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Why Do Dumbbells Feel Heavier Than Barbells?

If you’re used to exercising with both barbells and dumbbells, you have probably felt that the dumbbells often feel heavier than barbells of the same weight. Because of this, many people tend to choose dumbbells over barbells for strength gains and muscle building.

So, why do dumbbells feel heavier than barbells?

The reasons why dumbbells feel heavier vary depending on a number of factors. It can be the materials used to make these tools, or it can happen due to the user’s muscle fatigue. Also, thicker dumbbell handles feel heavier than thin barbell handles.

However, experts say that both sets of equipment have their own benefits and you should focus on both of them for losing fat, building muscle mass, and keeping your body fit.

Here we will discuss why dumbbells feel heavier than barbells and dive deep into the dumbbells vs barbells debate.

Let’s get started, shall we?

History of Dumbbells

Nowadays, almost every gym has multiple types of dumbbells available for various dumbbell exercises. This piece of equipment is basically a free weight that is used for weight training. You can use a single dumbbell or go for a pair for each of your hands.

It mainly targets the muscles of your upper body, including the biceps, triceps, pectorals, and deltoids. Many often think that dumbbells are a modern piece of gym equipment, but that’s not true at all. Dumbbells have been around for around 2000 years or more.

Unfortunately, there are very little historical data available regarding the origin of the tool. The most accurate data indicates that dumbbells were first seen in ancient Greece in a very basic form. Many say that the time was around 700 B.C., and dumbbells were then known as ‘Halteres’.

Halteres were used by long jumpers as they believed this little extra weight would help them to reach some extra distance. The tool had a crescent shape, and it featured a handle so that the jumper can grab it easily during the competition.

The player would take the weights and swing them backward and forward to create greater momentum. However, the only use of Halteres wasn’t for any particular sports. Many historians have found evidence that ancient Greeks used this tool for general exercises and muscle activation.

On the other hand, Middle Eastern athletes used a nail for strength training. This is a club-shaped tool that has a length between the dumbbell and barbell. Indian wrestlers also used this tool, and the British colonists adopted it and named the tool ‘Indian Club’.

In the 1700s, people started using church bells for exercising. To silence the church bells, clappers were removed from the bells, and the term ‘dumb bell’ was coined. The dumbbells of the early 1800s resembled the form of modern dumbbells with a handle and equal weights at the ends.

During that time, the European schools and military used the tool for their regular exercise. By the late 1900s, dumbbell training was widely popular in the gyms of Europe and America.

History of Barbells

Another popular gym tool, the barbell, consists of a relatively long bar with some weight plates attached at both ends. This piece of equipment is widely used to build muscle as it affects a wide range of muscle groups, including chest and back muscles, upper arm muscles, shoulder muscles, and leg muscles.

Barbells actually became popular after the dumbbells in the early or mid-1800s. In their initial stage, barbells featured round, globe-like weights at the ends and were given the name ‘globe barbell’. Later, weight plates were being used with barbells and the tool got a new name, ‘plate-loaded barbell’.

Now, you might wonder why it took so long for barbells to become popular. There were mainly two reasons behind this. Firstly, the Indian clubs and dumbbells were already very popular among the general public and military. Very few people felt the need for a heavier tool to build muscle.

Another reason is that the gymnasiums were not for public use before the nineteenth century. Hence, people were less interested in heavyweight training. In 1880, a French strongman Hippolyte Triat built his own gymnasium with a set of innovative gym equipment.

He included a set of barbell-like bars with smaller weights of 6 kilograms. Since then, the tool became slowly popular in other regions as well and developed in its shape and form. In 1986, weightlifting was recognized as a part of the Olympic sports and both barbells and dumbbells were qualified for the competition.

Later in 1928, Kasper Berg introduced the world to the famous revolving-sleeve barbell. And this is basically the modern form of Olympic bars that is used today.

Types of Dumbbells

As we have mentioned before, you can find dumbbells in many shapes and sizes. You can use these free weights for heavy compound movements as well as isolation workouts. Squats, deadlifts, reverse flies, hammer curls, seated calf raises, etc. are just a few workouts that you can perform with dumbbells.

