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I like to use dumbbells for upper body with some regularity to make sure my left arm stays equally strong compared to my right. As everyone is aware, using dumbbells requires using lighter weights; I can't, say, bench press the same weight with dumbbells as I can with a barbell. So my question is, is there a conversion ratio between the two so that I know I'm staying mostly on target with my strength? I found this site, but I don't know if the ratio is correct, and it's limited to bench press, while I would like one for overhead press also. Thanks.

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It varies based on numerous factors. Use RPE instead.

Dumbbell and barbell variations of the same movements are different movements. Depending on your experience and level of skill with each, you will display different levels of strength with each. Since this varies from person to person, there can be no meaningful conversion between the two.

Instead, use RPE to select loads for each exercise. RPE stands for "Rate of Perceived Exertion". I prefer the "reps in reserve" model of RPE:

  • RPE = 10 - (# of additional reps you could have done).

So if you do 6 reps, but could have done 2 more, that would be 6 reps at RPE 8.

The utility here is that you can easily convert between dumbbell and barbell press. Say your workout today calls for barbell bench press with rep scheme 5 sets of 5 reps at RPE (6, 7, 8, 8, 8), but you are at a hotel gym that doesn't have barbells. Just use dumbbells for the same rep scheme, 5 sets of 5 reps at RPE (6, 7, 8, 8, 8). You don't have to get out your calculator and make a guess based on some conversion factor you found online that almost certainly is wrong for you, because your body will regulate the conversion for you. Warm up with sets of 5 on dumbbells until you hit a weight that is RPE 6. On your next set, go up 5 pounds on the dumbbells and you'll probably be close to RPE 7. Add 5 more pounds for RPE 8. Maybe you can hit 5 more reps with that same weight for RPE 8, but your last set you have to take it down 5 pounds to stay at RPE 8.

You shouldn't be worrying about converting the numbers. You should be worrying about applying the same desired training stimulus whether you have a barbell or dumbbells, and using RPE lets you do exactly that.

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