The most underutilized pieces of equipment in most gyms are the dumbbells. Oh sure, you might see people pumping out a few sets of biceps curls, bench presses, or flyes, but in most gyms the dumbbell racks are primarily used as a place to lean against between sets of barbell squats or benches.
So why are dumbbells so underutilized? I believe it's because, for most people, the barbell is the standard of reference. We're used to thinking about how much we can clean, squat, or bench with a barbell - not dumbbells. After all, powerlifting and Olympic lifting meets involve only barbells. And in athletic weightrooms, records are kept on how much the athletes can lift with a barbell, not dumbbells. In many ways, that's unfortunate.
6 Advantages of Dumbbell Training
This emphasis on barbell training is unfortunate because dumbbells provide significant advantages to athletes, bodybuilders, and those training for general fitness. These advantages include:
1. Dumbbells require more balance than training with barbells or machines. This increased balance requirement is of value in terms of enhancing athletic performance, a significant consideration in fitness programs, and can lead to greater muscle fiber recruitment for the bodybuilder.
2. Dumbbells require more muscular control than barbells, enhancing kinesthetic awareness.
3. Dumbbells allow unilateral training (training one limb at a time), which can provide the opportunity for emphasizing greater movement specificity in the training programs of athletes and greater program variety for bodybuilders and those training for fitness. Adding a few sets of dumbbell alternating bench press to your workout is a great way to change it up and challenge the body.
4. Dumbbells promote greater recruitment of the stabilizing muscles, enhancing joint stability and hypertrophy.
5. Some exercises can be performed with a higher degree of safety with dumbbells than barbells. For example, when performing step-ups, if you lose your balance it's much easier and safer to drop the dumbbells from your hands than it is to allow the barbell to slide off your back!
6. Finally, dumbbells provide greater variety in the training program. Greater variety leads to less opportunity for physiological and psychological staleness in the training program, enhancing the opportunity for continued growth.
Points of Emphasis
As a strength and conditioning coach in an athletic training program, there are a couple of points of emphasis I want to make regarding dumbbell training. First, as mentioned above, dumbbells allow for training with a higher degree of movement specificity. It's not enough to train the appropriate muscle groups; rather, you want to select exercises that mimic movements that make up the sport you're training for.
The greater the similarity between the resistance training movement and the sports movement, the higher the value your time spent training will be. That's why our athletic weightrooms at the Air Force Academy have far more squat racks than leg extension or leg press machines. Similarly, dumbbells allow us to do a better job at mimicking some of the movements that make up athletic performance than only using barbells does.
Secondly, except in the sports of powerlifting and Olympic lifting, the ability to demonstrate maximal strength in bench, squats, cleans, or snatches isn't the deciding factor in the level of success the athlete will have. As a coach I sometimes have to be willing to sacrifice maximal increases in certain exercises in order to train sport specific movements.
For example, I can't just have my football players squat; they also need to perform lunges, side lunges, and pivot lunges. The time and energy spent performing some of these sport specific exercises likely hinders their ability to maximally develop their squats, but since football is an athletic competition and not a weightlifting competition, I have to be willing to sacrifice their max squats and include these other movements in their training program.
Similarly, if I was only concerned about how much my athletes could clean with a barbell, I wouldn't include dumbbell cleans in their training programs. But since performing dumbbell cleans allows unilateral training rather than only bilateral training, we clean twice per week - once with a barbell and once with dumbbells.
The same holds true for bodybuilders. Since success as a bodybuilder is determined by the level of muscular development rather than strength levels, it makes sense to include dumbbell training as part of the overall training program.
Performing dumbbell bench press on a regular basis may not be the best way to develop a huge barbell bench max; however, since performing the bench press with dumbbells changes up the muscle fiber recruitment pattern - and the greater the number of fibers recruited the better the opportunity for optimal levels of hypertrophy - it also makes sense for the bodybuilder to sacrifice max increases in strength levels as a result of emphasizing dumbbell training.
So what's the best way to integrate dumbbells into your training program? We split our training days into barbell days and dumbbell training days. For example, with our football athletes, our skill position athletes lift three days per week - twice with a barbell emphasis and once with a dumbbell emphasis. One of the barbell days has a lower body emphasis; the other has an upper body emphasis. On the dumbbell day we train both lower and upper body.
Our other football athletes (offensive line and tightends, defensive line and linebackers, fullbacks) train four days per week, twice with barbells and twice with dumbbells. Two of the workouts have a lower body emphasis; two of the workouts have an upper body emphasis. One of the lower body workouts is barbell oriented; the other is dumbbell oriented. The same holds true with this group's upper body workouts. That allows us the opportunity to make sure our athletes are gaining the optimal advantages dumbbells can provide in both lower and upper body training.
Dumbbell Exercises (That You've Probably Never Tried!)
Presented below is a sample of some of the dumbbell exercises we have our athletes perform. You may want to try some of these movements the next time you find yourself leaning up against that dumbbell rack!
