Dumbbell Exercises vs Barbell Lifting

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Yusuf Paterson

Nutritionist & Coach

Yusuf Paterson is our lifestyle and nutrition writer (and you may spot him working up a sweat in some of our product photography too!)

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Dumbbell Exercises
8 November 2022 4 min read
Dumbbell Exercises vs Barbell Lifting

The big question – which is better? The good old barbell or dumbbells?! Is it really going to make that much difference to your progress? Can you build muscle just using dumbbells?

Obviously, in an ideal world, we can use both. But for me, dumbbells are my favourite bit of kit, not least because of their versatility but there is not one muscle group I can’t train with the use of dumbbells.

A meta-analysis study came out recently showing that training with free weights provides similar results as training with machines (heidel et al 2021). The research highlighted that free weight training was better for increasing strength with free weights, and machine-based training was better for increasing strength with machines. Both power and muscle growth were similar between the two as well. This further reinforces the theory of specificity suggesting those primarily interested in strength need to be specific for their outcome.

For example, if you are a powerlifter and needs to get stronger in deadlifts, squats and bench press then you are going to have to do these lifts in order to get stronger at them.

However, if it’s muscle growth you’re interested in, then you can choose whichever you prefer!

Dumbbell Exercise

Personally, I would argue you get more bang for buck with free weights and specifically dumbbells. Speaking anecdotally from working in gyms for over ten years, those that come from a background of using dumbbells tend to pick up new movements quicker, are more stable, and less injury prone vs. those who have spent most of their training time using machines. The reason being that dumbbells provide that unique ability of you having to control the weight as well as perform the movement at hand.

Let’s look at the dumbbell bench press… In this movement, your chest and triceps are working the hardest but the dumbbells not being in a fixed place means you are having to work harder in order to control that dumbbell on the right path. So, all of the little muscles in your shoulders are working really hard to help stabilise with this movement. 

Working with dumbbells also requires us to work unilaterally, so if you are weaker on one side of the body, you may notice that, when using dumbbells, your weaker side may fail first as you aren’t able to compensate with your dominant side– also called the set over. If we were using a barbell in this case, it may not be noticed which can cause an even bigger imbalance leading to injury further down the line.

So who should be using dumbbells?

Anyone will benefit from Db training advance trainers to novice. When it comes to training and building muscle the same principles apply to all:

  • Ensure you are training at an intensity high enough to stimulate enough motor unit recruitment
  • Train close to proximity of failure to stimulate the muscle enough to cause change
  • Progressive overload (either weights, reps, time etc…) – I will go over this in more detail in a later blog!

Dumbbell Exercise Example

Dumbbell Workouts For Muscle Growth

If you’re stuck on workouts, give these workouts a go!

For AN ULTIMATE Chest and Triceps Workout try this:

A1) Incline Db bench press heavy, 6 reps immediately drop the weight into 12 lighter reps, 45-60s rest 6 sets

B1) Flat bench Db bench flies, 6-8 reps (moderate weight) tempo 4:4:1:1 (4s down: 4s hold in stretch pos: 1s up: 1s at top)

B2) Superset with Diamond grip pushups (can be done on knees to hit required reps), 15-25 reps, 60s rest 4 sets

C1) Flat db bench press as heavy as possible to allow for required reps, 8 reps (10 if you have a spotter)

C2) superset with clap/regular push ups (can be done on knees to hit required reps), 15 reps, 60s rest, 4 sets

D1) db Skull crushers, 12-15 Reps

D2) Superset with Db overhead extensions, 12-15 reps, 60s rest 3 sets


Leg Workout With Dumbbells

Leg burner with 2x dumbbells – this may also feel like cardio!

21 minute EMOM (every minute on the minute, change movements) – so you will complete this circuit 7 times in total.

Min 1: 12 Db suitcase Deadlifts

Min2: 12 Db front rack front squats

Min3: 12 Db suitcase reverse lunges

This is a great one if you just want a good leg burner and you are short on time!


All Over Dumbbell Workout

A1) Db Bulgarian split squat, 12-15 reps per leg, 2min between sets, 45s rest between legs, 3 sets

B1) 10-1 Db seated overhead press (at a challenging weight)

B2) in between each set complete max set of pull ups (can be assisted if needed)

C1) incline db curls, 12-15 reps

C2) db lateral raises, 12-15 reps, 3 sets, 60s rest between sets


Another Cardio Workout With Dumbbells

18min EMOM (alternate movements and alternate between ergs if possible)

Min1: 12-15 cals Ski/Row/Assault Bike (OR 100m run if no access to ergs)

Min2: 5 double Db devil press



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