Bodybuilders always include plenty of dumbbell exercises in their routines, but quite a few strength athletes avoid them completely. If they use them at all, they relegate the dumbbells to auxiliary exercises and use light weights. I’m a big fan of dumbbells, both light and heavy. They’re most useful to all serious strength athletes, as well as those who only train for general fitness, and they’re invaluable for rehab. What’s more, for people who train alone, they’re extremely beneficial, since you don’t need a spotter.
Ideally, you’d train at a facility that features a long row of dumbbells, which allows you to select the poundage you want easily. There are lots of different types of dumbbells. The solid-iron models come in various shapes: round, square, hexagon and rectangular high-tech versions that you grip inside the weights. There are models that use plates secured with bolts or welds, and I guess we’ve all used the adjustable ones and ended up dumping plates on the floor’or our feet’when we didn’t fasten the collar tightly enough. Those made like small Olympic bars are my favorite because you can add Olympic plates to them. They revolve like an Olympic bar, which makes them so much easier to handle. They’re great for people who have home gyms and don’t want to invest in an assortment of dumbbells.
I incorporate dumbbells in all of my strength programs, on both auxiliary and primary exercises. Two strength exercises that Olympic weightlifters used to do with heavy dumbbells were cleans and clean and presses. They used them to improve pulling and pressing power, and the dumbbells really got the job done. It was a true test of strength to be able to clean 200-pound dumbbells and press them. It still is, although I seldom see anyone doing that exercise anymore. In my 15 years of strength coaching at three universities, only four of my athletes managed to clean and press the 100-pounders. That’s four out of almost 2,500, which makes it a rare feat indeed.
More often than not it’s the clean that keeps them from making the lift. I believe that athletes have to be able to power clean close to 300 in order to clean a pair of 100-pound dumbbells and have enough juice left for the press’unless they’re exceptional pressers, and there aren’t many of those around.
When I trained at the York Barbell Club in the ’60s, the overhead press was still required in Olympic weight lifting, and there were quite a few who could clean and press 100-pound dumbbells. That’s as heavy as the dumbbells went, so when we wanted a real challenge, we rolled the Cyr dumbbell out of the Hall of Fame into the gym. It weighed 220. Now, that isn’t a great deal of weight, but it wasn’t the weight but, rather, the density of the monster that made cleaning and pressing it difficult’two thick spheres connected by a thick, stumpy handle that was too short to grip with two hands. You had to clean it with one hand, and then the spheres were turned and set in position for the press. Because of its bulk, there was no way to cheat-start it. You had to elevate it overhead with raw power.
Barski and Bill March were the only two lifters I ever saw press the Cyr dumbbell. I never did, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. One afternoon Gary Glenney and I got into a contest. With a protein shake at stake we applied all our energy to the task. We cleaned it 13 times, but neither of us could lock it out. I determined that a person had to be able to press 350 off the rack in order to handle it. March and Barski were both doing that and more.
Whenever I write about pressing heavy dumbbells, I think about Jim Wit, one of the pioneers in the sport of powerlifting and a very strong individual. We trained together at the Dallas Y, and he told me this story. For a time he worked as a traveling salesman in east Texas, and when he came to a new town on a training day, he would seek out the local gym. He carried a pair of 60-pound dumbbells and a pair of 80s in the trunk of his car, and before going in the gym, he’d pull them out and do few warmup sets in the parking lot. Then he’d walk into the gym, go directly to the dumbbells, grab the hundred-pounders and proceed to clean and press them. He said he was never asked to pay for training. And in the event that some small town didn’t have any sort of training facility, he’d carry the dumbbells into his motel and use them for his workout.
After the overhead press was dropped from Olympic lifting, interest in pressing heavy dumbbells waned. In fact, trainees stopped doing almost all forms of pressing, which in my opinion was a huge mistake. Cleaning and pressing dumbbells or a barbell is an excellent way to build size and strength in the shoulders. No other upper-body exercise can really match it, and I think using heavy dumbbells is even better than using a bar because it’s so much harder. The dumbbells require much more control than a bar, which forces different muscles to get into the act, especially the ones that have to stabilize the dumbbells to keep them from running into each other or to the side.