As dumbbells allow unilateral movements, you can use them to regain muscle balance and improve your form. There are mainly two categories of dumbbells depending on adjustability: Fixed-weight dumbbells and Adjustable dumbbells.

These two categories can be further divided into several subcategories, including:

  • Fixed hex dumbbells
  • Fixed rubber dumbbells
  • Fixed chrome dumbbells
  • Fixed urethane dumbbells
  • Spin-lock dumbbells
  • Studio dumbbells
  • Kettlebells

Now let’s take a look at some of the main dumbbell versions.

Fixed Hex Dumbbells

As the name suggests, the weights of this type of dumbbell have a hexagonal shape, and they remain in a fixed position. This shape allows them to lie flat on the floor without rolling away. Moreover, the shape gives the dumbbells some extra stability. You can use these dumbbells for dumbbell push-ups.

Mostly, the hex dumbbells are made of cast iron to ensure maximum strength and durability. The material also gives the dumbbells a very attractive look. In comparison to rubber or urethane dumbbells, this type of dumbbell costs less.

One downside is that the hex dumbbells tend to scratch the shelving units and floor surfaces. You can go for rubber-coated dumbbells to solve this problem. However, you need to be careful with the rubber coating as the material can expand and crack in excessive heat.

Spin Lock Dumbbells

Among all the dumbbell variations, this type of adjustable dumbbell is considered the safest due to its design. The free weights of this dumbbell are secured uniquely.

While the weights of other adjustable dumbbells are held in place by clamps, the spin-lock dumbbells feature threaded sleeves. You need to slide the weights on the sleeves and lock them in place using a small piece called ‘spinlock’.

The spinlock threads the ends of the dumbbell so that they can easily tighten up against the weights.


Kettlebells are the most unique-looking dumbbell in this lineup. While you can use the kettlebells for typical dumbbell exercises, there are many other types of workouts that you can perform with kettlebells only.

Kettlebells feature a ball-shaped weight with a single top handle. Due to this unique and versatile shape, you can use them for various ballistic and swing exercises. Mostly, the tool is made of steel and cast iron.

Some of them have an iron coating outside, while the inner portion is filled with sand. Kettlebells often feature a rubber coating that provides a better grip.

Studio Dumbbells

If you’re a beginner, your trainer will probably hand you these cute and colorful dumbbells for primary uses. As the maximum weight of these dumbbells is around 20 pounds only, they are mostly found in women’s gyms and beginner’s classes.

You can buy these small dumbbells in bulk or just in single pairs. Studio dumbbells are added to other workouts for making them a bit more difficult. As these dumbbells are fixed-weight, you can’t move or alter the weighted ends.

The dumbbells are fully covered by textured and colorful rubber or neoprene so that you can easily grip them and perform cardio-heavy workouts without hurting your hands.

Types of Barbells

The length of a typical barbell is about 4 to 7 feet, while the thickness is 1 inch. Barbells are great for compound movements like deadlift and front squat. You can also use the equipment for isolation exercises such as barbell curl, lying triceps extensions, and wrist curl.

Barbells can also be categorized as fixed-weight and adjustable. However, barbell lifts vary more widely compared to dumbbells. A few types of barbells include-

  • Standard bar
  • Powerlifting bar
  • Tsunami bar
  • Olympic bar
  • Deadlift bar
  • EZ curl bar
  • Log barbells
  • Curl bar
  • Hex (trap) bar
  • Buffalo barbells
  • Swiss bar
  • Cambered barbells
  • Safety squat bar
  • Axle bar

Now it’s time to check out some of these barbell variations.

Standard Bars

You have probably seen this type of barbell in a typical commercial gym or school gym. In comparison to the other barbell counterparts, standard bars have a pretty basic design. Typically, the standard bar consists of a straight steel pole and some round weights. The tool often weighs around 45 pounds.

