Dumbbells vs Barbells: The Differences You Should Understand

Chances are you have no intention of gaining upper body strength so you can ring a bell. However dumbbells got their start from that very activity, and the training equipment used to practice bell ringing now lends its name to not only dumbbells, but barbells and kettlebells, too. A bell that doesn’t ring is silent—dumb—so using dumbbells meant your bell-ringing practice didn’t wake the neighbors. Dumbbells came first, but are they better than barbells? Not necessarily; three important concepts about the two free weights can help you decide which is right for you, and when. 

How Safe Are You? 

In the gym, you have to protect yourself from two things: 

  • Yourself
  • The equipment

If you do not know how to use free weights, and are determined not to ask for help (Psst! Ask for Help!) start with dumbbells. If you are working with a dumbbell and get in trouble, just drop it. 

Barbells require good balance, an appreciation of the weight, and good technique. You can get pinned under a barbell all too quickly. You have natural movement with a dumbbell that you cannot get in a barbell, since you can turn hands and flex wrists as needed. 

How Free Are the Free Weights? 

Dumbbells are independent of each other, one for each hand. This gives complete freedom of movement on either side of your axis of symmetry, so your left arm can rest while your right arm completes a curl, for example. A barbell, by contrast, requires coordinated movement by your left and right arms and your hands are in fixed positions. 

If you are training to recover from an injury, you may need to provide the injured side with more repetitions at smaller weight, something you cannot do with barbells. If you perform heavy, repetitive labor with your dominant hand (swinging a hammer, operating a drill press, lifting or pulling loads), a dumbbell can help you equalize strength in your non-dominant side. 

How Developed Are You? 

New to free weights? Dumbbells help even out discrepancies in leg and arm strengths. Dumbbells increase awareness of the weight—you depend entirely on one arm for control, and you move more muscle groups in positioning and holding the weight than with a barbell. 

Barbells for new lifters are also helpful, since you can tightly control the weights you add. Most dumbbells increase by 10-pound increments, while barbells can be changed by five pounds.   

Well along the way to fitness and bodybuilding? Barbells allow you to use heavier weights, engage your legs more, and perform power cleans and snatches. 

  • Do barbell exercises before dumbbell work, if you choose to do both
  • Use barbells for squats and deadlifts
  • Restrict explosive exercises to barbells, both for comfort and safety

As you increase weight, barbells tend to be more useful. In performing presses, for example, barbells are already positioned in the equipment, ready for lifting. Dumbbells may have to be lifted from the floor or a wall rack, adding strain and incorrect body positioning to your back.