Dumbbell vs barbell: which is best for home workouts?

Dumbbell vs barbell: what's the ultimate home weight? Which one build muscle faster? What's the difference? All questions answered here

dumbbell vs barbell
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Dumbbell vs barbell: which is best for home workouts? Given the lack of space many of us have at home, you may well be in unable to fit both, so you need to decide: should you buy the best dumbbell or the best barbell for your home gym? What is the difference between the two home weights? And which one builds muscle quicker? 

One might argue that it doesn't matter what type of weight you use to build muscle. So long as you are persistent in your efforts and keep on working out, results will show eventually. However barbells and dumbbells have some different benefits, as we'll discuss below.

Three reasons why dumbbells are better than barbells

Dumbbells are probably the best type of home weights for most people. Most strength exercises that could be performed with a barbell can also be performed with a pair of dumbbells too. Better still, using dumbbells can introduce even more variety to your resistance training.

dumbbell full body workout

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Reason #1: dumbbells are better for symmetry

Our body is the most amazing machine that's also highly adaptable. This comes in handy in a variety in situations, but not necessarily when you want to make sure the right muscles are worked during a workout.

Working out with a barbell, you will use a range of muscles in the body, all working together lifting the heavy weight. If your body determines that a muscle can't pull its weight, it will switch on other muscles around the area to help out. They're a great way to build overall strength.

However, they're not so great when you want to make sure both sides of the body receive the same amount of resistance. When you lift a barbell, one side of your body will be dominant, working a bit more than the other. Over time, this slight difference each time can result in noticeably different sized muscles, especially if you are lean too (some healthy amount of fat can cover things a bit).

Using dumbbells, you can make sure both sides of the body are worked equally as hard; if the left side feels a bit stronger, you can always use slightly bigger weights on the right, eventually evening out the difference.

dumbbells vs kettlebells: dumbbell full body workout

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Reason #2: dumbbells are more compact

There is no denying it: dumbbells take up less space than barbells, especially the adjustable variety, such as the excellent Bowflex SelectTech 1090i dumbbell. Assuming that you are not planning on getting a 50-piece strong dumbbell collection (that would set you back financially), storing a few dumbbells will always be easier than housing an Olympic barbell and the plates.

Dumbbell workouts require less space too. Even if you find a way to store the barbell and the weight plates vertically, when the fully-loaded barbell is on the floor or on the squat rack, it will take up more space than a pair of dumbbells. Shoving unused dumbbells under the bed is also easier than dismantling the barbell and finding a way to store it.

dumbbells vs kettlebells: 15-minute dumbbell full body workout

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Reason #3: dumbbells are more versatile

There isn't really an exercise that can be performed with a barbell and not with dumbbells. There are caveats, of course, but generally speaking, getting a pair of decent size dumbbells will enable you to choose from a larger library of available exercises.

Take for example the bench press. You will need the best weight bench, equipped with a weights rack, to be able to perform bench presses with a barbell. Even then, if the bench is not adjustable, you can only perform standard and close-grip bench press; that's pretty much it.

With a pair of dumbbells, you don't even need a weight bench to do bench presses: you can perform floor presses instead, laying on the floor. You can also do dumbbell pullovers, dumbbell flys and more.

dumbbell vs barbell

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Three reasons why barbells are better than dumbbells

Especially in recent years, barbells became more accessible and even more popular than before. Gone are the days when barbell meant the Olympic bar: nowadays, you can get EZ bars to work on the arms, trap bars that make deadlifts and shrugs easier, and a bunch of other types that cater for different types of workouts.

When used correctly, barbells are the ultimate weights to build full body strength. And just because the dumbbell is more versatile, that doesn't mean barbells are not versatile in general. On the contrary.

best weights bench

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Reason #1: better for building strength

Barbells are your ultimate weapons to get strong. The best barbell exercises, which includes the deadlift, weighted squats, overhead press and more, all knows for building full body power and making you Superman strong. Sure, you can deadlift and try doing weighted squats with dumbbells but it will never be the same.

Consider doing deadlifts or bench presses with weights that are 1.5x your bodyweight. That's perhaps more than many people would do but it's not 'extreme' by any means. If you are an average sized person, that could mean holding a 55-kilo dumbbell in each hand. It's not impossible, but dumbbells that big don't really make sense in most other situations.

Unless you have a beast of a chest already and can bench press that much, you won't be able to use those dumbbells in any other situation, whereas barbells can be made lighter by removing some of the weight plates.

fast eccentric training

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Reason #2: barbells are especially good for building lower body strength

Both dumbbells and barbells are great for building massive shoulders, triceps, biceps and pecs. Heck, you can even work on the upper back using dumbbell rows. What dumbbells are not great for is building lower body strength.

If you want strong quads, round glutes and calves that pop, you'd better start working out with barbells today. When it comes to building leg definition, nothing beats weighted squats. deadlifts, glute bridges and the likes. Barbells work way more effectively for these exercises than dumbbells.

dumbbell vs barbell

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Reason #3: barbells are better for compound exercises 

The best full body workout we know of consists of the 'Big 5', a sequence of compound exercises that use a multitude of muscles and build strength and definition. These exercises are: deadlift, weighted squat, barbell bent over row, bench press and overhead press.

Doing compound exercises has loads of benefits. They burn more calories than isolation workouts (you use more muscles), tend not to overload any muscle groups too much and just better for building strength in general. By doing only these five exercises, you can workout pretty much every muscle in the body in the shortest time possible. Full body workouts don't get more time and cost effective than this.

Fit for 2021
Get Fit for 2021!

This is part of T3's Fit for 2021 programme, which will be running throughout January, and is brought to you in association with our friends at Wiggle. We aim to bring you tips on diet, lifestyle and exercise that will help you shape up for what is certain to be a difficult year. One thing we can guarantee: it WILL be better than last year. And hopefully we'll help you get the most out of it. 

Matt Kollat
Matt Kollat

Matt is a fitness fanatic (a.k.a. fitness and nutrition writer) who's been rambling on about all things health and fitness for over two years now here at T3. His achievements include a short-lived fitness podcast called Fit Mentality Podcast and being a judge on the Fit&Well Awards 2021. In his free time, he works out at home, runs, cycles and loves a good ol' walk around the city. He writes about general fitness stuff, fitness tech, workouts, workout gear/equipment, nutrition and much, much more.