Dumbbells or Dumbasses?

Article written by Josh Mac

The forums have been lit up with these black or white questions since AOL made that screeching fax machine noise when you logged on to receive your electronic mail.  “Barbells OR dumbbells? Palms up OR hammer curls? High bar or low bar squat? Creatine mono OR ethyl ester?”

Newsflash:  the path of progress is not a maze when only one route leads to striations and the rest all dead end into a black line wall.  If you’re asking too many “or” questions, you need to stop.

But it’s not all your fault!  Further perpetuating this dogmatic way of approaching training are websites and magazines that pose the divisive question FOR you, the reader, so that you are properly instructed which movement to alienate and hate.  Nice!

But ask yourself: is that helping you, or limiting you?

I recently read an article on some website called Hormone Country where the author laid out his case for dumbbells over bar bells for chest hypertrophy.  He cited a bunch of data and gave fair and balanced analysis of the pros and cons of each tool and movement.  Wait a minute… NO HE DIDN’T!


What he did do was imply that benching is less effective to build pecticals because the lifter tends to cheat by taking advantage of the leverages of good bench form, thus taking the pectorals from the role of a prime mover to one more of support along with lats and tri’s.  Basically, you’re not to be trusted to bench press the “bodybuilding way” because it’s harder apparently.

Giving a glimpse at his own past experience in powerlifting gyms, the author harkens back to the days of training with guys with lagging pec cleavage.  A cardinal titty sin.

And of course the stock photo is of some skinny guy flaring his elbows to his ears on a bench and then a photo of a different guy who’s shirtless and sporting a shit eating grin while using tiny dumbbells with great success.

That’s all very convincing but guess what?  They’re pulling your chain.  You don’t have to CHOOSE!

If you’re into bodybuilding, what would you give to have a pair of Eric Spoto’s pecs? I mean seriously, what would you sacrifice for a set of pecs that look like a couple of one eyed hogs with their butts sewn together?

If you said your very soul, you’re correct!  It doesn’t even have to be the world record-holding Spoto’s pecs, how about a set of any of the 500+ raw or 600+ equipped bench pressers out there?  When was the last time you saw a big bencher with small boobies?

If you’re into powerlifting, what role does a large powerful chest play in a paused bench press?  Ding Ding Ding, that’s correct again. It’s all important.

Not convinced?  In a study performed in 1995, 6 men had their chestnuts covered in EMG electrodes and were told to go ham on bench at various bench angles and grip widths.  Guess what the study revealed… ALL SORTS OF CHEST ACTIVATION.  From the sternocostal head of the pectoral major to the clavicular, barbell bench press was shown to active them all.

But aren’t dumbbells better?!

In the same way that one supercar may be .2 seconds quicker in the quarter mile than another, maybe.  Don’t be a chest snob, do them both.

Kipping pull ups OR strict pull ups?

The conversion rate of YouTube cred to USD is zero, unless you happen to monetize your vids for those pennies.  But if this is a serious question rattling around in your ponder-box, then you’re burning more weight in brain cells than kcals off of your butt.  Should you kick your legs for momentum and get more reps, or should you get straight puritanical and perform pull ups with robotic precision?  Your entire future of whether you end up looking like either Jay Cutler in his prime or Macaulay Culkin’s walking meth corpse rides on this decision.  Or maybe it’s splitting a butt hair and it won’t even matter because you’re so focused on trolling crossfit videos that bi’s and lats elude you.  Start out as strict as possible, then use your legs when you fatigue.  It’s not friggen space-wizardry.

The worst thing a lifter at any level (but especially novice level) could do is rule anything out.  As a lifter (powerlifter, bodybuilder, gym rat) you should experiment with as many movements and exercises as you can.  Don’t take Synthol-Sven’s opinion as the gospel, especially when you’re still not filling out those size 28 jeans or smedium t-shirts.  Barbells and dumbbells are tools, not political parties or social issues.  Don’t fall into the habit of identifying with one camp and hating the other.  Nobody likes the Michael Moore of the gym.


But you’re not off the hook just yet… These websites aren’t fully to blame, it’s kind if your fault too.  If you’re an intermediate lifter, then BE an intermediate lifter.  6 months of sweating on machines at Fitness Connection doesn’t qualify you to start a complicated peaking cycle for a meet or contest.  Don’t be that guy in the forum who just started lifting and needs help calculating band tension percentages.  Intermediate lifters haven’t learned enough to call anything BS just yet, so leave your training heart open.  Your prince charming might be a lift that you just read is BS on the interwebs and were all too ready to hate.

It’s like going to a buffet and pre judging all of the succulent food based solely on the review of the fattest bastard in there.  Jabba the hutt over here says the pot roast sucks and steer clear of the ribs.  The only way to get fat is with orange chicken and scalloped potatoes.  Do you see how stupid that sounds?  You’re paying the bill, eat what you want.  Just like you’re putting forth the effort, so lift how and what you want.

Crossfit? That's for weaklings!

Crossfit? That’s for weaklings!

There are few definitive answers in health and fitness.  Some guys are still stirring butter in their coffees with a piece of coconut oil fried bacon, while others prefer spray margarine on their slices of gluten free bible bread.  If you find yourself reading something that’s trying to sell you on one way over another, it’s probably for someone else’s profit, not yours.

That said, use barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, swiss bars, wide grip, narrow grip, paused, touch and go, incline, flat, decline and do some damn push ups at the end of the day.  Then pick your favorites and alternate them.

Barbells or dumbbells for bodybuilding? Really?  BOTH, it’s not pec physics or anything.


-Barnett, C., Kippers, V., Turner, P. Effects of Variations of the Bench Press Exercise on the EMG Activity of Five Shoulder Muscles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1995, 9, 4, 222-227

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