Barbells vs Dumbbells: Which is better for building muscle?

Written by Dr. Dave Hopper, M.S.(C)

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barbell vs dumbbell for muscle buildingIf you’re like most gym rats,

You regularly use barbells and dumbbells.


You probably use both every day or at least every time you step into the gym…

Which should be nearly every day!

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Have you ever wondered…..

Which will help me build bigger muscles?

What are the benefits and drawbacks to barbells? Dumbbells?

In this article we are going to tackle exactly that!

Let’s first look at the history of these two iconic gym staples:


There is a ton of mis-information and partially true stories out there on the history of the barbells and dumbbells. I tend to believe the ones written and backed with references and researched by historians.

In the paper “From Milo to Milo: A History of Barbells, Dumbbells and Indian Clubs” (1) author, Jan Todd Ph.D., has done extensive research on the subject and I will take her paper as the most true history.

Here’s a quick rundown;

1. Some version of dumbbells has been around for thousands of years.

2. Credit is given to the ancient Greeks for most resistance training equipment. Though who actually came up with it will never be known.

  • This was approximately fifth century B.C. That’s over 2,500 years ago!!!

3. Over the years many modifications were made to “dumbbells” as they became what they are today.

4. There is no single person to give credit to for the modern dumbbell. But I am sure happy it’s here!

5. Dumbbells were around long before barbells and likely barbells were originated as an alternate tool to dumbbell training.

6. Sometime, likely in the 1800’s barbells started showing up.

  • At this point they were various length bars with solid metal spheres fixed to the ends.

7. In 1865, Barker Windship patented the plate loading barbell. Although, he is likely not the actual inventor.

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8. 1902 Alan Calvert founded the Milo Barbell Company in the United States of America.

The barbells were slowly evolving from sphere, lead shot or sand loaded ends to plate loaded at this time via the previously mentioned invention

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9. 1910 in Germany Franz Veltum invented the first barbell that was able to rotate.

An equipment company “Kasper-Berg” began producing these barbells.

This became known as the Berg Barbell.

10. 1928 the Berg-Barbell was revised to be basically the modern barbell we still use today, nearly 100 years later!

11. The 1928 Olympics held in Amsterdam used this barbell and its size would be known as the “Olympic Barbell”.

12. York Barbell company would soon copy this design, as would all others to make this the barbell used world-wide.

Now that you’ve had your history lesson for the day, let’s get to the good stuff!

How do barbells and dumbbells compare to each other….

Range Of Motion (ROM):

Range of Motion (ROM) is one of the biggest factors playing into building bigger muscles.

In fact;

A limited ROM will change a muscles appearance….


A imitated ROM will activate less tissue within a muscle…in turn, not growing as large (2).


It should be stated that a partial ROM can also be very powerful to help push past sticking points and develop specific strength moves (2).

A barbell indeed limits ROM!


A barbell, used properly through its allowed ROM will still greatly help with proper development.

Dumbbells allow a greater much ROM.

By nature of it;

Having no attachment between the two hands allows them to move further.


A smaller object like a dumbbell can go places a barbell simply can’t…..Or can’t go comfortably.

When it comes to ROM we stress its importance because;

More ROM = More muscle activation

More muscle activation = Bigger, fuller muscles

Let’s look at a chest press for example;

With dumbbells you can easily go down past the plane of your chest.

With a barbell you must stop at your chest.

As a result;

The dumbbells allow for more recruitment of different muscle fibers within your pectoralis major (pecs) muscles.

The barbell will work a lot of those same fibers, but the ones activated past the plane of the chest will never be accessed with the barbell.


Imbalances within your body are BAD!

Not only bad looking,


Your risk of injury goes way up when you have a muscular imbalance or movement asymmetry (3).

When it comes to imbalances,

Barbells will encourage them.

With a barbell both sides of your body are working together.

As a result;

If you have a muscular imbalance already (we all do!)

Using a barbell will make that imbalance stand out more.

