Poetry in motion. That title makes you think of a graceful, fluid movement, like that of a ballerina performing a perfect pirouette. Well, dumbbell deadlifts just ain't ballet. They're more like the grinding gyrations of a particularly raunchy stripper. Just like a good "exotic" dancer, dumbbell deadlifts are tough, effective, and a little nasty at times.
Many bodybuilders skip deadlifting, in general, because they think of it as a powerlifting exercise. If you think that way, then you're missing something — most likely slabs of muscle throughout the back, traps, forearms, glutes, and legs.
Many experts consider the deadlift to be a true test of maximal strength. Poliquin wrote in an old Muscle Media article that the deadlift is a great exercise from an athletic standpoint. It builds functional and structural integrity in the lower back, which is the main component of stability in athletes.
Deadlifting will also help boost your squat poundages. One of my favorite things about the deadlift is the ego stroking that it supplies. Even a genetically average lifter can soon work his way up to reps of 405 (with a bar) in a short time. That's four 45-pound plates on each side.
Some guys try to rationalize their way out of deadlifting by citing lower back problems. It's often because their backs have become weak links. For some reason, in today's society, we've been programmed to think that you keep your back healthy by not working it. This has led to "weight belt abuse" in the gym, in addition to stores requiring stock boys to wear belts while stocking the tampon aisle.
Consequently, lower back problems have been on the rise since "belt mania" hit. Why? Because these days, a guy will wear a belt while performing triceps kickbacks, mowing the yard, watching Monday Night Football, spanking his monkey...whatever! Then the poor little lamb will hurt his back carrying in the groceries or getting the morning paper.
Want to avoid back problems? Train the lower back! And I don't mean wussy hyperextensions, either.
Why dumbbell deadlifts? Using dumbbells allows every individual to "customize" the movement to fit his body type. Dumbbells provide a more natural biomechanical groove than a bar. Though you'll feel it in your lower back, it shouldn't be as stressful as leaning out over a bar.
First of all, you'll likely outgrow even the heaviest dumbbells in your gym, which are usually 150 pounds. After I hit that point, I invested in a pair of long Olympic dumbbell handles (saving up for a pair of Husky Handles from Ironmind). I can load up six 25s on each ten-pound handle, for a total of 160 pounds. That's 320 pounds together, which is about right for me when performing multiple reps.
Note: A good rule of thumb is that you'll use about 100 pounds less when using dumbbells instead of a bar.
You can use 35-pound plates instead, but this makes the dumbbells very tall and awkward. Of course, it also creates one bad-ass pair of bells! Try to use 25s, and buy extra-long handles. Also, forget straps and gloves, get yourself some lifting chalk. Yes, this will piss off the manager if you train in a "fitness center" (you have to say it with a lisp to get the full effect) but, hey, that's half the fun!
Start with the bells sitting on the outsides of your feet or with your toes between the plates. Looking straight ahead and keeping your back mostly flat or neutral (you can't help but round it a little, just keep it to a minimum), initiate the pull with your legs. As the weight comes up, the lower back muscles will take over. Roll the shoulders back, stick the chest out, and "lock out."
Lower the weights slowly — not just for safety, but to benefit from the eccentric portion of the lift...and to keep your toes firmly attached to your feet! Let the weight sit on the floor for a full second or two before trying for another rep. Bouncing the weight off of the floor is just as lame as bouncing it off of your chest while benching.
Sets and Reps
You can apply almost any set and rep scheme to this exercise, but here are a few of my favorites.
The Blackout Routine) This system is so named because some trainees nearly pass out with the effort. Of course, if you just remember to breathe every once in a while between reps, you shouldn't really black out:
Set 1) Perform six reps.
Subsequent sets are performed without resting, taking just enough time in between sets to change the weight:
Set 2) Slightly lower the amount of weight used. Perform five reps.
Set 3) Again, drop the amount of weight used by a small amount. Perform four reps.
Sets 4-6) Continue dropping the amount of weight used just enough so that you'll have to reduce each subsequent set by one rep. On the last set, you'll be doing a max single.
The Classic 5x5 Method) This is an oldie but a goody. Simply perform five sets of five reps, resting about two minutes in between sets. The first set should feel a bit light, like you could knock out another rep or two. But by the time you get to the fifth set, you'll be lucky to hit four reps.
The "Little Engine That Could" Routine) Thus named because by the end, you'll be giving yourself an "I think I can, I think I can" pep talk to finish the set.
This is simply a higher-rep routine consisting of three sets of ten reps, resting for 60-90 seconds in between sets. Pretty standard stuff, but here's the catch — choose a weight that you can only lift for about eight reps. When you hit the eighth rep, you'll feel like you've hit a wall. Now, it's time to tear that mother down!
Without getting out of position, take a couple of deep breaths. Then knock out the ninth rep. Repeat the process, dig deep, pray that you took Power Drive, and bang out the tenth rep. Then find a comfortable place behind the leg press machine and lay there whimpering until it's time for your next set.
Note: Be sure to perform a good warm-up consisting of multiple low-rep sets before piling on your working weight.
On occasion, I also like to employ a trap bar and a straight bar. I usually use dumbbells for four workouts, then switch to something else for a couple of weeks.
If you're ready to pack on some mass, give dumbbell deadlifting a try. Like a good pole dance down at the Fuzzy Kitty, it's certain to get your heart pounding!