At the center, there are some grooves that help you to achieve a better grip. Since this tool isn’t constructed for a particular use, you can use it for a wide variety of barbell exercises such as squats, deadlifts, barbell bench presses, and overhead presses.

While standard bars are used for a wide range of solo barbell training, you might need other specialized bars for building more muscle and performing heavy compound movements.

Olympic Barbells

While this type of barbell has many similarities with the standard bars, they are slightly different in design and function. Olympic bars are designed for injury prevention and supporting all kinds of weightlifting needs of Olympic athletes. A special type of steel is used to make these bars for having a greater bounce or whip.

That’s why the Olympic bars are only used for certain exercises and big barbell lifts. The knurling on these bars is smoother than other types of barbells allowing the athletes to move more efficiently and quickly. Moreover, Olympic bars have much thicker ends so you can use only specific weights with this type of barbell.

Safety Squat Bars

As the name suggests, this type of bar is made to ensure the highest safety during your barbell training. Hence, safety squat bars are an ideal choice for casual lifters and beginners.

The safety bars come with attached shoulder pads that rest on the shoulders to make powerlifting more comfortable. Due to the padding, these barbells are easy to grip and lift. However, safety bars can change your squat dynamics and specifically target muscles of certain groups.

You can get these budget-friendly barbells for getting used to squats and then move on to bare bars.

Why Do Dumbbells Often Feel Heavier Than Barbells?

Typically, if you’re lifting the same weight, you should feel the same level of heaviness no matter which equipment you’re using. However, many times regular gym-goers have wondered why they find it harder while lifting a pair of dumbbells in comparison to lifting a single barbell of the same weight.

Below are some of the reasons why you might feel that dumbbells are heavier. Let’s take a look.


The main reason dumbbells often feel heavier than barbells is the materials used for manufacturing the tools. Mostly, the dumbbells in a regular gym are made of cast iron, whereas the barbells come in a greater range of materials like steel, iron, and polymer.

Iron-made dumbbells offer less friction compared to polymer-made barbells. Therefore, you might have to put some extra effort to lift the iron dumbbells. Moreover, iron has a higher density than polymer, which also affects the overall weight of the tools made from these two materials.

Apart from that, the weight might also vary due to the coating materials. Most iron dumbbells are coated with rubber to offer a better grip. And rubber-coated dumbbells have more or less 15% accuracy tolerance.

This means a pair of 100lbs dumbbells might actually weigh around 115lbs. Hence, your dumbbells will surely feel heavier than the barbells of the same weight.

Muscle Fatigue

If the issue is not with the materials, dumbbells might feel heavier due to the muscle fatigue of the user. After you perform a heavy barbell exercise like bench pressing or Bulgarian split squats, the muscle fibers of your upper body might get tired.

So, when you try to perform dumbbell pressing afterward, the weight will surely feel heavier because of muscle fatigue. Similarly, your hands might get sweaty after heavy powerlifting.

And the sweat won’t help you to achieve a strong grip and balance over the dumbbells. Hence, you’ll need to put more effort to lift the dumbbells of the same weight.

Handle Thickness

Both dumbbells and barbells feature a handlebar that contains the weight at both ends. With adjustable tools, you can easily work with any weight you want.

You might have picked the same weight for both dumbbells and barbells, but the handle thickness of the tools can be different. Naturally, if your tool has a thinner handle, it will feel a bit lighter than the thicker handles.

This way, a dumbbell with a thick handle feels heavier than a barbell with a thin handle.

Why Do Dumbbells Feel Heavier Than Barbells?

When it comes to weightlifting, many people wonder why dumbbells feel heavier than barbells, despite having the same weight. The phenomenon can be attributed to the fact that dumbbells engage more stabilizer muscles, requiring extra effort for balance. This increased muscle activation gives the “same weight feeling heavier” effect, making dumbbell exercises particularly challenging and effective for strength training.

Barbells vs Dumbbells: Are Dumbbells Better Than Barbells?

The barbells vs dumbbells discussions have been around for a long time, and many people prefer one over the other. However, it’s not possible to mark one as the best as each piece of equipment has its own benefits and drawbacks.

