Similarities & Differences Between Dumbbell & Barbell Squats

This article shares the results of my research into what advantages barbell squats & dumbbell squats have over each other, as well as what similarities they have in common.

I called upon the opinion of strength & conditioning experts to flesh all that out for us, & I also provide a number of relevant tutorial videos.

These emphasize excellent form, not only for the classic barbell back squat & dumbbell squat, but also for all of the very cool squat variations you can do with dumbbells.

 

 

test tubes green - heydayDo icon

Science resources included

As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science and medical resources, clinical studies, & nutritional data used in this article.

 

 

Table of Contents

Barbells to dumbbells: a retrospective

For the first 30+ years of my weightlifting journey, I only did squats with a barbell, either at home or at a gym.

Then I switched to dumbbell squats a few years ago because I:

  • canned my gym membership, saving me a lot of time and a lot of money every year since;
  • moved & didn’t bring my plates, rack, & barbell with me to my new place;
  • had accumulated a ton of dumbbells over the years, and figured I could deploy them and “still get it done”, as the ol’ saying goes.

RESULT: Mission accomplished as far as my ongoing fitness goals are concerned, for sure.

 

Barbells & dumbbells: similarities & differences

Below is a bullet-pointed summary of what I think the top three similarities between dumbbell squats & barbell squats are, and the top three benefits each of them have over the other.

 

We’ll dive deeper into more detail later, but for now just know that you simply can’t go wrong banging out a bunch of squat sets twice a week, regardless of which kind you do.

😉

 

Similarities: dumbbells & barbells

*Both barbells & dumbbells are proven to be effective strength & muscle builders. 

*Both dumbbell & barbell squats are excellent exercises for increasing leg development. 

*Both barbell & dumbbell squats are multi-joint, compound exercises providing a host of total-body enhancing benefits. 

 

 

Advantage: barbells

*It is easier to lift heavier weight on the barbell vs. with dumbbells, both in terms of setting up for the lift & for your body’s ability to manage the weight during a lift.

*As a result of this higher training capacity, muscle-building & strength gains happen faster using barbells vs. dumbbells.

*Gains in power & athletic force are also greater from barbell squats vs. dumbbells.

 

 

Advantage: dumbbells

*Dumbbell squats are easier to do for people who prefer to work out at home.

*Dumbbell squats are easier for beginners to learn & perform correctly.

*Dumbbell squat reps can be safer to perform with heavy weight. 

Female performing dumbbell squat - heydayDo image

 

 

What’s next

OK, so those are the main points I’ll be expanding on here in a bit, and I’ll also be adding some other factors worth considering when comparing barbell & dumbbell squats to each other.

 

Dumbbell squat variations

And as mentioned at the beginning, I have a bunch of nice tutorial videos covering the key form points of most of the dumbbell squat variations** you’re likely to want to incorporate into your training.

We’ll get to them after we’ve finished these sections on the similarities & differences between barbell & dumbbell squats.

 

** – If you’re a new visitor here…😄 Hi! 

My workout emphasis here on heydayDo is on strength training at home, and for me & most people that means dumbbells &/or resistance bands…hence my focus on dumbbell squats (vs. barbell) in this article. 

 

dumbbell purple icon - heydayDo icon

 

Dumbbell & barbell squat similarities

*Both dumbbell & barbell squats are excellent exercises for increasing leg development in terms of strength, muscle growth, & athletic explosiveness.

*Both barbell & dumbbell squats are multi-joint, compound exercises employing multiple muscle groups in various capacities throughout each repetition.

*Both barbells & dumbbells help you perform and receive all the benefits of arguably the best movement in the history of strength training.

 

A few (of the many) benefits of doing squats

Lots of muscles

Squats engage over a dozen muscles through the course of a single repetition:

  • all major leg muscles
  • glutes & groin muscles
  • hip flexors

In addition, squats recruit several muscles & joints to act as stabilizers, such as our core (abs & spinal erectors), ankles, & knees. (1)

 

Do better at all kinds of daily activities

Squats improve our performance in a number of functional fitness areas like:

  • motor function
  • sports movements
  • day to day strength requirements (2)

 

Booty boost

Squats will build your butt & leg muscles like no other exercise. (3)

 

Protects joints

Squats enhance the function of your stabilizing joints (knee, hip, ankle) by strengthening all of the muscles that surround these areas. (4)

 

Better calorie burner

Squats burn fat & calories more than other lifting exercises, while building more muscle which will further increase your fat-burning potential. (5)

How many calories you ask?

