Barbell squats or dumbbell squats: which is better for building muscle mass?

The barbell squat and dumbbell squat both have plenty to offer fitness enthusiasts.

When I was a personal trainer at a gym, I’d occasionally be asked which was “better.”

Whether the barbell squat is better than the dumbbell squat, or vice versa, depends upon your goals.

Some people wish to build a lot of muscle mass/size in their upper legs and glutes.

Barbell Back Squat vs. Dumbbell Squat  for Mass Building

The ability to build a lot of muscle mass in the legs and buttocks is not possible with dumbbell squats, because with dumbbell squats, you are required to support the dumbbell weights with your hanging arms as you hold onto them.

This is a problem for people who can barbell squat a lot of weight. For instance, suppose you can barbell squat 225 pounds 10 times.

To duplicate this resistance for your legs and butt, with dumbbell squats, you’d have to hold a 110 pound dumbbell IN EACH HAND while lowering into the squat position.

Your legs may be strong enough to support the weight with 110-pound dumbbell squats, but for many people, their upper body will not be able to hold onto those weights.

Women, especially, will find it too much to hold a 100-pound dumbbell in each hand. 

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that extremely very few women, who can barbell squat 200 pounds, can maintain holding onto 100-pound dumbbells in each hand for the duration of eight dumbbell squats.

And if all a man can barbell squat is 200 pounds, I can pretty much guarantee that his upper body strength isn’t all that impressive, either, and hence, 100-pound dumbbell squats will be very difficult for his upper body to sustain.

Though a 200-pound barbell squat is impressive for a woman, it’s nothing to brag about for a man.

And then there are men who DO have impressive barbell squats, let’s say 315 pounds. How could he duplicate this effort with the dumbbell version?

First of all, what gym supplies 150-pound dumbbells? Of course, you can purchase these online, but come on.

Secondly, the heavier the dumbbells, the more that the upper body must get involved for these kind of squats.

If the weight is heavy enough, dumbbell squats will simply become impractical. They are not ultimate mass builders.

But don’t underestimate dumbbell squats for building fitness and durability in your legs.

Shutterstock/Jasminko Ibrakovic

Obviously, they are not the choice for building maximum size, maximal muscle mass or maximum strength in the legs.

But I’d like to see one of these men, who can barbell squat 400 pounds, do 30 repetitions of dumbbell squats on an air cushion, holding just 25-pound weights in each hand, reaching down so that their femurs are parallel to the floor — each time.

I can tell you right now, such a beast with the barbell squats will be screaming in pain by the 20th rep — if he even gets that far.

High rep dumbbell squats can be tweaked: Hold the down position for a 2-count and thrust quickly up to the upright position to recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Don’t hang out at the top position; immediately drop down again and hold thighs parallel to the floor for two seconds. Do this 30 times with 20-pound weights on a flat surface.

If you think that was nasty, do it on an air cushion or the flat side of a BOSU board. Good luck.

Summary: When it comes to barbell squats vs. dumbbell squats for building a lot of mass, forget the dumbbells and do the back squat.

Lorra Garrick is a former personal trainer certified through the American Council on Exercise. At Bally Total Fitness she trained women and men of all ages for fat loss, muscle building, fitness and improved health. 



Top image: Shutterstock/Adamov_d