Dumbbells vs free weights guide

Dumbbells Vs Weights: A Guide To The Important Differences You Need To Know!

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With so many types of weights on the market, all with different names and specs, how the hell do you get started with training? If you’re trying to build muscle or strength, you won’t miss out on this guide. Because today I’ll be explaining the differences between dumbbells vs the other types of free weights!

Dumbbells are ideal for building muscle, but noticeable strength gains will also occur. Barbells are ideal for strength, but muscle size will also increase. Kettlebells are great for general fitness & conditioning. But all free weights can be used to achieve these goals to different degrees.

Having trained for 10 years, I’m no stranger to free weights.

That’s why I decided to put this guide together for you!

So here it is.

What Are Free Weights?

In this section, you’ll learn what free weights are and what they’re used for.

Free Weights & Dumbbells Are The Same Thing!

Many beginners are confused by the concept of free weightare free weights and dumbbells the same thing?

Free weights are the same as dumbbells. But not all dumbbells are free weights. A free weight is simply any type of weight training apparatus which is not connected to anything else. Instead, they are free to move in all directions.

Different types of free weight include dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells

The most popular free weights include:

  • Dumbbells.
  • Barbells.
  • Kettlebells.

These all differ in shape, size, weight, and price.

Furthermore, they can all feature a fixed-weight or adjustable-weight (more on this later).

The most defining feature shared by all free weights is their ability to be moved in any direction.

In contrast, compare this to equipment such as weight machines which are fixed to a specified path of motion.

Advantages & Disadvantages Of Free Weights.

Next, you’ll probably be wondering why use free weights? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using free weights over weight machines?

Free Weight AdvantagesFree Weight Disadvantages
Relatively cheap compared to machines.Learning curve associated with using free weights.
Designed for all fitness levels.May require “spotting” when lifting heavy weights.
Adjustable weight loads.Higher risk of injury when used incorrectly.
Extremely versatile pieces of equipment.Requires good form and technique.
All exercises work the stabilizer and core muscles.
Natural range of motion.

Free weights are generally better than weight machines.

They are harder to use and therefore produce more results per any given period of training.

Additionally, all free weights can be used to perform a variety of movements that cover all muscles in your body.

Furthermore, free weights have adjustable poundages, and this means they can be tailored to people of all training levels (from beginners to elite).

Dumbbells vs weights machine

However, free weights are also more difficult to use when compared to weight machines. And this can be off-putting to beginners.

Free Weights Are Great For all Training Goals.

Now, as a beginner, you may be put off by the drawbacks of free weights (described above).

So let’s expand on why free weights are good for YOU.

Free weights are good for most people to reach most training goals. This includes muscle-building, strength development, cardiovascular endurance, toning, and fat burning. These goals can be achieved by changing the weight, repetitions, sets, and rest times used in a free weight training program.

What free weights can be used for

Some types of free weights are better than others for achieving a specific goal.

For example, many people debate the effectiveness of dumbbells vs barbell weights for building muscle.

And others may argue about the efficiency of dumbbells vs kettlebell weights for muscle toning.

But ultimately, they can all be used for all training goals if you structure your weight/reps/sets/rest times accordingly (also known as training volume).

Free Weights Are The Best For Building Muscle & Strength.

If your goal is to build muscle and strength, then there’s no debate- free weights are THE best.

Why do free weights build more muscle and strength?

Free weights build more muscle and strength because they allow for heavier weights to be lifted. Additionally, they engage stabilizer muscles, as well as the main target muscle, to brace the movement. This leads to greater muscle activation, which is beneficial for muscle size and strength.

Now compare free weights to other types of resistance training:

Free WeightsWeight MachinesResistance BandsBodyweight
Max Weight CapacityVery HighHighHighModerate
Stabiliser Muscle ActivationHighLowHighVery High
Learning Curve For BeginnersModerateLowLowVery High
Based on my personal 10-year resistance training experience.

You can see that free weights are overall better-suited for building muscle and strength vs other resistance training methods.