Your stronger side or better moving side will literally pull the slack for your weaker side. Making the stronger side stronger yet, and the weaker side weaker.


If you have an injury, new or old, and or any physical limitation….

Barbells will really bring out those ways your body compensates and creates imbalances for those.

See the “Injury” section below.

Dumbbells on the other hand;

Will help to correct for differences side to side.

When you use two individual weights your limiting factor is your weak side.

Back to chest press as the example;

If your right hand can press a 65lb dumbbell but your left can only press 50lbs;

You’re only going to press 50lbs per hand until that left side catches up.

That is unless you’re a dumbass and press different bells….


The use of individual weights allows the weak side a chance to grow without being “helped” by the strong side.

If you’ve never used dumbbells in a certain lift, try it out.

You may be surprised how uneven you are!

Overloading Muscles:

Barbells are the clear winner here.

The sum of the two halves does not equal the whole here.


1 + 1 does NOT equal to 2.

If you can max press 50lb dumbbells in each hand. That would be 100lb total.

On a barbell you likely could do 120lbs…or more.

In fact;

According to this article in the Journal of Sports Science subjects could lift 20% greater weight when using a barbell versus dumbbells for a given lift (4).

And that’s huge when it comes to packing on muscle!

So, if you’re looking to pack on the plates and really overload your muscles the barbell is the way to go!

We all know, the way to grow is by doing exactly that,

Stacking BIG weights!

For most moves this just becomes cumbersome with dumbbells.

Especially when it comes to working the legs.

Try doing a heavy squat with dumbbells.

Likely your limiting factor here will be your grip.

Your legs can handle 200lbs of weight no problem, but your hands will struggle holding 100lb dumbbells for a the time it takes to get in your reps.

Also, let’s face it….

There aren’t dumbbells big enough to max out your legs with.

And legs my friend,

will force the rest of your body to grow because when you push your legs hard,

Your bodies testosterone and growth hormone production go way up, benefiting your upper body too (5).

So when it comes to packing on the weight….

Use a barbell


Well obviously this goes to dumbbells.

With dumbbells you have SO much more versatility.

You can do all the barbell exercises, with dumbbells,


Modify all them to totally change the entire exercise for each muscle.

Let’s use bicep exercises as an example;

With a barbell you can do the following:

Standing curls and possibly preacher curls…..That’s a stretch with a 7-foot bar.

Of course, you have grip variations too.

Narrow and wide.

Dumbbell bicep exercises;

Standing curls, seated curls, incline curls and concentration curls to name a few…..

And variations of each;

Single arm, alternating, reciprocating

I’m sure you could come up with more!

Bottom line;

If you want variety dumbbells are your friend.

And variety is not only the spice of life,

But key to building bigger muscles!


Based on all the above it should be easy to figure out which is best to use when you have an injury or limitation.


Dumbbells give you far more ROM and allow for much more freedom of movement.

Having these things are key to recovering from an injury or working around a limitation.

When you have an injury or limitation,

It is very important to be able to modify workouts by their ROM, path of movement and or freedom of movement joint to joint.

With a barbell you are limited into one particular ROM and path of motion with most exercises.

And worst of all for injuries;

With a barbell your joints are in a fixed position throughout the movement.

Dumbbells however,

Allow you to have a great ROM as mentioned above.

The path of motion can be modified very easily to accommodate for any injury or movement limitation.


Each joint has the freedom to move independently from each other throughout the movement.

This makes dumbbells far more ideal for working with injuries or limitations.

Take this into consideration for super sore days or minor injuries too.

Sometimes changing the ROM or path slightly can really help!

Convenience & Cost:

There is no contest here;

Dumbbells are the clear winner when it comes to convenience.

They are small (mostly) and can be used with no other equipment.

With cost;

Dumbbells will be far higher by the time you get the variety of sizes you will need.

Even the stackable dumbbells are very pricy.


