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Dumbbell Squat vs Barbell Squat: Differences + Which Is Better?

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Squats With Dumbbells vs Barbells – Introduction

What are the differences between dumbbell squats vs barbell squats and which one is right for you?

Squats are arguably the best exercise you can do for your lower body.

Whether you are a bodybuilder, powerlifter, Olympic weightlifter, or just want to get fit and tone up, squats will help you achieve your goals.

They truly deserve their unofficial title of king of the exercises!

In fact, squats are so potent that entire workouts have been built around them, such as the legendary 20-rep squat routine.

Squats are also a functional movement pattern, and it’s hard to get through the day without doing at least a handful of squats, like when you sit down and stand up again or get into and out of your car.

As such, squats deserve to be part of your workouts.

But which is better – dumbbell or barbell squats?

In this article, we compare and contrast these two squat variations so you can choose the best one for your needs and fitness goals.

What Are Dumbbell Squats? 

As their name implies, dumbbell squats are done while using dumbbells for resistance.

The dumbbells can be held down by your sides, up at shoulder height, or, using a single weight, with the dumbbell in front of your chest, which is called a goblet squat.

However, when talking about dumbbell squats, most people are referring to holding the weights down by your legs.

Muscles Worked During Dumbbell Squats

Dumbbell squats are a compound exercise, which means they involve multiple muscles and joints working together.

The main muscles involved in dumbbell squats are:

  • Quadriceps – muscles on the front of the thighs
  • Hamstrings – muscles on the back of the thighs
  • Gluteus maximus – muscles on the back of the hips
  • Adductors – muscles of the inner thighs
  • Abductors – muscles of the outer hips and thighs
  • Erector spinae – muscles of the lower back
  • Core – muscles of the midsection
  • Trapezius – muscles of the upper back
  • Forearm flexors – muscles of the lower arm and wrists

How to Do Dumbbell Squats

The dumbbell squat is a straightforward exercise that’s easy to learn.

Follow these steps to do dumbbell squats correctly:

  1. Stand with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart, toes slightly turned out.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand by your thighs, palms facing your legs.
  3. Your arms should be straight.
  4. Brace your core and pull your shoulders down and back.
  5. Look straight ahead.
  6. Push your hips back and bend your knees.
  7. Squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor.
  8. Take care not to round your lower back, and do not bend your arms.
  9. Stand back up and then repeat.

Dumbbell Squat Pros and Cons

Not sure if dumbbell squats are the right exercise for you?

Consider these pros and cons!

Pros

No spotter or power cage required

Other than a pair of dumbbells, you need no extra equipment to do dumbbell squats.

If you cannot complete a rep, you can simply lower or drop the weights to the floor.

This makes them ideal for home exercisers with limited space or equipment.

Easy to learn

Dumbbell squats are a very natural movement.

They’re just like standing between two suitcases and picking them up.

Novice exercisers often relate more easily to dumbbell squats than squats with a barbell, which may appear less natural, and even more intimidating.

Build strength, muscle size, or endurance

Dumbbell squats are a very versatile exercise, and you can do them for almost any training goal.

However, you’ll need a strong grip or lifting straps if you want to train with very heavy weights to build maximum strength.

Plenty of upper body engagement:

Holding and controlling two heavy dumbbells means your upper body gets a workout along with your legs.

This means dumbbell squats are a useful full-body exercise.

Combine with some push-ups, and you will have trained almost every major muscle in your body!

Less low back stress

Doing squats with the weights down by your sides means a shorter lever and less low back strain.

This may be useful if you suffer from lower back pain.

However, you’ll still need to avoid rounding your lower back, as doing so can cause injury.

Cons

There are a couple of drawbacks to consider, too…

Awkward

While you can do dumbbell squats with large, heavy dumbbells, it can be difficult.

The weights invariably come into contact with your legs, and that can be uncomfortable.

With lighter weights, you can hold them out and away from your thighs.

This is not possible with heavier loads.

Grip limitations

Dumbbell squats require a strong and enduring grip.

If your hands start to tire before your legs, your set will come to a premature end, and your lower body won’t get the workout it deserves.

It can be hard to get into the correct starting position

Dumbbell squats start from standing.

That means you need to pick up the dumbbells before beginning the exercise.

That’s no problem when using light to moderate weights but could be trickier if you’re using heavy weights.

Dumbbells are invariably low to the ground, making them awkward to lift.

You could even find yourself rounding your lower back as you reach down to grab them.

One way around this is to put your dumbbells on a bench and then lift them from there, so you don’t have to bend over as far to grab them.

What Are Barbell Squats?

Barbell squats are probably the most well-known squatting exercise.

There are a couple of different variations, including back squats, front squats, overhead squats, and Zercher squats.

However, back squats are the most common and widely performed and the type of squat we’re talking about today.

Back squats involve squatting down while holding a barbell across your upper back.

This exercise is best done using squat stands or, better still, a squat rack.

Some people also do back squats using a Smith machine, where the barbell is guided on rods.

Muscles Worked During Barbell Squats

Like dumbbell squats, barbell squats are also a compound exercise that involves multiple muscles and joints working together.

