Building High-Performance Muscle™

Olympic Lifts and Dumbbells

A Winning Combination


Olympic Lifts and Dumbbells


Weightlifting movements (cleans, jerks, and snatches) have finally been accepted as a valuable training method for both athletes and those training for fitness. This acceptance is based largely on a number of key reasons:

  • The high power output that occurs when performing these movements.
  • The biomechanical similarity between the weightlifting movements and those that occur frequently in sport.
  • The high caloric expenditure that occurs when performing these exercises due to the multiple muscle groups required to perform them.

Typically, when we think of weightlifting movements (commonly referred to as the Olympic lifts), we think of the lifts being performed on a platform with a barbell and bumpers. However, it's also possible to perform all these movements safely and effectively with dumbbells.

Dumbbells are often underused in most weight-rooms, used only to perform biceps curls, flyes, or the occasional dumbbell bench press. Many trainees have the mistaken notion that best increases in strength can only occur through barbell training; however, the key to increasing strength is not the mode of training but the intensity – and you can train with as much intensity with dumbbells as you can with any other method of training, including barbells.

Having worked as a strength and conditioning coach at the collegiate and Olympic Training Center level for 20 years, I can assure you there are some unique benefits to performing these lifts with dumbbells.

Some of the benefits are more practical in nature. For example, performing these movements with dumbbells doesn't require any specialized equipment (e.g., high quality weightlifting bar, bumpers, platform) and for most, the movements tend to be easier learned with dumbbells than with barbells.

On the other hand, some of the benefits of using dumbbells to perform the weightlifting movements are more technical in nature. For example, training with dumbbells demands that the lifter control two independent implements simultaneously, requiring a high degree of motor skill.

Further, dumbbells allow movements to be performed with either alternating arms or one arm at a time, rather than having to always use both arms simultaneously. For some athletes, this single arm action more closely matches what occurs in their sport (e.g., throwing a ball, swinging a racquet, fighting off a blocker while tackling a running back).

For those not involved in athletics, performing alternating or single-arm movements increases training variation, eliminating the need to perform the same exercises with the same technique each workout.


The Weightlifting Movements, Dumbbell Style

Olympic Lifts and Dumbbells


As mentioned, the weightlifting movements consist of cleans, jerks (performed as a clean and jerk in competition), and snatches. There are numerous variations and associated training exercises that can be performed based on those three exercises, especially when using dumbbells.

Below is a list of exercises and the technique associated with each exercise.

Dumbbell Jerks and Related Exercises


Dumbbell Push Press

In a shoulder-width stance, hold the dumbbells so the back ends of the dumbbells are on the shoulders.

Reach back at the hips and drop to a normal jump depth while keeping the heels on the floor.

Quickly extend the hips to full extension, transferring the momentum from the lower body through the core to the upper body. This jumping action will cause the dumbbells to rise off the shoulders briefly.

From there, press the dumbbells to full extension. The movement can be performed one arm at a time or with alternating arms.

Dumbbell Power Jerk

Using the same movement pattern as the push press (but with more speed and quickness), drop to a jump position.

Quickly extend the hips and throw the dumbbells from the shoulders to a fully extended position overhead.

There's no pressing action involved; the dumbbells are thrown from the shoulders to a fully extending position in one explosive effort. The movement can also be performed one arm at a time or with alternating arms.

Dumbbell Split Jerk

Using the same movement pattern as the push press (but with more speed and quickness) drop to a jump position.

Quickly extend the hips and throw the dumbbells from the shoulders to a fully extended position overhead in one explosive effort.

As the dumbbells are being extended, simultaneously split the feet front to back in what can be thought of as a high lunge position. In the catch position the front knee will be slightly bent, and the knee of the rear leg will be unlocked.

While keeping the arms fully extended, recover the legs from the split position by taking a half step up and a half step back until the feet are squared up in a shoulder-width stance.

Once the feet are squared up, lower the dumbbells back to the shoulders. The movement can be performed one arm at a time or with alternating arms.

Dumbbell Split Alternating Feet Jerk

Identical to the split position described above, however, the lifter will alternate the feet in the split position each repetition, splitting the right foot forward on one repetition and the left foot forward on the following repetition.

For the athlete this is important because it teaches them to be strong, balanced, and in control with either foot forward. For those training for fitness it provides an additional training variation. The movement can be performed one arm at a time or with alternating arms.

Dumbbell Split Alternating Feet Alternating Jerk

As in the previous description, the lifter alternates their feet in the split position each repetition.

The lifter is also performing the movement one arm at a time, first jerking with the right arm and then with the left on the next repetition.

The movement is performed opposite arm opposite leg, so that when the right arm is jerking the dumbbell, the left leg is being split forward and visa versa. This is a complex movement pattern. As a result, strength and power are being enhanced along with coordination and movement skills.

