performance — By matthew joseph
It’s a question that every gym-goer asks at one some point or another: Which is better, barbells or dumbbells?
If you’re like me, then you confronted this question the first time that you stepped into the weight room. And the answer that you heard early on—that barbells, in general, are better than dumbbells—has become a rule-of-thumb that has remained unquestioned ever since. Given this heuristic, dumbbell exercises have taken a backseat ever since. Yet, as our training evolves, so too should our training framework. So below, I make the case for dumbbells.
Before We Begin
Before we dive in, it’s worth acknowledging the relative merits of barbell exercises.
First, barbell-dependent exercises are the most efficient exercises for novice lifters to realize early gains. Compound movements such as bench press, squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses are the best way for new lifters to build strength and, ergo, develop muscle. Such is the case because strength and muscle development are highly correlated for those who are just starting out; these lifters have not yet realized their physical potential and generally respond and recover more quickly to new stressors induced by weight training. As such, strength training can, for these individuals, drive hypertrophy in parallel.
And secondly, compound exercises remain the best way to improve overall physical performance. The aforementioned compound lifts demand that multiple muscle groups efficiently work together in unison rather than piecemeal; as such, these lifts must be staples of any serious training regimen, no matter what the physical goal (e.g., strength, muscle growth, or power). Unfortunately, dumbbells alone—by virtue of splitting the coordination element—will have a relatively more limited ability to drive overall performance.
That said, we should acknowledge that as our training evolves, so too should our training framework. The barbell versus dumbbell debate is not an either/or zero-sum conversation. Rather, each format has its own set of benefits that become increasingly apparent as we progress from novice lifter to intermediate lifter, and intermediate to advanced.
So why should dumbbells be a staple of your workout regimen?
Ultimately, the case for dumbbells rests on three key benefits: 1) the improved range of motion, 2) the balance—physical and performance—conferred, and 3) the incremental intensity enabled. Each of these benefits plays a different role in overall training, with range of motion benefits opening new pathways for muscular development, and the incremental intensity benefits creating alternatives for longer, steady-state cardiovascular sessions. Each benefit will be outlined below.
1. Range of Motion
Dumbbells’ superpower is their ability to move in virtually all planes of motion. In this respect, they are uniquely capable of working muscle groups that move in multiple planes of motion, but which are underserved by barbell-centric movements.
For men, the most obvious candidates for incremental dumbbell work are chest muscles. Though we oftentimes associate chest with push movements (e.g., bench press and push-ups), we should not forget that our chest is also instrumental in helping our arms move across the body; the chest muscles help us navigate the transverse plane (i.e, horizontal plane), which is difficult to navigate without the freedom of dumbbells.
Building a fuller chest thus requires that we add resistance within this horizontal plane of motion; hence the importance of exercises such as dumbbell flies or dumbbell squeeze chest press, both of which compress the area between the dumbbells and simultaneously force the loads away from our body. While certain machines, such as the chest fly machine, mimic some of these movements, ultimately the greatest physical benefit is derived from using free weights—which induce greater neuromuscular efficiency—and maintaining proper form.
Beyond range of motion benefits, dumbbells can also ensure that we are addressing strength and muscular imbalances on an ongoing basis.
Barbell-centric movements, because they often require activation of multiple muscle groups to lift a single load, oftentimes mask imbalances. For example, we have all seen the person in the gym whose load tips as he or she moves from the eccentric (i.e., lowering) to concentric (i.e., contracting) lifting phases. The tipping itself will reveal an imbalance. Yet, another perhaps more concerning issue is how the body responds to said imbalance.
When strained, the body will seek out and utilize the most efficient path to address, compensate for, and overcome said strain. As a result, the body learns how to adapt to—how to work around—imbalances unless they are addressed head-on. And while under the bar, it’s difficult—and often dangerous—to monitor ourselves for such imbalances. Given this fact, dumbbells can serve as a physical check on our overall development by forcing us to confront and rectify imbalances during our workouts.
In this way, dumbbells should be viewed as complementary to compound lifts; for the intermediate and advanced lifter, these movements should be seen as working in tandem with compound movements. After all, the fewer the imbalances, the greater our overall physical efficiency. The greater our physical efficiency, the greater our lifts. The greater our lifts, the greater our physical development.
3. Intensity and Cardiovascular Substitutes
Lastly, dumbbells are an effective way to both introduce resistance to bodyweight movements that would otherwise not generate sufficient strain by themselves and generate incremental strain for free weight-centric cardiovascular workouts.
With respect to the former, consider your current abdominal/core routine. Are you doing mostly body-weight exercises such as crunches and planks? If so, how strenuous are these movements? Is the fatigue induced by the load—your body weight—or by the repetitions? If fatigue is coming only from more and more reputations, then adding a dumbbell can radically change the intensity of these workouts.
After all, your abdominals are just like your other muscle groups; they follow the same model of inducing stress overload, recover, and grow. So, if you want a tighter core or abdominals that stick around at higher body fats, consider upping the resistance with a dumbbell. Alternatively, consider how a dumbbell could make bodyweight movements, such as planks, even more challenging (e.g., plank with dumbbell pull through).
With respect to generating incremental strain, dumbbell-centric workouts—such as those which leverage movements such as thrusters or renegade rows—can serve as compelling indoors substitutes to low-intensity, outdoor cardio formats such as jogging. For example, most indoor HIIT classes (e.g., Barrys Bootcamp, etc.) leverage dumbbells in a similar capacity because any incremental resistance will force the body to work harder and, ergo, elevate the heart rate.
Use of dumbbells in these class formats is not necessarily strength-oriented; rather, it is to quickly reach—and efficiently sustain—an elevated heart rate so that participants feel worked and see the body responding in kind. The good news is that these exercises and movements can translate to any location with dumbbells. Grab a pair and you can knock out a HIIT work out and save yourself the hassle of packing running shoes.
In conclusion, the answer to the barbell versus dumbbell debate is: it depends. Barbell-centric compound movements are incredibly important to any serious weight training program. That said, dumbbells play a central—and essential—role in both complementing and supplementing these compound moments. Given this, dumbbells should be strategically integrated into workouts—whether the goal is strength training, hypertrophy (i.e., muscle gains) or even maintaining cardiovascular health.
Now test your dumbbell prowess with this 40-minute dumbbell exercise.
Lower (#1) x3 Rounds
1 min ea (~9 min total)
A. Frontal Squats
B. Seesaw Lunges—L
C. Seesaw Lunges—R
Upper (#1) x3 Rounds
90s ea (~9 min total)
A. Suitcase Deadlift
B. DB Rows
Lower (#2) x3 Rounds
1 min ea (~9 min total)
A. Split Squats—L
B. Split Squats—R
C. Glute Bridge
Upper (#2) x3 Rounds
A. Chest Flies
B. Single Chest Press
Core x3 x3 Rounds
(~6 min total)
A: 60s ea
B&C: 30s ea
A. Plank, DB Reach & Pull
B. Russian Twists
C. DB Flutter Kicks
Matt works full-time in the media and technology space in New York City and is a NASM Certified Personal Trainer. To learn more about his approach to health and fitness, follow him on Instagram @mattjoseph.fit