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Q&A: Barbells vs. Dumbbells

7205-train4Q: For exercises that can be performed with dumbbells or a barbell, which is the best choice?

A: That largely depends on the specific dumbbells that are available to you, whether you train alone and whether you have any physical limitations that makes use of a barbell difficult on some exercises.

If you have a full range of fixed-weight dumbbells that go up to very heavy ones in five-pound or 2.5-kilo increments, some small magnetic weight plates so that you can produce smaller increases and assistants to help you when necessary with getting heavy ’bells into position for pressing movements, that’s perfect. But, if you have a set that goes only to 50-pounders—in 10-pound increments—with no method of producing smaller increases, those ’bells will provide only a limited option.

An alternative would be to use adjustable dumbbells, but they aren’t common in commercial gyms, and they can be unwieldy and tricky to load and unload.

For arm exercises, flat- and incline-bench presses and overhead presses, dumbbells permit the flexibility to adjust your wrist position for greater comfort than a barbell provides. The reason is that a barbell doesn’t permit wrist rotation. That gives dumbbells a big advantage for bodybuilders who have some physical problem that makes it difficult to use a barbell. For example, due to elbow or wrist problems, dumbbell curls may be safe and effective, but barbell curls may be uncomfortable and ineffective.

Dumbbells also permit more flexibility of position than you can have with a barbell. For example, you can do overhead presses with the dumbbells in the natural, most comfortable position, at the sides of your head; however, with a barbell you can do them in front or behind—but not in the in-between position.

There are safety concerns with dumbbells. You can train without fear of being pinned by the weight on the barbell bench press, incline press and overhead press even if you train alone, provided you have safety bars in position at the bottom to catch the barbell if you fail. With dumbbells, however, such safety bars won’t work. Unless you have a special setup, spotters are essential on some dumbbell exercises. Otherwise you could be in serious trouble if you fail on a rep or lose control of the dumbbells.

Getting heavy dumbbells into position for benches and overheads is easy if you have assistants but tricky if you train alone.


—Stuart McRobert


Editor’s note: Stuart McRobert’s first byline in IRON MAN appeared in 1981. He’s the author of the new BRAWN series, Book 1: How to Build Up to 50 Pounds of Muscle the Natural Way, available from Home Gym Warehouse, (800) 447-0008 or www


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