Harvard Medical says a ½ hour of high-intensity exercise — like banging out sets of squats — will torch 223 calories if you weigh 155 lb., 266 if you’re 185 lb. (6)

 

Reduces your risk of injury

Squats strengthen your connective tissue & joints too, and stronger stabilizers means less chance of injury. (7)

 

Better for your core than core exercises

*Squats do a better job at strengthening the back half of your core muscles — your spinal erectors — than isometric core exercises like the plank. (8)

 

Female at bottom of deep Barbell Back squat exercise

 

Barbell squats: Got perfect form?

If you aren’t positive that you’ve nailed all of the key areas that go into having excellent form under the bar doing a squat…

…then here’s a video for you featuring certified trainer Michelle Trapp, who has since gone on to become an International Federation of BodyBuilding & Fitness  (IFBB) pro.

 

Table of good vs. bad form (w/pics)

And here’s a nifty table from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that highlights correct & incorrect body positions throughout the barbell squat exercise.

I like it because you get a side-by-side visual of the right way vs. wrong way to have your body aligned during the rep.

Back Squat Assessment Form Journal of Strength Conditioning Research - heydayDo image

If you’re interested, you can access a bigger version of this table in its research paper here; it’ll open in a separate tab. 

 

Barbell squat advantages over dumbbells

Easier to lift heavy with a barbell

*You can load up more weight on the barbell vs. with dumbbells. 

 

Setting up for the heavy lift is easier with a barbell too: you just slide the plates on the bar that’s already resting at the perfect height on the squat rack.

With a heavy dumbbell squat, you have to finagle the dumbbells somewhere, like onto a bench.

This is because you probably won’t want to be having to lift them from the bottom of a deep, full squat position to get them off the floor & into your standing position.

 

bumper plate icon blue - heydayDo

 

Get stronger faster versus dumbbells

*As a result of this higher training capacity, muscle-building & strength gains happen faster using barbells vs. dumbbells.

 

Since it is easier to do more weight, the potential to get much stronger is greater and so the results can come quicker.

This is due to the fact that during a barbell squat, the weight is resting on your shoulders, which are stabilized by your core muscles.

There is of course a whole lot of additional support by all your leg muscles at once: glutes, hamstrings & quadriceps, & calves, & others.

 

Hands fatigue first

Compare this amount of muscular support to dumbbell squats, where the small muscles in your hands and forearms are having to grip the weight throughout the movement.

As the weight of the dumbbell increases, fatigue can set in with those hand & forearm muscles long before the legs you’re trying to work out have been worked out enough.

 

*As a result of this higher training capacity and the heavier weight’s recruitment of stabilizer & synergist muscles, increases in power & athletic explosiveness are greater via a barbell than with a set of dumbbells.

 

 

 

female doing a goblet squat - heydayDo image

Dumbbell squat advantages over barbells

*Dumbbell squats are easier to do for people who prefer to work out at home, in terms of the amount of space required, compared to the standard barbell squat setup.

 

Dumbbells are portable & easy to store

You can do squats with dumbbells almost anywhere you want, since they’re easy to move somewhere.

They’re easy to put away if you need to do that too.

And if you have several pairs of them like I do, inexpensive dumbbell racks like the ones I use only take up about 4’ x 2’ of floor space.

My Marcy dumbbell rack - 5x5 workout - heydayDo image

 

A seven-foot barbell needs a lot of room

The standard 7’ Olympic/powerlifting barbell needs at least 10 feet of total width to accommodate it:

  • You need ample room to store the plates you intend to use on each side;
  • And you need the space to comfortably & safely add & remove weights easily without any hassle.

 

And a squat rack does too

In order to safely perform squats with a barbell, you need a squat rack designed to handle you failing on a rep so that you don’t incur serious injury.

 

Dumbbell squats are easier for beginners

They’re easier to learn the how-to’s and the awareness of good form than a barbell back squat.

And a setup to do dumbbell squats costs much less to get up & running with than a barbell rig.

