Barbells and dumbbells are the two main types of free weights. Using this type of resistance does not restrict your range of motion the way a weight machine does, which means you'll recruit more muscles fibers to stabilize the weight as you lift it.
Plus, with free weights, your movements more closely resemble real-life movements like squatting down and lifting something overhead. Although you can do the same exercises with both, dumbbells and barbells each have their own advantages and drawbacks.
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Barbells: Olympic and Standard
Barbells are long, straight metal bars with sleeves, collars or clips on the ends to hold weight plates on the bar. The two types of barbells are standard and Olympic.
- Olympic barbells are a little more than one inch thick in the middle with two-inch, rotating sleeves. They are 7 feet long, weigh 45 pounds and can support more than 800 pounds.
- The entire length of a standard barbell is one inch thick. They are between five and six feet long and weigh between 15 and 30 pounds. Most standard barbells can hold up to 200 pounds.
Advantages of Barbells
Some exercises — although you can do them with dumbbells — are designed to be performed with a barbell. Powerlifters, who compete on only three exercises (bench press, squat and deadlift), only use Olympic barbells. So if you plan on competing, training with barbells is better.
Another advantage is that barbells allow you to lift more weight. A barbell holds more weight than a dumbbell and is safer to use with heavier weights, since you control the bar with two hands instead of one.
Dumbbells: Hex and Adjustable
Dumbbells are essentially short barbells, about 10 to 15 inches long. And usually, you hold a dumbbell in one hand.
- Hex dumbbells are fixed-weight dumbbells that are available in five-pound increments, between five and 100 pounds. There are also lighter hand weights that come in one-, two- and three-pound sizes.
- Adjustable dumbbells are short, straight bars with sleeves or collars for holding weight plates in place. They're available with standard (one-inch) or Olympic (2-inch) sleeves. The length of the sleeves on an adjustable dumbbell limits how much weight you can load on the bar.
Advantages of Dumbbells
Dumbbells offer an increased range of motion for some exercises. Take the chest press, for example. Using a barbell limits your range of motion to the vertical pressing movement, but with dumbbells, you can also bring the weights together at the top of the movement, increasing the range of motion.
Hex dumbbells are convenient if you change weight often, since you don't have to slide weight plates on and off. Dumbbells allow you to work your body unilaterally, one side at a time. If your left biceps is weaker than your right, you can focus on just the left side with dumbbells.
Dumbbells vs. Barbells: Which Is Right for You?
When determining which strength-training equipment you should use for your workouts, consider the following questions:
- What do I have access to?
- What do I feel more comfortable with? As in, which one will I use more?
- Am I lifting lots of heavy weight? (Go barbell.) Or a moderate amount? (Go dumbbell.)
- Will I be competing?
- Which one allows me to better mimic the movements of my sport or everyday life?
- Do I want a greater range of motion? (Go dumbbell.) Or more security? (Go barbell.)