What is better to use for exercises like chest press: a barbell or dumbbells? More and more people seem to be turning to dumbbells, but all the greats of the past like Schwarzenegger seemed to use barbells. Thoughts?
. . . Rick Mein
A: Hi Rick,
This reply will be short compared to some of my others. My clients know I’m not a big fan of machines; at best, I will incorporate cables in a program now and then but will use them mostly for final preparation details or in “active recovery” phases, since they are less traumatic. Most of the time, I prefer to use what has worked best for every bodybuilder since the beginnings of the sport: free weights!
As for the difference between dumbbells and barbells, I think that the two have different advantages. I regularly use combinations of both in my programs, giving priority to barbells for basic, heavy exercises and/or sets, and dumbbells for isolation exercises and lighter sets. For more advanced programs, I might even build two different versions for each muscle group (one with dumbbells and one with barbells) and alternate them over a two-week period for increased variation.
I find dumbbells very useful when I want to be more precise in my exercise prescription, like when I want to stimulate a certain group of muscle fibres or isolate one specific muscle. I like the freedom they give me regarding positioning and range of motion. They allow room for subtle variations (which I’m known for being a fan of) and further stimulation that really gets you into the details you need to literally “sculpt” the physique. Having to control and stabilize the two weights during the set also increases stimulation of the neuromuscular system (proprioception, muscle-fibre recruitment, coordination). For those reasons, when working with dumbbells I will often use techniques such as partial reps, increased stretch positions, alternated arm sets, etc. Getting closer to a contest, I also put more emphasis on dumbbell exercises as I find them a valuable tool in a fine-tuning phase. Dumbbells are also extremely helpful when you want to work on and improve your posture!
Barbells exercises, which are more stable, are safer if you want to use heavier loads to increase eccentric mechanical stress. I incorporate them a lot in the off-season when I want to focus on putting size on. I use barbells mainly on basic exercises, or when I want to put more emphasis on the development of strength, and I often start my programs with them. You’ve got to be careful, though, because working with barbells and heavy weights is extremely strenuous and takes a lot of energy, so recovery phases have to be integrated in the plan.
Even though barbells are useful for heavy loads, that doesn’t mean that I never use them for higher reps or at the end of a workout. The thing is, if you’re looking to pack on a lot of muscle, are a beginner in the sport, or simply in a bulking phase, they are usually going to give you the most bang for the buck. For example, I’ve designed a specific program that has the client work exclusively with barbells on about 25 exercise variations from 3 to 15 reps, which I found to be really efficient at quickly putting on some serious muscle mass!
To end this quick overlook about barbells and dumbbells, let’s take the bench press as an example. The barbell bench press will allow you to use more weight on the bar, since stability and synchronism are increased. A heavier load will greatly stimulate muscle growth, but that simulation will be more diffused through all the synergistic muscle groups that will work into the limited range of motion permitted by the bar. On the other hand, it would be hard to handle as much load with two separate weights, but the dumbbell press will allow you to integrate variations in positioning and range of motion, giving you more room for better stimulation of certain muscles, or even a specific section of a muscle. For example, going deeper into the stretch or allowing hand rotations or some angle variations in the exercise can help in decreasing front deltoid recruitment (and shoulder pain) or being more precise at hitting either one of the three pectoralis major vectors (higher, middle, or lower part).
The trick is to find ways to combine both in all your programs, giving priority to the one that applies to what you need to improve at the time. Remember that there’s no secret recipe; variation in your exercises and understanding what you are doing are the keys to success.
Have a great workout!
. . . Denis Pedneault, Canadian Champion 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2011