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Why Can I Lift More With Barbell Than Dumbbell? (7 Answers From Pros)


Maybe you are used to working out at the gym and using barbells now you have your home gym setup and started with dumbbells and are currently experiencing differences in how much weight you can lift. Or whatever reason it is normal to experience a decrease in weight from barbells to dumbbells.

That is why it is always good to mix it up with dumbbells and barbells to keep your body in check and not hit as many plateaus. It can be much more cost effective and space efficient to start out with just dumbbells especially adjustable.

So why can you lift more with a barbell then a dumbbell? 

You can lift more with a barbell (normally) because you are using two muscles to lift one weight that is already balanced. With dumbbells your individual muscles are lifting separate weights while trying to stabilize. 

There is of course more to it then that and this isn’t always so. If you have only lifted dumbbells and you switch to barbell you may not be able to lift as much as we have seen before. This is mainly due to muscle memory and you will actually make greater gains by mixing it up with barbell exercises. See the answers from real people below that give great examples as to why this happens.

Why Are Barbells Easier Than Dumbbells?

Barbells overall are much easier than dumbbells mainly because you are using smaller muscle groups with dumbbells along with no stabilization between the two muscle groups like with barbells.

Another big factor is lifting the dumbbells up to position. So lets say you are doing a dumbbell shoulder press with 100lb dumbbells. Well in order to get into the correct position you have to get those dumbbells to shoulder height usually from the ground. You can use your legs to get the momentum going up but still much easier with a barbell.

With a sitting barbell shoulder press your weight is usually on the rack above your shoulders so you simply have to lift a matter of inches to get into position and same goes for re-racking.

Dumbbells you need to somewhat lower to the ground although there are those that just drop them of course. This can honestly be where you get injured with the lifting of the dumbbells and lowering because you can get out of position with your muscles and specifically your back.

So be careful start light work your way up regardless if lifting with barbells or dumbbells. The general consensus is to lift barbell exercises earlier in your workout routine because you can lift more weight and then dumbbell exercises later.

However this can also cause a plateau where your body gets used to this routine so at times you should switch it up and start with dumbbells and end with barbell exercises.

Also lets say you do flat bench barbell every chest day switch it up and do flat bench dumbbell press every once in awhile it will create better gains and increases your stability control.

Switching From Barbell To Dumbbell

Whatever you reason is to be switching from barbell to dumbbell it is a good way to change things up. Maybe you moved and got a new home gym and splurged on some nice adjustable dumbbells and have limited room to workout. In this case dumbbells are the best thing you can get started with.

You won’t need as much weight so if you are used to lifting around 250lbs on your max barbell bench press for example you can probably get by with 100lb adjustable dumbbells pretty easily since you very unlikely to lift as much.

Make sure you are doing warmups before performing dumbbells workouts since it can put more stress on your joints and muscles compared to barbell. This can be especially so with shoulder workouts so be careful and get those shoulders warmed up beforehand.

Dumbbells VS Barbells For Mass

Barbells are probably your best bet for gaining mass as these cover your best compound workouts like bench press, squat and deadlift. You can push your max weight up by much more then dumbbells leading to more mass overall.

Dumbbells can be mixed in to make sure you are correcting your muscle imbalances. Again dumbbells are mainly even just harder to get into position to perform your exercise making barbells easier overall.

Barbells VS Dumbbells Opinions From Actual Weightlifters

Here are some answered we gathered from different forums like Quora, Reddit and Bodybuilding.com that are from real people that have experience with lifting weights so you aren’t just listening to us. If you have more to add feel free to go to our contact page or email us directly at admin@healthyforbetter.com 

  1. Darren Beattie (Fitness Coach) Great In Depth Answer –“Well for one, you are actually lifting more weight with the barbell than with the dumbbell, which is what we would typically expect. A barbell weighs 20kg generally (that’s the standard weight for metric barbells (45 lbs for imperial), though there are other weights, they are not nearly as common in gyms; You need to determine the weight of the barbell and then add it to the weight of the plates to get the total weight) so that means your barbell actually weighs 35 kg total, which is 15 kg more than the total weight you’re lifting with dumbbells (20 kg between your two hands).Generally it is harder to perform the same exercise with dumbbells vs a barbell.In the case of dumbbell press vs bench press, generally you will be able to lift roughly 80% of your bench weight with dumbbells, but that depends on your training overall.The reason is that the barbell is easier to stabilize, specifically your body can generate torsional stability with two arms stabilizing one piece of equipment vs two.

    Dumbbells require more small stabilizing muscles to be involved (which can be good depending on objectives) and as a result the prime mover muscles cannot generally generate as much force as when there is more stability present.

    However…

    There is a phenomenon known as the bilateral deficit. Which in research dealing with kids, generally we find in that research that you should be stronger one limb at a time than two, and the assumption is that this is because more neurological activity that can be designated to one side at a time than to both sides at the same time in terms of neurological development. And in some cases we see that this lasts as we age, for instance if you do a barbell back squat and a barbell bulgarian split squat, generally you’ll be able to lift more than 50% of your back squat with the bulgarian split squat, sometimes significantly more.

