Are Dumbbells Or Barbells Better For Building Muscle?

Last Updated on October 15, 2022 by TJ Daniels, Certified Personal Trainer

Dumbbells vs barbells for mass. It’s a debate that has raged on in gyms for decades – which is better for building muscle? Dumbbells or barbells?

In general, most of us have a preference as to what type of equipment to use when looking for muscle growth.

Some go to the gym and do barbell bench press and some go to the gym to do dumbbell bench press.

Are Dumbbells Or Barbells Better For Building Muscle?

While this is perfectly acceptable, and you will see great gains with both barbells and dumbbells, it’s worth noting that all types of equipment have a unique role to play and can help reach your goals in certain ways.

To get the most out of strength training, it is widely agreed that free weights are the best option due to the increased range of motion.

And both barbell and dumbbell exercises are great at promoting muscle growth and muscle activation.

Approach To Growth

But, muscle groups can be approached in many different ways.

You could go down the route of some bodybuilders, who load hundreds of pounds onto their barbells for squatting. Or, you could opt to use dumbbells for squats.

It typically boils down to what suits you best and what you prefer. 

As we said, each type of equipment has its benefits and cons. Generally speaking, dumbbells are the safest option, easier to use, and will provide a greater range of motion.

But, they can only go up to a certain weight, which may not be enough for you. Barbells, on the other hand, allow you to lift heavier weights.

Therefore, you are more likely to see gains in a shorter amount of time. But, as with all gym equipment, there are downsides, such as a higher risk of injury.

Man doing dumbbell row


Whatever equipment you use, remember that consistency is key! Your workouts should not become a chore. Instead, make them short (around 30 minutes) so you can commit to them every day or so.

Be consistent and rotate with other exercises, focusing on all of your muscle groups, and you will see results, regardless of what equipment you’re using.

Nevertheless, you’re here to find out whether barbells vs dumbbells are better for gaining muscle. Read on as we guide you through the benefits of using both and how to get the most out of your workouts with dumbbells and barbells. 


Barbell in rack.

There are several types of barbells that you can use, but some are better for building muscle mass than others.

The same applies to barbells, as both types of gym equipment are free weights. 

Free weights force your muscles to work harder than gym machines. This is because they require you to have more balance and stability while lifting and allow for more movements in numerous planes.

Gym machines offer more stability and compound variable resistance, so you don’t have to work your muscles as hard. 

Let’s take a look at barbells before moving on to dumbbells.

A standard barbell measures between 4 and 7 feet in length with a 1-inch thickness. These are best for compound movements like lunges, squats, deadlifts, and barbell bench press.

Barbells are also good for isolation movements such as barbell curls, wrist curls, and lying triceps extensions.

Man doing barbell curl on preacher bench.

Types Of Barbells:

  • Standard barbells
  • Deadlift bar
  • Olympic bar
  • Powerlifting bar
  • Log barbell
  • Swiss barbell
  • Cambered barbell
  • EZ bars
  • Hex bars (trap)
  • Axle bars
  • Safety squat barbells 

Standard bars tend to be the most popular choice for strength exercises such as squats and shoulder presses. However, if they are loaded with a lot of weight, they can bend.

For heavier loads, deadlift bars are the better option. These have a longer shaft and usually have a steel coating for a superior grip.

If you’re a beast and want to lift very heavy weights, a powerlifting bar will do the best job. For power cleans and a range of dynamic exercises, however, Olympic bars offer more flexibility.


Are Dumbbells Or Barbells Better For Building Muscle?

As with barbells, dumbbells come in various shapes and sizes. Dumbbells can be used for compound and isolation exercises such as squats, deadlifts, hammer curls, reverse flies, dumbbell bench press, and seated calf raises.

They can also improve your balance and form when lifting, and provide you with a greater range of motion.

You can opt for either fixed-weight or adjustable dumbbells, depending on what you prefer. 

Types Of Dumbbells:

  • Fixed hex dumbbells
  • Studio dumbbells
  • Fixed rubber/chrome/urethane dumbbells
  • Selectorized dumbbells (Bowflex, Powerlocks, etc.)
  • Spinlock dumbbells

Fixed hex dumbbells sit on the floor, providing better stability than standard dumbbells. These tend to last for many years due to their cast iron construction.

These types of dumbbells are also ideal for circuit training.

Studio dumbbells are often lighter. They tend to come in bright colors and typically weigh no more than 20 pounds.

Rather than being used for building muscle, studio dumbbells are utilized for aerobic classes and light workouts. 