Rep Ranges and Training Intensity | The Fundamentals Series: Chapter 3

To focus on building muscle mass, you should work in the 8-12 rep range with heavy weights (70-80% of your 1 rep max).

To focus on increasing strength, you should work in the 1-6 rep range with even heavier weights (80-90% of your 1 rep max).

Either way, you should also consume a high-calorie and protein diet!


What Are Dumbbells?

This section will dig deeper into what dumbbells are and how they compare vs other free weights.

Dumbbells Vs Hand Weights: They’re The Same Thing!

At their core, dumbbells are simply two weights attached by a central handle. They are designed to be used with one hand.

There are many types of dumbbells on the market and they can be broadly categorized into adjustable and fixed-weight dumbbells.

Different types of dumbbells include spin-lock, selectorized adjustable, hex, and hand weight dumbbells

Here are the different dumbbell types and how they differ:

  • Selectorized adjustable dumbbells. These go from 20-pounds all the up to 90-pounds. They feature dial or pin mechanisms which allow convenient weight changes. And each unit contains many weight increments.
  • Spin-lock adjustable dumbbells. These range from 20-pounds to 50-pounds. Weight is changed by adding/removing weight plates and securing them with a threaded nut.
  • Hex fixed-weight dumbbells. These range from 10 pounds all the way to 100-pounds and more. Each one is a solid unit with a premade weight. A complete set is required to cover all weight increments.
  • Hand weights. These range from 2-pounds to 10-pounds. They are smaller variations of the hex dumbbells.

Note: “hand weights” (or studio weights) are the same thing as dumbbells. They are simply smaller and are often used for aerobics classes or light strength training for absolute beginners.

Achieving Training Goals With Dumbbells Vs Other Weights.

Don’t let their simple-looking nature fool you.

Training with dumbbells is extremely effective for one great reason:

Dumbbells are effective for achieving all training goals. They can be used to build muscle, gain strength, improve muscular endurance, and burn fat. The desired goal can be achieved by tailoring the dumbbell weight, number of sets and reps, and resting time between sets.

dumbbells can be used for different goals including build muscle, increase strength, endurance, and fat burn

In fact, they are one of the most versatile types of training, and dumbbells are considered to be one the best all-rounders vs the other free weights.

Here’s what you can do with dumbbells:

  • Compound exercises for whole-body mass and strength. Compound lifts like the squat work multiple muscles in a single movement and are ideal for quickly training the whole body.
  • Isolation exercises for specific muscle development. Isolation lifts like the bicep curl works a single muscle at a time and are great for promoting growth in a specific muscle.
  • Heavy poundages to build strength and mass. Dumbbells can reach over 90-pounds per dumbbell and this is enough for most people to build strength and mass.
  • Light poundages for cardiovascular fitness and HIIT. Use lighter dumbbells for cardio , circuit, and HIIT weight training to burn fat and tone the body.

The shape of a dumbbell makes it extremely versatile in general, and this is something you should consider when choosing between dumbbells vs other free weights!

Check out my other article to find out how much weight you should be dumbbell squatting!

Dumbbells Are The Best For Most People Vs Other Weights.

So what makes dumbbells better vs the other free weights?

Barbells vs Dumbbells for Muscle Growth

Here are the top reasons why dumbbells are the best:

  • Shallow learning curve for beginners. Dumbbells are generally lighter and allow for a more natural range of movement compared to barbells. This is because the hands and joints are free to rotate without being physically locked together by a bar. Beginners often find this easier to perform.
  • More comfortable grip for beginners. As a result of the above point, dumbbells are generally more comfortable to use vs kettlebell and barbell weights.
  • Allow for maximum muscle contraction. A free range of movement also allows for you to force maximum contraction from each exercise (e.g. bringing the dumbbells together at the top of a shoulder press). A 2013 study showed that this leads to greater muscle activation. And this is great for building muscle strength and size.
  • Balanced muscle development. Dumbbell exercises are unilateral, meaning each side of the body works independently from the other. This facilitates balanced strength and size gains. Barbells are bilateral and can promote muscle imbalances.
  • Versatile exercises to engage the entire body. Dumbbells are equally well suited to compound AND isolation exercises and this makes them better vs kettlebell and barbell weights (which are more specialised).

