Are you puzzled as to why you should and should not use dumbbells? Then stick around! Because today, I will be explaining 5 of the main advantages and disadvantages of dumbbells (with an emphasis on gaining muscle).
The main advantages of dumbbells are their versatility, compact size, effectiveness, and free range of movement. The main disadvantages of dumbbells are their unsuitability for progressive overload and limited capabilities for lower body exercises.
I have personally gained 40 pounds of muscle in the past two years.
And although most of my workouts have been barbell-based, I am also confident in saying that there are definitely pros AND cons to consider when deciding when to use dumbbells.
This is what I will be exploring below.
So let’s jump right in!
If you are the skimmer type, here is the post summarised for you!
|Advantages Of Dumbbells||Disadvantages Of Dumbbells|
|1. Excellent for home workouts.||1. Dangerous at heavy weight loads.|
|2. Great for getting ripped.||2. Can be expensive.|
|3. Allow a natural range of movement.||3. Hard to use at heavy-weight loads.|
|4. Correct muscle imbalances.||4. Hard to progressive overload.|
|5. Can be used to work the whole body||5. Not ideal for lower body exercises.|
Advantages Of Using Dumbbells To Gain Muscle
Here are 5 advantages of using dumbbells in your efforts to gain muscle.
1. Dumbbells Are Excellent For Home Workouts.
Building muscle does not necessarily require a gym membership.
In fact, you can build muscle at home if you have the right equipment. And as it turns out, dumbbells are an excellent way to build muscle at home.
And here’s why:
|Small size and footprint.||A smaller footprint allows you to fit a larger amount of weight into your home for a smaller amount of space. This will free up valuable space at the home (especially important in shared homes). In comparison, equipment such as barbell racks and weight machines are extremely bulky.|
|Cheaper compared to barbell racks and weight machines.||You will get more weight for a similar price when compared to buying a set of barbells/racks/plates or weight machines. Use the money saved to buy an online video training course instead!|
|Versatile use.||A set of dumbbells is all you need to build muscle at home (ok maybe a bench would be handy too). This means you do not have to invest more money or space for other types of home gym equipment.|
So as you can see, dumbbells are an excellent way to work out in the comfort of your own home!
Take Home Message:
Dumbbells are ideal for home gyms if you have limited space and money. This is because dumbbells have a low footprint, low initial out-cost compared to most other weight lifting equipment, and are extremely versatile. This makes dumbbells a great option for gaining muscle at home.
2. Dumbbells Can Get You Ripped.
Getting ripped requires you to gain muscle and lose fat.
When you achieve this, your muscular definition will become more pronounced.
Furthermore, the best way to gain muscle is by maximizing muscle activation for a particular exercise. When you do this, you will promote muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth) and burn more fat.
That’s because the harder you work a muscle, the more it will grow in response to your training, and the more calories you will burn.
As it happens, using dumbbells will provide you with the greatest degree of muscle activation (when compared to using barbells and weight machines).
This has been demonstrated in a 2016 study that showed that a dumbbell bench press leads to greater muscle activation than a smith machine or barbell bench pressing.
|Dumbbell Bench Press||~42%|
|Barbell Bench Press||~38%|
|Smith Machine Bench Press||~40%|
So if you want to get a bigger and leaner body, dumbbells are a great way to achieve your goal!
Take Home Message:
Getting ripped requires you to gain muscle and lose fat, and this is most effectively achieved through weight lifting exercises that lead to a high level of muscle activation. Dumbbell weight lifting has been shown to achieve the greatest degree of muscle activation, making them ideal to get ripped.
3. Dumbbells Allow A Natural Range Of Movement.
Range of movement refers to the degree of motion around a particular joint. And it is an important factor when it comes to how effectively you can lift a weight.
Allow me to explain.
|Up/Down Movement||Forward/Backward Movement||Lateral Movement|
|Dumbbell Bench Press||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Barbell Bench Press||Yes||Yes||No|
With dumbbells, you are able to move freely across the path of motion for any given exercise.
This is because dumbbells are often used in pairs. And each dumbbell is completely independent of the other.
Think of a dumbbell bench press- both dumbbells are free to travel along all axes. And this allows a dumbbell to move up/down, backward/forwards, and laterally.
Now let’s compare this with a barbell.
Here, the barbell physically connects both of your arms. And this restricts the barbell to an up/down, forwards/backward motion only. No lateral movement is allowed.
This increased range of motion will not DIRECTLY benefit muscle gains.
However, it will allow a more comfortable movement if you have low mobility, inflexibility, or joint issues. And this will allow you to maximize muscle gains despite the aforementioned issues.
Take Home Message:
A major benefit for using dumbbells is the natural range of movement they provide. Dumbbells are free to move along all axes as you lift through the path of motion. This will help you lift heavy weights despite suffer from inflexibility or joint issues.
You can check out my other article to see how a barbell and dumbbell bench press weight converts into each other.
4. Correct Muscle Imbalances With Dumbbells.
Have you ever tried to do a barbell overhead press, only to realize the bar tilting to your left or right?
That’s due to muscle imbalances in your left and right arms/shoulders.