 

I’m in the camp that believes dumbbell exercises are easier for a beginning weightlifter to get a handle on quickly, compared to mastering all the nuances of managing weight on a 7’ Olympic bar.

 

A squat is a squat, but…

There is room to debate how much easier it is for a beginner to learn how to correctly perform a dumbbell squat, compared to the barbell back squat.

Fair enough.

However, all I need to do is point to all of the copious amounts of instructional material dedicated solely to teaching the right way to do a barbell squat.

I’m talking mountains of books, strength & conditioning manuals, etc., and deservedly so:

 

With a weighted bar on your back, correct distribution of that weight throughout all your stabilizer muscles & joints is critical.

 

Meanwhile, the humble dumbbell squat usually gets a few lines or so of instruction.

This is because the weight is hanging freely by your sides, so it’s harder (I think anyways) for a beginner to create any muscle imbalances.

 

dumbbell orange icon - heydayDo image

 

Squat rack setups cost more

Free weight, whether for dumbbells or barbells, costs roughly the same per pound.

(This is talking about good old iron, not the fancy adjustable dumbbell pairs made by Bowflex & all of its knockoff copycats, or by PowerBlock.)

So far we’re even, but with a barbell squat setup, you still need to buy the bar and the rack.

 

I keep tabs on both of those strength training product categories, since I write up annual reviews for both:

Best Cheap Power Rack

Best Cheap Barbell for the Home Gym

Looking over the prices of these, I see that the cheapest (decent quality) rack & bar combo will still add a few hundred bucks more to the barbell-squat-setup bill.

 

 

Pregnant Woman doing dumbbell front squats - heydayDo image

Dumbbells are safer to fail with than barbells

*Dumbbell squat reps can be safer to perform with heavy weight, meaning that if/when a rep is failed, the dumbbells can simply be let go of without any fear of injury. 

This is unlike failing while under a heavy barbell, where injury could easily occur.

 

Weightlifters are born to fail

Anyone dedicated to getting stronger & looking better via weightlifting will fail on a rep at some point.

Most of us who’ve been at it for a number of years (I got 39 years of lifting in so far) have reached that failed rep point a whole bunch of times.

 

Spotters

That’s why a good spotter is handy when you’re doing any heavy barbell exercise like a bench press or squat, if you’re unsure about how many reps you can definitely do.

And in the case of no spotter, a power rack with safety pins or spotter arms allows you to go to failure without any risk of injury.

 

Squat racks without safeties…

But what about doing barbell squats without a power rack & its safety pins, or without a good spotter who’s capable of bailing you out?

 

Gyms & home fitness setups alike often have more half racks than the full-blown power rack, and half racks offer no failure protection.

The bar is loaded while its resting on the rack’s J pegs or pins.

And when you start your set, you get under the bar & lift it off the pegs and then step back into the open space in front of the rack.

If you ever hit failure here without a spotter, you could hurt yourself.

 

Dumbbell squats have no such worries

With dumbbell squats, if/when you reach failure on any set, you simply let go of the dumbbells.

And since you failed at or near the bottom of the squat, the dumbbells are only an inch or two off the ground when you let go of them.

 

A little comfort advantage for some

Dumbbell squats don’t put the load on your upper back muscles like the back squat does; the weight of the dumbbells hang freely at your sides.

And this is helpful for those who experience discomfort with the weight of the bar plus its plates on their shoulder & trapezius muscles.

The tradeoff is that the small muscles in your hands & forearms can eventually fatigue during a multi-set squat workout to where it’s hard to hold the dumbbell for a full set.

 

 

Muscular young man at the bottom of the dumbbell squat movement with thighs parallel to the floor - heydayDo image

Dumbbells avoid muscle strength imbalances

With dumbbells, half of the weight is being lifted & stabilized by muscles on one side of you, and the other half of the weight is handled by the muscles on your other side.

This all but ensures that the external load is evenly disbursed throughout the exercise.

And this in turn prevents muscle imbalances, where the strength in one leg (for example) is much greater than in the other.

And if you’re going for aesthetic improvements in your muscle’s appearance, symmetry between muscles on the left side of you and the right side of you is very important.

 

(In other words, a biceps or a thigh that’s bigger than its counterpart isn’t a good thing.)