However, you should be aware that dumbbells often have large weight increments (like kettlebells). This can makes steady progression with dumbbells more difficult vs barbell weights.

Building Muscle With Dumbbells Vs Other Free Weights.

So far we’ve established that dumbbells are awesome.

But can you build muscle with only dumbbells?

After all, this is the reason why many people start working out in the first place.

How to build muscle with dumbbells

Building muscle mass requires a combination of 8-12 rep sets, progressive overload (increasing workload), heavy poundages, and a good nutrition plan.

Therefore you should use dumbbells with enough weight to challenge your muscles as well as leave room for future progression.

You should also make sure your dumbbells have small weight increments, for smooth progressive overload (it’s easier to overload by 5-pounds than 10-pounds).

Dumbbells vs barbell vs kettlebell weights

The great thing about dumbbells vs the other free weights is they strike a good balance between portability, functionality, poundages available, and weight increments.

Here’s how dumbbells compare to barbells and kettlebells for building muscle and strength:

  • Compared to barbells- dumbbells are much smaller and also less expensive (yet provide heavy poundages).
  • Compared to kettlebells- dumbbells have smaller weight increments for smooth progressive overload.

This makes dumbbells great for building muscle vs the other free weights!

Go to my other article to find out what to look for when buying adjustable dumbbells!

There’s A Huge Variety Of Dumbbell Exercises!

Dumbbells can be used to perform a variety of exercises.

In fact, most people won’t ever try ALL the exercises available (the variety is that big!).

Here’s a list of the best dumbbell exercises you can perform:

Compound Exercises

  • Flat bench press- chest & arms.
  • Incline bench press- chest & arms.
  • Overhead press- shoulders & arms.
  • Bent-over row- back & arms.
  • One-arm row- back & arms.
  • Squat variations- legs.
  • Deadlift variations- total body.

Isolation Exercises

  • Bicep curl variations- biceps.
  • Tricep extension variations- triceps.
  • Chest fly- pectorals.
  • Reverse fly- rhomboids.
  • Lateral raise- deltoids.
  • Ab crunch variations- abdominals.

Now, barbells and kettlebells can still be used to do these exercises.

But it’s often more comfortable to perform many of these exercises using dumbbells.

That’s not to say the other free weights don’t have their own benefits compared to dumbbells. But I’ll explain these later.

Choosing The Right Dumbbell Weight To Gain Muscle.

Many people train to build muscle and/or tone.

To do this effectively, you need to choose the right dumbbell weight.

In general, dumbbell weight should be 70-80% of your 1 rep max (the maximum you can lift for a particular exercise) and you should complete 8-12 reps per set.

This will provide the stimulus required for muscle hypertrophy (muscle growth).

Here’s how heavy your dumbbells should be to gain muscle as a beginner:

Body WeightRecommended Dumbbell Weight
For Men To Gain Muscle
Recommended Dumbbell Weight
For Women To Gain Muscle
110 lb60lb40lb
120 lb60lb40lb
130 lb60lb40lb
140 lb80lb40lb
150 lb 80lb40lb
160 lb80lb60lb
170 lb100lb60lb
180 lb100lb60lb
190 lb100lb60lb
200 lb120lb60lb
210 lb120lb80lb
Total weight of two dumbbells combined. Based on Strength Level bench press standards.

Note: these are the minimum dumbbell poundages required to gain muscle. You should choose dumbbells that go heavier than the recommendation to account for future progression.

Here’s a top tip- choose adjustable dumbbells which have 2.5-5lb increments. These will provide a selection of weights with increments that are suitable for progressive overload.

Check out my other article to find out if you should get dumbbells or a gym membership!


What Are Barbells?

In this section, I’ll explore barbells.

I’ll also highlight the main differences between dumbbells vs barbell weights.

What Is A Barbell?

A barbell is essentially a larger dumbbell.

It comprises a bar with weights on either end and just like dumbbells, can be fixed-weight or plate-loaded.

Barbells can also come in many different shapes and sizes.

