For regular gym goers, an age-old debate that consistently comes up is about the dumbbell squat vs. barbell squat. Which is better? There are strong arguments from people on both sides. However, the simple truth is that dumbbell squat vs. barbell squat is not a competition. Both movements offer something different and should be used together in any strong gym routine. When thinking about the dumbbell squat vs. barbell squat, remember that just because they are the same base movement, the results, and muscle impacts are not identical. Much the same way as dumbbell curls and barbell curls work your biceps and supporting muscles in different ways, so it is the same for squats.
In the article below, we discuss the dumbbell squat vs. barbell squat conundrum and look to settle the debate once and for all.
- What are barbell squats?
- What are the different barbell squat variations?
- What are the benefits of the barbell squat vs. dumbell squat
- What are the limitations of barbell squats?
- What are dumbbell squats?
- What are the main dumbbell squat variations?
- What are the main benefits of performing dumbbell squats
- What is the winner in the dumbbell squat vs. barbell squat debate?
What are barbell squats?
The barbell squat is a foundational movement in competitive weightlifting—both powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting use variations of the barbell squat to perform key movements. In powerlifting, this movement presents as a simple back squat. In Olympic lifting, the barbell squat supports the development of the clean and snatch.
What are the different barbell squat variations?
Below are three of the most typical barbell squat variations. These are the more common barbell squat movements and those most heavily compared when talking about dumbbell squat vs. barbell squat comparisons.
A back squat is completed with a barbell resting across the lifter’s upper back and starts in a squat rack or a monolift. This lift can be completed either as a high-bar or low-bar variation, which pertains to the bar’s positioning on the lifter’s back.
Back squats target the posterior chain, primarily hitting the glutes, hamstrings, and low back.
Front squats are completed with the barbell in a front rack position, resting across the lifter’s chest with their elbows facing forward to hold the bar in place. This variation shifts the onus of the movement from the glutes and hamstrings to the quads.
Overhead barbell squats are an essential variation for Olympic lifters and Crossfitters who do overhead work. In this variation, the barbell is held overhead with arms locked out during the squat. Positioning and stability play pivotal roles in this barbell squat variation.
Are there different squat bar variations?
One key point made when looking at the dumbbell squat vs barbell squat is that a dumbbell is a dumbbell. However, there are various types of barbells that can enhance a lifter’s training by shifting the center of gravity or enhancing the range of motion.
Some common barbell variations include:
Within those variations, there are subtle differences to consider, as well.
What are the benefits of the barbell squat vs. dumbell squat
Below are the three main benefits of a barbell squat vs. a dumbbell squat.
Heavier Load Capacity
If your goal is to progressively build strength and power, dumbbells will only take you so far. Even if you can lift two 100lb dumbbells to do a dumbbell squat, it doesn’t mean that you should. Getting into the position without a rack can be risky. And the positioning can put unnecessary strain on your shoulder joint.
Furthermore, you’ll likely waste more energy getting into the right position with dumbbells than you would squatting the same weight with a racked barbell.
If you want to hit the heavier weights, barbell squats are the way to go.
Large Muscle Engagement
Barbell squats are also superior for dominant muscle engagement. Large muscle groups, like the quads, core, and posterior chain, all benefit more from the progressive overload of a barbell squat.
Natural Stability and Balance
Another benefit to the barbell squat is the inherent balance and stability throughout the movement, as the weight is held in place and evenly distributed. While barbells don’t eliminate compensations, they make it easier to maintain form throughout the movement than dumbbells.
What are the limitations of barbell squats?
While the pros of barbell squats far outweigh the cons, there are a few important risks and limitations to be aware of for a full understanding of the exercise.
Below are two key limitations of barbell squats.
Advanced Equipment Needs
Barbells and plates are more expensive to acquire than dumbbells. They also take up more space and infrastructure to use, which is a limitation for beginners interested in starting a home gym. Furthermore, many commercial gyms lack the necessary equipment for barbell squat variations.