Another nice thing about cleaning and pressing dumbbells is that you can do it in a limited amount of space, even in an apartment, and, as mentioned above, you don’t need any assistance.
Cleaning and pressing dumbbells can also be beneficial for those who lift weights as part of their total conditioning program and not primarily to gain size or strength. You don’t need heavy weights. If you only have light dumbbells, just run up the reps. You can clean the dumbbells and press them 30 or 40 times, or you can turn this simple exercise into an excellent cardio workout. Clean the weights, press them overhead, set them back on the floor and repeat: clean, press, clean, press. Do that for 20 or more consecutive reps, and I guarantee that you’ll be blowing at the end even if you only use 15-pound dumbbells.
Some lifters at York only cleaned the dumbbells. They didn’t bother to follow with any presses because they were more interested in enhancing their pulls. Cleaning heavy dumbbells is very effective and much more difficult than cleaning a barbell. Dumbbells have to be guided in the correct line from start to finish, and unlike what happens with a bar, you have to control them laterally. If you start a bar off the floor and keep it in the proper position through the middle of the movement, the top will generally take care of itself. Not so with dumbbells. You have to pull them all the way to your shoulders. There’s no float time, as there is with a bar. You also have to pull dumbbells a bit higher than a bar, since it’s extremely hard to dip under them as you would a bar. In addition, the traps don’t play nearly as much of a role at the finish with dumbbells. It’s the deltoids more than the traps that provide the final punch at the top. That means your delts receive more attention than they do on cleans performed with a bar, which is good. Increase deltoid strength while maintaining strong traps, and when you go back to cleaning a bar, your top pull will be more dynamic.
You also have to deal with two weights in motion rather than one. If your arms aren’t in perfect coordination, you’ll have trouble racking the dumbbells at the same time. If one arm is weaker than the other, the disparity will show up once you get to the heavy weights. The same thing holds true for pressing heavy dumbbells, but that’s a plus. Discovering a weaker area is always good in strength training because then you can do something about improving it. When I see an athlete with a glaring weakness in one of his arms, I have him do several sets of presses or pulls using that arm. Over time the weaker arm catches up with the stronger one. ALL A few of us at York did one-hand snatches with dumbbells, though not nearly as much as we did two-handed cleans. Power-snatching dumbbells works well for the same reasons that dumbbell cleans do. You’re forced to pull the weights higher and control them all the way to the finish. While the line of fire is precise, as it is on cleans, since you’re only using one dumbbell, the exercise is a bit easier. There can be no hesitation or period of relaxation, or the weight will crash downward like a guillotine. And as with the power cleans, power snatches done with dumbbells build stronger deltoids, particularly the hard-to-hit rear delts.
Heavy dumbbells are great for improving the start of the flat bench. You can go lower using dumbbells than you can with a bar, and that involves the muscle groups that are responsible for driving the weight off your chest. I prefer dumbbells to a cambered bar. The amount of weight used with dumbbells is restricted because you have to clean them, lie back, get positioned on the bench and then do the presses. Even if you have two people hand you the dumbbells, you’re still not going to be able to handle a great deal of weight. Quite often lifters can use as much weight with a cambered bar as they can on a straight bar the very first time they do them, and that ends up being harmful to their shoulders. It’s too much too fast. The shoulders are really rather delicate and need time to adapt to new stress.
Aside from the pure-strength exercises, dumbbells are useful for enhancing overall fitness. They’re especially beneficial for older athletes who have accumulated a host of injuries over the years and may have had surgery on one or more joints. Using light-to-moderate dumbbells for higher reps will feed blood to the joints while strengthening the muscles without aggravating the joints. And even if you haven’t had surgery, switching to a dumbbell routine for a short period is a smart idea if you’ve been pounding your joints with heavy weights and low reps for a long time. Using dumbbells for higher reps will give your joints a much needed rest, and when you go back to a pure-strength routine, they’ll be better prepared for the work ahead.