Different types of barbells

Here are the main types of barbells you’ll find at the gym and online:

  • Olympic barbells. The bar is 7 foot long and weighs 45-pounds. Weight plates (5- to 55-pounds each) are loaded on collars at each end and secured with a clamp.
  • Standard barbells. Similar to olympic barbells but 4-6 foot long and weighs 30-pounds.
  • Specialised barbells. These are the exotic-looking bars commonly found in gyms. They include trap bars, EZ bars, tricep bars, etc. Weight plates are loaded on either end just like the other plate-loaded barbells.
  • Fixed-weight barbells. The bar is between 4-6 foot long and a fixed--weight is welded onto either end. They can range from 22- to 110-pounds per barbell.

Next, I’ll cover the similarities and differences between dumbbells vs barbell weights.

Similarities Between Dumbbells Vs Barbell Weights.

Since they look the same, you’d expect dumbbells and barbells to function similarly too.

And in many ways they do.

Dumbbells vs barbell weight similarities

Here are the similarities between dumbbells vs barbell weights:

  • Both are free weights. Barbells can be moved in all directions just like dumbbells.
  • Effective for building muscle. Barbells are popular with both casual lifters and bodybuilders to build muscle.
  • Popular free weights for improving physique. Barbells are great for gaining muscle, burning fat, and generally improving physique.
  • Both use similar materials. This is usually iron, steel, or aluminium. Some can be coated in a synthetic such as rubber or urethane.
  • Versatile and can be used for many exercises. Barbells can be used to perform all the compound dumbbell exercises described in the previous section. However certain isolation exercises (like the chest fly and ab crunch) can’t be performed with barbells.
  • Feature weight increments. Barbells can be as light as 22-pounds and as heavy as 600-pounds+. You’ll also find all the weight increments in between. Perfect for progressive overload.

Differences Between Dumbbells Vs Barbell Weights.

Although dumbbells and barbells look similar, 2 hands are required to lift a barbell.

And this confers differences in functionality between the two free weights.

Dumbbells vs barbell weight differences

Here are the main differences between dumbbells and barbells:

  • Barbells are larger. Dumbbells have a smaller footprint compared to barbells. You’ll also need a power cage or a rack to get the most from a barbell. Weight plates also take up considerable space.
  • More weight can be loaded on barbells. Ideal for lower body movements such as the squat and deadlift. Heavier weight loads also make barbells better than dumbbells to improve total body strength and build overall muscle mass.
  • Smaller weight increments with barbells. Bumper plates (used with barbells only) can go as low as 2.5-pounds. These small increments make barbells better for progressive overload, compared to dumbbells.
  • Restricted range of movement. Your arms are physically locked together by the bar, unlike dumbbells which are able to move freely and independent from each other. Range of movement is reduced and some beginners may find this uncomfortable.
  • Barbells are easier to setup week. They’re often used with racks and this makes it easier to focus your strength on lifting the barbell, rather than wasting energy setting up (e.g. kicking the dumbbells up in a dumbbell bench press).
  • Barbells work the body bilaterally. This can lead to muscle imbalances since your stronger side can overcompensate for the weaker side.
  • Stable lifting with barbells. Barbells are great for increasing strength. But they don’t engage your stabiliser muscles as much as dumbbells do.
  • Barbells are more expensive than dumbbells. Barbells are great if you have the space and money. Dumbbells are better if you’re on a budget and have limited space.

Find out how many leg days you should do per week in my other article!

Why Dumbbells May Be More Effective Than Barbells.

This is a hotly debated question in the weight lifting world.

So are dumbbells more effective than barbells, or vice versa?

Dumbbells and barbells are both equally effective. Both offer unique advantages and disadvantages to building muscle strength and size. Dumbbells are great for building muscle size, but barbells are better for increasing strength. Therefore it is ideal to use both.

But what if you’re building a home gym and you can only choose one or the other?

Who are dumbbells good for?

