The squat is hands down one of, if not the most effective exercise and movement pattern that someone could possibly do. If you could only do one exercise for the rest of your life for overall strength and muscle mass then it would be a coin flip between the squat and deadlift for 99% of the population.
Personally I prefer the deadlift because I have long limbs so can I’m well suited for a deadlift but for most people it’s a genuine 50/50 tough decision. As the squat is such an all round powerhouse of an exercise there is no surprising that there are hundreds of variations for this one movement.
Squats in general are difficult though and many try to find reasons to skip them entirely. The barbell squat is the most difficult movement to master even though it seems simple enough in theory. Therefore people often wonder if they can get the same or possibly more benefit from doing a dumbbell squat instead.
** Note – many actually try to find an alternative to the squat all together in the form of fixed weight machines for legs because they are ‘easier’. Squats can be difficult no doubt but they offer the greatest potential for your physique than arguably any other exercise so my stance is always squat!
Dumbbell squat vs barbell Squat? While dumbbell squats and barbell squats have many variations of each and even though the movement pattern is essentially the same the two are very different exercises. A barbell squat will allow you to lift significantly more but a dumbbell squat will allow for targeting a particular muscle group.
In this article I’m going to run through everything you need to know when it comes to barbell and dumbbell squats whilst answering some of the most popular questions for each. Don’t worry, I’ll keep it quite brief as well because the bottom line is squats are king so whichever method you decide to use, just make sure you are squatting regularly.
I could just end the article there to be honest, take home message, squat more!
Table of Contents
Dumbbell Squat vs Barbell Squat
Barbell squats for the most part are the most popular choice of squat in the lifting community and offer the most potential for strength, power, explosiveness and muscle growth. It’s a staple move in powerlifting (low bar back squat) and Olympic weightlifting (front squat from a clean and jerk and overhead squat on a snatch).
Therefore keeping the most elite level in mind, barbell squats come out as the better option when it comes to squatting. Having said that it doesn’t mean that dumbbell squats have no benefit, particularly if you don’t actually have access to a barbell.
In my first ever gym I only had free weights and a smith machine so it took me a good 3 years before I started squatting properly but had I utilized the dumbbells (or even known dumbbell squatting had benefits) then I’d have fast tracked my progress.
As barbell squats are the main choice I’ll cover these first but later give some insight into the vast benefits of dumbbell squats and how you can include both in your routine.
What Is a Barbell Squat
A barbell squat has many variations but though most popular is a standard barbell back squat. There are even two variations of this with a high bar and low bar positioning used intentionally by powerlifters and Olympic lifters in training and competition alike.
I’m not going to get into the specifics of which is the best barbell squat because that could take another article in itself but other variations include the front squat, overhead squat, landmine squat and zercher squat all performed with a barbell.
The benefit of a barbell squat is the weight potential that you can use. There is no other exercise besides the deadlift that offers the same potential for sheer quantity of weight lifted as the squat. You could argue the leg press is in this equation but this requires minimal use of stabilizing muscles so we will discount it for that reason.
A barbell squat can work the entire posterior chain from legs, through to glutes, abs, lower back, your upper back and arms (the heavy weight doesn’t just rest on your traps and stay there, it takes tension from your upper body which many don’t realise) and even your shoulders when squatting over head.
A barbell squat is a truly full body movement which makes the strength and muscle growth potential incredibly high.
Benefits of a barbell squat:
- Can load maximal weights
- Great for overall strength, power and muscle growth
- Can be a full body movement working the entire posterior chain
- Plenty of potential to progress over time
- Recruits more muscle fibres which is a precursor for muscle growth
Do Front Squats and Back Squats Work the Same Muscles
When it comes to picking a barbell squat variation, many will narrow it down to a back squat or front squat and the reason is that both work different muscle groups as a primary mover.
A front squat moves the load forward and means that more tension is placed on the quads, it also means that you hold a more upright body position throughout the movement placing an even greater demand on the quads.
While a high bar back squat can also work the quads as it is very similar to a front squat, most will adopt a neutral or low bar position which will target the hamstrings and glutes to a greater degree.
Foot positioning and heel elevation will also play a large factor in which muscle groups are worked as well. A narrow stance with heels elevated will place more emphasis on the quads whereas a wider stance and “sitting down and back” motion will place greater emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings.
Your frame will also play a factor in which is best for you, short guys with a smaller torso and femurs do very well with high bar squats as it’s easier to stay upright whereas a tall guy like myself find it more comfortable to low bar squat or front squat due to long legs making for poor squatting mechanics.
It’s easy for people to make that an excuse though and say they are not built to squat but when I put a plate under my heels, take a narrow stance and front squat then there is no denying that I feel it working my quads.
What Is a Dumbbell Squat
A dumbbell squat is usually something people will do when they find they have limited equipment or are in the early days of learning the squat mechanics. World renowned strength and conditioning coach John Rushin recommends you learn to goblet squat (a form of dumbbell squat) a dumbbell for 25 unbroken reps at 50% of your body weight.
