Dumbbells vs Barbells
July 1, 2009 1:18 PM   Subscribe

Is there any reason that barbells would be indispensable from a serious stength-training program? Or are dumbbells just fine?

I've been wanting to get serious about building strength for a while now, and after reading a question about workout routines yesterday, I've pretty much decided to try the StrongLifts 5x5 routine. One question though: it seems a lot of these programs pretty much assume that when you're doing squats/deadlifts/bench press/etc that you'll be using a barbell. I don't have barbells, but I *do* have dumbbells. I've always thought that dumbbells would be better. Especially since I'll be lifting while alone in my apartment, if I run out of strength while doing bench presses or something, it seems like I'd be less likely to kill myself using dumbbells than barbells. But at the same time, if barbells are necessary to get the full effect of the exercises, I don't want to be shooting myself in the foot. Does it make a big difference? Why would one use barbells over dumbbells, or vice versa?

Thanks Mefites.
posted by Vorteks to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Dumbells require the use of more stabilizing muscles to control, and so you aren't going to be able to manage as much weight with them. That's not a bad thing in itself, but when you're working on lifts with your legs and back, after a relatively little while your progress will stall out when your forearms and shoulders can't manage as much weight as your posterior chain could lift.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:25 PM on July 1, 2009

Best answer: Your leg muscles are ridiculously strong, and there's basically no way you'd be able to lift the amount of weight you're capable of using only dumbbells. That and you'd have to lift them with your arms to get them on your shoulders. At a serious squatting weight this is pretty much un-feasible. Same goes for deadlifts. Unless you've got dumbells in excess of 100lb I doubt you'll find 5x5 of deadlifts to be very challenging at all.

That being said, there are some great alternative exercises involving dumbbells, such as thrusters, Turkish get-ups, renegade rows & windmills. All of those workouts tend to be arm-centric (save the thrusters), and the greater proportion of muscles in your body will hardly be worked at all.
posted by scrutiny at 1:30 PM on July 1, 2009

^ First part of that post referencing squats in particular.
posted by scrutiny at 1:31 PM on July 1, 2009

Dumbells generally go up in increments of 5lbs, which means a 10lbs increase is generally the smallest you can do. With barbells you will usually have 2.5lbs weights (and smaller) allowing you to increase what you are lifting by smaller amounts (2.5/side=5lbs increase in weight).
posted by Midnight Rambler at 1:31 PM on July 1, 2009

I think dumbbells are the cat's meow. They are what I primarily use. However, there are just some exercises that work with barbells, and I can't imagine not having cable machines. If you are just starting out, you can do wonders with just dumbbells and body weight.

Hopefully, you will have lots of success through hard/smart work and eventually set goals where going to a gym makes sense for you. In the meantime have fun.
posted by munchingzombie at 1:37 PM on July 1, 2009

What scrutiny said; dumbbells are OK for starting out with for squats but pretty quickly they won't be adequate to challenge you. (Never tried a deadlift with dumbbells but it sounds like that would also be hard to make heavy enough.) I have both kinds of weights and still do bench presses with dumbbells though for the reasons you mention in your post.
posted by phoenixy at 1:42 PM on July 1, 2009

Check Play It Again Sports or craigslist -- if you can get a squat cage there, you can minimize your worries about lifting safely when alone. A squat cage is essentially a metal box you can squat or press in, with adjustable pins you can set to "catch" the bar if you drop it. If you find a used one (esp. on craigslist), half the time they come with a bench, a bar, and plates!
posted by vorfeed at 1:48 PM on July 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

What everyone else said. You'll quickly outgrow your dumbells when it comes to the squat and the deadlift, which are the most important lifts.

Benching alone isn't ideal, but there are a number of solutions for doing so safely with a barbell. In fact there's a stronglifts post on benching alone.

None of the other exercises require a spotter, although for squats you'll either need bumper plates so you can dump the bar if necessary or a power rack so you can lower the bar to the safety pins.

Finally, the forum at stronglifts.com is a pretty good place to ask questions.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:22 PM on July 1, 2009

Response by poster: @Midnight Rambler - not a problem. I have 1.25lbs dumbbell plates too so I can still increase 5 pounds at a time.
posted by Vorteks at 3:12 PM on July 1, 2009

Dumbells are fine, substitude single leg squats and lunge variations (cyclist, bulgarian etc) and single leg deadlifts. All are very challenging exercises when performed with proper technique.
posted by zentrification at 4:50 PM on July 1, 2009

I was surprised what a confidence difference having a barbell with bumper plates made. You'll never really go after a PR 100% if you have any issue with just dropping the weight on the floor if you miss. In fact, I usually drop a few on purpose during the warm up just to build confidence that I can - it helps a lot when you go for the heavy ones.

If you're lifting by yourself without a spotter, you should plan on either dropping one from time to time, or not pushing yourself very hard. Not pushing yourself very hard isn't very effective, of course.

You want to drop very heavy dumbells on the floor in your apartment? (Come to think of it, that might not be a good idea even with a bar and bumpers, in an apartment. Very noisy.)
posted by ctmf at 5:58 PM on July 1, 2009

Best answer: If you get a barbell (and I think you should!) make sure you don't have collars on the bar when you're benching alone, so you can dump the weight if you need to. If you have a squat rack, you can also bench inside it, using the side safety bars to prevent the bar from crushing you if you run into trouble. The Starting Strength DVD demonstrates all of this, and I'll add to the chorus recommending the program. I wish I had known about it when I first started out.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 9:54 PM on July 1, 2009

« Older A picture says 1000 words; A manatee Tshirt says 3...   |   Holly-weird and Vine Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.