With so many different types of strength training equipment available at the gym, in retail stores, and online, it’s easy to get confused and overwhelmed. Dr. Jonathan Su, the Get-Fit Guy, gives you the lowdown on the pros and cons of dumbbells, barbells, machines, and resistance bands.
Listener Mia emailed me to ask: “What’s the best equipment to use for strength training?” I get this question a lot from both new and experienced exercisers alike.
With so many different types of strength training equipment available at the gym, in retail stores, and online, it’s easy to get confused and overwhelmed.
The question I most frequently get asked is some variation of whether dumbbells, barbells, machines, or resistance bands are best. My answer is always “it depends” because in reality there’s no one best piece of workout equipment for everyone or even for the same person at different times.
The best piece of workout equipment for you right now depends on a variety of considerations. For example: your experience with strength training, how much weight you’re lifting, whether or not you have a spotter, the location where you’re exercising, whether or not you’re dealing with an injury, etc.
In this episode, I’m going to share with you what these pros and cons are for each type of equipment because I believe your strength workouts will be safer, more effective, and tons more enjoyable when you’re armed with the knowledge to make optimal equipment choices for yourself.
Strength training machines
Let’s start with strength training machines. Go to any gym and you’ll find a large section dedicated to them. These are machines to strengthen your glutes, quads, hamstrings, chest, back, arms, abs, and just about every body part imaginable.
There are a ton of reasons to love strength training machines and most of the reasons boil down to ease of use. For example, you can easily adjust the resistance by simply sliding the pin in the middle of the weight stack to a different location. This is great if you want to save yourself the hassle of loading and unloading a bar with plates like you would with a barbell.
What’s also great about strength training machines is that it’s hard to get the lifting technique wrong because the motion of the lift is guided almost entirely by the machine. This is beneficial for people new to strength training who want to jump right in without having to worry about getting injured because of poor lifting technique.
The biggest drawback of strength training machines is that they don’t provide the freedom of motion needed to give your muscles a robust workout. Because the motion of the lift is guided almost entirely by the machine, your muscles aren’t required to balance the weight like you would have to do when using barbells or dumbbells.
The end result is a less robust workout because important muscle fibers that would otherwise help you balance and stabilize the weight during the lift are not used. The exception to these downsides of strength training machines are cable machines.
Cable machines (also known as functional trainers) like the Tonal Home Gym, NordicTrack Fusion, and Rogue Cable Tower allow motion in every angle imaginable. This avoids the drawback of most strength training machines by forcing your muscles to balance and stabilize the resistance while still maintaining the safety and ease of use of a machine. That’s one reason why cable machines are so widely used in rehab.
Anyone serious about building lean muscle mass, strength, and power will be using barbells—the long bars with two sides that you can load up the weights.
Unlike most strength training machines, the motion of the barbell is not fixed. This forces the two sides of your body to coordinate during the lift, which results in a more balanced development of your muscles.
Having your muscles balance and stabilize a barbell is more difficult than lifting resistance through a fixed path like you would do on most machines. That’s why a person who could easily chest press 180 pounds on a machine can barely chest press 165 pounds using a barbell.
Barbells are important because the big lifts used to build strength and power are performed using this piece of equipment. The squat, deadlift, bench press, and clean and press are 4 such lifts that would be less than ideal to perform using machines or dumbbells, especially if you’re using heavier weights.
Can you imagine trying to squat 360 pounds while holding 180-pound dumbbells in each hand? Squats using the Smith Machine aren't nearly as effective as squats using a barbell because your muscles don’t need to balance and stabilize the bar.
Despite their benefits, barbells also have certain drawbacks. For one, unlike strength training machines, using heavy resistance on barbells usually requires someone to assist you during the lift for safety.
Additionally, performing the big lifts just mentioned with heavy weights is a common way to get seriously injured with strength training. I’ve seen my fair share of patients who are quite young (like in their 20s) blow out discs in their lower back that are serious enough to require surgery.
Combining too much weight and poor form while performing the squat or deadlift is easy to do and is, unfortunately, the quickest way to a serious injury.
I’m not saying that people should avoid using barbells because in truth they are a fantastic tool for strength training. What I’m saying is that people new to strength training or people who are getting back into strength training after a long break should focus on proper lifting techniques and gradually increase the resistance to avoid injury.
Dumbbells are like barbells but with the two sides separated from each other. This allows you to move dumbbells in more directions than barbells, which results in your muscles having to work harder to balance and stabilize.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, the advantage of dumbbells is that your muscles get a more robust workout than barbells for most exercises. So if you could chest press 165 pounds using a barbell, you might only be able to chest press 150 pounds using a 75-pound dumbbell in each hand.
The biggest con of using dumbbells is that it's difficult to use heavier weights. For example, it’s relatively easy to load up 300 pounds on your back for squats using a barbell, but it’s difficult to hold a 150-pound dumbbell in each hand for the same exercise.
Another downside of dumbbells is that, like barbells, you’ll likely need assistance from another person for those heavy lifts. Personally, I don’t like my lifts to be super heavy now that I’m in my 40s and I’ve found that moderate resistance dumbbell exercises are my muscles’ best friend.
Finally, let’s talk bands. Strength training with resistance bands used to be something done only in physical therapy clinics. Nowadays, you see resistance bands in the sporting goods section at Target and Wal-Mart.
Physical therapists are known for giving their patients resistance bands to perform exercises at home because resistance bands are an inexpensive and portable way to facilitate strength exercises.
I used to hate skipping exercise days, so I would bring resistance bands with me so I could exercise whenever I had to be away from the gym for a few days or more because of work or leisure.
The major downside of using resistance bands is that your muscles don’t get fully worked through the range of motion that you’re exercising. That’s because the band has a lot less resistance at the beginning of the motion than at the end of the motion.
You don’t have this problem when you use the cable machine, barbells, or dumbbells. So this is why I pretty much avoid using resistance bands for strength training unless I’m on a trip where I don’t have access to a gym or I’m performing an exercise that’s impossible to do without a resistance band, like the clamshell.
Now that you know the pros and cons of using dumbbells, barbells, machines, and bands, your strength workouts will be safer, more effective, and tons more enjoyable. Remember, the best piece of workout equipment for you right now depends on a variety of considerations.
Thanks, Mia, for sending in this question! I hope you can put this knowledge to use. If you have a question for me, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave me a voicemail at 510-353-3104.