Everyone knows that the best way to get strong is to focus on compound lifts and build in accessories to create a well-rounded program. But with so many exercises to choose from, it’s hard to figure out which kind of approach is going to work out the best. This is especially true when you’re working toward a big raw squat number or you’re considering training for your first powerlifting competition.
Though some people might try to make a comparison list between barbell and dumbbell squats to determine which is better, the truth is both of these squat variations have their place in a well-rounded programme. As with all things fitness, your personal experience and results will depend on several factors, including where you are in your journey and where you’re heading.
Barbell and dumbbell squats have advantages and disadvantages, depending on the type of training you’re doing and what your overall goals are – not to mention what your programming looks like. Let’s break down the benefits, risks, and challenges of each so you can make an informed decision on which will be most useful for you on leg day.
So if you’re ready to add new movements to your programming or if you’re looking for leg day variations, take a look at the differences between barbell and dumbbell squats and make the decision on which is best for you.
Barbell squats have withstood the test of time because they’re useful. When done correctly, a barbell squat will engage your largest muscle groups and will help you add real size to your legs and glutes. There are two main variations of barbell squats (and lots of offshoots) – back squats and front squats. Back squats engage your hamstrings and glutes more, while front squats are best to target your quads. This difference has to do with where the barbell is placed on your body. All squat variations require a bit of shoulder, wrist, and ankle mobility to help prevent injury.
Front squats are the foundational movement that you need to learn if you’re even remotely interested in Olympic lifts. This squat variation helps challenge your core and your upper back strength, which makes it a very useful modification to a standard leg day programme.
Barbell squats make it harder to maintain proper form and might not be safer for the novice lifter. But for those who have spent some time in the gym, you inevitably progress to barbell work at some point because you’re likely not going to achieve your aesthetic goals or ever PR with dumbbells. To that, barbell work begets more barbell movements, which are always good no matter what kind of programme you’re pushing.
In addition to front and back squats, several other variations might be fun and exciting to try, including Olympic lifting movements (cleans, snatch) as well as overhead squat work, thrusters, or clusters. They all rely on the basic foundational movement of either a front or back squat, but will definitely challenge your stabiliser muscles, core, and other large muscle groups.
For an even greater challenge, you might consider pause squats or bottom-up reps (where you start at the bottom of a squat and push up). Both of these varieties will help you learn how to control your body at depth and will help develop serious core strength.
Just like a barbell squat, a dumbbell squat is performed by activating and engaging several muscle groups and squatting down. The most obvious benefit of dumbbell squats is that they’re incredibly useful for beginners because it’s an easy exercise to learn. A standard female barbell weighs 15kg, and male bars weigh 20kg – weights that a beginner might not be able to comfortably use without the risk of injury. Substituting dumbbells is an excellent alternative.
Because hand placement is different with a dumbbell squat, there’s less risk of injury if an athlete fails a rep. Instead of falling on the ground with a barbell, it’s easy to simply drop the dumbbells and reset.
Easier access to equipment
Because there might be instances in which you don’t have access to a barbell, being comfortable and familiar with dumbbell squat exercises can be incredibly beneficial. This is especially true if you’re on holiday and want to keep up with your fitness programming but don’t have access to a barbell.
With that in mind, you might risk your form if you’re attempting to dumbbell squat with heavier weights. There’s a greater risk that larger dumbbells will come in contact with your ankles, shins, or knees, which can impact your form.
To perform this movement correctly, you need two dumbbells of the same weight.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold one dumbbell in each hand.
- Keep your arms parallel to your torso and slowly begin to lower yourself to the ground. Your personal depth will depend on several factors, including hip and ankle mobility.
- Maintain balance in your knees, ankles, and feet and push up from the ground to return to your starting position.
Using dumbbells in place of barbell work has other advantages as well, namely the endless variety of work that can be done with dumbbells versus what you can do with a barbell. Dumbbells obviously come in low weights, which means you can really have
These might include any of the following:
- Use only one dumbbell instead of two to work on stabilisation and balance
- Goblet squats – hold a dumbbell like a goblet in front of you and squat
- Waiter squats – hold dumbbells overhead like a waiter carrying a tray and squat
- Dumbbell cleans
- Dumbbell snatch
- Dumbbell thrusters
- One arm overhead squats
- One leg squats – challenge your balance, core, and stabilization
Which is Better?
Both barbell and dumbbell training has its place. Let’s take a look at a side-by-side comparison of the two to help you determine which will be most useful for your programming.
Range of motion
Your personal range of motion is going to depend on your own mobility and should be addressed to ensure you’re able to achieve the best possible form on all of your lifts. Training with a full range of motion makes it easier to build both strength and mass and reduce the risk of injury.
When you work with limited mobility or a partial range of motion, you’re not stretching your muscles to their full capacity. In turn, that means that you’re not going to get the results you want. So, from this perspective, dumbbells make the better choice, since they provide a greater range of motion and are easier to handle. This is especially true for novice lifters who are still working on perfecting form.
Both barbells and dumbbells can help you achieve results, but the scale of muscle activation depends on the exercises you perform. That means that if your goal is to build mass, you should focus on lifting heavier weights and use a barbell for your training. Dumbbell squats might activate more small stabiliser muscles, but that doesn’t necessarily lead to growth.
Barbell work allows you to work several muscle groups at the same time. The weight is distributed evenly across your back when you’re squatting, which means that the movement will likely feel more solid and stable – if you have the form and mobility to squat well.
Dumbbell squatting can help recruit and engage the smaller stabilisation muscles that will ultimately help lead to the strength and flexibility you need to squat with a barbell.
Ultimately, deciding when to use each modality will depend on several factors – namely, your goals, your current fitness level, and whether or not your current training feels stale. Switching things up will help prevent stalls and can ensure your lifts consistently feel fresh and fun.
The variations that can be achieved with dumbbells definitely outweighs what you can do with a barbell, so if your programming feels a little dull, it might be a good idea to consider adding in some of the options we talked about earlier.
It’s true that most people consider squats to be leg-centric. After all, you’re using your legs to drive and push the bar. But the truth is that squats are actually a compound movement that engages all of your major muscle groups. This means that in addition to helping you build thick thighs, you’re going to get stronger overall.
As one of the compound core lifts that most (if not all) athletes do in the gym, figuring out how to squat correctly will serve you well in the long run. There are several different schools of thought about squats, namely concerning the type of shoes you “must” wear to how deep your squat needs to be to “count,” which can make it feel like there’s too much to learn and no sense in figuring it out.
But that’s just not true. Sure, you might have your own personal thoughts of squat trainers, and you might not think that anything except a below-parallel squat counts as a rep, but the truth is that a squat is a squat. If you want to wear trainers with the idea that the shoes will help with hip mobility or increase your performance with a barbell, then you should definitely explore those options. There’s no telling that shoes will make you a better squatter, but you might find that they give you the added bit of mental strength to help you load up a bar.
Using dumbbells as part of your leg day means that you’re constantly going to be pushing yourself to new limits, since using the same weight week after week probably won’t get you the results you want. One of the most challenging aspects of using dumbbells is that you need to be capable of pushing yourself and your edge as much as possible. That means switching up your rep/set scheme or adding in pauses at the bottom of a squat to challenge your leg muscles.
Ultimately, what stands between you and a good squat is your overall fitness level and how much you understand body mechanics. So whether you choose to load up a barbell and squat or grab a set of dumbbells and work on technique, form, and endurance, both are going to help you get closer to your goals.