Here we will compare the dumbbells and barbells based on muscle activation, muscle stabilization, range of motion, mass gain, etc. So let’s dive deep.

Mass Gains

If you want to gain mass in the shortest possible time, barbells are easily the best choice. Barbells allow you to lift heavier weights and easily include progressive overload in your training. This way, you can maximize mechanical tension, stimulate hypertrophy, and prevent strength plateaus.

On top of that, lifting heavier weights is easier and more convenient with barbells compared to dumbbells. Sometimes picking up the dumbbells from the ground seems like a tiring exercise in itself.

This means you waste energy before performing your first rep. Hence, it becomes tougher to do the same exercise with dumbbells. That’s why you need to choose barbells over dumbbells for more muscle gains.

Muscle Activation

When it comes to muscle activation, both dumbbells and barbells offer great outcomes depending on your exercise type. However, dumbbells typically offer greater muscle activation including your weaker muscle group.

If you perform chest isolation movements with dumbbells, it will produce better pec activity for flat and inclined dumbbell bench presses. Moreover, dumbbells elicit better front deltoid activation when you perform a military bench press.

On the other hand, barbells help you achieve long-term strength and muscle gains. For biceps activation, dumbbells and barbells are equally effective. So, if you want to activate more muscle groups, work out with dumbbells. Otherwise, go for barbells for greater muscle growth.

Stabilization Muscles

In comparison to dumbbell exercises, barbell workouts target fewer stabilizer muscles. This means you’ll be able to use a barbell for lifting about 20% heavier weights when compared to the overall weight of two dumbbells. Moreover, barbell training allows you to engage some extra muscle groups simultaneously.

With barbells, the weight is distributed evenly so that you can achieve greater stability while performing a barbell bench press, deadlift, or squat. As you don’t waste much energy with barbells, it will be easier to lift more weight and to set up an exercise like barbell curl or barbell bench press.

However, while performing barbell curls, the unnatural and uncomfortable position of your wrists can induce pain and increase the risk of injury. In that case, you can go for a dumbbell curl instead, as it offers a greater range of movements and motion.

Moreover, dumbbell curls will promote muscle growth, prevent strength imbalances, and improve overall conditioning.

Range of Motion

For building muscle mass and strength without any injury, you need to use a complete range of motion. Otherwise, you’ll end up with inferior results and less stretch. To achieve a complete range of motion, you have to choose dumbbells over barbells.

That’s because dumbbells allow free movement of your arms and provide a greater motion range. For example, when you’re performing bench presses with barbells, the range of your motion is limited as your shoulder and arms are locked in a particular position when you lower the barbell.

Whereas dumbbell presses allow you to press your pecs longer and harder offering a better range of motion. This way, you’ll be able to keep your muscles under tension for a long time and engage more muscle fibers.


Without a doubt, dumbbells are a safer tool to work with compared to barbells. As dumbbells don’t restrict the natural movement of your arms, the tool is easier to maneuver and safer for your joints. Therefore, dumbbells are an ideal choice for beginners.

Dumbbells are mostly available in pairs, so if you fail to complete a rep with two dumbbells, you can drop one dumbbell and continue with the other one. On the other hand, barbells are relatively longer and more difficult to move.

Hence, there are more chances of injury if you try performing squatting or barbell bench presses for the first time.

Wrapping Up

So there you have it all. Now you know why dumbbells feel heavier than barbells. We also provided some key differences between barbells and dumbbell exercises.

The bottom line is that you should pick dumbbells for performing safer workouts, greater muscle activation, and preventing muscle imbalances. Go for barbells to lift more weight, promote muscle growth, and easily gain muscle mass.

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About Ben Adler

I'm Ben, a passionate fitness enthusiast on a mission to help you achieve your fitness goals. With a love for lifting and building a well-rounded physique, I founded Swole Class to provide beginners with the guidance and knowledge they need to navigate the gym and embrace a healthier lifestyle. Join me on this journey as we unlock our potential and inspire greatness together. Learn more about me