In the past, many considered strength training as only for the young and strong. Misconceptions circulated that hitting the weights was difficult to learn, risky for your joints, and would add bulk whether you wanted it to or not.
However, these myths have little merit. Whether you’re trying to build more muscle, tone up, or burn fat, research shows that weightlifting is more effective than cardio alone.
Along with increasing muscle mass, the American Heart Association recommends strength training at least twice a week for benefits like:
- A lower risk of injuries
- Weight control
- Improved balance
- Better joint flexibility
- A better quality of life
Not all strength training is equal, however. Gym machines confine your body into a single range of motion, stabilizing each movement for you. But free weights encourage more muscle activity — up to 43 percent more according to one study — netting better results on every fitness metric.
Dumbbells and barbells are the most common types of free weights, and each come with their own independent advantages that warrant a place in your exercise routine.
Just make sure that before starting — or advancing — any workout regimen you’ve got your doctor’s okay and are confident in your weightlifting technique.
The Benefits of Dumbbells
Dumbbells are a natural entry point to strength training with free weights, especially if you’re building a home gym. They take up little physical space and can keep your workout flowing uninterrupted, grabbing what you need for each exercise as you go.
In general, there are three types of dumbbells:
- Fixed-weight dumbbells weighted up to about 75 pounds
- Adjustable dumbbells you tweak by adding small weight plates
- Selectorized dumbbells with quick-change weight adjustment
Dumbbells encourage natural movement during an exercise, allowing for a greater range of motion than a barbell’s more fixed positioning. This lets you make minor adjustments as you work out to ensure movements are comfortable and smooth — putting less pressure on your joints and reducing your injury risk.
Whether you’re just starting out with a gym routine or adding new exercises to your workout, dumbbells help you develop better form without forcing unnatural — and potentially risky — movements.
That said, with less stability, there’s a greater risk of a form-related injury if you increase weight too quickly.
Simply put, dumbbells are suitable for many more exercises than other free weight options. Your set adapts to your routine as you advance toward your fitness goals, minimizing injury risk when trying out new movements or increasing weight.
You can also repurpose dumbbells for extra variety in a workout, like with HIIT or circuit training exercises.
But there’s a limit to how much weight you can lift with dumbbells — and if you’re working out at home, having a bigger dumbbell selection can be a larger investment over time.
Excellent Overall Conditioning
Because of their greater range of motion, dumbbells require more stability.
This means that with every rep, you activate more muscle fibers, which isn’t just great for your workout gains but also strengthens your connective tissues, joints, and general balance. Building muscle mass without conditioning these areas opens you up to injury, weakness, and plateaus.
Dumbbells also help to minimize muscle imbalances. Because you work each side of your body independently, you can’t unconsciously favor your more dominant muscles — you’ll ensure even strength training. This makes dumbbells great for injury recovery or target-training a specific weakness as well.
The Benefits of Barbells
Studies show that the primary driver of muscle growth is mechanical tension. You maximize this mechanical tension by progressing with heavier and heavier compound movements over time.
This is where barbells stand out.
There are many different types of barbells designed to match a person's fitness goals, experience, and personal preference, like:
- Olympic barbells that are thin and flexible
- Powerlifting barbells with thicker diameters
- Beginner-suitable multipurpose barbells that accommodate both bodybuilding and strength training
- Curl bars that help support your wrist, shoulder, and elbow joints
- Other specialty bars like safety squat bars, trap bars, and Swiss bars
Barbells’ greatest advantage is that you can lift more weight. This is partly due to logistics — on average, a single dumbbell rarely exceeds 75 pounds. But studies also show that most people can lift up to 20 percent more weight with a barbell compared to performing the same exercise with dumbbells.
Your muscles can handle this extra weight because:
- Barbells’ lower range of motion stabilizes movements better.
- You’re using both hands, distributing weight more evenly across your body.
- There’s less muscle activation, so you’re isolating — and challenging — the area you want to strengthen.
Keep in mind that despite this advantage, it’s easier to develop strength imbalances with barbells — and with heavier weight, you’ll need a safety spotter to help prevent dangerous accidents.
Barbells’ extra stabilization also helps you lift in a more controlled manner, encouraging proper form even as you add more weight.
When advancing with dumbbells, the extra effort required to stabilize the weight makes it more difficult to maintain perfect technique. This can limit an exercise’s effectiveness while increasing your risk of a lifting-related injury.
Using barbells to lift more weight means you’re training muscles harder, maximizing that mechanical tension that helps you progress faster.
From a practical standpoint, barbell plates also give you more flexibility to add smaller weight increments from one workout to the next. So not only are you building strength more quickly, but the process is smoother — and you’re less likely to hit strength plateaus.
It’s All About Balance
Barbells and dumbbells each have their distinct advantages to a fitness routine. But in any training program, as you progress, your body adapts to the exercises you perform.
Using both dumbbells and barbells in your workout regimen brings together the best of both worlds.
Dumbbells ensure you’re training your connective tissues and joint strength, so you develop better stability to support perfect form. Barbells then help advance muscle strength faster. Alternating between these two types of free weights can enhance your overall fitness outcomes.
But ultimately, the perfect strength training program for you depends on your personal fitness goals. Get in touch for a free consultation from our expert team to get more help choosing the right equipment, accelerating you towards the results you want from your routine.
Have questions? Ask them in the comments below!