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The power of heavy dumbbell training

Recently I had the PLEASURE of watching a classic dumbbell training video created by Brooks Kubik called "The lost art of dumbbell training". It is probably one of the few videos that is dedicated entirely to heavy training with dumbbells, and shows how great this simple looking training tool can be. Before any of the instructions began, Brooks started off on a very interesting note. He showed two dumbbells which approximately looked like the bells below, and asked the viewers to guess what they are called-

The source of real strength and fitness?

He goes on to say that if you thought that they are called handbells or dumbbells then you are wrong! He then informs the viewers that those "little 2 pound monsters", are called.....power-bells! Yep, you read it right, the word "power" is used as a title for something that weighs a heavy two pounds only.  However the real message that Brook wants to pass on is that real dumbbell training, the way the oldtime strongmen used to train involves real heavy dumbbells. Not just your 25, 35 or even the 50 pound dumbbells, which he says are pygmy weights. He rolls out a heavy 121 pound dumbbell, and shows what real dumbbell training looks like. In the video he goes onto show some very effective whole body exercises like cleans and press/jerks, swings, deadlifts and uses some real heavy weights! How heavy? Well at one point he cleans and puts overhead a 141 pound dumbell, and at another point he deadlifts a 300 pound dumbbell, and that too with one hand only. Yes, you read it right, no misprints there.

And compared to what Brooks does, when you think that the average strength enthusiast today seems to know only how to use dumbbells to do "shaping" exercises, you cannot help but wonder how did we come down to such levels from the times of the oldtime strongmen who lifted heavy bells?

Now I have a lot of experience training ladies, and even the weakest and the one most unwilling to train with weights has NEVER trained with a 2 pound weight under me. The lightest that I have allowed them to use, and even that because they are just starting out are 5 pound bells. Of course I dont expect everyone to lift 140 plus pound dumbbells overhead, and neither do I suggest that you ditch the power rack. However if someone benches 250 pounds, then they should work to be able to put atleast a 90 pound dumbbell overhead. After all, a heavy dumbbell challenges your stabilizer muscles a lot more than what a barbell does. And for overall and ultimate strength development heavy dumbbell work cannot be ignored. 

However as I mentioned before that it is unfortunate that in most gyms the dumbbell racks store weights that can only be used for curls, lateral raises, flyes, triceps kickback, etc. The average trainee thinks of only doing some isolation exercise for 10-20 reps to get his "pump" when training with dumbbells, when he could easily build some real functional strength with heavy dumbbells. Now think back to the times of the Arthur Saxons, Eugene Sandows, Louis Cyrs, etc. These men who were strong and big, built themselves with pure hard work and very few equipment. The days of steroids were still far away and the modern day favorites like hammer strength machines, Smith machines were not invented yet. All they had were barbells, dummbbells, pull up bars, and similar basic equipment. And yet these guys never complained like the metrosexual "I cant train unless I have machines" type sissies of today. 

Even today when you look at the real strong men, you will notice that they too love their heavy dumbbell work. They still do all the heavy compound work with some seriously impressive weights, and dont restrict themselves to puny bells for "pumping" purposes only. If you have been following bodybuilding videos of Mr. Olympias then I am sure you must have seen Ronnie Coleman training with the 200 pound bells. And of course, the strongmen and powerlfiters also use real heavy dumbbells for greater strength development.

As I said before that training with heavy dumbbells does not mean that you have to forget about heavy barbell work. Infact if you want to be the strongest that you can be then you need to train with heavy barbells, heavy dumbbells and even do some tough bodyweight exercises. But if you train alone at home with no power rack, then lifting a single heavy dumbbell may be the safest for you. For eg lifting a barbell weighing 200 pound overhead may require a lot of strength which you may not be able to generate, but lifting one dumbbell weighing 100 pounds maybe safer as you can use your other hand for safety and assistance. Here are some more ways in which a dumbbell may be better than barbells:

  • works the stabilizer muscles harder than barbells
  • promotes balanced strength development on both sides, as with a barbell we often rely on more effort from our stronger side
  • easier to self spot
  • allows for greater range of motion
  • easier to learn Olympic lifting exercises like 1 arm dumbbell snatch and cleans
  • For certain heavy exercises like the incline presses, etc heavy dumbbells maybe easier on the joints compared to barbells

