Are Dumbbells an Effective Substitute When You Don’t Have Barbells?

Are Dumbbells an Effective Substitute When You Don’t Have Barbells?

(Last Updated On: April 13, 2019)

image of a Cathlete using dumbbells to get fit

Dumbbells versus barbells – what’s your go-to way to lift? You might feel more comfortable with one or the other or you might use both, depending upon the exercise. In fact, if you’re relatively new to weight training, you might find barbells to be a bit intimidating.  Aren’t they the domain of hardcore weight lifters? Yes, tough guys use them, but you can handle them safely too, once you get over your fear. At some point, you might decide to give barbells a try. So, don’t count them out! Once you overcome your apprehensions, you’ll feel empowered when you pick one up.

You also might wonder whether working with barbells has some advantage over dumbbells and vice versa. Let’s explore what the pros and cons of each are and why you might want to use one over the other.

Benefits of Barbells vs. Dumbbells

One of the biggest benefits that barbells offer is the ability to work with more weight. Barbells increase the resistance you can lift because you don’t have to work as hard to stabilize a barbell. When you substitute a barbell for an exercise where you would normally use dumbbells, you can lift as much as 25% more weight. Being able to lift heavy is a good way to maximally recruit those high-threshold, fast-twitch muscle fibers!

Barbells work especially well for compound exercises where you’re working multiple muscle group simultaneously. These include exercises where your body moves as a functional unit, such as squats, deadlifts or the clean and press. Of course, you can hold dumbbells in each hand when you squat, but as you increase the weight, gripping dumbbells becomes harder to do without hurting your hands. As you progress to heavier weight, you may find a barbell more comfortable than struggling to hold heavy dumbbells.

Barbells are also easier to work with when you lift heavy. A barbell rests on a rack that’s elevated off the floor. Unracking it is a lot easier than bending down to the ground and picking up two heavy dumbbells and getting into position.  Not to mention, you can injure your back if you pick up heavy dumbbells incorrectly.

Where Dumbbells Have the Advantage

Yes, barbells have advantages, but dumbbells do too. As mentioned, it’s easier to stabilize when you work with barbells. That’s an advantage for beginners, but once you’re no longer a newbie, having to stabilize the weight works to your advantage since you get stabilizing muscles get in on the action and you get more muscle fiber activation.

One of the biggest advantages of dumbbells over barbells is the ability to fine-tune your movements. For example, if you do biceps curls holding dumbbells, you can curl the weight at a variety of angles just by changing the direction of your palms and the angle of the movement. You can curl with your palms up or down and do hammer curls as well. You can even rotate from an overhand to an underhand grip quickly and easily and do a Zottman curl.  With barbell curls, you’re more limited as you can’t change the angle of your palms.

Dumbbells are also a better choice for fixing muscle imbalances between sides. For example, if your right bicep is stronger than your left, you can work the left bicep independently of the right to help it catch up. In addition, there are some exercise you can’t do with barbells, such as lateral raises, chest flys, triceps kickbacks, etc. If you’re limited to barbells, you have fewer exercises available to you. Also, you can usually get a deeper range of motion with exercises like the bench press when you use dumbbells as opposed to barbells.

Another benefit – holding dumbbells doesn’t limit your range-of-motion to the same degree that barbells do. When you load a barbell on your back to squat, you’re in a fixed position throughout the exercise. Being fixed means you can’t make adjustments that make the move friendlier to your joints. This is something to consider if you have orthopedic issues or joint problems.

All in all, dumbbells are ideal for “fine-tuning” your training – working an underdeveloped side more and for working a muscle differently by changing the angle of the movement. Dumbbells are also more flexible and newbie-friendly and they give you more options than barbells.

Dumbbells vs. Barbells for Building Strength

Dumbbells or barbells – which is better for building strength? In one study researchers compared muscle activation using EMG when participants did bench presses. In the first trial, they used a Smith machine and in the others, they used a barbell or dumbbells. One-rep max was highest for the Smith machine, meaning the subjects were able to lift more when they used a machine. That’s not surprising. But, when comparing barbells to dumbbells, the subjects were able to lift 17% more weight when they used a barbell as opposed to dumbbells. So, if your goal is to lift more weight to maximize strength, barbells give you an advantage as you can lift more weight.

Also, in the study, activation of the anterior deltoids and pectoralis major was similar between dumbbell bench presses and barbell bench presses, but stimulation of the triceps brachii was lower. However, dumbbell bench presses activated the biceps brachii muscles more than presses with a barbell. So, there are some differences in muscle activation with barbells versus dumbbells, at least for the bench press exercise. The biggest difference is you can lift more weight using barbells.

The Bottom Line

Dumbbells and barbells are both effective tools for building strength and size. If you’re primarily interested in maximizing strength, add barbells to your routine as you’ll be able to lift more weight. However, dumbbells work more muscles as you recruit stabilizer muscles as well and they’re ideal for working only one side to correct imbalances. Why not include some of both in your workout? They each offer unique advantages, and changing your approach will help you avoid reaching a plateau. You might also enjoy the challenge of switching the type of resistance you use. Don’t be afraid to try something new.



J Sports Sci. 2011 Mar;29(5):533-8. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2010.543916.


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New Study Sheds Light on Best Way to Build Strength

How Heavy Do You Have to Lift to Become Stronger?


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