 

Bad form with barbells = strength imbalances

Under a bar — whether doing squats, bench presses, etc. — the weight is no longer separated like it is with dumbbell versions of these exercises.

And this “centralizing” stabilizing feature, while very beneficial for heavy lifting, could also lead to unbalanced strength levels in someone whose form is not dialed in.

 

Lots of great dumbbell leg exercises

A cool thing about using dumbbells for weightlifting during your leg training is the variety of effective exercises that are available:

 

*dumbbell squats

*dumbbell front squats

*dumbbell deadlifts

*dumbbell lunges

*dumbbell split squats

*dumbbell step-ups

*dumbbell lying hamstring curls

*dumbbell standing calf raises

 

 

Dumbbell squat tutorial videos

I’ve assembled a bunch of helpful videos below that show you how to correctly perform dumbbell squats in several ways.

I’ll highlight what I think are the key points to keep in mind while you’re doing each of the exercises.

 

Types of dumbbell squats

In the case of these different dumbbell squat variations I list below, each exercise stresses your leg muscles in a slightly different way, which changes the load ratios of the muscles involved.

This is thanks to subtle shifts in the weight’s location in relation to your body & in the angle of your legs.

So you can boost your overall leg & glute development while also spicing up your leg day with a variety of exercises to pick & choose from.

Win-win.

😄

 

Dumbbell Squat

ExRx dumbbell squat

All of the ExRx videos I’ve included show a looping 10-second demonstration of that particular exercise.

A key thought while watching this>>

Note how his dumbbells do not change their position.

They draw a straight line from his starting position to the bottom of the squat & back up, never drifting forward or backward during the movement.

 

Here’s another demonstration, this one’s a 90-second video featuring Mike Hildebrandt @ Bodybuilding.com:

 

Dumbbell squat key points

  • Stand straight, dumbbell in each hand, palms facing legs
  • Feet shoulder width to an inch or two wider, toes slightly flared – equal weight distribution between heels & toes
  • Keep head up throughout the movement (looking down might mess with your balance)

This is your starting position.

 

  • Bend knees & lower yourself as hips sink back, looking straight ahead with back straight
  • Continue down until your thighs are parallel with the floor, or as far as you can go for now
  • Push through your heels as your hips & thigh muscles drive & raise you back up to the starting position

 

*Key check: Knees are directly above toes or slightly behind, never out beyond them during the movement.

 

Want more detail?

The Strength & Conditioning Journal has more step-by-step info if you’d like to drill down on the correct dumbbell squat technique.

You can read it here in a separate tab.

 

Dumbbell Front Squat

ExRx dumbbell front squat

 

And here’s a minute-long demo of the front squat from CrossFit®:

Dumbbell front squat key points

  • Elbows forward with some of the dumbbells resting on shoulders
  • The bottom of the move has hips a little below knees, like the full deep squat
  • Maintain balance so heels stay down when driving up
  • Extend hips & knees fully, but without forcibly locking them

 

Need to learn how to clean?

Notice the dumbbells’ position up on her shoulders…wonder how they got up there?

I’ve seen people just sort of wrestle them up there any ol’ way they can, which is OK when the weight’s real light.

But when the weight starts getting heavy there’s room for a strain injury to occur if someone’s just haphazardly heaving the dumbbells up onto their shoulders.

Solution?

Use the dumbbell version of the Olympic lifting exercise, the clean.

 

Here’s top CrossFit competitor Julie Foucher showing the proper technique for doing a clean with dumbbells:

 

Split Leg Squat

ExRx dumbbell split squat

I included the video below because you can see how he switches legs after finishing one side.

He completes the rep, and in a controlled move brings the back foot up in line with the front.

After stabilizing, he drops the other foot back and resumes the set with his other leg.

 

Dumbbell split leg squat key points

  • The front leg will be doing most of the work in this one
  • Knees & feet point in same direction
  • Heel of rear foot is elevated off the floor throughout movement
  • Note the upright torso angle throughout exercise
  • The flexibility of your hip flexors will determine how low you can go & still perform the exercise correctly
  • Drive through your front heel on the way up
  • Want more work on your butt? Put your feet farther apart, as closer together will emphasize your quadriceps more

 

Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat

ExRx dumbbell single leg split squat

This exercise has at least two different names, as you can see above.

