Barbells vs Dumbbells – What’s the Difference?

Barbells and dumbbells are the two types of free weights. Using these doesn’t restrict motion the way a weight machine does. With free weights, your exercise movements closely resemble real life movements. Although you can do exercises with both, barbells and dumbbells each have their own pros and cons. In this article, we will be comparing barbells vs dumbbells and discuss the differences between these two types of exercise equipment.

What is a Barbell?

Man Using a BarbellA barbell is a type of exercise equipment used in weight training, weightlifting, powerlifting, and bodybuilding, consisting of a long bar with weights attached at each end. There are two types of barbells – standard and Olympic. Standard barbells are between 5 and 6 feet long, are 1 inch thick, and weigh between 15 and 30 pounds. Most standard barbells can hold weights up to 200 pounds. On the other hand, Olympic barbells are 7 feet long, more than 1 inch thick, have 2-inch rotating sleeves, and weigh 45 pounds. Olympic barbells can hold weights over 800 pounds.

What is a Dumbbell?

Man Using DumbbellsA dumbbell is a type of free weight that can be used individually or in pairs. Dumbbells are 10 to 15 inches long and are designed to be held in one hand. There are different types of dumbbells. Hex dumbbells are fixed weight dumbbells which are usually available in 5-pound increments (between 5 and 100 pounds). But some hex dumbbells are also available in 1-pound increments. Meanwhile, adjustable dumbbells are short, straight bars that have sleeves for weight plates. They’re available with either standard 1-inch, or 2-inch sleeves. The length of the weight sleeves limits how much weight you can load on the bar.

To learn more about this type of exercise equipment, read our article about dumbbells.

Barbell Advantages

Allows You to Lift More Weight

Compared to dumbbells, you can lift more weight with barbells. Most people can lift about 20% more with a barbell, compared to the combined weight of two dumbbells on the same exercise. This is because you’ll be using fewer stabilizer muscles on barbell exercises, allowing you to lift more weight.

Helps You Progress Faster

Progressive overload is an important component of getting bigger and stronger. To do this, you need to incrementally lift more and more weight. While you can do this with barbells and dumbbells, it’s usually easier to do with barbells, especially at heavier weights.

May Be Safer When Lifting Heavier Weights

When lifting heavier weights, you cannot afford to make mistakes, or you will open yourself up to injury. This means having the perfect form and lifting in a very controlled manner. With barbells, you’re better able to lock yourself into position, grounding the entire body before you begin the lift. Safety stands and racks can also be used with barbells.

Can Be More Practical for Certain Exercises

In the case of squats, you can do them using dumbbells, but there’s a limit to the amount of weight that can feasibly be used. On the other hand, barbell squats allow for a greater amount of weight to be used and therefore can be more effective at building muscle. Barbells are also better for explosive exercises such as snatches and power cleans.

Dumbbell Advantages

Make Greater Use of Stabilizer Muscles

Although you can lift more weight with barbells, they don’t use stabilizer muscles that much when compared to dumbbells. This means you may not be working your muscles as comprehensively. For many exercises (such as the bench press), it has been shown that there’s greater chest muscle activation with dumbbell presses compared to barbell presses. Having to stabilize the weight you are holding in each hand activates more muscles and improves coordination.

Can Provide a Better Range of Motion

Maintaining a full range of motion is essential when it comes to weight training. A greater range of motion works muscles more effectively. Dumbbells have the advantage in this aspect since they allow a greater range of motion for certain exercises when compared to barbells.

Can Help Even Out Strength Imbalances

Another point of comparison for barbells vs dumbbells is symmetry. In some cases, one side of the body is outpacing the other in terms of size and strength. With dumbbells, you can work on each side of your body independently. This means you can focus more on the left or right biceps for example, or whichever part needs more work.

Can Be Safer if You’re a Beginner

Dumbbells are a safer way to learn basic movements if you are new to weight training. If you cannot complete a rep, you can more easily set the weights down. You will not get pinned under them during a squat or bench press like you may with a barbell. Also, certain exercises like presses are easier to do with dumbbells if you are just starting out. Plus, you can rotate your hand position with dumbbells, which allows for a different effect on the muscles, such as when doing curls. This ability to rotate your hand position also allows for more comfort and less chance of injury when doing certain exercises like presses.

Require Less Space

Barbells are long and take up a lot of room. Plus, you typically need to rack them on benches and squat stands, which take up even more space. Dumbbells, on the other hand, take up very little room and are ideal for the home or office. They can also be stored more easily when not in use.


Many fitness enthusiasts and athletes have seen great results from doing workout routines using free weights. After reading this post on barbells vs dumbbells, you’re now better informed about the pros and cons of these two types of exercise equipment. Knowing when to use each one will produce the best results.

Barbells are good for building massive strength and power, but dumbbells are often the best choice for all around fitness, especially in the home. If you’re looking to buy dumbbells, click here to see some of the best options.

If you’d like to learn how to use dumbbells to best help achieve your fitness goals, FITin56 is a great home fitness program the makes extensive use of dumbbells. Try it!

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