It’s a rare occasion that I get an explicit writing request, but when I do, I welcome it enthusiastically. Recently, a fellow fitness professional, James Bascombe, did just that. So, here it is, as requested — dumbbells, vs barbells vs machines vs kettlebells: what to choose and when (I added the kettlebells to the comparison since they are quickly gaining popularity)! First, we’ll take a look at how each method of training works and then we’ll do a comparison/assessment after all methods are discussed. In today’s article, we’ll take a look at dumbbells and barbells.
Dumbbells: Dumbbells are like miniature barbells. The have a centre bar with weights on either end. Some have fixed weights (usually lighter) and some have removable/replaceable plates. In many gyms, to make things easier for lifters to transition from one weight to another, they have stuck the plates and included 2-4 pairs of each total weight so that a lifter doesn’t have to go about the hassle of removing and/or adding plates. Dumbbells are balanced (equal weights on either side) and very stable. This actually removes the need of the lifter to engage one’s stabiliser muscles to any large degree. This allows for a more focussed exercise, targeting only* the muscle that you wish to target. Because you have a single weight in each hand, dumbbells are great for isolateral** exercises. This way, you can ensure that both sides of the body are working the same and ensure symmetry. It also makes them great for recovery/physiotherapy where you may actually need to focus on your weaker side more. The range of motion is also more natural, as you can move a single limb however you wish without it being limited by the other limb. However, it also means that you are limited in some of the bigger lifts (squats, for e.g.), since your arms can only hold “so much weight” before having a longer bar becomes an asset (as seen in the next session).
Barbells: A barbell consists of a long bar with weights on either end. Although this is primarily achieved by having loose plates and a clip (to hold them in place), more recently we see gyms taking the same approach as with the barbells (fixed weights). Barbells, as said above, allow you to do more weight on the bigger lifts. For squats, you can place the bar on a rack and then it rests on your shoulders/upper back through the exercise, eliminating the need to lift 2 heavy barbells to a height and hold them up with your arms. For deadlifts, use of mixed grip helps you hold heavier weights, something that you can’t do with dumbbells. For the bench press, you can put the bar on a rack and lie down under it, so you won’t need to dangerously swing the weight into position or ask someone for help (true for all pressing exercises). Barbells also offer more variety in some exercises (squat, for e.g. has low bar back, high bar back, front – with or without rack – and Zercher, where the barbell only has 2 positions really).
Barbells allow for more control in terms of the path your arms take through a lift, since each arm is connected to the other. This reduces (even further) the need for certain stabilisers. However, often, the core is more engaged since there is a greater need to keep the bar centred. Also, it is easier to progress since there are often 2.5 lbs plates that can be added to a barbell, whereas most gyms progress by 5 lbs for each dumbbell — this means that you increase your lift by 10 lbs.
So, there you have it, the first two methods of weighted exercises (we can look at bodyweight exercises/calisthenics another time). Next week, we’ll take a look at machines and, of course, kettlebells.
*Stabiliser muscles are engaged (e.g. it has been shown that more chest muscles are engaged in dumbbell chest press over bench press), but things like wrist muscles and core muscles are engaged, but minimally.
**Isolateral literally means “one sided”. You each side of your body lifts the dumbbell by itself, as opposed to barbells and certain machines where it both sides of the body are involved, making it easier for you to put more emphasis on one side, leading to muscular imbalances.