It’s very similar to the “regular” dumbbell split squat we just looked at.

 

The main difference is that your back foot goes from having your heel elevated off the floor to your whole foot being elevated, & somewhere around knee height is recommended.

 

Builds balance & engages core

This extra elevation really puts the load on your front leg, plus it demands a greater command of your balance.

So your core muscles will be in the mix, stabilizing you throughout the rep with their engagement.

 

Bulgarian squat instructional video

And here’s a good tutorial & demonstration of the single leg split squat/Bulgarian split squat/The back-leg-on-a-bench split squat, or whatever you want to call it:

 

Dumbbell Bulgarian split squat key points

  • Shoot for around knee height for the elevation of your back foot – I use my weight bench
  • Anything around the house will work if you do your lifting at home, as long as it won’t slide out from under you
  • The other key points to this exercise are the same as the “regular” dumbbell split squat we looked at
  • No rush on this – controlled & in balance is way more important than racking up a bunch of reps

 

Dumbbell Goblet Squat

Here’s a nice 3-minute tutorial on proper goblet squat form from the knowledgeable Scott Herman again:

 

Common form mistakes with goblet squats

I have nothing to add to his points on form, he pretty much nailed it.

I will instead point out a couple of common goblet squat mistakes to avoid, courtesy of Stack.com:

 

Torso tilts too far forward

Symptom: The bottom half of the dumbbell is no longer touching your body.

Solutions:

  1. Be aware of the bottom half of your dumbbell to make sure it’s in contact with your stomach, which tells you your spine angle is on point.
  1. Put 5 or 10 lb. plates under your ankles, which is a little cheat that can help you keep your torso from leaning over too much.

 

Knees collapse inward

Symptom: Pretty self-explanatory. Either on the way down — or more likely, on the drive up — the knees buckle inward.

 

For all squats, it’s (real) important that the knees always are aligned with the direction of your hips & feet throughout the movement, regardless of how flared (or not) your toes are.

 

Stack.com, which is a great fitness resource for high school & college athletes, recommends using resistance bands below the knee to help train the athlete to rely on their glutes.

Since I’m not a young competitive athlete, I will humbly suggest that you just be mindful of your knees throughout the rep, and don’t pick weights that are heavy enough to make you compromise good form.

😉

 

Goblet Squat Benefits

Goblet squats are easier on your back than barbell back squats, helpful for anyone with issues ‘back’ there. (ouch..😜)

The goblet squat teaches the proper squat form for beginners, provided they keep the weight in contact with their torso & they get their elbows to touch their knees at parallel.

You can lift heavy with this, assuming your form is solid and you have access to heavier dumbbells (or kettlebells, since they’re used for the goblet squat too).

 

Dumbbell Sumo Squat

The name Sumo Squat is used interchangeably with the goblet squat quite a bit, so me declaring the sumo squat a totally different exercise won’t hold water.

Pull up a handful of sumo squat & goblet squat tutorial videos on YouTube and you’ll see cross-pollination of technique for sure.

 

Perhaps a better idea is for me to call the sumo squat a variation of the goblet squat, and note the two main differences I’ve come across in strength & fitness instruction.

 

1. Sumo squat has a much wider stance

It’s called a sumo squat for a reason.

Sumo wrestlers in their squat position - heydayDo image

I watched a ton of sumo wrestling when I was a kid since I grew up in Hawaii, and Japanese culture was a big part of the Hawaiian melting pot culture at that time.

The sumo moniker is thanks to a stance much that is much wider than is typically used for any other squat variation.

 

2. Toes pointed out at 45-degree angles

In their article on a few different squat variations, ACE (The American Council on Exercise) recommends pointing the feet out at 45 degree angles to complement that wider-than-normal stance.

 

ACE Fitness demonstration of sumo squat - heydayDo image

source: American Council on Exercise, 5 Variations of the Body-Weight Squat

 

Note in their demonstration, the dumbbell is freely hanging between his legs.

The bottom of the dumbbell shouldn’t touch the floor, or the eccentric resistance during the descent will be lost.

As a result, the range of motion in this version is less than in other versions you’ll find taught.

 

Change dumbbell position for a deeper sumo squat

As an example of a deeper sumo squat, here’s a minute-long tutorial from Ph.D. trainer Bret Contreras.

