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Barbell Press vs Dumbbell Press

www.ironmanmagazine.comQ: Which do you like better: barbell or dumbbell presses?

A: Both are excellent, although dumbbells provide a more natural movement and give you a greater variety of exercises. Often you’ll find that those who cannot perform barbell military presses—for whatever reason—can find some dumbbell variation they can perform.

Reg Park, a former Mr. Universe whose career spanned more than two decades, overhead-pressed 258 pounds in dumbbells in 1953 for a British record. In other forms of pressing, such as the bent press, in which you lean away from the weight during the movement, legendary strongman and ’56 Olympic Games weightlifting champion Paul Anderson pressed a 380-pound dumbbell with one hand and 300 for 10 reps.

Today’s bodybuilders may know about those awe-inspiring lifts from 50-plus years ago, but they rarely follow the training methods the athletes used to attain them. Instead of pushing themselves, today’s trainees generally choose incline- and flat-bench dumbbell presses instead.

One of the advantages of using dumbbells over barbells is that your head does not get in the way of the lift. In the original version of the strict military press, the body remained rigid, and you would press the bar around your head in an arc. Later, most trainees would simply lean back slightly, and then when the bar passed their forehead, they would return to the upright stance.

In Olympic lifting—before the clean and press was eliminated from competition after 1972 due to the difficulty of judging it—techniques such as knee kicks and an extreme lay back enabled lifters to press tremendous loads. The great Russian Vasily Alexeev pressed 521 pounds in that manner.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t use cheating methods to increase the effectiveness of a set or add variety; however, cheating methods may create unwanted effects. If you press strictly and then lean back, you change the biomechanics of the exercise because you’re changing the bar path. Instead, give the weights a kick to get a few extra reps. You also can prolong the set with negatives, kicking the weight up and lowering slowly. Or kick the weight up and do negatives on every repetition.

To make your dumbbell presses even more effective, use thick-handled dumbbells—or use a grip apparatus to increase the diameter of the bar. Although most trainees think that thick-handled training increases only grip strength for pulling, it’s also been shown to improve the effectiveness of pressing exercises.

Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most suc-cessful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med-alists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. For more on his books, seminars and methods, visit Also, see his ad on page 155.   IM

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