This is so that you can properly learn to engage the desired muscle groups when squatting and avoid injury from bad movement mechanics if you go straight into using the barbell back squat. He even states in another article that barbell back squats should be last on your list of progression going from body weight, goblet squat, front squat and finally back squat.
This is to learn good form and create muscle tension in the desired places, he’s a very smart guy indeed and if he thinks there is a place for dumbbell squats in your training then they are not to be dismissed so easily.
With a dumbbell squat you have the standard dumbbell squat (weights by your shoulder in a dumbbell press position), a goblet squat, suitcase or sumo squat, and even holding a dumbbell between your legs as you squat standing on two benches or plyo boxes with a gap inbetween.
The last one is to reduce the load on your spine similar to a hip squat which uses an especially made machine or dipping belt squat.
As you can see the list is seemingly endless, just writing one variation leads me on to another. The short of it is that even though your weight potential that you can load the exercise with is limited the benefits are thankfully not.
Benefits of a dumbbell squat:
- Less weight loading your spine
- Great for learning movement mechanics and form
- Allows for safer loading of the squat compared with a barbell
- Great for beginners
- Great for activation and warmup sets
- Can be used as finishers in a leg workout
Is a Dumbbell Squat the Same as a Goblet Squat
For some reason people often assume that a dumbbell squat is strictly a squat where you hold the dumbbell at shoulder height (or they accept a briefcase squat when dumbbells are by your sides yet never place a goblet squat under this category.
A goblet squat is a form of dumbbell squat because while you can use a kettlebell to perform the movement you more often than not use an actual dumbbell.
As a result people often claim that the goblet squat is an excellent exercise, especially for those that struggle with the form and weight required to back squat but the same people will say that dumbbell squats are a waste of time.
I know, confusing isn’t it? It’s just something that has come about due to the vast amount of information now available. Goblet squats are an excellent squat variation and I personally use them to warm up my joints and quads before squatting but they are still a form of dumbbell squatting at the end of the day.
How Much Weight Should You Squat With a Dumbbell Squat
With dumbbell squats the main downside is that you are limited to the weight that you can use because your body is not utilizing its strongest position. A barbell back squat allows more loading than any other squat variation so it’s easy to see dumbbell squats as a waste of time.
The truth is you can still load dumbbell squats to a decent amount and if you can work your way up to a body weight and above goblet squat then you can be certain this will have a great carry over to your barbell squatting. Yes you should be using both in your routine in my opinion.
The only variation of a dumbbell squat that is limiting in terms of load is the weights at shoulder height position. The key issue of course is that you are not only limited by your ability to lift heavy weights to shoulder height (you can’t just walk them out of a rack like with a barbell) but also you ability to keep them there.
As soon as an exercise becomes more difficult to stabilize the weight than it does to do the movement then you will see a regressed rate of return on the movement. Therefore when selecting a weight for dumbbell squatting you should choose a weight that allows you to perform the exercise without supporting muscles hindering your rep count.
In order of exercises where you can load the weight the most, a traditional dumbbell squat will see you squatting the least amount of weight, a briefcase/sumo squat will allow more weight to be used (especially if you use straps so that your grip doesn’t hinder progress) and finally a goblet squat will offer the most potential for the weight you can use.
Can Dumbbell Squats Build Muscle
Finally, another question people often wonder is that with a lower potential for loading, can you still build muscle with dumbbell squats.
The answer is of course yes and that is for a number of reasons. Firstly you can utilize angles and techniques that will place more tension on the muscle like drop sets to stimulate hypertrophy.
It’s not very safe to attempt drop sets with a barbell squat because you are more likely to see a breakdown in form. With a dumbbell however you can simply drop the weight and pick up lower weight to continue.
This will fatigue more muscle fibres and increase lactic acid buildup in the desired muscle which is of course a stimulus for muscle growth.
With dumbbells you can also do more unilateral work (one leg at a time), with unilateral work you can lift more weight but also help to reduce any muscle imbalances as well.
Lastly you can use dumbbell squats when access to a barbell is otherwise restricted. This could be in a hotel gym, home gym or in my case just a bad gym that doesn’t have a great free weight and barbell selection.
Summary & Final Thoughts
As mentioned at the start I believe that back squats are the superior exercise over a dumbbell squat when building a physique due to your ability to load it with more weight which increases your ability to build strength and muscle mass.
Hopefully though you read on in more detail and can see that dumbbell squats are not to be dismissed and have their place in the most advanced training programs.
If you are looking for maximal strength and muscle growth then a combination of the two is essential, while barbell squats have more scope to increase the weight and work multiple muscle groups dumbbell squats have the potential to work more stabilizing muscles and better learn exercise mechanics for improved motor unit recruitment.
Therefore I’d definitely recommend including both in your routine in some capacity.
Also check out:
How to build muscle if you only have access to machines
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