Lunges are a fantastic exercise for improving leg strength, balance and stability.
Plus, they’re a great way to identify any potential strength imbalances between your two legs.
However, are you better performing barbell lunges or dumbbell lunges?
If performed with good form both barbell lunges and dumbbell lunges can produce great results. So, in truth, one is not better than the other, but rather this comes down to personal preference. My own preference is barbell lunges, as this allows me to use more weight, works the core to greater effect, and my grip isn’t a limiting factor as it generally is with dumbbell lunges.
Pros. of Barbell Lunges
Okay, as I’ve mentioned, there is no right or wrong equipment when it comes to lunges, and one cannot be viewed as categorically better than the other.
That being said, my personal preference is to use a barbell, and this appears to be a popular choice from my research.
So, let’s look at why I’m more inclined to barbell lunges:
Barbell lunges typically allow you to use more weight.
As you’re supporting a heavy barbell across the back of your shoulders you’re able to load up with more weight.
Unfortunately, when it comes to dumbbells one of the main limiting factors would be grip strength.
As an example, I’d think nothing of having a 135lbs barbell on the back of my shoulders and performing a high-rep set of lunges.
However, I know for a fact that if I attempted the same number of reps with let’s say two 65lbs dumbbells, my grip would definitely give up before my legs.
Barbell lunges require a higher centre of gravity in the body.
Basically, the higher a load is held the higher your centre of gravity will be.
And when it comes to using a barbell your core stabilizer muscles have to work extremely hard in order for you to keep balance.
Personally, I love this, and I generally try to involve my core stabilization with many exercises that I perform.
Don’t get me wrong, I also perform core-specific workouts, but I see nothing wrong with testing and using these muscles during various exercises.
It’s typically your erector spinae muscles that bear the brunt of stabilizing a heavy barbell on the back of your shoulders.
And if these muscles are well trained they can actually help a whole host of exercises to feel easier, thus meaning you can also lift more weight, e.g. squats, deadlifts, rows, etc.
Even though lunges are aimed at primarily working the quads, glutes, and hamstrings, using a barbell can certainly “train” other muscles.
Simply having a loaded barbell on your back activates the traps and upper back.
Plus, having to hold onto the barbell requires a certain amount of shoulder mobility.
So, you could say that barbell lunges are really a full-body exercise.
Barbell lunges remove momentum of the load.
Basically, the barbell is fixed in place and has nowhere to go.
However, you’re able to swing dumbbells during lunges in order to create momentum.
And I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that you want to avoid momentum during any exercise, which simply makes the movement easier.
Cons. of Barbell Lunges
Now, funnily enough, most of the cons associated with barbell lunges will take the pros, but look at them from another perspective.
Firstly, you’ll require more “equipment” to perform barbell lunges.
What I mean is that you’ll need access to a squat rack in order to get the bar on your back.
And if you don’t have access to a squat rack you’ll need to clean and press the bar onto the back of your shoulders.
So, while you have the potential to lunge more weight with a barbell, this also takes into account the set-up format too.
While barbell lunges are better for your core development, this also means that they are less stable and require greater balance.
And it must be said that a lack of balance is often a limiting factor when performing lunges.
So, if you have weak core muscles it’s likely that you’ll struggle with barbell lunges and find them much more difficult than the dumbbell variety.
You have nowhere to go if fatigue kicks in, you fail a rep, or stumble.
Unfortunately, that barbell is planted firmly on your shoulders, so in order to bail out you’re going to have to drop the bar from a height.
This presents certain dangers in itself.
While barbell lunges increase upper back and trap activation this may not be that great if you have a weakness in this area.
It’s likely that your traps will fatigue well before your legs, so you’ll have to finish your set prematurely.
Furthermore, if you lack shoulder mobility you’ll struggle to hold the barbell in place, which could shorten your set time even more.
Pros. of Dumbbell Lunges
Now, even though I’ve said that I prefer barbell lunges I still perform dumbbell lunges on a regular basis.
I’ve always been of the thinking that if I don’t particularly like performing an exercise there must be a reason for this, usually because I find it difficult.
So, in my mind this is a weakness and should therefore be worked on.
Dumbbell lunges require a certain amount of grip strength, so the more often you perform lunges with dumbbells the more often you’ll be training your grip.
Much the same as the trap, upper back, and core benefits of barbell lunges, this is a great way to train secondary muscles while you lunge.
I prefer using dumbbells for walking lunges.
My reasoning here is that I typically perform walking lunges for a high number of reps per set.
For me, this is just how I love to perform them.
However, this obviously opens me up to fatigue, the potential to stumble, or to completely fail a rep.
As I’ve mentioned with barbell lunges, it’s harder to bail out when the bar is on the back of your shoulders, but there is no such problem when using dumbbells.
This definitely has a psychological impact, and I’ll usually perform more reps of walking lunges with dumbbells, as the worry of what might happen if I fail a rep has been removed.
Dumbbell lunges will see you hold dumbbells at your side at arm’s length.
This immediately lowers your centre of gravity, which means that you won’t have as many issues with balance and stability when lunging with dumbbells.
Essentially, if your core is weak and needs plenty of work it won’t be such a limiting factor with dumbbell lunges.
Dumbbell lunges will still actually activate the traps and upper back, simply because you’re holding weights in your hands.
However, this activation is much less than when using a barbell, so you generally won’t have to worry about your traps fatiguing before your legs.
Plus, a lack of shoulder mobility won’t hamper your ability to lunge either.
You won’t require any other equipment bar a couple of dumbbells.
So, even though you should be able to barbell lunge more weight, this usually requires access to a squat rack to load yourself with the weight.
There are no such issues with dumbbells, you just grab a couple of heavy dumbbells off the floor and start lunging.
Cons. of Dumbbell Lunges
Once again, for all the positives I have to say about dumbbell lunges, these can also be viewed as negatives too.
So, the most obvious, as I have mentioned it a few times now, is that your grip is going to be the limiting factor with dumbbell lunges.
And a weak grip will typically mean you’re far more concentrated on trying to keep those dumbbells in your hands than actually lunging.
This could lead to poor execution of the movement, shorter sets that don’t really work the legs to their potential, and even the possibility of injury.
Of course, you can overcome this by using straps when lunging with dumbbells, but clearly your focus should always be on working your legs.
Dumbbells allow you to swing the load, therefore use momentum, thus making the exercise slightly easier.
This is not something that would normally happen until you’re close to fatigue, but I have seen plenty of people in the gym swinging dumbbells in order to squeeze out a few more reps.
I’m a firm believer in performing all exercises with perfect form.
Yes, I’ll agree that there is a time and place for using momentum, especially in terms of really trying to target a muscle during hypertrophy training.
However, the use of momentum shouldn’t be the norm, and if possible, should be avoided.
Dumbbell lunges won’t work the core muscles as well, which can potentially be a problem.
In fact, a common complaint that many trainees have is that they feel lunges in their lower back.
Obviously, this could be due to poor form or a muscle weakness in this area.
But, at least your erector spinae muscles are getting a great workout during barbell lunges.
No such luck with dumbbells.
So, I hope you understand that there is no clear winner in the “Barbell lunges vs. Dumbbell lunges” debate.
This clearly comes down to a matter of personal preference.
The main difference between the two movements are:
- Trap involvement
- Centre of gravity
- Grip involvement
Therefore, it’s down to you to decide what way you would rather train.
That being said, even though my personal preference is to use a barbell, I still train lunges with dumbbells with amazing regularity.
As they say, variety is the spice of life.
Next, make sure to check out my comparison between forward lunges and reverse lunges.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.