Muscle imbalance during weight lifting refers to the phenomenon where one side is stronger or bigger than the other.
As a result, you are unable to lift a weight equally on both sides.
Muscle imbalances may occur naturally, or they can be caused over time by training one side of your body more intensely than the other.
The great thing about dumbbells is that you are free to train both sides of the body independently from each other. And this can be done by simply adding more weight or doing more repetitions.
Therefore, dumbbells are an effective and convenient way to correct muscle imbalances in your body.
Take Home Message:
Dumbbell training is an effective way to correct muscle imbalances between the left and right side of the body. This is because each dumbbell works independently from the other, allowing you to vary the dumbbell weight or repetitions performed on each side. And this will balance muscular size and strength.
5. Dumbbells Allow You To Work The Entire Body.
Don’t let their simple-looking design fool you. Dumbbells are extremely versatile pieces of equipment.
They can be held in a variety of ways and angles to allow adduction, abduction, flexion, and extension movements.
Additionally, you can perform compound AND isolation exercises using dumbbells. And this will ensure you receive the benefits of both types of exercises (which are muscle mass and definition, respectively).
This flexibility of dumbbell use is one of their biggest advantages.
By incorporating a range of compound and isolation exercises into your training program, you will benefit from making balanced muscle gains across your entire body.
So what kind of exercises can you do with dumbbells?
A dumbbell workout program could include exercises such as:
|Dumbbell Exercise||Exercise Type||Muscles Worked|
|Bench Press.||Compound.||Chest And Shoulders.|
|Overhead Press.||Compound.||Shoulders And Arms.|
|Bent-Over Row.||Compound.||Back And Arms.|
|Dead Lift.||Compound.||Legs And Back.|
As you can see, with just a set of dumbbells, you are able to target all your major muscle groups. And this can be a major advantage if you are looking to work out at home, where space is limited.
Take Home Message:
A pair of dumbbells can be used to effectively target all the major muscle groups in your body. Simply vary the angle, grip, and position of the dumbbell to isolate a contraction to a desired muscle group. Examples of dumbbell exercises include pressing, rowing, and extension exercises.
Check out my other article to learn more about compound exercises!
Disadvantages Of Using Dumbbells To Gain Muscle
Now, here are 5 disadvantages of using dumbbells to gain muscle.
1. Dumbbells Can Be Dangerous At High Weights.
Previously, I explained that dumbbells offer a greater degree of freedom as you go through the path of motion. And this allows for a more comfortable weight-lifting experience.
However, the increased freedom of movement can also be negative as well as positive.
If a weight has more freedom to move along the 3 axes, it also becomes inherently more unstable.
At higher weight loads, dumbbells can become very difficult to control. And this increases the risk that a dumbbell will move along an unintended path of motion.
When this happens, you run a higher risk of causing injury through joint and muscle damage.
A solution would be to hire a spotter, whose job is to help assist you, as your muscles are approaching failure.
However, it is much harder to assist a dumbbell lift (compared to a barbell lift), because both dumbbells move independently from each other.
Furthermore, the area where a spotter can leverage his/her grip is significantly reduced in a dumbbell. In comparison, a spotter is free to grip a barbell at any point along the bar.
Therefore exercising with dumbbells requires stronger stabilizer muscles in order to keep the motion in a safe and controlled manner.
Take Home Message:
Lifting dumbbells becomes significantly more dangerous to perform as the weight becomes heavier. This is due to the instability of a dumbbell, which is free to travel along the 3 axes of movement. Therefore, strong stabiliser muscles are required to safely lift dumbbells at heavy weights.
Read my other article for an important weight lifting step-by-step!
2. Dumbbells Can Be Expensive.
Depending on the type of dumbbell you choose to buy, they can be cheaper or more expensive than investing in a barbell and rack setup.
Currently, the most popular types of dumbbells on the market are:
- Adjustable dumbbells– come as a single unit. And from here, you can adjust the weight either by adding more plates or using a clicker setting (on premium adjustable dumbbells).
- Dumbbell sets– come as a range of individual dumbbells, each with a specified weight. Together, they provide a complete range of weight loads.
Adjustable dumbbells are usually cheaper than buying a complete set of dumbbells. But they are usually capped at around 25kg per dumbbell.
Have a look at the price comparison chart below for a better idea of dumbbell vs barbell pricing:
|Equipment||Price Per Set||Cost Per Kg|
|20kg Barbell + 80Kg Weight Plates.||$408.00||$4.08|
|2x 2.5kg to 25kg Dumbbell Set.||$674.00||$6.74|
|2 x 25kg Single-unit Adjustable Dumbbell.||$420.00||$8.40|
|2x 25kg Dumbbell Bar With Plates||$140||$2.80|
As you can see, dumbbells can be relatively cheap. But they can also be very expensive!
One thing is for sure though. Regardless of which type of dumbbell you decide to buy, the initial expense will require a significant sum of cash!
Take Home Message:
Dumbbells can be relatively cheap addition to a home gym. The cheapest dumbbells are those that come as a dumbbell bar and with adjustable weight plates. By contrast, the most expensive dumbbells are single-unit adjustable dumbbells.