You'll find some of these exercises (e.g., dumbbell split alter foot alter snatch) challenging to perform and perhaps somewhat awkward initially. That's by design, because we use the movements not only to increase sport specific strength, but also to enhance motor skills and coordination.
Also, you'll notice that I advise on several of the exercises to keep the knees behind the toes, as when performing a dumbbell front squat. This recommendation is made for one simple reason: the basic athletic position is a shoulder-width stance, head up, back arched, hips back, and knees behind or on top of the toes.
When's the last time you've seen someone shoot a basket, throw a pass, or hit a baseball in a knees forward of the toes stance? I want my athletes to train in the weightroom in positions similar to the positions they'll find themselves in during competition.
Okay, let's get to the exercises!
DB Hang Squat Alter Cleans
Start with the feet in a shoulder-width position. The back should be arched, the head up, arms straight. Assume a hang position by placing the dumbbells at the sides of the body, pointed anteriorly and posteriorly, with the handles of the dumbbells centered with the knee joint.
Initiate the movement by performing a vertical jump action, extending up onto the toes. At the top of the jump, perform an aggressive shrugging action and then bring the right dumbbell up along the rib cage to a chest high position while the dumbbell in the left hand stays in the start position. At this point, bring the right elbow up and around, racking the dumbbell on the right shoulder while simultaneously dropping into a semi-squat position.
Continue the squatting action until a parallel squat position is achieved, keeping the knees behind the toes. Keep the right elbow high, the head up, and the heels on the ground while squatting. Return to a standing position, lower the right dumbbell, and repeat the movement with the left arm.
DB Hang Split Alter Foot Alter Snatch
Initially, this movement is identical to performing a dumbbell clean. Start with the feet in a shoulder-width position. The back should be arched, the head up, arms straight. Assume a hang position by placing the dumbbells at the sides of the body with the handles centered with the knee joint.
Initiate the movement by performing a vertical jump action, extending up onto the toes. At the top of the jump perform an aggressive shrugging action, and then bring the dumbbell in the right hand up along the rib cage to a chest high position while the dumbbell in the left hand stays in the start position.
When the right dumbbell reaches a chest high position, initiate a splitting action with the legs. With the right dumbbell moving over head into a locked-out position, the left leg should be split forward and the right leg should be split rearward.
"Regather" the legs, lower the dumbbell, and repeat the action with the left hand while the legs are split in the opposite direction just described so that the forward foot is always on the opposite side of the dumbbell that's been snatched overhead.
DB Split Alter Foot Alter Jerk
Position the dumbbells on the shoulders by performing a dumbbell clean. Assume a shoulder-width foot position. Using a jumping action, lower the hips back and into a jump position, and then immediately reverse the direction of the hips into a fully extended position.
As the hips reach a fully extended position, simultaneously aggressively extend the right arm overhead and split the legs so that the left leg goes forward and the right leg splits backward. Regather the feet, lower the right dumbbell back to the shoulder, and repeat the movement so that the left arm extends overhead and the right leg is split forward.
DB Front Squats
Clean the dumbbells to the shoulders. Assume a shoulder-width stance, arch the back, and keep the head up. Reach back with the hips and sit back into a parallel squat position, keeping the heels on the floor and the knees behind the toes. Return to the start position and repeat.
DB Side Lunge
Hold a dumbbell in either hand. Assume a shoulder-width stance. Step directly to the right with the right leg into an exaggerated side lunge position. At the same time, sit back with the hips, keeping the right knee behind the toes. The left leg should remain straight at the knee during the lunge to the right.
Lower the hips through a full comfortable range of motion. At the bottom of the position, push aggressively with the right foot and return to the starting position in one step. Repeat the movement to the left.
DB Arch Lunge
Hold a dumbbell in either hand. Assume a shoulder-width stance. Imagine an arch in front of you, running from a stride's length directly lateral of your right foot, to a stride's length directly in front of you, to a stride's length directly lateral to your left foot.
Perform a side lunge with your right foot, stepping on the right corner of the arch. Return to the starting position; alternate feet each step. With each step gradually progress from the right corner of the arch to the left corner of the arch, with the last step being on or near the left corner of the arch. None of the steps will be directly forward. Pivot off the back foot each step.
DB Alter Bench Press
Perform a standard dumbbell bench press movement, but rather than pressing both dumbbells simultaneously, alternate between pressing the dumbbells with the right and left hands.
Make sure to completely lower the right dumbbell back to the chest before pressing the left dumbbell away from the chest and visa versa. You may be surprised how challenging this exercise becomes when performed in this manner!
DB Press Crunch
Lie on your back, bend your knees, and place your feet flat on the floor. Hold one dumbbell on end cupped in your hands over your face, placing your hands on the inside portion of the plates that are at the top end of the dumbbell.
Crunch upward, elevating the upper back off the floor as far as possible. Try to press the dumbbell straight up toward the ceiling rather than moving forward toward the wall.
Dumbbell training provides many unique benefits to the athlete and bodybuilder. Integrate a few of these exercises into your regular program and see for yourself!