Dumbbell Squats vs Barbell Squats – What Are the Key Differences?

dumbbell squat vs barbell squat

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Many fitness enthusiasts know that squats are often considered the ‘king’ when it comes to functional strength training exercises. What’s sometimes unclear, though, is which types of squats are best for building leg strength, adding muscle, or improving muscular endurance.

Two popular exercises, the barbell squat and the dumbbell squat, are often considered two of the best variations of squats. In this guide, we’ll break down the key points to the barbell squat vs. dumbbell square debate, plus review some awesome exercises you can do with each.

Benefits of Barbell Squats

  • Develops the hamstrings, glutes, core, and to a lesser extent, the upper body
  • Trains the posterior chain (backside of your body)
  • Better for athletic development
  • Better for athletic carryover (makes you stronger for other compound exercises) 
  • Better for strength and fitness sports like CrossFit, powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting
  • Good for developing strong ligaments and tendons around the knees, ankles, and hips

Is Barbell Squat Effective?

Many fitness professionals consider the barbell squat to be the best strength training exercise you can do. Whether you’re performing back squats or front squats, barbell squats offer a functional loaded movement pattern that mimics movements we perform everyday.

Barbell squats also promote maximal leg strength development. Sports like powerlifting test the 1-rep max back squat using a barbell, while sports like CrossFit and Olympic weightlifting also use barbell squat strength for training purposes. 

Benefits of Dumbbell Squats

  • Develops the hamstrings, glutes, core, and to a lesser extent, the upper body
  • Promotes good shoulder and front rack mobility
  • Minimal equipment required
  • Works different muscles than the barbell squat (forearms)
  • Less of a learning curve (safer for beginners)
  • Can be performed right at home
  • May be preferable for those with a history of back injuries or mobility issues
  • Good for unilateral and one-leg squat variations
  • Trains the smaller stabilizer muscles in the legs, core, and arms

Is Squatting With Dumbbells Effective?

Definitely, so long as you use them for the right types of training. 

Dumbbell squats are best used for muscular endurance, high rep (6, 8, or 10+ reps), or cardiovascular workouts. Due to equipment limitations, you’ll likely only have around 100 to 200lbs to squat when you use dumbbells, which is relatively low.

A strength athlete looking to increase his 1-RM on the back squat is not going to get much out of dumbbell squats if their goal is sheer strength. However, he or she might still use them on deload days, for assistance work, or as a form of active recovery.

Barbell Squat Vs. Dumbbell Squat: Which Is Better?

These categories can help you settle the barbell squat vs. dumbbell squat dilemma in your programming.

Fitness Goals

The barbell squat vs. dumbbell squat debate should always be viewed through the lens of your goals. This way, you look at each fitness training tool objectively and with context.

Barbell squats are better for those seeking maximal strength gains. Barbells are designed to hold hundreds (sometimes thousands) of pounds. Unless you achieve top tiers levels of leg strength, it’s unlikely you’ll ever run out of room on your barbell to make the weight heavier.

Dumbbell squats are better for volume training, cardio, and endurance.

Equipment Available

In a well-equipped home gym, fitness center, or CrossFit box, you may have a plethora of dumbbells and several squat racks and barbells available. On the road or at a hotel gym, though, you might only have a set of moderately heavy dumbbells to workout with.

Strength coaches often say that squatting twice your bodyweight is an intermediate or advanced milestone (i.e. a 180lb athlete should squat 360lbs). So without access to very heavy dumbbells, you may not be able to reach your potential.

Muscle Loading

Barbell squats load the muscles differently than dumbbells held in a front rack or goblet position.

  • Barbell squats, especially back squats, tend to target the posterior chain, or backside musculature of the body. Your upper and lower back, glutes, and even hamstrings all play a role in stabilizing the barbell on your back during heavy squats.
  • The front rack and goblet position held with dumbbells puts more load on your quadriceps, arms, core, and lats than a barbell back squat does.

Movement Limitations/Injuries

Barbell squats can put lots of pressure on the back. Dumbbell squats can put excessive pressure on the wrists and forearms. If you have pre existing injuries or movement limitations, barbell squats or dumbbell squats may be preferable in your workouts.

Type of Workout

Recreational and competitive fitness and strength sports frequently utilize barbell squats. Therefore, training with a barbell is your best bet to perform well during these workouts.

For example, a higher-rep CrossFit workout where you’re primarily working on cardio could be better suited for dumbbell squats. Heavy barbell back squats could fry your legs and be difficult (or even unsafe) to complete in the later rounds of a long workout when you’re fatigued.

However, if one of your fitness goals is to work out from home without a gym membership, it’s much easier (and probably safer) to do a bunch of dumbbell goblet squats than to transport a barbell. 

Verdict

If fitness gains are your primary goal, barbell squats are. You’ll be able to lift more weight over time, which gives you more opportunities to add strength and build muscle.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with dumbbell squats. They’re a fantastic way to build your lower body, get in a workout while you’re traveling, or mix up your accessory work. Both can be used to get great results in training.

About Julien

Hey! Thanks for being here. I’ve been active pretty much my whole life and I discovered Crossfit about 5 years ago. I want to help you improve your Crossfit performances by giving tips on specific movements, workouts and equipment. You have a question? Get in touch!

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