Full-Body Exercises

5 Best Dumbbell Strength-Builders

Getting strong isn’t reserved for barbell loyalists. Use these five dumbbell moves to boost all of your PRs.

josh bryant thumbnail by CSCS, MFS, PES
incline dumbbell bench press

The case for using dumbbells as part of your strength training program is well-established. Better balance, greater contribution from support muscles, the ability to train unilaterally and to self-spot – the list goes on. But to this, we add some real-world examples.

Pat Casey, the first man to bench press 600 pounds in 1967, built a large part of his strength with extremely heavy dumbbell press variations. In the 47 years since then, only a handful of men have duplicated this feat. Chuck Ahrens, half-man, half-legend, built what many iron game historians believe to be the widest shoulders of all-time with primarily dumbbell movements. Ronnie Coleman, the greatest bodybuilder of all-time and with world class strength levels to match, loved him some heavy dumbbell work.

If it was good enough for these men, perhaps it’s good enough for the rest of us. Here are five key moves that can help you start building your own strength legend.

No.1: Keystone Deadlifts

So named because the position you assume resembles that of the old time “Keystone Cops,” with your butt and belly protruding (lower back is arched). This position causes your hamstrings (back of thigh) to become pre-stretched. Then, while keeping your back arched, lower the dumbbells alongside your legs until they reach your knees, and stand back up. It is an excellent exercise for the hamstrings and a welcome departure from the leg curl station.

  1. Grasp two dumbbells holding the weight in front of you.
  2. Bend the knees slightly and keep the shins vertical, hips back and low back arched. This will be your starting position.
  3. Keeping your back and arms completely straight at all times, push your butt back and bend at the waist, as you would in a Romanian deadlift.
  4. Lower the dumbbells by pushing the hips back, only slightly bending the knees; think a hinge not a squat. The dumbbells remain in contact with your thigh the entire movement.
  5. Lower the dumbbells to a point just below the knees.
  6. Extend hips forcefully back to the starting point.
  7. Repeat for prescribed number of repetitions.

The Keystone deadlift is ideally performed with an explosive extension at the hips. Since the hamstrings generally carry so much fast-twitch muscle, this heavy, rapid contraction is sure to provide new growth, power and strength.

Dumbbell Strength Exercise

No. 2: Dumbbell Bench Press

In the pursuit of size and strength, many of the all-time greats have preferred dumbbells to the almighty barbell. This elite list is not limited to, but includes: Ronnie Coleman, Branch Warren, Pat Casey and Johnnie Jackson. Because the dumbbells allow you to work each side independently, prominent dumbbell benchers will often have better symmetry. Also, this move allows you to get a deeper stretch than you can get with a barbell. Even though this is not always advisable, those with greater shoulder flexibility will benefit from even a slight increase in range of motion.

  1. Sitting on the end of a flat bench, with the dumbbells resting against your abdomen and thighs, carefully lie back onto the bench. Lift the dumbbells to a position directly over your chest.
  2. Lower the dumbbells until they are slightly below the level of your chest and press the dumbbells to full extension.
  3. After performing the prescribed number of repetitions, lower the dumbbells back to your abdomen and sit back up so the dumbbells are again resting against your thighs and abdomen.

Similar benefits can be had by performing your dumbbell benches at different angles. To press at full strength and get the benefits of dumbbell benching, do your dumbbell work first, when you are fresh, then follow it with your barbell work. It won’t be long before you see your dumbbell-first approach provide some carryover to your barbell work.

No. 3: Dumbbell Deadlifts

Some powerlifters have used this movement to help build power out of the bottom, others have used it to elicit hypertrophy via increased overload due to the increased the range of motion. No matter how heavy the dumbbells are, they are much closer to the floor compared to plates on a barbell. The movement starts with a huge leverage deficit, making it much harder.

  1. Set dumbbells on the floor, stand facing the dumbbells.
  2. Bend at the hips and knees and grab the dumbbells with an overhand grip.
  3. Without allowing your back to round and keeping your arms at full extension, press through your heels, allowing the dumbbells to drag up the front of your thighs as you ascend.
  4. Lower the dumbbells back to the floor after you’ve achieved a fully erect position.
  5. Repeat for prescribed number of repetitions.

As with barbell work, don’t be shy about using straps. Max weight in the strength-building ranges is your goal and grip strength will come into play sooner with dumbbells because you can’t benefit from the additional reps that are within reach when using a mixed grip on a barbell. If you want your grip strength to keep pace with your deadlift, then feel free to go strapless. Want a greater challenge? Do deficit dumbbell deadlifts by doing these from a 4-8” box.

Dumbbell Strength Exercise

No. 4: Table Curls

This preacher curl cousin is a favorite amongst old-time arm wrestlers, which is reason enough to give it a go. So, if you want to start snapping arms or just build some beautiful biceps, give this bad boy a shot. Keep in mind, this movement is a partial movement so it’s best working it in conjunction with a biceps “stretch” movement such as an incline dumbbell curl or Gironda perfect curl.

  1. Sit or stand with your elbow at chest level on a table, grasping one dumbbell.
  2. Start with dumbbell in a full flexed elbow position, your arm bent at 90 degrees.
  3. From this position, lower dumbbell to table under control.
  4. Forcefully curl dumbbell back to starting position.

Partials are a powerful contributor to strength. By going heavy in this range of motion, you help to eliminate sticking points through that particular range of motion. Because you lose tension once the dumbbell hits the top of the exercise, be sure to give your biceps a deliberate squeeze on each rep.

No. 5: Seated Dumbbell Presses

Many of most powerful and well-built men in the world consider this there “go-to” exercise for building shoulder strength. It’s also generally more comfortable than neck-wrenching overhead presses with a barbell, which become more dicey as the poundages go up.

  1. Grab two dumbbells and sit on a military press bench that has a back support.
  2. Have a competent spotter assist you in bringing the dumbbells to shoulder height or clean the dumbbells up one at a time with the assistance of your thighs. Rotate your wrists so your palms are facing forward. This is the starting position.
  3. From the starting position, inhale deeply and press the dumbbells aggressively to full extension overhead.
  4. Lower the weight under control and repeat for the prescribed repetitions.

Don’t be a Dumbbell

Dumbbells are all too often ignored in the acquisition of limit strength. By no means is this a slam against barbell training. The bottom line is that in order to maximize strength and the development of hypertrophy, dumbbell training, in some form, must be part of your repertoire. 

Josh Bryant, MFS, CSCS, PES, is the owner of JoshStrength.com and co-author of The Complete Guide to Dumbbell Training: A Scientific Approach. His other titles, Jailhouse Strong and Built to the Hilt, are now available at Amazon and EliteFTS. He is a strength coach at Metroflex Gym in Arlington, Texas, and holds 12 world records in powerlifting. You can connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or visit his website at www.joshstrength.com.

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