Dumbbells are great tools to have in your strength training arsenal.
They allow for a lot of variety with your workouts, and they even have some significant advantages compared to barbells.
Before we get into the article, please note that I’m not claiming that dumbbells are the best workout tool and that they’re superior to any other piece of equipment, be it barbells, kettlebells, or anything else.
This article will, however, reveal some of the great benefits and advantages offered from dumbbell exercises. We’ll follow that up with a discussion on who could benefit from more dumbbell work and then finish up with a few disadvantages dumbbells have.
4 Advantages of Dumbbell Exercises
1. Dumbbell exercises can be more joint-friendly than their barbell equivalent. As an example, compare a flat bench dumbbell press to the good ole flat bench barbell press. The dumbbell version tends to be a bit more elbow and shoulder friendly because you can have more natural movement since your hands aren’t fixed in place; you can turn or rotate them as you press.
The same thing applies to a dumbbell standing press compared to a barbell press, or a dumbbell row compared to a barbell row. This is why I recommend people who have had previous shoulder or elbow issues to use mostly dumbbells in their training. Sometimes trainees who experience discomfort with a barbell exercise can perform the dumbbell version without any trouble.
So if you’ve noticed some problems with certain upper body barbell exercises, try swapping them out for the dumbbell version and see how things feel.
2. Great for home-trainees who have limited space and equipment. Some people want their own home gym. I did this a couple of years ago, and it’s been a worthy investment. I have a large garage where I can fit all my toys, but what if you only have a small space available, or you live in an apartment where it’s not practical to deadlift? (You don’t want to tick off your neighbors, or risk busting through the floor, after all).
If you want to start training at home, you can’t go wrong with an adjustable set of dumbbells. In my home gym I have PowerBlock adjustable dumbbells pictured above. (That’s an affiliate link. That means if you click that link and buy those dumbbells, I’ll receive a commission). These ‘bells increase in 2.5 pound increments from 10 to 50 pounds. I also purchased 20 pound extenders, so each dumbbell now goes up to a whopping 70 pounds, but you can also get larger extenders, if you’d like.
I purchased mine from a local sporting goods store and I got my ‘bells, extenders, and stand for around $400. That’s not chump change, but when you think about how much money you’d have to spend for 70 pounds worth of traditional dumbbells, it’s quite affordable. Plus, they don’t take up much space.
3. Allows for unilateral training ensuring both limbs do the same amount of work. If you have a strength imbalance, dumbbell exercises can help minimize this. Whereas one limb may do a bit more work with a barbell exercise (standing barbell press, for example) both limbs are forced to perform the same amount of work with the dumbbell equivalent.
4. Some exercises are safer when performed with dumbbells. For example, if you’re doing reverse lunges with dumbbells and lose your balance, you can easily toss the dumbbells. If, however, you were lunging with a barbell on your back and lost your balance, you could risk getting injured. (Note: this is the reason I recommend trainees perform barbell work inside a power rack with supports. This way if you lose balance or something happens, you don’t get crushed by a barbell because the supports will catch it. But if you don’t have a power rack, this is an advantage for using dumbbells).
No exercise is entirely fool-proof. I’ve seen people injure themselves with dumbbell exercises too; this usually happens when someone uses too much weight or bad form. However, if you train solo and don’t have the luxury of a power rack, you may want to use more dumbbell exercises.
Who Could Benefit from (More) Dumbbell Workout
While anyone can use dumbbells with great success, there are trainees who may want to include more dumbbell work in their programming.
1. Beat up lifters with nagging injuries. If you’ve been lifting and hoisting consistently heavier barbells for years, it could do your joints some good to include a training phase that includes more dumbbell work. When I was recovering from a back injury, I used dumbbell and bodyweight exercises exclusively. This not only allowed my body to heal, but still allowed me to train hard.
Admittedly it took a while to adjust to performing challenging exercises with dumbbells because I was used to squatting and deadlifting a heavy bar, but I was able to get stronger in a new way, and did so without battling previous aches and pains.
So if you’ve acquired some nagging injuries from heavy barbell lifting, you may want to consider using more dumbbell exercises for your assistance work, or even exclusively for a training phase.
2. Older trainees (aka “More Mature Beautiful Badasses”). For many of my clients age 40+ I tend to favor dumbbell exercises over their barbell equivalent for reasons explained at the beginning of this article; they tend to be more joint and soft tissue friendly.
I like to assess the “risk versus reward” for exercises, and for older trainees, they can achieve a terrific training effect with dumbbell exercises more safely than with barbells. This isn’t to say I don’t have them squatting or deadlifting a barbell (unless they don’t have the equipment, have no desire to do so, or can’t perform them correctly/safely) but the majority of the assistance work is done with dumbbells.
3. Someone who wants to start strength training but is intimidated by barbell exercises. I understand; some people are intimidated by barbell squats and deadlifts. While I prefer a bit of tough love and would say, “Just get in there, have fun, and do your best,” that approach doesn’t work for everyone.
So if you’re new to the wonderful world of strength training and want to ease into lifting with dumbbell exercises, then that’s a great place to start. Begin by performing basic compound exercises with dumbbells and strive to get stronger. After a while you’ll likely no longer be intimidated by the weight room and may want to start including barbell exercises.
You now know the advantages to dumbbell exercises and who can benefit from them.
But no workout tool is perfect for everything . . .
Disadvantages to Dumbbells
Dumbbells are amazing, but do have a few potential disadvantages.
Dumbbell exercises are not suitable for very heavy sets of 1-3 reps. The exception, however, is explosive and speed work such as dumbbell snatches. If you’re doing explosive work then lower rep sets are fine. However, I don’t recommend you attempt a three rep max with a dumbbell bench press. As a rule of thumb, I keep my dumbbell exercises (excluding explosive work/exercises) to no less than five reps, and even six just to be safe.
So if you’re interested in lifting heavy singles and triples, stick with barbell exercises for the low reps.
Sometimes the weight increase is a bit too much for certain exercises. Most dumbbells in USA gyms increase in five pound increments. If you’ve been using 15 pound dumbbells and you’re ready to jump to the next weight, progressing to 20 pound dumbbells is a 25 percent increase. For some trainees that may be too much to handle all at once.
Adding more weight on certain exercises can be problematic. I think goblet squats are a terrific exercise, but you can only hoist some much weight into position for this exercise before it gets uncomfortable, and even dangerous. Most trainees don’t reach this point, but if you get brutally strong at goblet squatting, you’ll have to switch to a different exercise that you can load more safely. For example, a double kettlebell or double dumbbell squat with the ‘bells held at the shoulders.
You may also have to focus on getting stronger on single leg exercises too. I’ve been doing this a lot the past several months and have been doing mostly single leg exercises exclusively. They’re easier to load and I’m able to progress with ease as I get stronger.
Want to Work Out Primarily With Dumbbells?
Maybe you’re a bit beat up from lifting heavy or you want to train at home and only have dumbbells.
For whatever reason, if you’d like a workout program that uses dumbbell and bodyweight exercises exclusively, then you may want to check out the 12 Week Dumbbell and Bodyweight Workout Program.
It’s a 12 week program that includes demonstration videos for all exercises, printable workout logs, and detailed workout notes, so there’s zero-guesswork on your part.