Building High-Performance Muscle™

The Biggest Exercise in Bodybuilding


The Dumbbell Clean and Press


Hang around talking with any group of serious muscleheads long enough and two questions will eventually come up: "Have you ever had egg farts so bad you made yourself cry?" and "If you could only do one exercise for the rest of your life, what would it be?"

The answer to the first should be yes, at least once; otherwise you're just not eating enough eggs. The second answer, however, isn't as clear-cut. I know the overwhelming majority of lifters will call dibs on the squat, some maniacs will say the deadlift, and a handful of guys trying to look like Hollister models might say the bench press or concentration curl.

But I think if I really had to choose, I'd lean a different way. I'm for taking the weight off the ground and putting it overhead and making it as challenging as possible along the way. I'd go with the two-dumbbell clean and press.

Three quick reasons why the dumbbell clean and press is a front-runner for the best exercise ever:

  1. Two dumbbells mean synchronized unilateral work, so both sides of your body are forced to coordinate and become better activated and more involved than with a barbell.
  2. The range of motion is slightly greater than with a barbell and more ROM generally means more work, which means more results.
  3. It's something that was popular with serious lifters years ago, but you just don't see most people doing it in the gym now. Nine times out of ten, that lends a helluva' lot of credibility to an exercise.

If there's anything better than a "basic" dumbbell clean and press, it's when they're done pretty heavy. And if there's anything better than that, it's pushing those heavy weights for relatively-high reps. Heavy dumbbell clean and presses done for double-digit reps are one of the quickest ways to completely and productively kick your own ass in the gym.

Don't get the wrong idea, though. The high rep, heavy dumbbell clean and press isn't some Crossfit WOD that allows shady technique in a rush to tally more reps in less time each workout. This is heavy weight and high reps. Basic, good old-fashioned bodybuilding.

Let's learn a bit more about the heavy dumbbell clean and press – one of those few exercises that are legitimate "total body workouts."


The DB C and P, OMGWTF

The Dumbbell Clean and Press

The two-dumbbell clean and press isn't simply the classic barbell clean and press performed with a pair of dumbbells. A dumbbell clean and press is about as similar to a barbell clean and press as a dumbbell squat is to a barbell squat.

You're performing the same movement pattern (kinda), you're targeting the same muscle groups (sorta), and the variations are used to work towards the same training goal (but not exactly). Sounds clear and concise, right? Let me clarify.

The barbell/dumbbell clean and press is "kinda" the same movement pattern, in that the weights begin on the floor, are pulled to shoulder height, and then pressed overhead. But the particular bar path and technique to get there is slightly different by necessity. We'll get more into that in a bit.

They target essentially the same muscle groups because, again, such a similar movement pattern is being performed but the difference in technique will emphasize slightly different musculature. The exercises can be used to address basically the same training goals – strength, power, hypertrophy, etc. – but the nature of dumbbells calls for slightly different loading parameters depending on the exact goal.

As Dan John once famously wrote, While Dan was originally talking about the more common barbell movement, he offers this testimonial to anyone looking to tackle the dumbbell, or kettlebell, version of the versatile lift:

The heavy dumbbell clean and press can absolutely be a "one-stop shop" for nearly any training goal. Explosive strength? You're pulling weights off the floor as if doing a clean or snatch. Fat loss? Crank up the reps and drop the weight (just a bit) for a fat burning workout that'll rival any cardio bunny class.

Building upper body size? You're actively lifting with the entire back, shoulders, and triceps with assistance from the whole abdominal core, chest, grip and biceps. Building lower body size? Well okay, no, not really. Hey, you can't have everything.

While the lower body is majorly involved in the initial part of the lift, I wouldn't expect significant lower body gains from "just" the dumbbell clean and press. However, because the dumbbells begin on the floor, you're essentially doing a deficit dumbbell squat for each rep, which means a deeper ROM that will engage the glutes and hamstrings more than a parallel-or-above squat with similar weight. So at least that's a plus.


How to Clean and Press

The Dumbbell Clean and Press

As I mentioned, the technique for a dumbbell clean isn't quite as simple as doing a barbell clean while holding a pair of dumbbells.

First of all, a seven-foot long bar forces you to take a pronated grip (palms down, knuckles facing front). That's how we clean or snatch; it's usually how we deadlift; it's how we instinctually grab the bar when we're about to do almost anything with it.

A pair of dumbbells not only don't force you to have any particular hand position, other than the one you find most comfortable or powerful, it actually makes it unnaturally clumsy to try to maintain a barbell-esque pronated grip at the start of the exercise. The most efficient way of doing a dumbbell clean is to not think about doing a clean at all. Think of doing a "power hammer curl from the floor."

Begin with the dumbbells on the ground just outside your feet, with the left dumbbell pointing roughly "1 and 7" on a clock and the right dumbbell pointing roughly "11 and 5." Squat down, feet being a comfortable width apart, and grab both dumbbells. Your arms should be able to slide down along the outside of your legs, without the legs interfering in keeping the arms locked at the start.

Keeping a flat back, begin the dumbbell clean using the same lower body and torso position as with a barbell, allowing the dumbbells to rise next to or slightly in front of your legs. As the weights approach your knees, explode up with maximum force and control the weights enough to keep them from looping too far forward, while also maintaining a predominantly thumbs-up, hammer curl-type orientation.

Receive the weight by catching it with a slight dip as it comes to rest in front of your shoulders, elbows pushed forward so you look like a slightly-awkward midpoint of a legit hammer curl.

Congrats, you've just completed the first half of a dumbbell clean and press. Unfortunately, it's like wrapping up foreplay with Khloe Kardashian. If you thought that was tough to get through, you're not gonna enjoy the next part, either.

