Training with free weights is undoubtedly the most effective way to build both strength and muscle. Now, to be clear, when people say ‘free weights’, they’re generally referring to both barbell and dumbbell exercises. But does it make sense to focus more on one rather than the other? Or perhaps a mix of both is most effective? You’ve certainly heard all kinds of debates surrounding this topic so without further delay let’s debate this!
#1 - Range Of Motion
Range of motion is one of the most important factors when it comes to bodybuilding and it means the total distance the weight travels from the starting to the finishing position. In the old days, the consensus was that the ROM should be limited to 90 degrees for exercises like the bench press, shoulder press, dips, squats etc.. Today, we know that this is just not the case, as training in a full range of motion will not only keep you injury-free but it’s also far more effective for building size and strength. By cutting the range of motion short, you are eliminating part of the negative, which means less stretch, less micro-damage and consequently, less results. As far as injuries are concerned, training to 90 degrees can be far more dangerous, because when the day comes (and it will come) that you try to go past 90 degrees (accidentally or willingly), that’s when the injury will occur because your joints were just not accustomed to moving within that range of motion with so much stress/load on them.
So, any range of motion you are not training in, is range of motion you are weak at and that’s something you’ll want to avoid. By default, barbells allow for less range of motion because the actual axis of the barbell gets in the way. Dumbbells on the other hand, are not connected and that allows for a much deeper stretch and contraction for most exercises. Let’s take the bench press for instance. Dumbbells will not only guarantee a deeper range of motion on the way down, but you can also bring the dumbbells together at the top which gives you a better contraction due to more adduction of the arms. Of course, as the dumbbells get heavier and heavier, they also get blockier and bulkier which can also limit the range of motion. But for the casual lifter, that uses up to 130lbs dumbbells, POINT = DUMBBELLS.
#2 - Maximum Weight & 1RMs
It is statistically proven that most of you will be 20% stronger when you’re using barbells for the same exercise. Most of you will also find it easier to progress with barbells rather than dumbbells. And that’s to be expected. Barbells allow you to lift heavier weights because you don’t have to worry about stabilizing the weight and you are practically using 2 hands to move one weight, instead of two.
Muscle gain is closely related to strength gain. The stronger you get on an exercise, the faster your muscles will have to adapt and that forces them to get bigger as well. Of course, lifting volume is important too, but getting stronger should be your #1 objective when you’re training for size. Lastly, one rep max attempts with dumbbells are virtually impossible and ill-advised. You’re much better off using a barbell and a spotter or utilizing a power rack or cage to be safe while testing your strength. POINT = BARBELLS
#3 - Weight Stabilization
Strong lifters are always more stable overall. Joint stability is extremely important when it comes to preventing serious injuries. If you have never trained with dumbbells and try a set of dumbbell bench press you’ll find that your arms are going to be shaking and you won’t be able to complete half the reps or use half the weight. Moving two weights in space is harder than one and it requires more co-ordination and focus. This enables you to work those smaller stabilizing muscles that keep your joints balanced and injury-free.
Stabilization-wise, barbells are still better than machines but just cannot compare with dumbbells which should be your main focus if you have some sort of chronic injury or trying to prevent one. POINT = DUMBBELLS
#4 - Explosiveness
You’ll find that some exercises cannot possibly be performed with dumbbells because they require a certain explosiveness that cannot be attained with dumbbells. We’re talking about power cleans, snatches, even deadlifts and squats. While is it possible to perform dumbbells squats, it’s generally not advised because you will not be able to generate much explosive force or handle any considerate amount of weight. A 400 lbs squat is entirely possible for a natural lifter but squatting with two 200lbs dumbbells on your shoulders is just ridiculous and unheard of. POINT = BARBELLS.
#5 - Correct Or Prevent Imbalances
Although people usually blame barbells for muscle imbalances and suggest dumbbells as the magic solution, this is not necessarily the case as you CAN correct your imbalances using barbells.
But to be fair, it’s far easier to develop muscle imbalances using barbells than dumbbells. Dumbbells, by nature, force you to use both sides equally, otherwise, one arm will clearly move faster than the other. With barbells, it is possible for one side to dominate over the other, doing more work and moving the weight through space without you realizing it.
POINT = DUMBBELLS
#6 - Easier On The Joints
The main reason free weights always tramp machines is the FIXED range of motion of machines and the injury possibilities this entails. Forcing your joints to move in an unnatural, forced way is a recipe for disaster. And while barbells are generally better than machines in this regard, they still do not allow you to move each side individually and independently of the other, which means your body cannot make tiny adjustments it may need to ensure the movement is as natural, comfortable and safe for you as possible.
So, if you have joint mobility issues or recent injuries, dumbbells are far superior and they are the key to injury prevention. POINT = DUMBBELLS
Extra Point? | Less Chance Of Injury
Everything in life can be dangerous if done improperly and sometimes even doing things properly conceals certain risks but when it comes to muscle-building results, the person who stays injury-free usually ends up with more gains. You cannot train when you’re injured so it makes sense to focus your efforts on preventing them from ever happening. Up till now this debate is going pretty neck and neck and this point isn’t going to change that.
Dumbbells can be safer for beginners, because beginners will be handling relatively lighter weights and when they get stuck, they can easily drop the dumbbells to the ground, something you cannot do with a barbell. Getting stuck under a barbell, can get pretty dangerous pretty fast, especially with no people around to help.
Barbells on the other hand, are probably safer for advanced lifters, as handling heavier weights is arguably safer done with barbells. Trying to get 150lbs dumbbells in position for a press is not practical and possibly dangerous.
Final Verdict – Which Is Better For Strength & Muscle Gain?
Did you expect a straight answer? Well, you are not going to get one here! Dumbbells versus barbells is far more complicated than saying one is better than the other.
The correct answer is that a MIX of both is ideal and optimal for muscle building and strength purposes and they are both REQUIRED to help you get results and prevent injuries.
If you are training for more strength and functionality, perhaps barbells will be your best friend, but if you are training strictly towards building size and mass, dumbbells are generally superior.
All in all, you need BOTH of them in your lifting program but what you need far more than the right exercises is a clear mind. Whatever equipment you decide to choose, whichever exercise you decide to perform, make sure you pause for a minute or two before you start lifting and get your mind right.