Recently I was asked “…what is your preference on dumbbells compared to barbells? Does the increased amount of weight you can move on say, an incline barbell press offset the extra work by the stabilizing muscles if you were use dumbbells? Should dumbbells and barbells be alternated?”
And this is a great question worthy of a thoughtful response!

I’ll preface my comments by sharing one of the most common ways questions to me are structured:
“If you had only one ________, what would you do?”
And my response to these types of questions always begins my pointing out that thankfully, we typically aren’t limited to only one option. And so yes, MOST trainees should use both dumbbell and barbell movements, because both variants have their own unique “benefit-to-drawback” profiles.
So what’s best for you?
Lots of factors need consideration as you attempt to answer that question, but here are two that should be at the front of the list:
Specificity. If you’re an Olympic weightlifter or a powerlifter, then your should use barbells most of the time. Your competitive events demand it. If, on the other hand, you play baseball, tennis, hockey, soccer, or if you’re involved in disciplines like martial arts, climbing, BMX, or general fitness, then dumbbell drills should assume a larger role in your training.
Availability: Dumbbells typically cost MUCH more than barbells and plates. So if (for example) you train at home and finances are limited, you’re probably going to use barbells exclusively or almost exclusively.
Need for maximal strength: If success in your athletic discipline requires the ability to overcome large loads (powerlifting, Olympic lifting, football, throws, etc), barbells will be a primary tool. That’s because the instability of dumbbells will limit how much load you can lift.
Finally, no need to limit ourselves to dumbbells and barbells! Don’t forget about kettlebells, elastic resistance, sled dragging, partner work, car pushing, sprints, rope climbing, bodyweight exercises….we all need to “exercise” our creativity when it comes to equipment options!

13 Comments
  1. Will Brink 10 years ago

    Yes, yes, YES! Great info Charles. This hits every essential point of this “debate.” Take note people!

  2. Bob Camper 10 years ago

    I though Mr. Staley would say something,what he said wasn’t
    worth reading, dummies know this much.

  3. Author
    Charles Staley 10 years ago

    Please enlighten us Bob!

  4. Randy Gloor 10 years ago

    Charles, great article! I have a question about using dumbbells in a case where we might experience an imbalance – where one side is slightly weaker than the other. Would it make sense to use dumbbells to adjust the weight and/or intensity to work the weak side harder to “catch up” and get closer to balance?

  5. Author
    Charles Staley 10 years ago

    Thanks Randy,
    If it’s a significant strength discrepancy, yes, DB’s should play a greater role. However, keep in mind the other needs I pointed out above- if you[re a maximal strength athlete, and/or if you’re a competitive lifter, you’ll still use plenty of barbell drills.
    Also keep in mind that most of use will have slight bilateral imbalances- so much so that I’d call it “normal.”

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