Are very large and not the easiest to hide away or use in a small place.


For most exercises barbells require other equipment, if nothing else, just for ease of use.

A bench and a rack are near necessities with a barbell.

The barbell itself is not too bad price wise,

Similar, plates are less expensive then dumbbells per pound.


In the end if you’re buying a rack and bench to go with your barbell you’re going to wind up near the same price range.


Well safety will have to go to dumbbells.

Here’s why.

If you fail with dumbbells in a bench press move,

You drop them to either side and that’s end of that.

If you fail with a barbell bench press…..

You pray there’s someone close by to help or you forgot to use collars and can dump the weight.

People actually die this way….


When it comes to other safety factors, like overhead use and what not,

Dumbbells tend to be safer there too;

Dropping them is easier to guide their decent and your likely not using nearly as much weight.

But they can have an unpredictable, football like bounce to them….

So, if your lifting solo, go with dumbbells.

After reading my comparison portion of this articel you are probably thinking…..


This guy is saying dumbbells are the way to go.


Dumbbells do have several upsides to them when looking at the big picture.


When it comes to building muscle…

Barbells & Dumbbells together make the best combo!


How you design a workout program with that combo


How you use those barbells and dumbbells will determine success

Building Muscle with Barbells & Dumbbells:

There are rules to follow when using both barbells and dumbbells in the same exercise program.

1. Always do heavy and or compound movements first.

  •  Meaning barbell exercise usually go first

2. Always do chest before back

3. End with “definition” exercises

Let’s explore each:

1. Always do heavy and or compound movements first:

The reason for this is;

After a good warm-up, your body is most primed and ready to go.

You have little to no muscular fatigue.

Your proprioception and stabilization (neurological) systems are functioning at their highest capacity.

This means,

You will likely perform your best at this point in your workout.


Your least likely to get injured at this point in your workout.

This usually also translates to;

Doing your barbell exercises first.

As those tend to be the heavier exercises and if you’re doing big power moves like a clean, snatch, squat, etc.

They tend to require more neurological input for coordination and what not. And neurological systems will fatigue through your workout.

2. Always do chest before back

This is for ALL exercise programs where you’re working chest and back in the same day or days following each other.

This is important because;

When you do a lift with your chest, especially a heavy lift, you rely on a lot of shoulder stabilizers.

That is, rotator cuffs, traps, lats, serratus, etc.

All of those muscles are also back muscles.


If you work your back first, then your fatiguing your shoulder stabilizers.

This increases your chance for injury when you go to work your chest!

3. End with Definition Exercises

Just as we talked about above in rule number 1.

The definition exercises tend to require less coordination and tend use lower weights.

So, if you’re neurologically and or muscularly fatigued while doing them your chance of injury still isn’t very high.


These tend to be exercises you would do with a dumbbell.

That’s all Folks!

Please comment below if you have additional questions.

Thanks for reading!

Dr. Dave Hopper


1. “From Milo to Milo: A History of Barbells, Dumbbells and Indian Clubs”, Jan Todd.
2. Partial Compared with FullRange of Motion Resistance Training for Muscle Hypertrophy: A Brief Review and an Identification of Potential Mechanisms.
Newmire DE, Willoughby DS.
J Strength Cond Res. 2018 Sep;32(9):2652-2664. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002723. Review.
3. Izraelski J. Movement: Functional Movement Systems: Screening, Assessment, and Corrective Strategies. J Can Chiropr Assoc. 2012;56(2):158.
4.Dose-responserelationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW.
J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073-1082. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2016.1210197. Epub 2016 Jul 19. Review.
5. Endocrine responses toresistance 
Kraemer WJ.
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1988 Oct;20(5 Suppl):S152-7. Review.

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3 thoughts on “Barbells vs Dumbbells: Which is better for building muscle?”

  1. Great article big help for me. I’m 86 and an active body builder. I weigh 200 lbs and do leg presses with 600lbs x 10 x 4 sets.


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