Lee Boyce, strength trainer, former athlete and owner of www.leeboycetraining.com
Here’s an unpopular opinion: lifting heavy dumbbells is overrated. The instability creates a greater risk of injury, and they’re a hassle to set up for low-rep training – especially where pressing exercises are concerned. If you’re picking them up from the floor, they’re lower than a typical bar is, which can lead to some pretty ugly positions to get them off the ground. With all that said, it’s not going to stop you from using them, so it’s important that you learn to use them right without making stupid mistakes.
Rookie Mistake #1: Not Holding the Centre of the Handle
This sounds like it would be common sense, but you’d be surprised how many lifters default to holding the dumbbell to one side rather than right in the center, for their seated military presses, chest presses, and even rows. When the weights are only 15 pounds, you can get away with this without a hitch, but once the load starts getting heavier in your hand, the distribution matters much more. Making sure your hand is aligned perfectly in the middle of the handle can be the difference between sore, damaged wrists and healthy ones. Moreover, if the weight is tipping to one side (a common by-product of not holding the center), it’ll encourage you to push your shoulder out of a proper, contracted position in the socket to assist the press.
Long story short, make sure you’re in proper balance. It’ll help your wrist stability and keep your forearms supporting the entire lift.
Rookie Mistake #2: Not Knowing How to Bring them Up
The biggest cringe where dumbbell work is concerned comes in a scenario something like this: A well-intentioned lifter is prepping to take the big 100 pound dumbbells for a ride on the incline, and, after getting pumped for his set, sits down on the bench with the weights on either side of him on the floor. He picks them up one at a time (while still seated) and does a big swing-curl to get the weights up to the starting point of resting on his thighs.
I’ve seen multiple circumstances where the lifter isn’t strong enough to curl the weight up to the thighs to get started, thus requiring more than one attempt on one or both arms. How much energy do you think that lifter will have left over for his set? Even if the answer is “slightly less”, the common scenario I’ve related above doesn’t allow you to get the most out of your workout.
The smarter alternative would be to simply pick up the weights from a standing position and stand in front of the bench with the weights in front of the thighs. Then, under control, sit down to the bench. You can use the weights as a counterbalance of sorts, simply based on where they’re positioned. From there, ensuring the hands are centered, “kick” the weights up to the starting position for your first rep of presses.
Rookie Mistake #3: Not Knowing how to Bail!
You saw this coming. The only thing worse than not knowing how to set up for a dumbbell press is not knowing how to get out of one when you’ve reached the end of your set. Most commonly, you’ll either see one of two types of endings to heavy dumbbell pressing work:
- The lifter lowers the weight to the chest or shoulders and lets it rest there, then lowers it under control to the floor. This isn’t the worst option, but especially depending on your levels of muscular fatigue and also your torso angle (think of a flat bench compared to an upright seat), you may be throwing your shoulder joint under the bus. Trying to establish control from a very compromised position is usually a recipe for problems.
- The lifter disregards anything around him and simply bails, letting the weights drop and tumble to end up several feet away from his bench on either side. It almost seems like an intentional attention-seek from someone who struggles in the ego department. It disregards the lifters and spotters around you and simply doesn’t need to be done.
There are two methods you should endorse. First and foremost, you should not be opposed to letting weights fall to the floor. However, there is a way to do this without being obnoxious or dangerous. Letting the weights fall to your sides just takes a gentle guidance to the ground with less than normal tension. Simply put, if the weights “tumble” or “flip” away from where they landed more than one time, you can probably keep them on a bit of a tighter leash.
Second, and safest, would be to bail the same way you learned how to bring them up. That would mean one change to the method above: Return the dumbbells to the thighs by bringing the thighs up to meet the weights. This takes a bit of practice and timing, but is a method that basically eliminates all risk.
Rookie Mistake #4: You Just Don’t Understand Force Angles
The one constant thing about dumbbells that no one will ever be able to escape: they’re prisoners to gravitational force. They aren’t bands, they aren’t a cable pulley setup, and they’re not hydraulic air pressure systems.
This matters because it heavily dictates what exercises you choose to load up on, and what exercises you should ease up on. The rotator cuff serves as a great example of this element. When a lifter holds a dumbbell while standing and does some external rotations with that dumbbell, the intent is usually to warm up the shoulder or rehab/prehab the rotator cuff. The truth is, doing something like this with a dumbbell makes the movement a prisoner of gravity. The force is travelling down, making the biceps the prime mover in holding the weight up – not the shoulders.
In the world of isolation training, it’s imperative that you find a resistance that opposes the direction of contraction of the target muscle. In the case of shoulder rehab, the answer will rarely ever be found in the form of dumbbell work. Instead, it’ll be found in the world of cables and bands. Setting up for a true horizontal pull pattern that services the rotator cuff means positioning a band or cable pulley at torso level and lifting from there. If you don’t feel it in the right spots, the answer isn’t to use a heavier dumbbell. It’s to change the form of resistance altogether.
Take two more examples: Dumbbell pec flys and dumbbell pull-overs. In the case of the dumbbell fly, it’s a commonly used movement that does deliver benefits. But before going as heavy as possible in this movement, it’s important to remember which direction the chest fibers run. They don’t travel vertically – they’re more horizontal in path. So once again, we need to use resistance that directly opposes the muscles’ fibrous direction. Using dumbbells during chest flys does this, but incompletely; they only zero in on the pecs for about half of the range of motion. On the top half of the lift, the force angle is directed downward, thanks to gravity, and the chest muscles really have little to no involvement in holding the weight up. The load shifts itself to the shoulders.
If your goal is to go heavy, you’d be better off setting up between two low-cable pulleys for a chest fly. It creates a world of difference.
The same is true with dumbbell pull-overs. Looking at the force angle, we see a movement where the dumbbell is being pulled downward by gravity. As lifters go through the pull-over motion, they’re basically traveling in a horizontal pattern while the dumbbell’s force angle is still pointing straight down. Since the lats become involved when the force angle simulates a vertical pull motion, it means the lats would only really be engaged for a small portion towards the beginning of the movement, before other muscles enter the scene. You can get more bang for your buck by performing a different variation. A heavier dumbbell will only take you so far.
Rookie Mistake #5: Chest Pressing? Know when to Twist.
This is a very important training directive that very few people talk about.
When it comes to dumbbell pressing, many people recognize this type of weight’s value due to your ability to turn your wrist and elbow. But understanding when to make the twist is worth a whole other discussion on its own – and the answer depends on your goals as a lifter.
Twisting to a neutral grip at the >bottom of the lift, is very different from twisting to neutral at the >top. Twisting to neutral at the bottom is great for lifters with shoulder issues. The bottom position of a press pattern creates a greater risk for impingement and decreased subacromial space. Rolling the humerus into some external rotation by turning it behind the collar bone nearing the bottom of the rep can be very helpful and can also take much of the deltoids’ involvement out of the picture to focus on the chest.
However, doing the opposite of this and keeping the elbows and wrists >out at the bottom while pressing up to a neutral endpoint can encourage more pec fiber involvement toward the bottom end range (how that feels for you is just contingent upon healthy shoulders). Based on where the pec muscles attach on the upper arm, you’re pulling them into a deeper stretch by keeping the flared position toward the bottom. At the end of the day, there’s a give and take and you need to be able to assess this based on your ability and needs. Neither way is “incorrect” – but one may prove superior for your personal health and development.