Why Every Program Needs More Dumbbells
Reagan had his war on drugs. Punk rock had their war on propaganda. Cady had her war on The Plastics. We have our war on singularly-focused training. Not nearly as cool, but we’re just as passionate, I promise you that. As we always seek to better understand and explore the idea of balance, let’s put training under more of a close-up and dissect how most of us implement it.
We are a barbell-based industry in the strength and conditioning world, raised on Mark Rippetoe and Louie Simmons sermons, constantly told that the barbell is the almighty when it comes to fitness development and you must kneel at its altar daily. We click the like button on Instagram when someone squats 400#, but we could care less if they double kettlebell front 212# for reps. While barbells are an amazing tool that centers our program, we must be very cautious to never neglect one implement in favor of only cherry picking another. Let something serve as an integral component, but not the only area of focus. They all carry benefits unique to them as individuals that their counterparts lack, especially when factoring in just how damn important 3D movement is for all of us. If we are to truly provide the best prescription for ourselves, we must realize that the barbell is just one variable in the equation, excellent for developing the Absolute Strength end of the spectrum, and training the body to work as a complete unit, yet glaring in its deficiencies at the same time.
We need additional variables to complete the equation.
One can recall when dumbbells were programmed in the CF Open, was it last year? When grown adults were crying on social media because they had to use them, even a few gyms complaining they had to BUY them. That was quite a light bulb moment. “There are seriously gyms out there that don’t love dumbbells?”
The dumbbell is an excellent choice for many aspects of movement, but here are a few in particular.
- Lateral Core Training – One-arm DB snatches, presses, get-ups, and jerks are highly effective at training the obliques in a way that two-arm movements fail. By loading just one side of the body, it forces the body to have to brace and create an opposite side launch pad of sorts, from which we yield power. The obliques don’t get love unless we deliberately elect to provide it, and that’s not always in the form of twisting and rotating.
- Shoulder Joint Stability. The shoulder is the most unstable joint in the body, and also the most mobile. Terrible combo and unfortunately, the barbell does little to improve its stability. Let’s say your right shoulder is Michael, your left shoulder is Janet, and all of your core muscles are the rest of the Jackson family. When you hold a barbell overhead, you hold it with both Michael and Janet and it is perfectly supported by the rest of the family underneath it. The need to stabilize is a responsibility shared by all (which happens to also be why the barbell is also great). However, when you hold a single dumbbell overhead, you give MJ or Janet the solo. The focus. The sole responsibility of stability. It’s going to shine brighter in its development, and become better at tasks that you ask of it.
- Movement Whistleblower – Are you strong, or are you just really good at compensating? A barbell is mechanically designed for balance as we just explained. This makes it “easy” to lift in spite of any mobility deficiencies or weak links that may exist in our pattern. The CNS can take over on a lot of things, and proper movement is atop the list. The dumbbell, however, wants our balance and proprioceptors challenged and activated. It wants our movement flaws eliminated. When you active the same proprioceptors over and over again, you activate the same muscles, in the same path. That’s not really training yourself to be human, that’s transforming yourself into a task-specific robot.
- Mobility – Because the arms are not locked into place of a two-hand grip, the joints can more more freely in their articulations, and mobility can be better developed in folks who don’t have it, and better expressed for folks who do.
Many make the grave mistake of thinking that strength is only developed when we are on the Absolute Strength end of the spectrum. It is also developed by moving challenging loads quickly (Strength-Speed), and it is developed by engaging other muscles of support to be present in future endeavors (stronger obliques, better stability).
If our goal is well-rounded fitness, we need to think of the dumbbell not as an inconvenient obstacle to your barbell training, but one that will improve it, as well as make us more of a human being, not another robot off the growing assembly line programmed only to see benefit in major lifts at high percentages.