Dumbbell Deadlifts vs Barbell Deadlifts: There’s A Real Winner
Most Dumbbell versus Barbell posts give conclusions with a soft edge. They usually end with the same thing: dumbbell deadlifts and barbell deadlifts are both good, a little bit of this, a little bit of that; it just depends on your circumstances.
This post is going to be different.
I’d like to take a stronger line and actually give you the information you need to decide:
Which is better for you? Dumbbell or barbell deadlifts. And why is it better?
The Bottom Line
So you don’t need to wait for some big reveal, I’ll tell you right now:
Barbell deadlifts are better. Much better, in fact. We’ll get more into the details later, but I want to be clear about that. Dumbbell deadlifts are an accessory lift that can:
1) Help beginner’s approach the barbell deadlift;
2) Work a different range to assist with barbell deadlifts; and
3) Give some freedom to your workout, so that you don’t always need a platform to hit the same muscles groups.
So don’t get me wrong: I still have plenty of time for dumbbell deadlifts, and there are plenty of good reasons to have a mixture of both. I just don’t want anyone walking away from this article with the impression that they are equivalent exercises, and that one will get you the same strength results as the other.
Enough of that though. Let’s get into some details.
Why Deadlift At All?
By landing on this page, you’re already doing one thing right: You’re learning more about deadlifts. There really aren’t many exercises that work your entire body better than deadlifts. Unfortunately, too many people have to come think of deadlifting as an ‘advanced’ or technically difficult lift. The idea being that you need to invest significant time and effort in technique (and/or equipment) before you can even really get started, let alone see the results everyone talks about.
This is false. Anyone can deadlift, and the entry costs will more than pay for themselves within the first few weeks in strength gains, body knowledge, and functional improvements.
Deadlifts focus on your lower back, hamstrings and glutes (all large groups in your posterior chain) to recruit power for lifting a bar or dumbbell from the floor. But they also engage a whole string of other supporting muscles like your traps, forearms and upper back muscles. Depending on the style of deadlift, you can also activate your quads and inner thighs (see suitcase deadlifts and sumo deadlifts).
It’s seriously one of the few lifts that can give you a full body workout on its own, and the truth is you don’t need to be lifting twice your bodyweight to see results.
Deadlifting trains something called functional strength (for more on this, check out my post on how to increase your deadlift).
To summarize, functional strength is all about strength that translates outside of the gym. When you deadlift, you make yourself stronger in real-life scenarios, and you train your body to be better at moving. Functional strength training has also been linked with an impressive list of health benefits, ranging from improved muscle strength to balance, mobility, and functional performance in older adults.
More specifically: deadlifts can help improve your posture, define your waist and butt, prevent injury, and will ultimately save you time on account of being a compound exercise. That’s just a fancy way of saying that you’re working many muscles at once, which means you don’t need to go jumping from machine to machine to get a full body workout.
Dumbbell Versus Barbell Deadlifts: What Do They Look Like?
For those of you just entering the world of deadlifting, it may be useful if I spell these two methods out fully.
Also known as traditional deadlifts, these are done by stacking plates onto the end of a professional lifting bar (usually 45lbs, or 20kg) and pulling the bar up off the floor using the power from your lower back, hamstrings and glutes. Unlike a squat or lunge, your legs should never go parallel with the ground, and they should begin slightly narrower than shoulder-width. When the bar is on the ground, it is said to be in a ‘dead’ position: hence the origin of the name, ‘Deadlift’.
Following a similar movement to the barbell deadlift, dumbbell deadlifts will have you lifting two separate weights from the floor with the power of your lower body. The key differences are that the weights are disconnected (which can make things either more or less difficult depending on the weight), and that you are able to rotate the weights vertically to get a variation on the lift.
Dumbbell Deadlift: Pros
#1 Take up less space
One big advantage of dumbbell deadlifts is that you can set-up pretty much anywhere with just one foot of space around you. Since the movement itself is very focused (just moving up and down), it’s possible to fit yourself just about anywhere at your gym--so long as they have the dumbbell weights that you need. Along with taking up less space than barbell deadlifts, it’s less likely that all the dumbbells near your ideal weight will be in use. Barbell platforms are often occupied (and we can only hope they are being used for Olympic Lifts, and not bicep curls!).
#2 Potential for more variation
Dumbbells give you more freedom in general, and the same holds true for deadlifts. When you barbell deadlift, the only way to alter your grip, for example, is horizontally along the bar (close-grip, standard and snatch-grip, etc.). With dumbbells, you can also play around with vertical variations like suitcase grips--yes, they’re pretty much what they sound like, just imagine carrying two suitcases to the airport and you’ve got it. You can also implement some great single-leg deadlifts, which I find more comfortable to do with dumbbells than with a barbell.