    However, as we age we find that training has a significant impact on how your body addresses single limb vs double limb activities. So if you train the back squat a lot and never train the bulgarian split squat, you may find that due to training you are actually weaker (less than 50% of the load); More than likely this is a result of a lack of stability. With training, we would probably reverse this trend for certain lifts and for other lifts our bilateral barbell lifts would remain significantly stronger overall.

    So in this particular case, if you were not lifting more with a barbell, the reason is likely entirely a matter of training. As a percentage of training you do dumbbell training significantly more than barbell training, so it’s possible someone was more adapted to that style of training. If this were the case, doing more barbell training over time would eventually even this out and make the barbell stronger overall as a total load.”

  2. Mindy Zhou, have worked out for over 5 years and designed many workouts myself –“1 barbell in the gym weighs about 45 pounds and if you perform 10kg each arm then you should be able to use barbells without any weight for now to perform barbell chest press.In general you should use both dumbbell and barbell exercises for a complete workout program and here are the top 6 basic barbell exercises you should incorporate in your current routine ou should start with barbell exercises at the beginning of your routine and go for 5 sets of 5 or 3 sets of 6 then you move onto dumbbell exercises next then you finish with cable exercises for isolation purposes.”
  3. Evan Yoak (Fitness Coach) –“Generally speaking, it’s harder to perform an exercise with dumbbells than with a barbell (though we’ll get to your specific case at the end of the answer). With DBs, you have two separate implements that act independently, so you have to do more work to stabilize them as they bobble about willy-nilly. With the barbell, you have one single implement, and in fact it “connects” your hands/arms to form one self-reinforcing chain. While one DB might zig while the other zags, with the bar, if one arm zigs, the other arm compensates and corrects for the zigging, no zagging necessary. For these reasons, most people can lift more – often far more – with the bar in all of the main lifts, and most of the accessory lifts as well.In your case, we have a bit of an issue determining if you’re actually lifting more with the DBs or the bar, or if they weigh the same. Other answers keep bringing up that the bar weighs 20 kg or 44 lb*, but from the sound of it, you’re not using a standard Olympic barbell. You said a “light bar with two discs weighing 7.5 kg each,” which sounds like one of those adjustable screw-on mini-barbells, which probably weighs 4–7.5 kg (including some weird number like 6.3 kg because the manufacturer couldn’t be bothered). So while you’re likely lifting more weight with the bar than with the DBs, it’s probably not that much more; that difference would be offset by the mechanical advantage of the bar, as described above.The reason can be found in the question itself. You write, “I’ve been using dumbbells for exercise most of the time but I rarely use barbells.” There you go: your body is simply better adapted to using DBs and hasn’t figured out how to take advantage of the mechanical benefits of the bar. As you train more and gain more experience, your body will learn how to better take advantage of the single implement and how to coordinate neurologically to fire all the muscles in conjunction.*We say 45 lb for convenience, and there are some true 45 lb bars, but an Olympic bar weigh 20 kg, which is 44 lb.”
  4. Brandoninpdx – “You’re using smaller muscle groups with Dumbbells, stabilizer muscles are called upon to balance the Dumbbells. With a barbell you just push and there is little balancing involved. Bro science but it’s the accurate answer.”
  5. Magnusson – “Because the barbell is more stable, so you can generate more force to push against it. If you benched on top of a Swiss ball you’d be able to lift even less.”
  6. Whitey_sorkin – “Stability. Think about machine vs. free weights: I’m sure you can lift more on a machine vs. free weights”
  7. Anonymous – “part of it is form, and technique, some people move their dumbells almost straight up and down, some move them in more of an arc with their forearm staying straight up and down. The main thing that I can see is that you can use your triceps more with a barbell, if you squeeze as hard and you can with both triceps, the barbell will move straight up, but with dumbells, if you do the same thing, you would pull them apart from each other. So you can use more force on a barbell because you don’t have to balance out the lateral forces on each arm like you do with dumbells in order for them to move properly.”

Related Questions

Can You Bench More With Dumbbell Or Barbell?

For most all people you can bench more with a barbell then a dumbbell due to the fact you are using two muscle groups to lift one weight vs with dumbbell you are using two muscle groups to lift two weights separately.

Can You Get Big Just Using Dumbbells?

Yes you can get big using just dumbbells although you may plateau only using dumbbells. If this is all you have then I suggest you also work in some bodyweight workouts like pullups, chinups, pushups, and dips. Gaining mass can be much easier using a barbell but using dumbbells it can be done as well and will come down to your daily calories and macros.

Are Dumbbell Workouts Effective?

Dumbbells can be some of the most effective workouts for many reasons. Especially when used at home because they take up less space giving people less reasons to not use. Also there are many great at home workouts you can do even by simply doing a simple search on youtube you will find many effective total body workouts and entire routines.

Final Thoughts

Lifting more with barbells then dumbbells is normal for most. You are using multiple muscle groups to lift one weight that is already stabilized by the barbell versus lifting multiple weights where each muscle group is trying to stabilize and lift at the same time.

Also remember it is much tougher to get the dumbbells into position to perform your exercise where with most barbell exercises you literally have to lift the weight a couple inches off the rack to be in your starting position to lift.

Tab Winner

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