This two part series on dumbbell training will attempt to illustrate the power and diversity of this almost forgotten modality. Not that dumbbell training is not popular, it’s just not utilized anywhere near its potential. The current usage of dumbbell training resembles the using a shotgun to kill flies. The first part of the article series will cover some of the history of dumbbell training and a basic strength and conditioning approach. The second part will cover explosive power development.
The modern concept of dumbbell training can be traced back to the Greeks and the first Olympic (575-550 BC). As a matter of fact, halteres - as they were first called, were used to perform one of the original Olympic events: the long jump (see Figure 1). The weight of the halteres was between 1 and 4.5 kg.
The use of dumbbells became popular with the Italians during the Renaissance. By the mid 19th century, various sizes had developed and dumbbells became common throughout Europe (see Figure 2).
The current use of the dumbbell has been predominantly concentrated on muscle strength and hypertrophy. Various freestanding, seated and prone exercises have become the staple of dumbbell training. Some of the more popular dumbbell exercises include lunges, overhead presses, bench presses and rowing. Since the primary focus of most exercise programs is strength and hypertrophy, most dumbbell exercises use heavy weight and are performed at slow and controlled speeds. The heavier load component of traditional strength training also requires, somewhat linear and artificial positions for safe exercise execution.
More recently the functional training movement has brought about a new emphasis on training movements – not muscles. This method of training involves the use of more functional positions with lighter and more functional loads. However, there is current concern among many fitness professionals that these functional positions are dangerous. An example of a functional exercise that is often thought to be dangerous is the popular reaching lunge (see Figure 3a). When compared to the standard bodybuilding lunge (see Figure 3b), the reaching lunge allows controlled spinal flexion and more closely mimics a deceleration position typical of any activity that attenuates the forces of gravity and horizontal momentum (see Figure 4).
Figures 3a and 3b
Many fitness professionals still hold on to the theory that these functional positions are dangerous and teach the central nervous system “bad mechanics.” However, published data and our current research (currently being submitted for publication in peer review journals) do not support this contention. From a more practical point of view, many of these functional positions (e.g., flexed and rotated spine) have been utilized during prolonged fieldwork by agricultural societies for thousands of years, and we have yet to uncover epidemics of lower back dysfunctions or pathologies in these cultures. The main distinction is to understand that modern strength training and bodybuilding are abnormal in nature (e.g., loads and volume) and, therefore, need abnormal positions to safely support that type of training approach. Functional positions are designed to handle functional loads and, therefore, not only are the positions tolerated – but need to be trained instead of avoided. The way we look at it, “if you see it and you don’t train it, you will surely rehab it after the injury that will result from lack of control!” Now, that we have set the stage for a more liberated view of movement training, let’s look at how the old concept of dumbbell training has become supercharged!
Dumbbell training is an excellent form of resistance training. It is effective and safe for all applications and populations. The loads available allow for safe use with the senior population, or extreme loads with the strength athlete. The stabilization requirements and freedom of movement provided by dumbbell training is unparalleled in the training world; there is no better modality for functional training. Just about any movement you can imagine can be progressively overloaded with the use of dumbbells.
The equipment cost is low and easily available. There are different dumbbells to choose from. The plated loaded dumbbells are the most common. The Solid Hex dumbbells are also common (see Figure 5). They are better from a standpoint of stability since they won’t roll, making them excellent for push-ups. Due to their selectorized pin system, the Block offers loading convenience and space efficiency (see Figure 6). They’re great for home use where the whole family can use them. Dumbbells are also very compatible with various other pieces of fitness equipment. They have been used effectively with benches for strength and stability balls for stability and balance (see Figure 7). Because of the various weight available, dumbbells can also be used with balance equipment to develop balance and stability (see Figure 8). Now, let’s talk training.
If I had one workout to perform with dumbbells it would involve the Matrix. I learned the matrix from Gary Gray. Gary has been one of my mentors since I met him in 1998 and is the father of modern functional training. He developed the Matrix to train the whole body in all planes of motion. From his original Matrix program, many of us have developed hybrid protocols that are now making their way into mainstream gyms. Apart from learning a very cool and useful training protocol, Gary and the Matrix expanded my view of multi-planar training with dumbbells. That is – you can take every exercise you currently know and try to perform it in all three planes of motion. Aa few exercises may not lend themselves to this approach, but most of the time it will work. However, one thing is for certain, your exercise repertoire will increase about three fold. That is what happened with me. I’m always thankful to Gary for that, and for so much more.