While it’s true that dumbbells allow for more variation, be careful with this. I don’t mean to get philosophical here, but too much freedom isn’t always a good thing! It’s very easy for dumbbell deadlift variations to quickly turn away from what the deadlift is all about--before you know it, your deadlift can turn into a dumbbell squat and you’ll miss out on all the posterior chain gains. Feel free to experiment with different grips and positions for your dumbbell deadlifts, but don’t forget to keep the emphasis on deadlift.
#3 Great for beginners
This is probably the most important point that I wanted to touch on, and it’s the reason I suggest dumbbell deadlifts for many beginners over barbell deadlifts. There’s two reasons for this. Dumbbell deadlifts are:
Less intimidating; and
That kind of makes them sound like a soft-serve option, so let me explain. The intimidation factor is also a social effect (and reality) of lifting in a commercial gym: there are other people. Some of those people may be huge and waiting to use the platform, and if you’re not comfortable deadlifting, you may just skip over it for today and let them through… this is a subtle kind of intimidation, but it’s real and it often stops people from ever getting started. Dumbbell deadlifts solve this by taking you out of the spotlight, and letting you practice your technique without the pressure of those time-sensitive lifting platforms and barbells.
Dumbbell deadlifts are also less dangerous because they save you from your own enthusiasm. One of the most common things I see is people rushing into heavy weights on deadlift. Time and time again, people are surprised by how strong they are. Many young men who have never deadlifted before will find that they can lift their bodyweight in a matter of weeks--that’s when they try to push past the limits of good technique and can hurt themselves.
Dumbbell deadlifts put some natural limitations on this enthusiasm--for one thing, it’s just plain difficult and awkward to hold two 90lb dumbbells at the same time. By lowering the weight to something below what you could potentially handle, the risk of lower back injuries goes down exponentially.
Barbell Deadlift Pros
While I’ve just given you the positive case for dumbbell deadlifts, there are a few good reasons to stick with the barbell approach. These are the big 3.
#1 You’ll lift more weight (over 20% more, most likely)
The first point is simple. Just from the way that it’s set-up--the weight being connected through one bar--most people will instantly lift heavier with a barbell than they could holding two dumbbells. If your goal is to work your posterior chain, this equates to more than just boosting your Personal Best stats: it translates into greater strength gains, letting your body train under higher loads.
This is why I recommend that people who start out on dumbbells should eventually transition to barbell deadlifts--if you’ve been lifting the same weight on dumbbells for a few weeks, odds are you haven’t been fully challenging yourself. Eventually you’ll come to a point where holding 100lb dumbbells just isn’t practical (or fun), and when it comes to heavy deadlifting, 200lbs really isn’t that much weight.
#2 The Deadlift prepares you for other Olympic lifts
You may not have thought of learning how to power clean, jerk or snatch squat before, but once you’ve started deadlifting, the Olympic lifting bug can be contagious.
Every Olympic lift benefits from a strong deadlift base, many beginning the movement with a deadlift phase, such as power cleans.
Another bonus to this is that you’ll become more comfortable on lifting platforms. You don’t need to be a professional weightlifter to benefit from serious lifts, and learning how to handle heavy barbell lifts is something that most people just aren’t taught to appreciate.
One example of this is the freedom to drop the weight at the top of your lift. This is about more than just attracting attention with how heavy your barbell is: it actually lets you focus on one component of the movement, thereby lifting heavier weights and allowing you train your body with a greater focus. If you try dropping 100lb dumbbells from hip-height, who knows where they’ll bounce or what damage they might cause.
#3 Barbells are the best (and most brutal) teachers
When it comes to technique, barbell deadlifts can be unforgiving. This is both a good and bad thing. It’s great for teaching you to start in the right position, or else you’ll bang the bar into your knees.
The bar also teaches you about where the power is coming from. In fact, one of the best things you can do when starting out is to get yourself in the deadlift starting position, and pull lightly against the bar. You can have the bar loaded up, or with a light plate on each side, but feel where the force will be coming from, and imagine making the perfect movement to lift the bar up and back in one clean motion. It may sound strange, but this is one of the best ways to teach yourself more about your body’s mechanics, and to self-correct any errors in technique.
When you try to teach yourself good technique with dumbbells, you’ll find that there is too much flexibility. The dumbbells don’t care if you lean too far forward, or if you bend too much at the knee. Barbells will only let you lift them in a certain way--another reason to dispense with the myth that ‘deadlifts are too difficult to learn’.
Barbell deadlifts are the king for a reason.
Sure, dumbbell deadlifts can be helpful to the king from time to time, but they won’t get you the same kind of power or strength gains.
For beginners and people recovering from injury, dumbbell deadlifts can be a great way to work your way up (or back up) to barbell deadlifts.
They’re also the ideal substitute in smaller gyms (say if you’re on the road and need to use the hotel gym). But at the end of the day, when you have the technique and freedom to use a barbell: go for it. You’ll see the greatest strength gains, increase your gym knowledge, and prepare yourself for even bigger lifts in the future.