Here are the reasons why dumbbells are more effective than barbells:

  • Effective for both beginners and advanced lifters alike. They can be used at all stages of your weight training journey.
  • Dumbbells are great for upper body training. They are essential for sculpting a ripped physique.
  • Muscle isolation is best done with dumbbells. Exercises like the bicep curl and tricep extension will add definition to specific muscles.
  • Dumbbells have a greater range of motion. A 2020 study has indicated this could benefit muscle growth due to a greater muscle stretch.
  • Dumbbells engage stabilisers. This leads to more balanced muscle development.
  • Safer to use dumbbells. They can be safely dropped if you fail a lift.

All in all, dumbbells are great for bodybuilding, physique/hypertrophy-oriented weight lifters, casual lifters who don’t want to spend too much on a home gym, and those who wish to do HIIT weight training.

Find out how much weight to bicep curl in my other article!

Why Barbells May Be More Effective Than Dumbbells.

Are there reasons why you would want to choose barbells over dumbbells?

There sure are!

Who are barbells good for?

Here are the reasons why barbells are more effective than dumbbells:

  • Barbells are better for good for intermediate and advanced lifters. Heavier loads mean better strength development.
  • Barbells are better for general muscle mass. Heavier weight loads induce a greater mechanical tension on your muscle. This is an essential stimulus for muscle growth.
  • Barbells are more suitable for generating maximum strength. Due to the increased stability compared to dumbbells. This makes barbells essential to break through strength plateaus.
  • Powerlifters should use barbells. If powerlifting is on the agenda, you’ll need a barbell. Powerlifting movements all utilise the barbell.
  • Perfect for lower body exercises. You can rest the barbell on your back during squats and lunges. It’s also easier to deadlift with a barbell. This allows greater weight loads for lower body exercises.

All in all, barbells are great for powerlifting, strength-oriented weight lifters, and those with space and money for a barbell.

They are also good for building a powerful physique!

Dumbbell vs Barbell Bench Press Weight Comparison.

I mentioned that more weight can be lifted with barbells, compared to dumbbells.

Now I’ll give you a better idea of the weight differences you can expect between barbells and dumbbells.

Here’s a dumbbell vs barbell bench press weight comparison for a male beginner:

Body WeightExpected Dumbbell Bench PressExpected Barbell Bench Press% Increase
110 lb32lb51lb59%
120 lb38lb61lb60%
130 lb46lb71lb54%
140 lb52lb80lb53%
150 lb 58lb90lb55%
160 lb66lb100lb51%
170 lb72lb109lb51%
180 lb78lb118lb51%
190 lb84lb127lb51%
200 lb90lb136lb51%
210 lb96lb145lb51%
Weights for two dumbbells combined. Based on Strength Level bench press standards.

As you can see, barbells allow you to lift between 50-60% more weight than dumbbells.

This is due to the stable bilateral nature of barbell exercises which allows for more strength to be applied to the bar.

Since barbells allow you to lift heavier weights, you’ll also develop greater strength and more muscle.

But that doesn’t mean dumbbells don’t build muscle (quite the opposite in fact).

Dumbbells make up for their lower weight by engaging the stabilizer muscles!

Check out my other article to find out how and why you can get stronger with dumbbells!


What Are Kettlebells?

In this section, I’ll explore kettlebells.

I’ll also highlight the main differences between dumbbells vs kettlebell weights.

What Is A Kettlebell?

Kettlebells are rather unique free weights in that they look nothing like a dumbbell or barbell!

Each kettlebell is a cast-iron ball-shaped weight with a top handle.

That’s it!

Different types of kettlebell

Most kettlebells have a set weight (commonly 22- to 110-pounds and over). In other words, each kettlebell weighs x-pounds, and it cannot be adjusted.

Therefore you’ll need a set of kettlebells for a variety of weight increments.

Kettlebell sets also have high weight increments. The difference between one kettlebell and the next (within a set) can often be more than 20-pounds!

So this is something to consider if you’re choosing between dumbbells vs kettlebell weights.

Some modern kettlebells also feature adjustable weight mechanisms (similar to selectorized adjustable dumbbells).

However, these are a relatively new technology and current ones don’t exceed 60-pounds.

What Are Kettlebells Used For?

Do you know the phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none”?