Limitations with Solo Training
Another critical concern is the limitations with solo training when completing barbell squats. Hitting heavy weights alone without guards is never a good idea. The heavier weight also makes it easier to get hurt if you don’t know what you’re doing, causing permanent injury.
What are dumbbell squats?
Dumbbell squats are completed with one or two dumbbells, depending on the movement. In fact, the ability to change it up is one of the main benefits of squatting with dumbbells. Like barbell squats, dumbbell squats also offer numerous variations for muscle targeting and cross-training.
What are the main dumbbell squat variations?
Below are the three core dumbbell squat variations. These are the movements most commonly used when debating the dumbbell squat vs. barbell squat.
A goblet squat is completed by holding a dumbbell at chest level with elbows out and squatting. It’s similar to the front squat, targeting the quads. However, it doesn’t require the same shoulder engagement as the barbell front squat, making it easier to perform for those with mobility issues.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is a staple in bodybuilding, making the quads and glutes pop. This unilateral exercise is performed with one foot elevated behind the lifter and the front foot planted forward. The lifter holds dumbbells in each hand and squats down so that their back knee bends toward the floor.
Bulgarian split squats have been deemed as effective as barbell squats for building lower body strength. This is a fantastic accessory lift that benefits barbell squatting.
The dumbbell suitcase squat is a squat/deadlift hybrid that replicates the movements of a trap bar deadlift with a better range of motion. In this movement, the dumbbells are held in a suitcase hold, resting at the side of the thighs throughout the squat movement. In addition to strengthening the quad and hamstrings, the suitcase squat also improves stability.
What are the main benefits of performing dumbbell squats
When embroiled in the dumbbell squat vs. barbell squat debate, many lifters ask themselves, “are dumbbell squats effective?
The answer is yes!
There are many benefits to dumbbell squats that make them a worthy accessory exercise e, including:
Dumbbell squats are ideal for new lifters who are still getting used to handling weight in their training. Whether it’s a cardio-convert or an inexperienced elderly individual, using dumbbells allows for form and weight progression in a safe, non-intimidating manner.
Easily Accessible for Home Workouts
Another key consideration in our modern era is the accessibility for at-home workouts. With global lockdowns, many gym-goers are moving their training to their homes. Dumbbells are affordable, versatile, and require minimal space for at-home training.
Dumbbell squats are also easier to bail from, making them safer for solo training at home.
Allows for Unilateral Training
Another noteworthy benefit of using dumbbells is that they allow for unilateral training. Unilateral training can help rehabilitate injured lifters and reduce compensations by strengthening weakened muscles.
Consider it this way: if your left leg is slightly weaker than your right, your right leg will carry the weight during a barbell squat. By completing unilateral squats with a dumbbell, you can strengthen the weakened muscle for a more uniform barbell squat.
Trains Stabilizer Muscles
Whereas barbell squats effectively engage larger muscle groups, dumbbells are great for engaging the smaller stabilizer muscles. This engagement can help improve secondary movers, boost overall strength, and improve form while preventing injuries.
What are the limitations of dumbbell squats?
The overarching pitfall of dumbbell squats is the weight limitation. You’ll never safely hit the same weight with a dumbbell as you would with a barbell. Whether your form is at risk or your grip gives out, dumbbells can only take you so far with squats.
So, can you do squats with dumbbells to build strength and muscle mass? Absolutely. However, you’ll hit your max with dumbbells far quicker than you will with a barbell.
What is the winner in the dumbbell squat vs. barbell squat debate?
When considering the question of dumbbell squat vs. barbell squat, there is no true winner. Both the barbell squat and the dumbell squat should be used in combination in order to reap the fullest extent of possible rewards from your training. Barbell squats are better for building strength and power as you advance in your lifting goals. Dumbbell squats are better for building stability and complementing barbell squats, especially for beginners.
Both have a time and place in your training. If your options are limited and dumbbells are the safest or most convenient way to train, use them, and add progression whenever possible. If your goal is to compete in powerlifting, don’t overlook dumbbell squats to support your training efforts.