That being said there is one major disadvantage that training only with dumbbells can have, that is it is hard to train the legs to the maximum as you can do with barbells. So while you can squat 500 pound with a barbell, it will be really hard and uncomfortable to do so with two dumbbells weighing 250 pounds on your shoulders, even for the strongest of men. So if you very specifically want to train to be a bodybuilder or powerlifter, you will need barbell training and cannot rely on only dumbbells. On the other hand if you train at home, and are only interested in developing great strength without testing yourself on squats, then dumbbell only training will work well for you. Even for the rest some amount of heavy dumbbell training is always recommended.

Now before I continue let me warn you that do not try to rush and try lifting very heavy dumbbells straight away. You will need to spend time to get comfortable with heavier bells compared to what you maybe using right now, and add weight gradually. So if someone uses only 15-25 pound dumbbells currently for curls, then moving straight to a 100 pound bell for overhead presses will be trying too much too soon. Rather it would be better to begin with 45-50 pounds for overhead presses, and then move to bigger bells.

So then how to go about incorporating heavy dumbbell training into your schedule? The answer will involve two different cases, the first for those who will be using dumbbells alongside other equipment like barbells, kettlbells, etc. And the second for those who rely only on dumbbell exercises. For those who have access to a power rack, Olympic bars, a good program to incorporate some heavy dumbbell training would be as follows:


A) Squats- 2-4 sets of 4-8 reps
B) Barbell bench press- 2-4 sets of 4-8 reps
C) 1 arm heavy dumbbell rows- 2-3 sets of 6-10 reps
D) Parallel bar dips (optional)- 2 sets of 15-20 reps
E) Kettlebell swings- 2-3 sets of 25 reps


A) 1 arm dumbbell clean and press/jerk- 3-4 sets of 2-4 reps (keep weight on ground between reps)
B) Barbell rows- 2-3 sets of 6-8 reps
C) Weighted push ups- 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps
D) Dumbbell curls- 2 sets of 8-10 reps
E) Hanging leg raises or reverse crunches (optional)- 2-3 sets of as many reps as possible


A) Deadlifts- 2-4 sets of 2-4 reps
B) Barbell military press- 2-3 sets of 6-8 reps
C) Barbell lunges- 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps each side
D) Pull ups- 20-50 reps in as few sets as possible
E) 1 arm dumbbell side bends- 2 sets of 8-12 reps each side

Now lets talk about if you train at home and only have access to dumbbells,. This is where you can make it really interesting and train like the oldtime strongmen when there were no benches, racks, etc. I personally suggest that you get a pair of adjustable dumbbell handles and some weights to begin with. Buying non adjustable dumbbells will just cost too much as you will have to buy a bell of each size. While initially it will be ok to train with a regular size handle, however when you start lifting some really heavy weights, you will need to get thicker and longer handles that can carry bigger weights. This is essential for your safety as you do not want to take chances with 100 pounds over your head.

So then here is a training program that will help you realize the power of real heavy dumbbell training:


A) 1 arm snatches- 3-4 sets of 2-4 reps (keep weight on ground between reps)
B) Turkish get ups- 2 sets of 1-3 reps
C) 1 arm rows- 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps each side
D) Goblet squats- 2-3 sets of 15 reps


A) 1 arm clean and press/jerk- 3-4 sets of 2-4 reps (keep weight on ground between reps)
B) Renegade rows- 2-3 sets of 5 reps each side (place supporting hand on high surface like a pile of weight plates)
C) Lunges- 2-3 sets of 6-10 reps each side


A) 1 arm floor press- 2-4 sets of 3-5 reps each side
B) 1 arm swings- 2-3 sets of 5-10 reps each side
C) 1 arm side/bent press- 2 sets of 1-3 reps each side
D) Front squats- 2-3 sets of 6-8 reps

The above program might appear to be too simple especially when compared to modern programs that call for doing 8-12 exercises in one session. However do know this that it is a highly effective program if you wish to be able to build upto the kind of weights that guys like Arthur Saxon, Sigmund Klein, etc lifted. Do not underestimate the power of heavy dumbbell training, the modern day strongmen still rely on it just like the oldtime strongmen did, and now its time that you too gained from it.

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