Human needs, high school social groups, and Taylor Swift’s ex-boyfriends may exist in hierarchies, but strength-training tools do not. Each serves a unique purpose and offers unique benefits, so long as you use it appropriately.
Take two of the most-used tools in the book—barbells and dumbbells—for example. Neither is truly better than the other, says physical therapist and strength coach Carol Ferkovic Mack, P.T., D.P.T., S.C.S., C.S.C.S., owner of CLE Sports PT & Performance in Cleveland. Instead, each carries with it its own set of optimal uses and benefits. The trick, really, is to know when to opt for one over the other. (Also, just a quick aside to note that the fact that you strength train at all is far more important than what you strength train with. There are more benefits of strength training than there are exercises you can do with a barbell or dumbbells combined—meaning, many!)
That said, if you’re not sure when to grab a dumbbell (or two) over a barbell, the experts have you covered. Here are five times dumbbells should be your strength tool of choice.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Carol Ferkovic Mack, P.T., D.P.T., S.C.S., C.S.C.S., is a physical therapist, strength coach, and the owner of CLE Sports PT & Performance in Cleveland. Bill Daniels, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and the owner of the online training platform Beyond Fitness Online. Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., is a physical therapist, strength coach, and the founder of the digital movement platform Movement Vault. Jesse Feder, R.D.N., C.P.T., is a certified personal trainer and an expert with My Crohn’s and Colitis Team.
1. You’re New To Strength Training
Given how beneficial strength training is for both physical and mental well-being, eliminating as many barriers to this type of exercise as possible is important.
Most people find barbells far more intimidating than dumbbells due to their typically heavier weight and unwieldy shape, and, as a result, forgo lifting altogether if barbells are their only option. Dumbbells’ perceived accessibility is reason enough for beginners to opt for them over barbells, suggests certified strength and conditioning specialist Bill Daniels, C.S.C.S., C.P.T., owner of online training platform Beyond Fitness Online. However, their accessibility isn’t just perceived; it’s real. “Dumbbells are generally easier to learn and control compared to barbells, making them easier for people starting to lift for the very first time,” he says.
Of course, learning to lift with dumbbells does not mean that you have to stick to just dumbbells forever. If you learn how to lift with proper form using dumbbells, using a barbell down the line will become more accessible, Daniels says. Indeed, there is more form carryover between the two weighted implements than many people expect.
2. You Have Muscular Imbalances
Even if you aren’t a soccer player with a dominant foot or a baseball pitcher, one side of your body is stronger than the other. The strength imbalance may not be perceptible to you day-to-day. However, the vast majority of people have a dominant hand and arm that they use for writing, opening doors, driving, and more, as well as a lead foot and leg that they take off on, step up with, or lean into when standing casually, says Daniels. This, in turn, creates one side of the body that is stronger than the other.
Some muscular imbalance between sides is both common and normal, but if these imbalances become too pronounced, the risk of injury increases, according to physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of digital movement platform Movement Vault. “Pronounced imbalances between the sides can lead to joint compensation and interfere with natural locomotion and other movement patterns, which over time can lead to joint wear and tear and even pain and injury,” he explains.
Using a barbell for movements like deadlift, bench press, and shoulder press can mask much of these imbalances between sides, says personal trainer Jesse Feder, R.D.N., C.P.T., an expert with My Crohn’s and Colitis Team. When using a barbell, your stronger side can compensate for your weaker side so that you can lift the weight, often without you being aware of it, she explains. Worse, using a barbell can even exacerbate imbalances as your strong side continues to shoulder most of the work while your weaker side takes a backseat.
That’s where dumbbells come in handy. “When using dumbbells, each side of the body is forced to work independently,” Daniel says. As a result, you are far more likely to notice that these imbalances exist. (For example, you may notice you can easily press the dumbbell up overhead on one side but not on the other.) By choosing a weight that your stronger and weaker side can lift, you effectively force the weaker side to catch up, he explains.
3. You Want To Improve Your Mobility
Dumbbells allow for a greater range of motion compared to barbells, making them a better option for individuals who are on a mission to improve their overall mobility (which for the record, most people can benefit from). “The greater mobility an individual has, the more likely an individual is to move pain-free and with good form,” says Wickham. This also decreases the risk of injury during exercise or life.
In many cases, the physical shape of the barbell keeps you from accessing your full range of motion, and therefore keeps you from improving your mobility while you exercise with it, explains Daniels. “For instance, if you are trying to do a bench press, you will only be able to drop the bar to your chest,” he says. Meanwhile, when you bench with dumbbells, you can bring the weight down a little lower, which allows you to strengthen those deeper ranges of motion.
A similar situation happens during the deadlift. When you are doing a barbell deadlift, you can only lower the bar until the weight plates hit the ground. Since the diameter of the head of a dumbbell is usually smaller than that of weight plates, you can reach your weights down lower when deadlifting with dumbbells, Daniels notes. As a result, dumbbell deadlifts force your posterior chain to move and work through a greater range of motion than those performed with a barbell.
4. You’re Outfitting A Home Gym
Unless you have square feet upon square feet to dedicate to your home gym, dumbbells are likely the better weight option for home workouts. “Dumbbells require less space than barbells, making them easier to store and maneuver in smaller spaces,” says Daniels.
Plus, adjustable dumbbells are also available, and give you access to a wide range of weights without taking up much space at all, he adds. Since there’s no such thing as an adjustable barbell, you’re going to have to buy and store more bulky weight plates if you want to make your barbell heavier.
There are also certain barbell exercises—like the barbell bench press—that require additional equipment like a squat rack or rig to perform, Daniels adds. (Most people cannot perform a floor barbell bench press because there is not enough space for their body between the barbell and the floor.) This makes many barbell exercises inaccessible for at-home exercisers unless they also invest in a rack or rig, which can be expensive. This isn’t an issue with dumbbells, which can easily be lifted into position for a floor or bench chest press.
“Additionally, dumbbells are typically more affordable than barbells,” notes Feder. Indeed, while a barbell will cost you about $200, and a set of weight plates just as much, a set of dumbbells usually costs one-third of that. (Though, the heavier the dumbbells are, the more they will cost).
5. You Just Want To Use Dumbbells
At the end of the day, the best strength training tool is the one you actually use—and use consistently. So, if you find that you are more likely to adhere to your exercise routine when it involves dumbbells than when it involves barbells, break up with your barbell! As Feder puts it, “personal preference does have some play here.” Don’t sweat the equipment specifics and just get lifting.