Dumbbell Cleans and Related Exercises


Dumbbell Hang Power Clean

The movement is performed with the handles of the dumbbells centered laterally on the knee joint.

The feet are in a shoulder width stance, back arched, head up, and the shoulders forward of the dumbbell.

From this start position the hips are extended, as in a jumping action.

At the top of the jump the shoulders are shrugged quickly and straight up, and the dumbbells pulled up along the side of the rib cage to a position just under the armpits. The dumbbells continue to be oriented front to back.

At the top of the pull the hips are moved back into a semi-squat position, the heels are down, and the arm/dumbbell unit is brought up around quickly so that the elbows are high and pointed across the room and the rear of the dumbbells are caught high on the shoulders.

The movement can be performed one arm at a time or with alternating arms.

Dumbbell Power Clean

This is identical to the dumbbell hang power clean described above except the start position is changed from a hang position to a start position that mimics the start position of performing the movement from the floor with a barbell.

This places the dumbbells at about mid-shin position, maintaining the front to back orientation previously discussed.

The dumbbells are caught in the power position rather than a squat position. The movement can also be performed one arm at a time or with alternating arms.

Dumbbell Hang Clean

The adjustment here is that rather than performing a power clean (caught in a semi squat position), you perform a full clean from the hang position, dropping into a parallel or lower squat position.

Because the dumbbells are caught in a lower position than in the power clean, generally more weight can be used in this exercise than when performing the power clean. The movement can be performed one arm at a time or with alternating arms.

Dumbbell Clean

The start position moves from the hang position to the mid-shin position previously discussed. You then perform a full clean from that mid-shin start position.

Because of the longer range of motion to develop momentum on the dumbbells, and the low catch position; generally the greatest amount of weight can be used when performing this variation. The movement can also be performed one arm at a time or with alternating arms.

Dumbbell Snatches and Related Exercises


Dumbbell Hang Power Snatch

The movement is performed with the handles of the dumbbells centered laterally on the knee joint.

The feet are in a shoulder width stance, back arched, the head up, and the shoulders are forward of the dumbbell.

From this start position the hips are extended, as in a jumping action. At the top of the jump the shoulders are shrugged quickly and straight up.

At the top of the shrug the dumbbells are pulled up along the side of the rib cage to a position just under the arm pits, past the shoulders and straight up past the ears and caught with the arms fully extended directly over the shoulders. The dumbbells continue to be oriented front to back.

At the top of the pull the hips move back into a semi-squat position, the heels are down, and the arms/dumbbell unit is brought up and around quickly so that the dumbbells are caught with the arms fully extended over head in one motion. The movement can be performed one arm at a time or with alternating arms.

Dumbbell Power Snatch

Identical to the dumbbell hang power snatch described above except the start position is changed from a hang position to a start position that mimics performing the movement from the floor with a barbell.

This places the dumbbells at about mid-shin position, maintaining the front to back orientation previously discussed.

The dumbbells are caught in the power position rather than a squat position. The movement can also be performed one arm at a time or with alternating arms.

Dumbbell Hang Split Alter Foot Snatch

The adjustment here is that rather than performing a power snatch (caught in a semi-squat position), you perform a full snatch from the hang position, dropping into a split position. In the catch position the front knee will be slightly bent, the knee will be unlocked in the rear leg.

While keeping the arms fully extended, recover the legs from the split position by taking a half step up and a half step back until the feet are squared up in a shoulder width stance.

Alternate the split position each repetition. Once the feet are squared up, lower the dumbbells back to the shoulders.

Because the dumbbells are caught in a lower position than in the power snatch, generally more weight can be used in this exercise than when performing the power snatch. The movement can be performed one arm at a time or with alternating arms.

Dumbbell Split Alter Foot Snatch

The start position moves from the hang position to the mid-shin position previously discussed. You then perform a full snatch from that mid-shin start position, dropping into a split position. In the catch position, the front knee will be slightly bent, the knee will be unlocked in the rear leg.

While keeping the arms fully extended recover the legs from the split position by taking a half step up and a half step back until the feet are squared up in a shoulder-width stance.

Because of the longer range of motion to develop momentum on the dumbbells and the split position, this variation generally allows for the greatest amount of weight to be used. The movement can also be performed one arm at a time or with alternating arms.


Conclusion

Olympic Lifts and Dumbbells


There are numerous advantages to performing the weightlifting movements with dumbbells. These advantages warrant their inclusion into the training programs of both athletes and those training for fitness.

Just be sure to emphasize great technique when performing them because, much like the barbell lifts, they're a skill and must be respected as such.

Best of luck with your training!



PUBLISHED