Dumbbells vs barbells: what's better for your workout?

We explore the pros and cons of dumbbells vs barbells, whether you're working out at home or in the gym

woman at bar dumbbells vs barbells
(Image credit: Getty)

Walking into the weights room at the gym, you're faced with the dumbbells vs barbells conundrum. Do you pick up a pair of dumbbells? Or do you choose to do your workout with a barbell instead?

Alternatively, you might be looking to invest in the best workout equipment for home - and the dumbbells vs barbells debate will rear its head again.

Both have their pros and cons and both can come in a variety of different weights. But what’s best for YOU?

Here, we give you the pros and cons of dumbbells and barbells, to make your decision a little easier.

Dumbbells: the pros

One of the major benefits of dumbbells is that, given they're not attached to each other, you can work the two sides of your body independently of one another. 

This can be useful in injury recovery or when you want to target specific muscles, for example to balance-out muscle imbalances. 'Dumbbells can help people work on weaker sides of the body as the stronger sides can’t compensate,' says Mark Fox, Expert PT & Health and Fitness Tutor for The Training Room.

He adds that some may find dumbbells more versatile than barbells, as they can be used one handed or two handed for a range of exercises.

Dumbbells are also quicker to switch between when swapping weights - you simply need to grab the weight you need for your next exercise. In contrast, switching weights with a barbell can involve a fair bit of work in terms of removing and adding different plates.

Dumbbells allow you to work both sides of the body independently

Dumbbells allow you to work both sides of the body independently 

(Image credit: Getty)

Dumbbells: the cons

Although dumbbells have their fair share of positives, there are a few downsides too.

One of the biggest issues can be one of space. Traditional dumbbells come in a range of sizes - the larger the weight, the bigger the dumbbell. Different exercises will require different weights and, of course, as you progress and get stronger you'll want to work with heavier dumbbells. So if you're building a home gym, you may end up with a lot of weights that need to be stored.

One solution is to invest in a set of the best adjustable dumbbells, which can be loaded up with more weight similar to barbells - although this does make them a bit more fiddly to use.

Mark also adds that working out with dumbbells may be less stable than working out with barbells or fixed resistance machines. Reduced stability means that the max weight you’re able to use may end up being less than if you were to use a barbell.

Barbells: the pros

If you want to work on maximal strength, a barbell could be your best bet. Ben Jackson, owner of gym F45 South Wimbledon, explains: 'You’ll be able to lift more weight using a barbell and therefore get stronger.’

This is ideal if you have strength goals as you can keep adding load to the barbell with plates of different weights and sizes. Just be sure to use a barbell collar to stop any plates from sliding off.

Barbells are also beneficial in that, as you’re using two hands, it is easier to stay stable. For example, when doing lunges with weights, a barbell offers more stability as the weight is balanced across the body. Conversely, lunging with dumbbells can lead to imbalance and potential falls.

Woman lifting a barbell

Barbells offer more stability than dumbbells

(Image credit: Getty)

Barbells: the cons

Although a barbell is ideal for heavier lifts, Mark adds that this can often mean people go too heavy, by loading up too much weight on the bar. This can then compromise form and result in injury.

Mark adds: ‘If you have range of movement (flexibility) restrictions, barbells can put you into uncomfortable and even dangerous positions. Plus, as using a barbell tends to be two handed or legged, it can lead to muscle imbalances (caused by a stronger, more dominant side working harder than the other).’  

Dumbbells vs barbells: final thoughts

Weighing up all of the above, it's clear to see that both pieces of equipment have their positives as well as their downsides. 

Still unsure which to go for? Ben says that, truthfully, neither is better than the other - instead, it really comes down to your personal fitness aims.

‘A better question is, what is your goal?' he says. 'Ask yourself what you’re trying to achieve in the session and therefore what exercises and items of equipment are going to suit you best.’

Ideally you would incorporate both into your workout, using dumbbells to compliment the barbell moves.

Ben explains: ‘If you’re not sure then ask one of the PT’s in your local gym, but if they tell you unequivocally to never touch one or the other, my advice is to say thanks and find someone else.’