Bodybuilders often believe that dumbbells and barbells encourage more growth than machines. But are they really so more effective than machines? However, this is a matter that should really be assessed on the basis of the exercise in question. For example, a “standing calf raise” using a bar across the trapezius or under a machine support is exactly the same measured in terms of the effect on the calf muscle. In contrast, a “preacher bench biceps curl” may be less intense than the equivalent machine, where the strain is constant. There are lots of exercises for which dumbbells and barbells are the worst possible choice. The most effective way to make progress is to use machines whenever they are more appropriate than free weights. And vice versa, use free weights whenever they are more appropriate than machines.
Dumbbell in a nutshell
As you already probably know, dumbbell is a short-handled barbell intended primarily for use with one hand. In other words, you can imagine dumbbell as the little brother of barbell. It is usually about 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 centimeters) in total length. The knurled gripping portion is about 6 inches (15 centimeters) on most dumbbells. Dumbbells, together with the barbells, fall into the free-weight category. It is called free weight because the weight is free to move in any direction and in any manner.
Types of dumbbells
- Fixed dumbbells (stand-alone dumbbells). Just as its name implies, this style of dumbbell is one solid piece of metal that weighs a certain amount. The primary benefit to fixed dumbbells is that you don’t have to spend time adjusting weights. Simply pick them up and you’re ready to go. Fixed weight dumbbells are the ones you’re most likely to see in the gyms. They are often lined up on their elongated racks somewhere on a wall next to a mirror.
- Adjustable dumbbells (plate loaded). They involve one pair of handles, to which you add or remove weight as needed. Weight plates slide onto the ends of the handle and are secured with clips or collars. They are not as common in gyms because adding and removing plates is time-consuming and cumbersome.
- Selectorized dumbbells. The best-known are PowerBlocks. This type of dumbbell is adjustable and the plates (weights) can be changed easily whilst they are in the stand. To adjust the weights on this form of dumbbell doesn’t actually need you to remove any weight from them you simply have to turn a dial or move a selector pin to the weight you wish to lift. The main advantage to using this type during your strength training workout is that it doesn’t take long to change the weight between exercises.
Advantages of training with dumbbells
- Because each dumbbell must be balanced individually (isolaterally), your muscles will have to do more work to keep the weights steady.
- One advantage of using dumbbells over a barbell is that a stronger limb can’t compensate for a weaker arm or leg, promoting balance in both sides of the body.
- Compared to long bars, dumbbells provide a better range of motion. For example, during a bench press, dumbbells stretch the chest muscles better because they allow the hands to go lower than they could with a bar.
- Many bodybuilders also find dumbbells easier on the wrists as you can rotate the hands slightly inward or outward.
- In addition, dumbbells are safer, especially when you are working out alone. If you can’t manage to complete a last rep on presses with dumbbells, you simply drop them.
Disadvantages of using dumbbells
- There are many muscles in human body that can’t be efficiently trained using dumbbells. For example, hamstrings are difficult to train without machines.
- Also, there are many areas you will never be able to train using dumbbells at all. Exercises particularly well suited for weight machines are trunk rotation, trunk extension, knee flexion and extension, and hip adduction and abduction exercises. These joint actions and corresponding muscle groups can be difficult (or even impossible) to isolate using dumbbells alone.
Dumbbells are one of the best exercise equipment ever devised, but they have one more major drawback. If you’ve gotten to the point where you’re lifting major weight, just getting them into position can be a challenge.
If you’re lucky enough to own a private gym, definitely invest in a special cradle that allows you to unrack dumbbells that are already in the proper position. Failing that, you have a couple of options:
- Have a workout partner hand you one or both dumbbells when you’re in the start-up position.
- Take advantage of momentum and swing them into the start-up position.
- When doing seated exercises, rest them on your knees, then pop them into position, one at a time, by raising your knees.
- If you’re already pretty strong, you can probably clean them into position. Don’t try this unless you’re in good shape and already know how to do a dumbbell clean. Resorting to a deadlift and arching your back isn’t a clean— and it can hurt you in ways you won’t soon forget.
All forms of strength training equipment offer different advantages and are limited by different disadvantages. That’s why it’s best to use a variety of training equipment in your strength training program.
Are dumbbells really so much better than machines?
Dumbbells, as opposed to strength-training machines, require that the individual balance the resistance through the entire lilting motion. We could logically assume that they are a better training modality. This assumption is due to the fact that you need to engage additional stabilizing muscles to balance the resistance through the range of motion. Research, however, has not shown any differences in strength development among different exercise modalities.
Proper technique and degree of effort are more important than the specific type of exercise equipment used. Muscles do not know whether the source of a resistance is a barbell, a dumbbell, a weight machine, or a simple cinder block. What determines the extent of a person’s strength development is the quality of the program. Strictly speaking, number of exercises, sets, reps, frequency, progression, individuals effort during the training program and proper nutrition is what counts. Selection comes down to personal preference, equipment availability, and a program that fits personal lifestyle.
They are many different tools to train with. All of these tools fit into a specific modality of training, and all have inherent strengths and weaknesses. Although the benefits of free weights (dumbbells, barbells) may outweigh slightly the benefits of machines, you should still use them regularly as a supplement to training. The conclusion is therefore more than obvious. An ideal training program actually incorporates both free weights and machines. You can choose free weights for some exercises and machines for others. Although each modality has pros and cons, muscles do not know whether the source of the resistance is a barbell, a dumbbell, machine, or a simple cider block.