Woman doing bent over row

Selectorized dumbbells are similar to fixed ones and allow you to add or reduce the weight you want to lift. However, they tend to be very pricey compared to other dumbbells.

Spinlock dumbbells are often used for home workouts. They allow you to adjust the weight to your preference and typically last many, many years. 

Dumbbells Vs Barbells: Building Muscle 

As we stated, both barbells and dumbbells will promote muscle activation and muscle growth.

However, to achieve better mass muscle gains, barbells are the better option.

Barbells allow you to lift heavier weights, and it is possible to incorporate progressive overloads into your routines more consistently and easily.

Therefore, mechanical tension in your muscles can be maximized and hypertrophy is stimulated to a higher level. 

Barbells are also more convenient to use compared to dumbbells and allow you to be very specific with the amount of weight you can add.

For example, if you are doing barbell bench press and want to add 2.5 pounds to each side for a total of 5 pounds, you can easily do that.

However, if you are doing dumbbell bench press, sure you can achieve a greater range of motion, however, you will not find dumbbells that are 2.5 pounds heavier if you want to increase your weights slightly.

Olympic weight lifter lifting heavy weights

You will use less energy using a barbell, meaning you can perform more sets with heavier weights.

Dumbbells tend to engage more stabilizer muscles than barbells but you will typically be using lighter weights when doing dumbbell exercises.

With a more limited range of motion, people can usually lift around 30% heavier weights than two dumbbells combined. 

Barbells also allow you to work more muscle groups at the same time with evenly distributed weights. Therefore, you have greater stability as you complete squats, bench presses, deadlifts, etc.

A drawback of using a barbell, though, is that your wrists tend to be in an unnatural position for a lower range of motion. Therefore, there is a greater risk of injury and pain. 

The downside of a dumbbell curl is that you can only train one arm at a time. For muscle definition, this is not so bad but, for strength gains and mass, barbells are the superior choice.

Man doing curls with dumbbells

There’s no doubt that both dumbbells and barbells can be beneficial to your muscle growth. It has been found that many people achieve better results when using free weights rather than just body weights.

But, muscle activation is similar among different loading devices, in general.  

When it comes to muscle symmetry, you need to work both sides of your body when using barbells. With dumbbells, however, you can perform unilateral movements, helping to build muscle symmetry.

Dumbbells can also help to improve and fix any muscle imbalances you may have. If you have strength imbalances when using a barbell, it could result in injury.

Dumbbells are easier when you want to work your weaker muscles and prevent imbalances, but barbells are the best option for building muscle mass all around. 

Man putting plates on barbell.


When training with free weights, safety should be your number one priority.

Always use a properly fitting collar when using free weights. Try to pull the collars off by hand without engaging the release to see if they are tight enough. If they slide at all, you need to use better-fitting collars.

Dumbbells that do not have a collar are sometimes fixed in place with a threaded screw. You should always ensure this screw is tight to make sure the weights don’t slip off the ends.

When using dumbbells, it is also important you get into and out of the starting and finishing positions in a safe manner.
You should always grab the dumbbells from the rack or floor and stand up with the dumbbells, making sure you have a good grip before you proceed.

If you are doing standing exercises, you can now proceed with your dumbbell exercises.

Woman doing dumbbell shoulder press.

If you are going to do lying down exercises, such as dumbbell bench press, slowly lower yourself into a sitting position, keeping the weights close to your body.

Once sitting and with the weights still close to your body, gently start to lay down using the abdominal muscles to lower yourself down slowly.

When done with the dumbbell bench press exercise, with the weights close to your body, again use your abdominal muscles to lift yourself back up to a seated position.

Now stand, ensuring you have good balance and return the dumbbells.

Remember, barbells vs dumbbells is irrelevant if you injure yourself. So be careful, especially when you are fatigued!

Fatigued man working out.

In Summary

Overall, using free weights typically leads to more muscle activation and better results in terms of balanced muscle growth.

And you know now you have a choice of which free weights to use and that both barbell and dumbbell exercises are very effective.

If you are looking for symmetry and definition, you will want to incorporate more dumbbell routines into your workouts and really focus on form and range of motion.

But, if your main goal is to build muscle mass, you should focus on lifting heavier weights. Therefore, a barbell is the better bet. While dumbbells may activate more muscles, they don’t always lead to hypertrophy as quickly as barbell exercises.

Both have their pros and cons. It’s just a matter of the results you want to achieve, but rest assured, both are very effective! 

So, the next time you show up for your bench press workout, think about what you are trying to accomplish, and then go get it!

TJ Daniels, Certified Personal Trainer
Latest posts by TJ Daniels, Certified Personal Trainer (see all)