Well, that’s kinda what kettlebells are.

They’re great for general strength and conditioning and also work well in HIIT-style workouts.

But in terms of building muscle and strength, dumbbells and barbells are more specialized.

That being said, kettlebells do have advantages vs dumbbells and barbells.

Kettlebell Exercises Are Unique!

Kettlebells can be used to replicate most of the pushing/pulling/leg movements of dumbbells and barbells.

But oftentimes it’s much harder to replicate the movements on kettlebells due to their shape and weight distribution.

It’s possible…just harder…

25 Minute Home Kettlebell Workout | The Body Coach TV

Where kettlebells shine, are in the swinging exercises:

  • Kettlebell swing.
  • Clean and jerk.
  • Clean and press.
  • Snatch.
  • Kettlebell windmill.
  • Figure of 8.

These exercises tend to be easier with kettlebells, due to their unique handle.

They are all dynamic movements that work lots of muscles simultaneously and are great for strength development in beginners and HIIT conditioning (to burn fat).

Differences Between Dumbbells vs Kettlebells.

Those who are interested in kettlebells or dumbbells are often also eyeing up the other.

In other words, it can be hard to decide between dumbbells vs kettlebell weights.

So here are the main differences between dumbbells and kettlebells:

  • Kettlebell handles can be held with two hands. Great for swing exercises and goblet squats.
  • Kettlebells aren’t great for isolating specific muscles. The handles are often difficult to hold with isolation exercises.
  • Weight sits underneath the handle in a kettlebell. This makes the kettlebell feel different and requires greater stab in some exercises like the bench press.
  • Large weight increments in kettlebells. This makes it harder to progressive overload with kettlebells.

Go to my other article for the best dumbbell exercises for skinny guys!


Final Verdict: Dumbbells Vs Barbells Vs Kettlebells

Here’s the final verdict on what’s best for you- dumbbell vs barbell vs kettlebell.

Which Free Weight Should You Buy?

I’ve explained all the similarities and differences between dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells.

So what free weight should you buy?

The best type of free weight to buy is one that matches your training goal. Dumbbells are best used for maximizing muscle size and definition. Barbells are ideal for strength development. And kettlebells are commonly used for high-intensity strength and cardio conditioning.

But that’s not to say where one type of free weight excels in one aspect, it fails in another.

For example- just because dumbbells are great for building muscle doesn’t mean they won’t increase your strength too.

In reality, they all fulfill all aspects of training.

It’s just that certain types of free weight excel more in certain aspects than others!

Here’s a decision chart to help you decide:

What free weight to get decision helper

What Weight Should A Beginner Buy?

Finally, here’s what weight I recommend a beginner to buy:

Increasing StrengthBuilding MuscleHIIT & CardioGeneral Fitness
Dumbbell90lbs70lbs50lbs30lbs +
Barbell300lbs200lbs100lbs50lbs +
Kettlebell80lbs60lbs40lbs20lbs +
Minimum recommended weights for each type of free weight and desired goal.

Bear in mind these are minimum estimations.

You should make a personal consideration based on your gender, current fitness levels, body weight, and how much you want to smash your training goals!

Check out my other article for the easiest and hardest muscles to build!

Conclusion

I’ve explained all the differences between dumbbells vs the other types of free weights.

All free weights are excellent for building muscle, strength, and fat-burning/cardiovascular conditioning.

But certain types of free weights are better than others for a specific goal.

Dumbbells are great for casual lifters and bodybuilders to build muscle. Strength gains are a slight, but welcome side effect. They can also be used for endurance and HIIT training.

Barbells are awesome for powerlifters and those looking to increase strength. Size gains will also occur.

Kettlebells are perfect for general fitness, cardio, and HIIT-style workouts. But you’ll also develop some size and strength gains

Just remember- increasing muscle size and strength will also require you to follow a good nutrition plan (training is just half the battle!).

What type of free weight will you choose?

Let me know in the comments below!

Thanks for reading guys!

Peace Out,

Kal

(Biochemistry BSc, Biomedical Sciences MSc, Ex-Skinny Guy)

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