The main muscles involved in barbell squats are:

  • Quadriceps – muscles on the front of the thighs
  • Hamstrings – muscles on the back of the thighs
  • Gluteus maximus – muscles on the back of the hips
  • Adductors – muscles of the inner thighs
  • Abductors – muscles of the outer hips and thighs
  • Erector spinae – muscles of the lower back
  • Core – muscles of the midsection

Because the weight is resting on your shoulders during barbell squats, this variation involves less upper body engagement than dumbbell squats, where you must hold the weights in your hands.

How to Do Barbell Squats

Barbell squats are a little trickier than dumbbell squats, and some people find them less natural.

However, they’re still a relatively straightforward exercise that most people can soon master.

Follow these steps to doing barbell squats correctly:

  1. Set a barbell in your squat or power rack at just below should-height.
  2. Duck under the bar and rest it across your upper back – the trapezius, and not your neck.
  3. Hold the bar with an overhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.
  4. Unrack the bar and take a step back.
  5. Stand with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart, toes slightly turned out.
  6. Brace your core and pull your shoulders down and back.
  7. Look straight ahead.
  8. Push your hips back and bend your knees.
  9. Squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor.
  10. Take care not to round your lower back.
  11. Stand back up and then repeat.
  12. Walk back into the rack and place the bar down on the supports to finish your set.

Barbell Squat Pros and Cons

Barbell and dumbbell squats share many of the same advantages and disadvantages.

However, there are a couple more pros and cons to consider:

Pros

Better for strength

Like dumbbell squats, you can do barbell squats as you work toward almost any training goal.

They’re especially good for building strength, as you don’t have to rely on your grip when lifting heavy weights.

No grip limitations

You can support huge weights on your upper back, and while you need to use your arms to support the weight, they’re not as involved as dumbbell squats.

This leaves you free to focus on training your legs.

Cons

There are also downsides to barbell squats:

More equipment required

Not only do you need a barbell for barbell squats, but you also need a squat rack or power cage.

This is for both convenience and safety.

It’s almost impossible to get a barbell onto your back without using a rack or cage, and failing to complete a rep could result in serious injury.

As such, barbell squats are not always convenient or practical.

Increased back stress

Holding a barbell on your back puts a lot of pressure on your lower back, and that stress increases as you squat down and lean forward.

For some exercisers, dumbbell squats may be a more back-friendly alternative.

Dumbbell Squat vs Barbell Squat – Comparison

Now you know a little more about dumbbell squats and barbell squats, it’s time to judge these two exercises by a few different criteria:

Strength

You can use both exercises to increase your strength, but barbell squats generally work best for lifting heavier weights.

Providing you use a squat rack, that is!

Using heavy dumbbells may mean your grip fails before your legs.

Winner: Barbell squats!

Hypertrophy (muscle building)

Most bodybuilders train using moderate weights and medium reps, typically 6-12 per set.

As such, you can do barbell or dumbbell squats to increase leg muscle size.

That said, barbell squats are more common, but that doesn’t mean they’re any better for hypertrophy.

Winner: It’s a draw!

Athletic performance

Athletes from all sports do squats to strengthen their legs and improve sports performance.

Because they’re so similar, both dumbbell and barbell squats can be used by athletes.

That said, if you are a powerlifter, the barbell squat is one of the lifts featured in competition, so that should be the exercise you mainly do in training.

If you include dumbbell squats in your workouts, it should be as an assistance or accessory exercise.

Winner: It’s a draw (unless you are a powerlifter, then it’s barbell squats)!

Ease of learning

Resting and holding a barbell on your upper back does not feel especially natural.

Some people even find it a little intimidating, as they need to balance and move without the aid of their arms.

Also, even a small forward lean can turn into a collapse because of the position of the bar.

While most people soon get used to having a bar on their back, initially, at least, the dumbbell squat is usually easier to learn.

It’s an excellent preparatory exercise before moving on to barbell squats.

Winner: Dumbbell squats

Safety

Both types of squats can be done safely, even when using heavy weights.

However, dumbbells squats tend to put less strain on the lower back, and you can always drop the weights (mind your toes!) if you cannot complete a rep.

That said, barbell squats should be done in a squat rack, so the weight won’t crush you if you get stuck at the bottom of a rep.

Winner: Dumbbell squats but it’s a draw if you’ve got a power rack for barbell squats!

Dumbbell Squat vs. Barbell Squat – Wrapping Up

All types of squats can be beneficial.

As such, it’s hard to say categorically that one is better than another because the answer depends on YOU!

If you want to get stronger, barbell squats are arguably the best choice because they allow you to lift more weight.

Providing you’ve also got a squat rack, they’re also pretty safe.

But, if you work out at home, don’t have space for a squat rack, and are more into general fitness or building muscle, it could be that dumbbell squats are the best choice.

Still unable to choose between these two exercises?

Then why not do them both!

You could do dumbbell squats one day and barbell squats a couple of days later.

Alternatively, you could do barbell and dumbbell squats in the same workout.

Ultimately, dumbbell and barbell squats are both great exercises, so you should choose the one that’s right for your fitness goals.

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