Note how much more range of motion there is when the dumbbell handle is held horizontally vs. vertically.

 

 

Dumbbell Single Leg Squat

ExRx Dumbbell Single Leg Squat

This is commonly called the Pistol Squat.

I can’t come anywhere near performing full reps with this exercise, even without dumbbells.

 

Pistol squat prep program a necessity

Of course, I’ve never properly trained myself specifically to be able to knock out serious reps of these single leg squats either.

And I’m certain that proper training prep is mandatory, so below I’ve included this excellent tutorial from Squat University’s Dr. Aaron Horschig.

His progression from increasing ankle mobility through incrementally deeper one-legged touch squats is great, and I’m inspired to follow his advice and see how my development goes.

 

 

Question Answer red - heydayDo icon

Dumbbell squat FAQ

Here are answers to a couple of the common questions asked about dumbbell squats.

 

Are dumbbell squats effective?

For everyone but the strong & serious powerlifters among us, dumbbell squats are an excellent exercise that can:

  • dramatically increase leg strength
  • improve your body composition
  • improve your overall conditioning
  • increase your body’s fat-burning potential
  • improve your balance & posture (11)

 

How much weight should I squat with dumbbells?

If you’re an experienced lifter who’s already been doing barbell squats, treat the dumbbell squat like your barbell squat routine when incorporating it into your leg workout program.

Meaning, the amount of weight & the number of reps you choose from set to set can be the same, just split between the two dumbbells.

 

However!

There are limits using dumbbells for squats that when reached make it impractical & inefficient. 

I explain in more detail below, following the Beginner section.

 

Suggestions for the beginner

  • Master excellent form while performing the bodyweight squat, before moving up to using dumbbells.
  • Warmup sets are a necessity to prime your legs (& whole body really) for your squat session.

 

For example, you could start with a set of 25 bodyweight squats.

Follow that up with a set with dumbbells, using a weight that you can fairly easily knock out 12 reps or so.

At that point your body should be good to go, as far as moving into the meat of your squat program.

And depending on your strength & training goals, you could then perform 2-5 sets where the weight is heavy enough to keep your reps in the 5-9 range, roughly speaking*.

 

* – So much depends on the individual’s strength, experience, fitness goals, etc., that it’s impossible here for me to provide anything more than broadbrushed general guidelines. 😉

 

Dumbbell squats not ideal for heavy lifting

If you’re a serious powerlifter already squatting above 200 lb., the limitations you’ll encounter at that weight using dumbbells will be:

  • early fatigue in your hand & forearm muscles
  • the hassle of setting up the dumbbells for the lift.

 

dumbbell green - heydayDo icon

 

Wrapping Up

Related dumbbell articles here on heydayDo

The Dumbbell Floor Press: Benefits & How-To Videos

Top 3 Dumbbell Chest Exercises Without A Bench + Workout & Videos

5×5 Workout for the Over 50 Year Old: My Necessary Variations

9 Muscle Building Dumbbell Exercises For Seniors

 

I hope that my article comparing barbell squats & dumbbell squats is useful to you, and that the tutorial & instructional videos for all of the dumbbell squat variations is helpful too.

I wish you well on your fitness journey.

Let’s go.

– greg

October 2020

 

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About Me

heydayDo author Greg Simon
Hi I’m Greg Simon. Fitness training & nutrition researching since 1982. Surfer. Organic food & wine grower. Guitarist & music producer. Congenital heart disease survivor (so far).

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About heydayDo

heydayDo is my “fitness after 50” website that’s about embracing the physically active lifestyle as we get older.
 
It’s an information-sharing, personal opinion blog of mine.
 
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heydayDo began as a daily journal I kept as I recovered from the latest of many heart operations I’ve had to deal with since birth. 
 
I have a deep interest in learning about nutrition & fitness, and applying it to improve my quality of life.
 
I believe this knowledge can help me be the healthiest & strongest version of me as I can, even in the face of inborn heart disease.
heydayDo author Greg Simon at 60 (Jan 2020) original

The 60-year-old version of me, January 2020

So when I get curious about something, I’ll dig into whatever sports science & medical facts there are on the topic to learn what’s real & what’s hype.
 
Here on heydayDo I share what I’ve learned from my fitness, health, & nutrition research with whoever drops by.