Ah, the great debate for accessory work: barbells or dumbbells – which is better for powerlifting? Well, like many answers in the training world: it depends. Notably, it depends on a couple main factors: how much extra time you have available, and what your goals with your accessory work are.
1) Only So Much Time To Train
Unless you’re a professional powerlifter and have all the time in the world to train (I’m going to guess if you’re reading this, you’re not), you only have so much time in a day to go to work, lift weights, sleep, and any other adulting that needs to happen over the course of a week. Given these constraints, it’s important to look at how much time you have left in your session after your main work is done.
If you have a 90 minute session that consists of a 10 minute warmup and 2 main lifts which take up 30 minutes a piece, you’re left with 20 minutes to hit some accessories. I’d deem that a moderate amount of time. In a situation like this, 1 “injury prevention” exercise such as some dumbbell single leg Romanian deadlift, some upper back work (bent over barbell rows), and some core training (farmer’s carries, planks, etc.) should all fit the bill here.
On the other hand, if you have the same session structure, but only have 10 minutes to train and get out, trimming down on accessory work is important and as such, you need to get the best possible bang for the buck out of whatever you are doing in that short period of time. In that case, I would probably pick the bent over barbell rows as they still give you the hip hinge pattern trained in the 1 leg deadlifts, and there is absolutely a bracing component to the row as well, which covers some of your core training demands as well. Is this as effective as doing all 3 and getting the best of each world? Probably not, but if you’re training for powerlifting in the first place, the row by itself will probably do a lot more for your total than 1 leg deadlifts will, if the choice needs to be made.
2) Supplemental Training Goals
If you train for powerlifting, your accessory work goals will likely fall into one of 3 categories:
i) Supplemental work volume: If you’re toast from comp movements and just need more volume to drive progress, barbell all the way. It offers the best bang for buck training effect, lets you load heavy and is generally pretty specific to The Big 3. These lifts generally end up being variations on the big 3 (pause squat, front squat, high bar squat, close grip bench press, etc.).
ii) General Hypertrophy: With the goal of simply growing your muscles and having a broader base to build from, a mix of both barbell and dumbbell training is warranted. If you’ve already gotten in a lot of volume for your Big 3, DBs might be a good option for some body parts which might be more practical to use DBs with (ex. Bicep curls are easier on the wrists with DBs, you can generally load a hip thrust more effectively with a barbell, etc.).
iii) Injury Prevention: Nobody wants to get hurt. I’m a firm believer in prevention being the best medicine for these injuries. As such, good technique on your lifts will trump any fancy variation of glute bridge you can think of. If you don’t have that, the rest doesn’t matter. That being said, I think DBs offer a more versatile platform to be used for injury prevention work and movements that challenge frontal and transverse plane movement, such as adding rotation to a DB row, making it anti-rotation, single leg work, etc. From an injury prevention standpoint, it’s very hard to move and load effectively outside of the sagittal plane with a barbell and as such, other tools are often better for the job.
With some critical thinking about your program, you can truly optimize how much benefit you see from your training and what tools are best for the task at hand. Barbells will always be the ticket to getting stronger at the Big 3, but there’s so many more aspects to powerlifting than just peak strength.