Immediately take a quick breath in, brace your abs and glutes, and press the weights overhead. No jerky or jumping leg drive. This isn't a clean and push press, so keep it strict. If you're pressing for any substantial number of reps, you'll find it easiest to maintain a mostly-neutral grip, rather than externally rotating the arms to get the dumbbells into "regular" press position (palms facing forward).

Preserving muscular energy whenever possible goes a long way with such a big exercise. While a neutral-grip overhead press will slightly increase the front delt and triceps activation, you'll also be starting the press from a stronger biomechanical position (with the elbows brought in rather than rotated out), which will maintain joint health and could improve pressing strength – a pretty solid tradeoff in my book.

Once both arms are locked out overhead, take another quick breath before lowering the weights to your shoulders (either hand orientation, neutral or pronated, is fine), then lower them to the waist as in the negative of a quick hammer curl, catching them with a knee dip and a flat back to lessen the impact on the wrist, elbow, shoulder, and low back, and then squat to place them on the ground.

All of that makes one rep, and you're doing how many more this set?


The Sig Klein Challenge

The Dumbbell Clean and Press


Old school physical culturists and early strongmen/bodybuilders had a lot of good ideas when it came to training. However, they also had some limited perceptions based on what they'd seen men capable of. For every great training theory you'll find in classic strength books, you'll find some "interesting" advice that would raise some eyes, primarily as it relates to what's considered strong.

While these were legitimately strong men, with their own strength feats often performed in public and well-documented for the time, they either underestimated what the average new trainee was capable of or, more likely, they scaled-down their general suggestions in a case of "better to have the beginner go too light than too heavy."

In Sandow's System of Physical Training, in a section regarding which weights to use for daily exercise, Eugen Sandow (the Schwarzenegger of the 1890s) wrote: "For women and the youth of both sexes, their weight should range from two to three pounds each; for male adults, from three to five pounds each."

That would be like five-time World's Strongest Man Mariusz Pudzianowski writing a training book that told men not to load the Smith machine with more than 12 pounds per side. At first glance, you'd think Pudz's book got mixed up with something from Tracy "Light Weights Build Long, Sleek Muscles" Anderson. While that might have been fairly commonplace advice for the time, old school lifters still understood what it meant to set high benchmarks.

In the 1930s, while Sig Klein (a student of Physical Culture, Vaudeville performer, and popular NY gym owner) was writing his recurring column in Strength & Health magazine, he not only praised the dumbbell clean and press as being a tremendous total body developer, but he went so far as to say that he doubted many men across the country could handle a pair of 75 pound dumbbells for 12 good reps.

Granted, that was at a time when behemoths like Pudzianowski or Dorian Yates were incomprehensible. Klein himself was just 5'4" and a very lean 150 pounds, but he was known for being phenomenally strong, able to squat 300x10 and military press 220x1, with such a light, shredded physique.

Heck, Klein even kept track of the "15-inch arm club" at his gym because a lean 15-inch arm was considered a spectacular achievement among members, totally unlike most gyms today where you can find them as often as you find 45-pound plates. Right, guys? Um... guys?

In any case, the 75x12 clean and press has earned a spot on the "someday I'll maybe-hopefully do that" list of many lifters over the years.


The Road to the 75s

The Dumbbell Clean and Press


Current mediocrity aside, here's a plan to get you on your way to making Sig proud. Because the clean and press doesn't work any single bodypart, we'll be alternating between two full-body workouts for three sessions per week.

The main lift will be the first exercise of the day, as it should be whenever a single exercise is the training priority. One session will focus on the strength aspect, while the other session will focus on conditioning. In other words, one workout will get you closer to putting two 75-pound dumbbells overhead and the other will get you closer to lasting all 12 reps.

Workout 1

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Dumbbell Clean and Press (warm-up set of 1x5) 2 8-10
B1 Standing Dumbbell Military Press 4 2-4
B2 Pull-Up 4 3-5*
C1 Dumbbell Jerk 1 1-3
Use at least 5 pounds more than your last set of military presses.
C2 Pressout** 1 AMRAP
D Trap Bar Deadlift 4 6-8
E Face Pull*** 4 8-10
F1 Rope Pressdown 3 10-12
F2 Alternating Dumbbell Curl 3 8-10

Workout 2

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Dumbbell Clean and Press (warm-up set of 1x5) 2 8-10
B Dumbbell Military Press (wave loading)* 2-3 3/2/1
C1 Barbell Row** 4 8
C2 Romanian Deadlift** 4 8
C3 High Pull from the Hang** 4 8
C4 Squat** 4 8
C5 Power Curl (reverse-grip clean)** 4 8
C6 Military Press** 4 8
C7 Squat** 4 8
D Face Pull*** 3 10-12


Wrap-up

The Dumbbell Clean and Press

Completing Klein's challenge doesn't mean you're necessarily the strongest buck in town and it doesn't mean you should hurry to register for that upcoming triathlon. But if you can survive a pair of 75s for 12 good reps, it means you've earned at least temporary residence at the intersection of ballsy and badass, and that's always a nice place to be.

You'll be up the street from Jim Wendler and around the corner from Martin Rooney. Just don't think about throwing eggs at Old Man Rippetoe's house on Halloween. He is, after all, a Texan and he will shoot you in the face.

This challenge isn't about breaking some world record, but it's hard as hell and it lets you set a personal benchmark that proves, in some way, that you've got enough guts, strength and conditioning to get you through the day. And that's why you need to give it a try.

Even if you don't feel like attacking the Sig Klein Challenge, it's worth spending some time training the dumbbell clean and press. Worst case scenario, you learn a new full body lift (with a slight emphasis on the upper body) and your strength and cardio get kicked up a notch.



PUBLISHED