Dumbbell vs Barbell - Which is Better?

Dumbbell vs Barbell - Which is Better?

Resistance-based training provides adaptations for the body. The first key, especially for sports performance, is the neurological adaptations that occur through resistance-based training. Neurological adaptation means the body learns how to more effectively coordinate intramuscularly to be more explosive. This can be seen in athletes who have just begun resistance-based training and they look like Gumby as they squat with a barbell or bench press with dumbbells. Then within 6 to 8 weeks, the athlete is showcasing solid movement patterns. That is a neurological adaptation that will also lead to greater power output.


Resistance-based training can also provide metabolic adaptations, especially used with short rest. Imagine doing sets of 10 rep back squats with 30-60 seconds of rest will force the body to adapt and use its energy systems more effectively. Metabolic adaptation with barbells is tough, tough work.


Another form of adaptation is hypertrophic adaptation which leads to greater muscular gains. The muscle size increases or the joints, tendons, and ligaments increase in size because of the mechanical tension provided by the resistance from dumbbells or barbells.


With resistance-based training we can see adaptations and improvements in impulse performance, absolute strength capabilities, heightened structural integrity as demonstrated by greater mobility, and all of that together leads to better motor control. 

Training with a barbell allows us to do compound movements like a back squat or a bench press. Barbell-based training can also be done with heavier loads like the deadlift. Barbell movements also allow for lighter speed work like squat jumps with an empty bar. All of that means that the barbell can be used to improve absolute strength, technical coordination, and specific sport strength. 


With dumbbells, we can still do compound movements, like a goblet squat, but it is done with a lighter load. We can also do isolation exercises like a dumbbell curl, but we can even do random exercises to isolate our quads, calves, or hamstrings. 

dumbbell vs barbell

One of the best parts of training isolation exercises with legs is using dumbbells while standing on a balance pad to perform a single-leg RDL. The movement only uses one joint, which makes it an isolation exercise, but the stabilization through the ankle and knee is for real; the balance pad adds to the need for the ankle to stabilize. A second leg exercise that can be done on the balance pad with the dumbbells is a drop lunge. From the pad, drop into a lung and drive back up. Ideally, we will not drive past the pad. 


Dumbbells are awesome to use for extremely high rep sets. We’re talking about doing sets of 30 to 40 reps. It is easier because the load is lighter. A heavy barbell is not being used. But the pain in the muscles is legit.

Bench Press Comparison

On the bench press with a barbell, a heavier load can be used to improve absolute strength. A lighter load can also be used on the bench press; it is important when using a lighter load to control the eccentric and be fast on the way up. We can also be creative with the barbell bench press by using the foam balance pad on the chest to be more explosive on the bench press. With the foam balance pad on the chest, the barbell can almost bounce off the chest creating a faster stretch-shortening cycle at the bottom which leads to better motor unit recruitment.


The benefits of dumbbell bench pressing allow us to pause deep in the hole, which gives a bigger stretch. The range of motion with dumbbells allows us to get deeper. Another thing that can be done with the dumbbells is alternating which arm is pressing. The arm not pressing can either pause in the lockout or the hole. Dumbbells allow the rep scheme to be changed up in a multitude of ways.

How Do They Compare?

Right off the bat, if we want to gain a ton of strength, we want to get on the barbell. We want to get on the barbell and do a ton of work because it can be overloaded with a heavy weight. Now let’s say we are strong, but we want to look more swole. In that case, we want to do a ton of reps with deeper stretches to lead to greater hypertrophic gains. All of that said, we want to use the barbell and dumbbells synergistically to lead to hypertrophic gains, enhanced structural integrity, and bigger, heavier lifts. 


The next thing we want to look at is technical coordination movements. Training with barbells allows us to do heavier loads when performing more explosive movements like a behind-the-neck jerk. We can also get into deeper movements like snatches and cleans. The big thing is that we can load more weight, have a technical focus, can execute at a high speed, catch in deeper positions, and improve athletic performance because the load is high. Remember, there is a big difference between moving heavy weight and moving heavy weight fast. That is where the technical coordination exercises with the barbell come into play. 


Technical coordination movements with dumbbells will not be as complex or as loaded, but dumbbells can still be used for explosive work, like a dumbbell snatch. Another great explosive movement is dumbbell jumps. All of these exercises can be used to maintain or slightly improve impulse ability. Dumbbell technical coordination movements just won’t be as complex as technical coordination movements with barbells. 

Explosive technical coordination movements with dumbbells are easier to perform making dumbbells a great teaching tool. It is also good to use dumbbells when peaking as an athlete.


Athletes need to be using the barbell if they want to focus on sports performance exercises around technical coordination and absolute strength. Dumbbells are great for unilateral upper body movements and creating a metabolic response through high reps to burn a little more calories.


Ultimately, dumbbells and barbells are great tools to improve overall importance. But when it comes down to it, the barbell is superior. 

Bize And Trize

Some of my favorite bicep exercises are explosive barbell movements like drop curls and slam curls. But here is the factor. Some people when using barbells get a lot of pain in their forearms. Typically it can be a mobility issue, a genetic disposition, or just a result of having pathetically weak forearms. Regardless, be aware that using a barbell to curl can lead to some forearm pain. That said, an EZ curl bar or a super-bar can be used for curls. 

Let’s just say that both apparatuses can be used for increasing arm thickness. All of that said, the dumbbells are the superior implement for overall arm hypertrophy for the biceps and triceps. Dumbbells allow for more time under tension by doing just one arm at a time which improves grip strength and forearm size. The dumbbells also allow for movements like Zottman curls which can’t occur with a barbell.


Dumbbells allow for a greater range of motion. Dumbbells also allow for really wacky exercises like post curls. Dumbbells can be done for super high rates. We can even run the rack, decreasing the weight and plowing through reps. 

Recap

Goals do come into play within this discussion. If we want to increase strength and our impulse ability (applying a large amount of force in a short/designated amount of time) we should be using barbells. If we want to increase our overall hypertrophy and structural integrity and look more like a bodybuilder, dumbbells are our tool of choice. Both are great and help with both hypertrophy and absolute strength, with one having an edge over the other depending on the goal. Don’t think too much about it and use them synergistically to accomplish your goals. 

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