Strength Training 101: Dumbbells vs. Barbells

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When it comes to training with free weights, you have two popular options: dumbbells or barbells. And each have their pros and cons. But you don’t have to limit yourself with one or the other. Normally, your instructor would recommend that you start with barbells earlier in your workout and move on to dumbbells as your muscles start to warm up. This is because it is believed that you can generally press more weight with barbells than dumbbells. The truth? Let’s find out.

A recent study in Norway pitted these two against each other. They measured how much weight a guy could press for one-rep max and analyzed the muscle activity in the pecs, front delts, triceps and biceps.  The conclusion was pretty heartening. They confirmed that a typical guy could lift 20% more with a barbell than with a dumbbell. What’s more, they also found out that there was little to no difference in pecs and delts muscle activity for both types. But if you want to train your biceps, then the dumbbell bench press should be right for you. This can be attributed to the fact that when you use the dumbbells, you move in a sort of arched manner as your arms move up and together. But with the barbell, your arm movement will only be limited to an up and down motion. This allows you to fatigue your triceps on bench presses first. Then when you move on to dumbbell presses, the triceps won’t be the weak link and you can focus more on the pecs.

With that said, athletes should be able to build up their strength more with barbell bench presses than with dumbbell bench presses.

So if you’re looking to improve your strength, your routine should follow something like this:

  • When you do chest workouts, perfrom barbell bench presses first. This should maximize the amount of weight you bench press and therefore the amount of overload on the chest.
  • Follow this up with dumbbell presses. This focuses on your pecs.