Recently I was asked “…what is your preference on dumbbells compared to barbells? Does the increased amount of weight you can move on say, an incline barbell press offset the extra work by the stabilizing muscles if you were use dumbbells? Should dumbbells and barbells be alternated?”
And this is a great question worthy of a thoughtful response!
I’ll preface my comments by sharing one of the most common ways questions to me are structured:
“If you had only one ________, what would you do?”
And my response to these types of questions always begins my pointing out that thankfully, we typically aren’t limited to only one option. And so yes, MOST trainees should use both dumbbell and barbell movements, because both variants have their own unique “benefit-to-drawback” profiles.
So what’s best for you?
Lots of factors need consideration as you attempt to answer that question, but here are two that should be at the front of the list:
Specificity. If you’re an Olympic weightlifter or a powerlifter, then your should use barbells most of the time. Your competitive events demand it. If, on the other hand, you play baseball, tennis, hockey, soccer, or if you’re involved in disciplines like martial arts, climbing, BMX, or general fitness, then dumbbell drills should assume a larger role in your training.
Availability: Dumbbells typically cost MUCH more than barbells and plates. So if (for example) you train at home and finances are limited, you’re probably going to use barbells exclusively or almost exclusively.
Need for maximal strength: If success in your athletic discipline requires the ability to overcome large loads (powerlifting, Olympic lifting, football, throws, etc), barbells will be a primary tool. That’s because the instability of dumbbells will limit how much load you can lift.
Finally, no need to limit ourselves to dumbbells and barbells! Don’t forget about kettlebells, elastic resistance, sled dragging, partner work, car pushing, sprints, rope climbing, bodyweight exercises….we all need to “exercise” our creativity when it comes to equipment options!