What’s your go-to form of resistance when you strength train? Do you reach for a set of dumbbells (hopefully, they’re not 2 pounders unless you’re just starting out) for most movements or are barbells more your style? You also have the option of using resistance bands, kettlebells, and even your own body weight for some exercises. But, when you get down to it, there’s room for both barbells and dumbbells in your routine. Here’s why you should put them both to work for you to maximize the results you get from your strength-training routine.
The Advantages of Dumbbells
Women are more likely to use dumbbells than men and using them does have some advantages over using barbells. For one, dumbbells are less intimidating when you first begin training. There’s something daunting about hoisting up a barbell, possibly because so many serious, muscle-bound male bodybuilders use them. Then, there are safety issues. For a beginner without a spotter, dumbbells are less likely to lead to injury. If you get “stuck” and need to drop a weight to the floor, it’s easier to drop a dumbbell than a barbell.
Does one type of resistance recruit more muscle fibers than the other? When you use dumbbells, unlike barbells, you have to balance two dumbbells for most exercises. This recruits more stabilizing muscles. Stabilizers are important because they help keep your joints stable when you move the prime movers. This creates more efficient movement patterns. So, the stabilizers get in on the action more when you use dumbbells for certain exercises.
Dumbbells give you more flexibility too. With a dumbbell, you can change the angle at which you work a muscle. For example, you can change your hand position when doing biceps curls to work the biceps differently. You’re restricted to two hand positions with a barbell – an overhand grip and an underhand one. This limitation precludes doing some exercises, like hammer curls, with a barbell. Plus, you can work each side of your body independently with dumbbells. If your left biceps need more work than you’re right, you can do an additional set or two only on the left.
Barbells Have Their Advantages Too
With all of these benefits, you might think dumbbells are all you need for an effective workout – but hold on! Barbells have benefits too. For one, it’s easier to progress with barbells than dumbbells. That’s important since progressive overload is the name of the game and you won’t get very far without it. The easiest way to use progressive overload is to increase the resistance. With barbells, adding more weight is as simple as changing the plates. The plates come in small increments of 2.5 pounds, so you can make small changes to the amount of weight you’re lifting. To get enough dumbbells to fine tune like this, you’ll need a lot of space to store them. With barbells, you only need a single bar and plates to add more resistance. It’s a simpler, space-saving system.
There’s another advantage that a barbell has over a pair of dumbbells. A study published in the Journal of Sports Science found that subjects can lift almost 20% more when they do a barbell bench press versus pressing with dumbbells. You maximize muscle tension when you lift heavier and this is a strong stimulus for muscle hypertrophy. So, the ability to lift more with a barbell works in your favor.
In reality, whether dumbbells or barbells activate more muscle depends partially on the muscle you’re talking about. In one study, researchers documented muscle activation when participants did barbell bench presses, dumbbell bench presses, and Smith machine presses. Barbell presses activated the triceps more than dumbbell presses.
What Can We Conclude?
Which is right for you? For most exercises, using a barbell recruits more muscle fibers and places the muscle under greater tension because it allows you to lift more weight. However, dumbbells recruit more stabilizing muscles as you have to balance the weights. Dumbbells also give you the benefit of being able to adjust and fine-tune your movements by changing the angle of the exercise and working only one side at a time. You can’t do unilaterals with a barbell! Sometimes, you need more focused work on one side. That’s where dumbbells have an advantage.
But, why choose? The best approach is to use both! Using both helps you avoid getting into a rut where you’re using the same muscle activation patterns. Barbells work well and are a bit safer for compound exercises, particularly ones that involve the lower body, like squats. But, for isolation exercises, like biceps curls, dumbbells give you more flexibility and ability to fine-tune your movements. Dumbbells are also the best option for correcting muscle imbalances between sides.
So, if you have access to dumbbells and barbells, put them both to work for you. It’s frustrating when you reach a plateau and switching between the two places a different stimulus on your muscles, so they don’t adapt and stop changing. Alternating between dumbbells and barbells is a way to avoid strength-training plateaus.
The Bottom Line
Barbells and dumbbells are both effective forms of resistance. Both are better than machines that only work your muscles in one plane of motion. If you have access to them, take advantage of both! It’s important to vary your movement patterns to keep your muscles from becoming so efficient that they stop growing and becoming stronger.
J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073-1082. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2016.1210197. Epub 2016 Jul 19.
National Strength and Conditioning Association”; Barbells, Dumbbells, and Kettlebells; Loren Chiu.
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