It’s been said that one of the qualities that determines whether a gym is hardcore or not is the weight of its heaviest dumbbells. If you see rows and rows of dumbbells leading up to 200 pounds, it’s obvious this gym is trying to attract some heavy hitters.
Yes, kettlebells have become an especially popular implement for “boot camp” and other general fitness training programs. One reason is that having the handle positioned farther from the center of mass makes kettlebells better for performing swinging exercises. And because most kettlebells are designed as a single unit with no moving parts, they are maintenance-free and as such are ideal for use outside – military personnel on deployments often use them. They are also good for developing rotational strength and overall power as they can be quickly released. That’s the upside.
The downside is that for basic muscle building exercises, kettlebells are difficult to use, especially with heavy weights. While the strongest individuals in a gym may perform presses and rows with dumbbells weighing over 100 pounds (and many powerlifters and a few elite bodybuilders have used dumbbells weighing over 200 pounds each for dumbbells press), performing these exercises with kettlebells is awkward and requires using much less weight. And when you use lighter weights, the strength-training and muscle-building effects are reduced.
Because you hold dumbbells in your hands, it is difficult to use enough weight to overload the lower body with heavy-duty leg exercises such as squats and deadlifts. Yes, you can perform lunges and split squats with dumbbells, and such unilateral work is valuable to maintain structural balance, but as a general rule, leave the heavy duty leg work to barbells.
One of the advantages of dumbbells compared to barbells is that they allow for a greater range of motion. With a barbell bench press, the hands cannot come together as they can with dumbbells to enable the pectorals to achieve peak contraction; with a barbell bent-over row, the chest gets in the way such that the arms cannot come as far back as with a dumbbell. Because more weight can be used in barbell exercises than dumbbells, the idea is not to try to replace barbells with dumbbells, but to have dumbbells “complement” barbell work. For those interested in increasing their barbell bench press, for example, here is a six-week schedule that starts with a dumbbell exercise and progresses to barbell exercises. Workouts are performed twice a week:
Weeks 1-2: Dumbbell Bench Press
Weeks 3-4: Incline Barbell Bench Press
Weeks 5-6: Barbell Bench Press
For those training at home who do not have room for a complete set of dumbbells, adjustable dumbbells are one solution. These dumbbells have plates that can be removed or added to change the resistance; the issue is that the collars need to be heavy duty and tightly secured to prevent them from sliding off while lifting.
Another solution for home training are selectorized dumbbells. The core of this system is a variable-weight handle and a pin that is inserted into the dumbbells to quickly change the resistance. With a set that increases the weight by five pounds on each dumbbell, a single 50-pound unit can replace 10 pairs of dumbbells. Purchasing a stand for these blocks is also a wise investment as it can be difficult to change the weights without them.
If you prefer home training, here is a total body muscle-building workout for a beginner designed to be performed three times per week. It contains only dumbbell exercises, and as such can be performed on a restricted surface area.
A. Dumbbell Split Squat, Front Foot Elevated, 3x10-12, 4010, rest 75 seconds
B1. Flat Dumbbell Press, 3x10-12, 4010, rest 75 seconds
B2. One-Arm Dumbbell Row, 3x10-12, 3110, rest 75 seconds
C1. Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press, 3x10-12, 4010, rest 75 seconds
C2. Seated Dumbbell Curl, 3x10-12, 3010, rest 75 seconds
Regarding the reps, you should follow the idea to "let the repetitions determine the load." If you want to use the heaviest weights possible, a rep range of say 6-8 would be better than 3x8 because the second protocol means you could not go to failure on the first two sets due to cumulative fatigue. This restriction reduces the intensity of the workout. If you use a range of 6-8 reps, if you did 8 reps on the first set, then because of fatigue you might do 7 reps on the second and 6 reps on the third.
Taking it a step future, here is a dumbbell upper body bodybuilding workout for a beginner that includes an exercise for the forearms and the rotator cuff muscles to correct structural imbalances in these body parts. It is also designed to improve hypertrophy, and can be used 2-3 times per week.
A1. One-Arm Overhead Dumbbell Press, 3 x 8-10, 4010, rest 75 seconds between sets.
B2. One-Arm Dumbbell Row to Hip, 3 x 8-10, 3110, rest 75 seconds
B1. Incline Dumbbell Press, 3 x 8-10, 4010, rest 75 seconds
B2. Seated Dumbbell Zottmann Curl, 3 x 8-10, 4010, rest 75 seconds
C. Seated External Rotation, Elbow on Knee, 2 x 12-15, 2010, rest 75 seconds
If your home gym has a barbell and a chin-up bar, here is an advanced workout designed to improve functional hypertrophy (and as such there are more sets and fewer reps). To allow for more complete recovery, it should only be performed twice a week.
A1. Standing Barbell Shoulder Press, 5 x 4-6, 40X0, rest 120 seconds
A2. Subscapularis Pull-up, 5 x 4-6, 40X0, rest 120 seconds
B1. 30-Degree Incline Dumbbell Press, 4 x 4-6, 40X0, rest 90 seconds
B2. One-Arm Dumbbell Row, 4 x 4-6, 3110, rest 90 seconds
The bottom line is that whether you are training at home with limited equipment or at a big gym, there is always a place for dumbbells in your training. Dumbbells are not the only tool that can help you achieve your training goals, but they are certainly one of the best!