At our facility we combine the Matrix with various other exercises to design a comprehensive training program. Many of the movements we will cover are performed with light loads for warm up, or unloading heavy work. Some movements are performed slower with heavy loads when we want to concentrate on developing strength and hypertrophy. Other times, our training involves high intensity circuits with lighter loads. These are excellent for conditioning and various forms of endurance.
The workout I will show you here is a real rocker! It opens up with three Matrix circuits with active recovery between each circuit (about 1:3, work:rest ration). We use balance work on the Biofoam rollers, Dynadisc and AirX pads as recovery. The Matrix was designed to provide total-body training in all three planes. It is composed of a pressing sequence (three exercises), a curling sequence (three exercises), a lunging sequence (three exercises) and lunge-to-press sequence (three exercises). Each exercise is performed six times (three per side). The total circuit is 72 reps and a target of 1:45-2:00 min should be aimed for. Here are some of the general recommendations for proper progression.
- Start with individual moves for eight to 16 reps.
- Perform each complete sequence (e.g., upper body push, upper body pull, lunges and reaching lunges) for six reps of each exercise
- Perform total circuit with body weight, with hand/ankle weights, DBs or a Bar
- Perform with hand/ankle weights or DBs (not for time), complete recovery between sets, x 2 sets
- Perform with hand/ankle weights or DBs (not for time), complete recovery between sets, x 3 sets
- Perform with hand/ankle weights or DBs (for time), comple te recovery between sets, x 3 sets
- Perform with hand/ankle weights or DBs (for time), 1:2 work rest ratio, x 3 sets
- Perform with hand/ankle weights or DBs (for time), 1:1 work rest ratio, x 3 sets
- When you can perform 3 sets with 1:1 in 1:45 –1:55 – add weight (5-10%)!
The Matrix Sequences
Pressing sequence (18 reps)
- Sagittal Overhead Press x 6
- Frontal ("Y") Overhead Press x 6
Curling sequence (18 reps)
- Alternating Upright Rows x 6
Reaching Lunge sequence (18 reps)
- Front lunges (sagittal) x 6
- Lateral lunges (frontal) x 6
- Rotational lunges (transverse) x 6
Reaching Lunge to Press sequence (18 reps)
- Front lunges to press (sagittal) x 6
- Lateral lunges to press (frontal) x 6
- Rotational lunges to press (transverse) x 6
- Rotational one arm snatch 3-4 sets x 10-16 (5-8 per side)
- Stabilization push ups 3-4 sets x 10-16 (5-8 per side)
- Staggered stance bent-over rows 3-4 sets x 10-16 (5-8 per side)
- One leg alternating curls 2 sets per leg x 16-20 (8-10 per side)
This program has everything you need to burn calories and increase your total body, functional strength. Don’t be afraid to mix is up with your favorite exercises – regardless of whether machine based or free weights. Remember, “it’s all training and it’s all good!” Don’t be too analytical about all of this function stuff. Have fun and get strong and fit.
In the next article, we will cover power training with dumbbells. Power training with dumbbells is extremely effective but rarely used within the settings I have been in. So hopefully this has been educational and will add a bit of spice to your training. Until next time, train smart with dumbbells.
- Gray, Gary. The 3D Dumbbell Matrix. Functional Design Systems, Adrian Michigan. 1996.
- Hartman, J. Fitness and strength training for all sports. Toronto, Ontario. Sport Books Publisher. 2000.
- Radley, Alan. The Illustrated History of Physical Culture. Alan Radley. 2001.
- Sansone, D. Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sports. University of California Press.Los Angeles. 1988.
- Santana, J.C. Essence of Dumbbell Training video –VOL I. Boca Raton, FL. Optimum Performance Systems. 2001.
- Santana, J.C. Essence of Dumbbell Training video –VOL II. Boca Raton, FL. Optimum Performance Systems. 2001.
- van Dieen, JH, Hoozemans, MJM, Toussaint, HM. Stoop or suqat: a review of the biomechanics studies on lifting technique. Clinical Biomechanics: 14(1999), 685-696.