Bar vs. Dumbbell

When it comes to free-weight workouts, you have a big decision to make: using a barbell or dumbbells. For decades, the barbell has been held as the standard for strength training and weightlifting. But should it be?


When it comes to safety when working out, performing exercises with dumbbells can have an advantage over a barbell. Because the barbell is a single heavy metal piece that crosses the body, it has the potential of being more dangerous if it falls during an exercise. Since dumbbells are separate, if they fall, they will most likely go off to either side and avoid major injury.

There are ways to make exercising with a bar safer. The first step is using a spotter, which is another person who stands nearby and can help lift the bar in case something happens. Another option is to use a squat rack which has moveable guards to prevent the barbell from falling and causing harm. Another option is the Smith machine, which functions similarly to the squat rack, and has a barbell that is suspended on rails, in addition to the guards. However, there is a downside: depending on the structure of the particular smith machine, it can limit the movement and range of motion.


One major benefit of using dumbbells is that they enable more natural movements and positioning during certain exercises. When using a barbell, your movement patterns are limited by the design of the bar. When holding heavy weights, the body instinctively wants to hold it as close to its center of gravity as possible, to make things easier and safer. Exercise such as shrugs, squats, and the deadlift are made more difficult because the bar gets in the way of pulling the weight in closer.

Another great alternative to a standard barbell for exercises like these is a Trap Bar or Hex Bar. This is based on a barbell, but it is shaped to fit around you, usually in the shape of a hexagon, to fit more of the natural movement of the body. This lessens the possibility of the bar banging into your shins or knees during the initial lifting portion of the exercise.


Dumbbells also beat out the bar when it comes to targeting stability muscles. With the barbell it’s easy to compensate with one arm over the other, as the bar itself works to stabilize the weight between both arms. Using dumbbells, on the other hand, both arms work independently to lift and balance the entire weight, using forces from all directions. This targets not only the major muscle groups, but smaller stability and other minor auxiliary muscles. Because of this, exercising with dumbbells works to improve muscle imbalances, both between each arm, as well as between muscles on the same arm, in ways just working with a bar cannot.

Both the barbell and dumbbells have their own strengths and weaknesses. There is no one perfect fitness tool for everyone. Instead of looking for one, go for whichever is best for you, your space, and particular exercise. Try them both out, or use a combination of both for your own full fitness program.