Barbells vs. dumbbells vs. cables

written by Philip Stefanov  |  AUGUST 10, 2021

Every once in a while, I get an email from a reader asking me what I think is the best piece of equipment. This question is even more popular these days, seeing as many people are trying to create a home gym set up because of the pandemic.

So, I decided to give my thoughts on this debate, and you can hopefully use that in your gym or home training.

The debate typically revolves around barbells, dumbbells, and cables. In other words, if we could only pick one, which one should we go with?

My response? Well, don’t pick just one. Why would you unnecessarily box yourself in by limiting the different types of equipment you can use in your training? Dumbbells, barbells, and cables offer their unique benefits and disadvantages, and we should use all three of these in our training. This will allow us to train in a more balanced way, stress our muscles differently, and avoid placing too much of the same stress on our joints and connective tissues.

To illustrate this with a real-world scenario, let’s look at the good old bicep curl because we can do it with all three types of equipment.

Barbell Bicep Curls

No one could argue that the barbell curl is a bad exercise in any way. At least, I don’t think so. You can train your biceps through a good range of motion, lift more weight, and cause all sorts of metabolic stress and mechanical tension.

Plus, you get a fair amount of core engagement because you have to keep your body upright against the resistance.

You can also lift a bit more weight because both sides of your body work simultaneously, and stability requirements tend to be lower. This is one reason why a person might be able to barbell curl 140 pounds but not dumbbell curl a pair of 70s.

Dumbbell Bicep Curls

The dumbbell curl is another fantastic exercise for your biceps that many people use today. It also offers a great range of motion, you can use decently heavy weight, and you can stress your biceps quite well.

The most notable difference here is that both sides of your body have to work independently from one another to curl the weight up. Here, you can’t rely on one bicep overcoming the limitations of the other, allowing you to lift the weight. If the bicep is weak, you can’t curl the weight, or you have to resort to momentum, swinging back and forth, and cutting the range of motion short.

In that sense, dumbbells are great for diagnosing, fixing, and preventing side-to-side muscle and strength imbalances from occurring.

Dumbbells also offer one other distinct advantage because your hands are not in a fixed position, so you can take advantage of wrist supination. In other words, you can begin the curl with a neutral grip (palms facing your thighs) and slowly rotate them in as you curl the dumbbells, possibly leading to better bicep activation.

Cable Bicep Curls

The most notable difference you can expect here is the line of resistance. When lifting a free weight such as a dumbbell, gravity tries to pull the weight down in a straight vertical line, and your muscles have to overcome the resistance. With cables, the line of resistance is different and depends on the pulley’s position and where you are relative to it.

For example, if you’re using a low pulley, you can grab the attachment, stand upright, and deal with a line of resistance that is down and forward relative to your bicep’s position.

This subtle difference between cables and free weights means two things:

First, your core typically has to work harder to keep you in a stable position and prevent you from following the cable’s line of resistance. For example, if you don’t engage your core that well, you can still do dumbbell curls relatively well. But if you don’t engage your core on a cable curl, the resistance will pull you toward the pulley.

Second, cables offer consistent resistance, regardless of your muscles’ position. A cable bicep curl stresses your muscles from the bottom to the top, never letting you take a break. In contrast, free weights are more forgiving. Your biceps don’t work that much at the bottom, and the curl gets easier near the top, as your biceps shorten the most and produce peak force. 

What Does All Of This Mean?

In a practical sense, all of this means that different pieces of equipment offer their unique advantages and disadvantages. Cables, barbells, dumbbells, gym machines, and resistance bands are all tools we can use to create muscle tension.

How you choose to combine them should depend on your specific goals, training preferences, and what allows you to train pain-free. For most people, some combination of these tools will produce the most balanced stimulus. So, instead of wondering what type of curl or chest fly is best, recognize that all types of equipment have their place in a good training program.

Plus, rotating the equipment you use from time to time can keep your training more engaging and allow for more varied stress on your joints and connective tissues.

Thank you so much for reading! Until next week,


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