This argument never goes away – and it’s just as prominent on bodybuilding and fitness forums as the old “machines vs. free-weights” debates. While most people use a combination of both, there are die hard fanatics who claim one’s superiority over the other.
Is there anything to it? Let’s look into the pros, cons, and possible limitations in each case.
So First we have Dumbbells
While some “experts” claim they’re potentially the more dangerous of the two, I think that dumbbells are just right for newbies. If you’re getting started with weight training, dumbbells will probably be better for you than barbells depending on your strength level. With dumbbells, you can start out as low as 2.5lbs in each hand and incorporate stabilizing the weight as well as just pushing or pulling it. This will assist you with improving your coordination and activating a range of muscle fibers. Consider that a standard Olympic barbell is going to weigh 45lbs with no weight added to it – this can be a limiting factor for noobs.
Also dumbbells assist with evening out strength imbalances in the arms and legs. These strength imbalances are quite common among newbies and can actually be reinforced by the use of barbells.
Safety does play a part here too depending on the exercise. For example, if you find that you’re unable to make it through a rep because of muscle fatigue, you may simply drop your dumbbells. You’ll never get pinned under them, as you might during a failed bench press or failed squat with barbells.
In terms of drawbacks, a lot of commercial gyms have a limited supply of dumbbells handy, and they may not be in the weight increments you need at the time. If you’re trying to equip your home gym with all the dumbbells you’ll need for various exercises – and especially if you’re a big burly man – be prepared to shell out $1,000=plus for a comprehensive set.
Forget adjustable dumbbells – they’re a pain in the butt, especially when you need a quick-change like with conditioning-type workouts.
And now for Barbells
If you’re going for massive lifts barbells are going to be a requirement for your training, arguably more so than dumbbells. You simply can’t build your bench press without doing bench press. And while I’ve seen dumbbells go up to 200lbs apiece – have you ever seen someone try to wrangle one in each hand? That’s the territory of the super elite – and event they usually require 2 spotters.
Think about trying to do lunges with heavy dumbbells – the bruising and friction of those things banging into my thighs is not what I call fun!
However, as we mentioned ease for noobs with dumbbells, there is a component to that with barbells as well. The fixed range of motion of barbell lifting allows a relatively stronger noob to work out proper exercise form without dumbbells swaying from side-to-side.
One key “pro” of barbells is their versatility. You may perform rack pulls, cleans, dead lifts and squats all with barbells. When you try to same moves with dumbbells, you may find that the weight is too difficult to hold. Barbell design means that it’s possible to use bigger weights with a higher degree of comfort.
Barbells are awesome when it comes to doing exercises of the “explosive” type, including snatches and power cleans. You just can’t get this type of explosive action on dumbbells.
In terms of the downside, using barbells can be dangerous. We don’t recommend using them alone. It’s always better to have a fitness buddy to spot you while you train with barbells.
Which “Bell” is Right for You?
Now you probably see that the argument is a silly one – both should make their way into your workouts. Most gyms have plenty of both. If you’re not currently a member at a gym, check out a free intro class trying out dumbbells and barbells – especially if the gym will give you access to a trainer, which is a fairly common “hook” these days. This will be helpful even if you plan to buy this kind of equipment for yourself in the future. You’ll be able to try before you buy.
Your fitness level and level of experience with weight training, as well as your fitness goals and current programming, will be important factors to dictate when and how often you include dumbbells or barbells.