One of the reasons I decided to write about dumbbell training was that several months ago I received a letter from an older athlete asking for some advice. Arthritis in his shoulders prevented him from racking the bar on his back, which meant he could no longer do squats or good mornings, two of his mainstays. He wanted to put off surgery as long as he possibly could and asked if I could suggest a program that would work his entire body. He added that flat benches hurt his shoulder a great deal, but he was able to do deadlifts if he didn’t go too heavy.
He listed the equipment in his home gym: squat rack, combination flat and incline bench, slant board, Olympic bar, 500 pounds of weights and three sets of dumbbells: 20s, 30s and 40s.
I assured him that he had more than enough equipment to get in a full-body workout and recommended that he try using dumbbells for all his exercises for a while, with the exception of deadlifts. For legs I suggested squats, using a variety of stances’wide, regular, very narrow’walking lunges and one-leg calf raises. For the shoulder girdle it was flat-bench, incline and overhead presses; dips holding a dumbbell between the legs; standing lateral and front raises; bent-over lateral raises; straight-arm pullovers; triceps kickbacks; a variety of curls’regular, hammer and reverse’performed while standing, seated or on the slant board. For back I listed cleans, one-hand snatches, upright rows, bent-over rows and shrugs.
I told him to try all of those, and if any of them hurt his shoulders or any other bodypart, he should drop it and substitute something else. He didn’t have to do all of them. If walking lunges hurt but squats didn’t, that was fine because he could still work his hips and legs. He had mentioned that he wanted to train six days a week, since exercise helped his arthritis. I suggested that after he found out what exercises he could do, he should set up two programs and alternate them from workout to workout. Each routine was to have at least one exercise for the three major muscle groups: shoulder girdle, back, and hips and legs.
A month later I received another letter from him. He said he was really enjoying his new program. One routine consisted of deadlifts, inclines, pullovers, curls, front raises, bent-over rows, back hyperextensions and situps. The other included squats performed with the three stances, flat benches, overhead presses, dips alternated with triceps kickbacks, calf raises, lateral raises, reverse hypers and leg raises. He did everything for three sets of high reps and moved through them in a fast circuit. He was pleasantly surprised to find that he could do flat-benches with dumbbells without hurting his shoulders. He simply turned his hands to a position that didn’t bother his shoulders. All his shoulder pain had disappeared, and he believed the bent-over rows were the most responsible for that. He said he planned on staying with the dumbbell routine, since it was providing him with exactly what he wanted.
Keep in mind that any exercise you can do with a barbell you can also do with dumbbells. The only exceptions that I can think of are full cleans and full snatches. I guess you could do them, although I’ve never seen it.
Dumbbells fit into every strength and fitness program. They allow you to get in extra work, add to your weekly workload and improve weak areas without tapping into your strength reserves too much. You accomplish that by doing one or two dumbbell exercises at the end of the workout’just a couple of sets for higher reps. If you try to hit the major muscles with more than one core exercise, you’ll become overtrained in a hurry; that is, unless you happen to be very advanced. You can, however, get away with working the smaller groups with lighter weights and higher reps. That activates the muscles more so than the attachments, which is what you want.
It’s a smart idea to have some dumbbells at home even if you train at a commercial gym. On your nongym days you can hit a couple of areas that might benefit from extra work. That’s what Dr. Gourgott did. On the days he didn’t go to the gym, he would run, then do a series of arm or shoulder exercises with dumbbells. The auxiliary work added to his weekly load without affecting his next workout in the gym.
So, if you haven’t been using dumbbells, give them a try. And if you happen to be in the mood to change your entire program, dumbbell training may be the way to go.
Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive and Defying Gravity. IM