Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Heavy Dumbbells = Diminishing Returns

I've had an evolution of thought over the years about using heavy dumbbells for pressing movements, both chest and shoulder. The shoulder training clip I just posted on my new YouTube page brought it to mind so I thought I would share it.

Though dumbbell movements are an excellent compound choice of exercise and they fit squarely within the Max-OT principles I feel there is a diminishing return using them, particularly when you develop a level of strength forcing you to wrestle with the big boy dumbbells at the end of the wrack in order to get enough resistance. At that point I think you are better off sticking with barbell movements.

There is a lot of wasted energy before you even start the set as you can see from the clip. This is true even if you have a partner handing you one of the dumbbells. It's even worse if you are trying it on your own.

Not only do you waste energy getting in and out of the exercise, you also potentially place yourself at a higher risk of injury in my opinion because you can end up in some compromising positions that are placing undue stress on your body.

My advice is load up the bar and focus all your energy on moving the weight from point A to point B.

Believe. Achieve.


  1. Jeff,

    Thanks for the great advice. How do you feel about the Arnold press for shoulders? I really enjoy doing them-- one of the reasons being that I’ll go a bit lighter than the standard shoulder press so I don’t have expend quite as much energy prior to the beginning of the set. I’m curious if you do Arnold presses and if you do, how does the weight you use compare to the big boy dumbbells I see you using in the video?

  2. I do not do Arnold presses because of the wasted motion. I don't feel there is an advantage there. I would rather do a straight forward military press that moves the weight from point A to point B.

  3. Hello Jeff, thought I'd chime in, and get your advice.

    1/. Re. the Arnold press I assume much of the Arnold press benefit comes from the 'supination' involved - I would think it would be along the same lines as why we have to 'supinate' when doing dumbell arm curls. Having said that, if I did follow your advice should I avoid supination when doing dumbell arm/bicep curls and instead focus on moving it from A to B as you mention? Please let me know your thoughts.

    2/. I must admit, I use dumbells exclusively for bench press because of muscle imbalances that have developed during the time I used barbell presses. Also I read Mr. Paul Cribb mention that using dumbells with a 15 degree angle bench has been shown research wise to recruit the maximum muscle fibers.

    I do agree that someone always helps me with the dumbells (I'd like to call them 'fumbells' as I fumble a lot :) but lately I have worked on a technique that helps quite a bit and I thought I'd share it here. Basically when sitting on the bench and about to lift, I position both dumbells between my feet. I lift dumbell 1 with both hands and place it on my left knee. As for dumbell 2, I lift it from the 'inside' of my knee using my right arm. This pulling upwards from between the legs seems to have a lot less bio-mechanical stressors placed on the arms, as they don't 'dangle' out and pull/strain in weird angles if I were to lift dumbell 2 from the area outside my right leg as opposed to inside. Please try it and tell me what you think.

    This is for the incline dumbell bench press only, of course, for shoulder presses, this will not work...

    Thank you for your wonderful advice, kind regards, Shanx.

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  5. I personally don't see the advantage to pronating wrists during a shoulder movment. I feel straight pressing is more effective for achieving overload.

    I see more merrit in supination during DB curls to increase brachioradialis and biceps brachii involvement but still prefer bar curls as the primary movement and I allocate most sets to bar curls.

    Don't get me wrong, DB presses are a good exercise I just think you have to weigh out the lost energy getting in and out of position. If you have a partner to assist that certainly helps.

  6. Don't forget, the angle of the bench doesn't determine recruitment, the amount of overload used, does.

  7. Don't forget, the angle of the bench isn't responsible for maximizing muscle recruitment - the amount of overload, is.

  8. One solution to this problem of dumbbells is to do them from some kind of rig off a power rack. See
    -I've since got one made and works great. Set them up so they are just hanging there and you grab them and off you go with your reps. My rig is a cable cradle like in the first Youtube clip and some other cables joined by spring hooks.