You can go to my other post for dumbbell price examples!
3. Dumbbells Are More Difficult To Lift Heavy.
The inherent instability of dumbbells (described above) also makes them harder to lift, especially at heavier weights.
|Dumbbell Exercise||1 Rep Max (Compared To Barbell Variation)|
|Dumbbell Bench Press.||17% Less Weight.|
|Dumbbell Overhead Press||7% Less Weight.|
Here, you can see that performing the same exercise resulted in LESS weight being lifted in the dumbbell variation.
And not only are dumbbells generally harder to lift, but they are also harder to set up (especially at heavy loads).
This is because you do not have the assistance of a rack to support the weight of a dumbbell.
Instead, the most common strategy for setting up a dumbbell bench press, for example, is to use your legs to kick the dumbbells into the air. At the same time, you would try to stabilize them in mid-air.
If you have tried this with 20kg+ dumbbells, then you will know how difficult this can be!
These two factors combined make dumbbells less suitable for building general muscle mass since heavier lifting correlates with increased muscle size.
Take Home Message:
It is harder to lift heavier weights with dumbbells (when compared to barbells) due to their inherent instability. They are also harder to setup, since they cannot be used with a rack. Therefore dumbbells may not be the best option if you want to gain general muscle mass.
Check out my other article to see if you should buy your own home weight-lifting equipment!
4. It Is Harder To Progressive Overload With Dumbbells.
Progressive overload refers to the process of increasing weight-lifting intensity with the aim of promoting muscle growth. And it is generally harder to achieve this with dumbbells, compared to barbells.
This is because dumbbell sets often have minimum weight increments of 2.5kg (or 5lb) per dumbbell.
In comparison, barbell plates can be as low as 1kg per plate.
As a result, dumbbell overloading forces you to increase your weight by a significant amount.
To explain this more clearly, let’s take the example of a shoulder press (below).
Which do you think will be easier to achieve?
|Barbell Overhead Press||Dumbbell Overhead Press|
|Week 1 Weight||30kg||20kg|
|Week 2 Weight||32kg||25kg|
Yup- overloading is easier with a barbell.
With dumbbells, you are forced to overload by a minimum of 5kg. And this equates to a 22% increase.
And let me tell you, that is not an easy task to achieve!
In comparison, a 2kg increase with a barbell is much more achievable.
Take Home Message:
Dumbbells are generally harder to achieve progressive overload with. This is because of the significant weight increment of 2.5kg seen in most dumbbell sets. In comparison, barbell plates have weight increments as low as 1kg per plate. This makes it more difficult to make gradual progression with dumbbells.
5. Dumbbells Are Not Great For Lower Body Exercises.
Dumbbell exercises are generally not the best free weight to perform lower body exercises with.
Yes, you can use dumbbells for exercises such as goblet squats. And these will effectively engage the leg muscles.
However, you are severely limited by your grip strength.
Think about it- how can you engage your legs with maximal intensity, if your grip strength fails to hold the dumbbell to your chest?
The deadlift is another example of how dumbbells are not the best free weight for lower-body exercises.
Although you can perform the deadlift with dumbbells, you will have to exert a significant amount of energy just to prevent the dumbbells from swaying side to side.
Ultimately, this energy will impact your ability to lift heavy.
As a result, your potential to gain muscle will be compromised, since heavy lifting correlates with increased muscular hypertrophy.
Take Home Message:
It is possible to perform lower body exercises with dumbbells. However you will not be able to lift as heavy, when compared to the same barbell exercises. This is because you will have to expend energy to grip and stabilise a dumbbell as you perform lower body exercises with a dumbbell.
You can check out my other post to find out how much you should dumbbell deadlift.
Looking To Buy Dumbbells?
I use and recommend the Powerblock Elites.
Having researched over 2 dozen models, I found these to offer the best value for money.
The base model weighs 50lbs per dumbbell and can be upgraded to 70lbs and 90lbs whenever you like (this is done through addon kits which are purchased separately).
They are awesome for beginners and advanced lifters alike.
If you want something cheaper, then the Yes4All spinlocks make a good budget option.
You may also be interested in my other post to learn how to choose the right dumbbell weight for beginners.
Today, I have given you the 5 main advantages and disadvantages of dumbbells when gaining muscle is your goal.
The main advantages provided by dumbbells come down to their convenience, versatility, and beginner-friendliness. A set of dumbbells will provide you with the basics required to build muscle. And the free range of motion makes them great if you have inflexible joints.
The main disadvantages of dumbbells come down to their unsuitability for lifting heavy, progressive overloading, and performing lower body exercises. Barbells would be a better alternative to achieve these goals.
Can you think of any other pros and cons to dumbbell training?
Feel free to send me a message if you have any questions! You can find my details on the “contact us” page.
You may also be interested in the downloadable Kalibre Blueprint PDF which details exactly how I gained 40lbs of lean muscle (it’s 100% free!). It details the exact exercises and nutrition (with printable worksheets) I used to go from skinny to ripped!
Thanks for reading guys!
(Biochemistry BSc, Biomedical Sciences MSc, Ex-Skinny Guy)