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April 15, 2021

Barbell Deadlift vs Dumbbell Deadlift

The deadlift is a fundamental gym exercise that is performed for strength and development. The vast majority of the time it is done with an Olympic barbell. However, every now and then you will see people doing the deadlift with a pair of dumbbells. Naturally, you’d assume that, since everyone is doing it, the barbell deadlift is the better exercise. But is it really? In this article, we pull apart these dumbbell deadlifts vs barbell deadlifts to see which one is better for you.

The Barbell Deadlift

The Deadlift is one of the three powerlifts. Pulling power from the floor is a very good developer of overall strength and power. Research has also shown that it is one of the best predictors of performance for sprinters, runners and jumpers.

The deadlift is a whole body compound exercise that makes use of the major muscle groups of the body. Specifically the exercise builds the glutes, lats, legs and shoulders. The deadlift is also one of the best ways to develop your grip strength. If you are a strength of power lifter, the deadlift will develop your strength in other weightlifting moves such as the snatch and clean and jerk.

How to Do Barbell Deadlifts

The fundamental movement of the deadlift is a hip hinge. The two basic variations of the deadlift are the conventional version and the sumo deadlift. With the conventional barbell you grip the bar at shoulder level, with your hands taking hold of the bar outside your lower legs and knees. The sumo deadlift uses a wider stance with your hands closer together, inside your legs.

Taller people will be more suited to the sumo deadlift, whereas shorter people are better off with the conventional deadlift.

Let’s consider how to do the conventional deadlift:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your feet pointed straight ahead. Grab the bar at shoulder level with a reverse grip (one hand pronated and the other supinated). Straighten your arms.
  • Keeping your weight on your heels, hinge your hips by pushing your pelvis backward. Be sure to maintain a neutral spine.
  • On the upward pull, straighten your hips and knees at the same time. Keep your torso locked and do not bend the elbows.
  • In the lock out position, pull your shoulders back slightly.

The Dumbbell Deadlift

The dumbbell version of the deadlift simulates the barbell deadlift movement but is done with a pair of dumbbells in your hands and held at your sides. One thing you will notice immediately is that you won’t be able to handle the same amount of weight with dumbbells compared with a barbell. So if you can barbell deadlift 300 pounds, you will be very unlikely to be able to do the dumbbell version of the movement with a 150 pound dumbbell in each hand. The reason for this is that, when holding dumbbells, you are forced to use a lot of stabilizer muscles for balance, which makes you weaker.

Because you can lift more weight with the barbell version of the deadlift, it is the better option for pure strengths development. But that is not the end of the story.

Even though you are essentially doing the same movement, the dumbbell version of the exercise works your muscles slightly differently. For one thing, you will get more grip development with dumbbells. Holding a pair of dumbbells is harder than holding a barbell – try it and see for yourself!

The dumbbell version of the deadlift also hits your glutes more than the barbell version. The reason is that the weight sits alongside your quads rather than in front of them. This takes the stress off the lower back, preventing forward lean, allowing you to more effectively squeeze and tense your glutes in the hip hinge. At the same time, the dumbbell version of the deadlift places more emphasis on your hamstrings.

The dumbbell version of the deadlift allows you to get a greater range of motion than the barbell version. When you are using a bar that is loaded with Olympic plates, you won’t achieve as low a starting position as when you are using dumbbells. With dumbbells at your sides, you will also be able to come up higher.

Dumbbell Deadlift vs Barbell Deadlift for Lower Back

The dumbbell version of the deadlift is better on your lower back. That’s because the weight is not longer in front of your body but alongside your torso. This means that your torso is not pushed forward which relieves a lot of pressure on the erector spinae muscles of the lower back. With dumbbells you are also able to use a neutral grip, which is also better for you ergonomically.

When you train with dumbbells, you are also able to work each side of the body unilaterally. This allows for equal development of strength and muscle on each side. In contrast, when you are barbell deadlift, your strongest side will take over, so that you are lifting the bar on angle. This leads to and exaggeration of lopsided strength and development.

The dumbbell version of the exercise is easier to set up. You simply grab a pair of dumbbells and go for it. Setting up for the barbell version of the deadlift takes a lot longer. You may find, however, that you are limited in your dumbbell workout by the maximum dumbbell weight of the gym that you’re working out in.

Dumbbell Deadlift vs Barbell: Which is Best?

So, is dumbbell deadlifting a better exercise than the barbell deadlift? Yes and no. The fact that you can go heavier on the barbell deadlift is a big plus in its favor when it comes to strength and muscular development. However, the dumbbell version, as we have discovered, has some distinct advantage. As a result, you should do both exercises as part of your overall workout routine.

Perform the barbell version once a week as your compound strength developer. Then two or three days later, throw in a few sets of dumbbell versions of the deadlift as part of your back, hamstring and glutes workout. That way you’ll be getting the best of both worlds.

We have many other exercise guides by qualified personal trainers and nutritionists so please feel free to read more of our articles. This includes how to articles and videos (for example for to do the romanian deadlift, dumbbell squats), training exercises and workout plans (for example for muscle gains, strength gains or stamina, using gym equipmentor at your home gym, and nutrition tips to support your workouts to help reach your fitness goals faster.

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Steve (Qualfied Personal Trainer and Nutritionist)


Steve Theunissen has qualified from the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) and is a certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist. He has over 30 years experience in fitness and nutrition and currently working with famous fitness professionals. He is currently living in New Zealand with is wife and daughter.

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