, the researchers also found that participants experienced greater tricep activation -- your triceps also help out on the bench press -- when using dumbbells vs barbells as well.
Just like with increasing your range of motion, more muscle activation leads to more exercise-induced muscle damage, which in turn, can potentially lead to greater increases in size and strength over time.
Benefit #3: Dumbbells Work Your Stabilizer Muscles More
As we’ve already discussed, dumbbells are harder than barbells to stabilize, which helps to explain why it’s easier to lift heavier weights with a barbell.
While lifting as heavy as you can have certain benefits when it comes to building size and strength, training with dumbbells helps to recruit more muscle tissues (like your stabilizer muscles) in comparison to barbells.
The more muscle tissues you can recruit, the more potential micro-damage you can cause, and the more damage you can cause, the greater your muscle-building potential is.
And on top of that, building up those stabilizer muscles, which ofter get underworked with traditional barbell exercises, can help to improve your mobility, strengthen your joints, and reduce your risk of injury both inside and outside of the gym.
Benefit #4: They’re Better for Improving Imbalances and Maintaining Symmetry
On barbell exercises, there’s a risk that one side of your body may be doing more of the work than the other.
Because most people naturally favor one side of their body over the other, it can lead to the development of muscle imbalances, where the muscles on one side of your body may become more developed than on the other side.
In addition to impinging on your appearance, having muscle imbalances can also increase your risk of injury. However, because dumbbells work each side of your body independently, they’re the perfect tool for improving or maintain the symmetry of your muscle from one side to the other.
Barbells vs Dumbbells: Which Are Better For Building Muscle?
Both barbells and dumbbells come along with their own unique set of advantages and disadvantages, but f you could only choose one implement, it would have to be the barbell. Its versatility and ease of use make it especially well-suited for the muscle-building process.
Luckily, however, you don’t have to choose one or the other. In fact, in order to truly maximize your muscle-building potential, you’ll want to include both barbells and dumbbells in your regular training routine.
Start your workout off with heavy barbell exercises like the squat, bench, deadlift, and row, and then move on to lighter dumbbell-based movements like flies, shoulder presses, and lunges, where you’re paying extra special attention to things like muscle activation and range of motion.