It’s Friday, 6 p.m.
You’re on the road, traveling for a weekend. After a long flight, your body feels wrecked.
You need a workout.
Problem is, your hotel gym is limited. There’s a middle aged executive dude sitting on a recumbent bike reading Forbes, a couple empty machines, and a dumbbell rack with weights up to 60 pounds.
Not a barbell in sight. Shit, how can you keep the almighty gains without a barbell?
Fear not my friends, you can still make damn good progress with a simple gym and a few bells.
Shots Fired: Two Reasons Dumbbells are Better Than Barbells
Before your blood boils and you send threats via Twitter, I do value, love, and dream about barbells. They’re vital to long-term training success. Barbells allow you to lift the heaviest weight, and build more strength and mass.
But dumbbell training is superior in some situations. And barbell training is superior in others. At the end of the day, every training modality is simply a tool of the trade.
MMM’Kay? Back to my point:
1) Dumbbells require additional balance and proprioception compared to barbells.
The increased demand to stabilize individual weights in each hand forces greater muscular recruitment. These stability requirements require intense focus to maintain joint and body position during exercise.
Between greater muscle unit recruitment and stability demands, you’ll reap a few big rewards:
- Dumbbells create a higher demand for stability, potentially improving your joint stability during exercises to prevent injury and improve athletic performance.
- Greater muscle unit recruitment means you’ll hit more muscle fibers during your exercises. This increases the potential for muscle growth and strength.
- All else (such as total weight) being equal, dumbbells have a higher metabolic demand due to increased muscle unit recruitment. This means you’ll burn relatively more body fat.
2) Dumbells Allow Greater Exercise Variety
Let’s be honest here:
The big barbell exercises are awesome, but doing the same thing over and over again is the perfect recipe to kick your motivation and long term progress straight in the face.
Getting some exercise variation keeps you mentally and physically fresh, stimulates new neural pathways, and activates more muscle than simply training with barbells alone.
Instead of getting bored silly with your routine and just going through the motions, dumbbell exercises will provide a change of pace for greater focus and intensity.
Variety is the spice of life.
So I’m going to hook you up with five uncommon, yet super-effective dumbbell exercises to help you build athletic muscle, no matter how poorly equipped the gym is.
Dumbbell Goblet Squat into Step Back Lunge:
Warning: This exercise with high reps will lead to two things:
A. You Hating Life
B. Massive Leg Swollage and Subsequent Hypertrophy
How to: Holding a dumbbell at chest height, step back and drop your hips into a lunge position. Keep the front heel planted, then push off the back foot to return to a tall standing position.
P.S. I know this is using a kettlebell; however feel free to use a dumbbell held upside-down underneath the “bell”.
How they’ll make you a beast: The dumbbell step back lunge is a great lower body exercise that limits stress on the knee. By stepping back, rather than forward in a typical lunge, you keep a more vertical tibia. This reduces shear stress on the knee compared to typical lunges, making this a knee friendly single leg exercise.
Plus: the anterior load of a goblet hold forces you abs to work double time, preventing your spine from buckling like an accordion.
You combine less knee stress with unilateral leg strength with a challenge to your core to have an exercise that improves stability. You’ll also build serious muscle in the glutes, hamstrings, and quads.
Dumbbell Push Press
How to: Hold two dumbbells at shoulder height. Rapidly dip into a quarter squat, then reverse momentum performing a push press, locking the press overhead then lowering the weight back to your shoulders.
How they’ll make you a beast: The dumbbell push press is an explosive overhead lift. You’ll hammer the shoulders, triceps, and stabilizers from head to toe to stabilize weight overhead. Because this lift is explosive, you’ll recruit a greater number of muscle units as each lift requires maximum intent.
In short, dumbbell push presses will build strong, stable shoulders and improve your ability to transfer force through the entire body.
Basically, push presses help you go beastmode, directly improves your fist pump (GTL) and builds stronger shoulders.
One Arm Dumbbell Snatch
How to: This is an awesome exercise for developing explosive power. Start with a dumbbell on the ground between your legs. In an athletic position holding the dumbbell, drive through your heels, fully extend the hip, and the drive the elbow high, catching the dumbbell in an overhead position. Return to the floor and repeat.
How they’ll make you a beast: Because you’re using one arm to execute the movement, one arm dumbbell snatches combine an explosive total body exercise with single arm stability overhead. By using one arm dumbbell snatches, you’ll teach your body to generate force with your legs, transfer overhead, and stabilize.
The end result is more athleticism, strong stable shoulders, and some serious volume to build your traps. Don’t worry too much about heavy weight; stay explosive.
Renegade Row with Push-Up
How to: Hold two dumbbells on the floor, about shoulder width apart with your feet wider than shoulder width. Perform a pull push-up, back to your starting position. Then, push one dumbbell into the floor while rowing the opposite dumbbell towards your chest and preventing the hips from rotating. Repeat on opposite arm. Push up plus a row on each side counts as one rep.
How they’ll make you a beast: The Renegade Row with a push-up is an awesome exercise that builds a strong core, chest, and back. The key component on the Renegade row is trunk position: Keeping the hips and spine neutral and preventing the hips from rocking side to side. By keeping the hips neutral, you’ll hit your core with anti-flexion and anti-rotation stress.
Basically, this works to bulletproof your spine by teaching muscles of the hips and spine to work together and prevent movements that could jack you up.
Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
Okay, it’s not that uncommon, but an awesome exercise nonetheless.
How to: Hold two dumbbells at your sides with the feet shoulder width apart. While keeping the shoulders retracted, push your hips back into a hinge position. When the dumbbells reach just below the base of the knee, push the hips forward and return to a tall standing position and squeeze the glutes.
How they’ll make you a beast: The dumbbell Romanian Deadlift is a classic exercise to build up strong glutes, hamstrings, and erectors. Combined with holding flat back position, the traps and rhomboids get some serious work as well. Just be sure to finish with an explosive hip extension and glute squeeze at the top for maximum growth, power, and strength.
Dumbbell Split Row:
How to: Dumbbell split rows are a row variation that adds an anti-rotation stress to the mix. With a heavy dumbbell in one hand, lock the opposite arm out on a bench and hold a flat back position. Keep the feet slightly staggered, and row the dumbbell up towards your chest, preventing your torso from twisting and rotating. Perform desired sets and reps, repeat on opposite side.
How they’ll make you a beast: Dumbbell split rows improve core strength, scapular retraction, and trigger explosive growth in your forearms, traps, rhomboids, and lats. Program dumbbell split rows like you would any other row– as an accessory pulling movement to support training.
No, dumbbells won’t let you hammer the big three like a barbell. Nor are they as trendy as kettle bells.
But the unique benefits of dumbbells should warn them a key place in your training, regardless of your goal.
The bottom line? To maximize strength and the development of hypertrophy, dumbbells are better than barbells alone.
At the end of the day, every training implement is just a tool. Finding how to use each tool correctly willhelp you maximize your training.