I’m one of our resident Exercise Physiologists, and also an accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach, Personal Trainer and Level 1 Weightlifting Instructor. Outside of the gym, I tend to go in search of good food and great coffee. And yes, Dan’s Shoulder Stretch is mine.
Most of the world’s strongest people (gymnasts excepted) use barbells religiously. There’s a reason for that – barbell training works. Barbells allow you to handle maximal loads, use progressive overload and train virtually any muscle group you want.
If they’re so good, then why use dumbbells at all?
1. Dumbbells are easier on the joints.
This is my biggest one. Training with a bar is great, but after a while the joints get grumpy. Bench pressing with a barbell can, after a while, get pretty gnarly on the elbows. Dumbbell presses allow you to train the same muscles, but because the hands can now rotate freely, the torsion on the elbow is taken away. The muscles keep getting worked, but the tendons get a break.
2. Dumbbells can often allow for better range of motion.
Some movements are just more suited to dumbbells. It’s easier to get full range of movement with dumbbells for flyes, presses and rows (to name a few).
3.Dumbbells can target a muscle (group) more effectively.
Take the bicep curl as an example. A barbell curl will effectively train the biceps, but a dumbbell will target them more effectively, based on the anatomy of the muscle. The biceps do a couple of things, including flex the elbow (which most people know) and rotate/supinate the forearm (which most people don’t know).
To maximise the range of the biceps, a rotation of the hand is necessary – something you can’t do with a barbell.
4. Dumbbells address asymmetries.
Because you’re using your left and right hand independently, both sides have got to pull their weight. A barbell can “mask” a left/right asymmetry.
There are a lot of times when barbells work best. No one broke a powerlifting or weightlifting world record by exclusively using dumbbells. But dumbbells have their place, and have been used by bodybuilders to target muscles better, CrossFitters to address asymmetries and athletes to prepare for an upcoming season.
Know when to use them, and know when to move on to their big brother – the barbell.