T Nation

Barbells vs. Dumbbells


(Yes, this is a side-track from the "Shoulder Horn" thread.)

If a newbie wanted to start working his/her pectorals, and asked for advice regarding the relative pros and cons of using the Olympic barbell vs. a pair of dumbbells, what would you advise?

Let's assume for the sake of this argument (and ONLY this argument; of COURSE there are other situations), that the gym in question has 100-pound dumbbells, so that the lifter couldn't go above 200 pounds on the bench press exercise without using a barbell. BUT, here we are talking about a total newbie who isn't going to be benching 200 any time soon.

"Discuss. Not TOO heatedly."
--Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead


Well it really depends on what you want to gain. If you want a big bench, well then you heav to bench sometimes. But, if you are looking to build the pecs like you say, I am going to assume you're talking about hypertrophy. You want growth, and I believe that dumbells are the way to go, but for flyes, not presses.

Another effective movement is the cheat fly. Take two dumbells as if you were going to do a dumbell press and as you lower the weights, let them drift outward slightly past your elbows. Keep them under control, as it easy to let the weights pull your arms out. Once you reach the bottom, reverse the motion, and repeat. You will have to find a weight somewhere less than what you press but more than what you use for flyes.

If you read "The Shoulder Horn" thread, then you should know that I find no fault in the bench press, however you really to do it correctly. Read some articles here on form; especially Dave Tate's stuff(can't go too wrong with a 600 lb bencher).

At the same time, don't make the newbie mistake of over-using the bench press. Most elite level bench pressers only do heavy, full-range bench presses every few weeks. The fill the extra time with other benching exrcises, like floor presses, board presses, rack lock-outs, and other variations.

Anyway, neither dumbells or barbells are really "better" than the other. If you have access to both, use them both. Learn to use both. There is a place in your training for both.

However, if for some reason you only can or want to use one, I guess I would have to say dumbells. They offer greatly versatility than a bar. You can do more with them in terms of exercises; and you more variations such as hand positions and range of motion.

But my real advice here is to use both.

Stay Strong


dumbells will allow you to work heavy without a spotter. you can recognize muscle imbalances. they work the stabalizers more. they give you more freedom in movement and diversity. use the barbell when you have a spotter and you want to go to a near maximal intensity. laters pk


Mix and match them.

For instance:
if you do flat barbell, then do incline dbs.
if you do incline barbell, hit flat dbs.
This will let you do both.
incline barbell, flat barbell or vice versa.
incline barbell, decline barbell.

just some examples.


Lots of good points already. As malonetd and Cwick0 have said, the best approach is probably to use both.

But if I had to pick one or the other, I'd say dumbbells are the better bet for a newbie. Most new trainees have a pretty pronounced strength imbalance between limbs and dumbbells can go a long ways towards rectifying that problem.


Have them use both for the sake of variety and for the sake of knowledge (knowing how to use different pieces of equipment). Those two reasons alone make it very beneficial to use both.


barbells and dumbells for benching both have their distinct benefits when it comes to improve the size/strength of your pecs, delts, and tri's. with the bar, you will be able to lift more weight overall (200 lbs on a barbell is very different than using 2 100 lbs dumbells), and by changing your grip width, you can easily put more emphasis on different muscle groups (in general, wide for the pecs, close for the tri's). with dumbells, you put more emphasis on those muscles involved in stabilizing the shoulder joint and the movement, as well as performing these heavy without the use of a spotter.

my suggestions:
use both. your pecs and tri's will benefit from the stability of using a barbell for increased strength/size, and you'll work on stabilizing your shoulder joint better with dumbells. one of the things i find most prevalent in newbies when they start to incorporate benching in their training is their inability to get the form down. why? its because most newbies get on the bench, whether using the bar or dumbells, and start squirming around having their shoulders leaning off one side of the bench and having their legs flailing off the ground. whatever you do, do it right. make sure you retract your shoulder blades so they make a nice flat foundation to lift from, and drive your feet into the ground (there is also a posterior chain neural disinhibition mechanism that will allow you to lift more weight by doing this). choose your grip and make sure your hands are placed on the bar in proper places (hate to see somebody doing the bench and the bar is tilting to a side because they just misplaced their hands). with either the bar or dumbells, don't do those ridiculous 1/2 or 1/4 movements where the weight moves 3 inches and you consider that a rep. and so long as your getting your form down, don't lift heavy until you get all this right. one of the scariest things in the gym is to see somebody trying to lift a weight while its madly shaking in their outstretched arms and they've got their lower back a full foot above the bench.


Both have pros and cons like you said (use both). It really all depends on your training goals. I personally recommend DB bench presses to beginners to strengthen there stabilizing muscles, with lots of rotator cuff training incorporated in the program. As the athlete advances I utilize more BB bench press.