Wednesday, June 3, 2009

John McKean - Part Three

Waldemar Baszanowski

Phil Grippaldi

Serge Reding

Barbells Up, Dumbells Down
by John McKean

Paul Anderson, Louis Cyr, Arthur Saxon, Hermann Goerner, Doug Hepburn, and John McKean. The question behind this answer is, “Name five all-time superstars of strength who extensively employed heavy dumbells in training, and one other guy!” Of course, yours truly is the lowly other guy, but I do enjoy standing on the shoulders of these giants to seek some of the progress they found through brutally-intense dumbell work.

Unfortunately, most dumbell work nowadays is relegated to lightweight shaping movements, or, at most, relatively high-rip, non-goal oriented exercise with poundages that are “comfortable”. I don’t even like to recall how many gyms I’ve visited where the heavy half of the dumbell rack is as dusty and untouched as their bench uprights shiny and worn.

Why is this? Simple – dumbells hurt. That is, in exactly the opposite manner to how exercise machines ease and rob the work of a similar barbell move, dumbells call for even more total bodily involvement than a long bar. Where machines isolate, dumbells, on the other hand, require extreme control, utilization of many stabilizing muscles, coordination between muscle groups, and total concentration. They have a longer range of motion than barbells or machines, and bombard deep-lying muscle fibers from many different angles. Most importantly, with some intense effort, seriously-heavy dumbells eventually adapt to our own personal groove – we’re forced to learn to control the weighty little beasts, and best compensate for out individual leverages. Eventually, then, we discover (perhaps even subconsciously) our own optimum angles of push or pull, to capitalize on innermost strengths.

Many of the old-time strongmen never seemed to lack incentive to go to limit poundages on dumbell lifts. Of course, back then they regularly contested dumbell clean & jerks, presses, snatches, swings, and the crucifix. A look at U.S. and British record lists printed in magazines from the 1920s and 30s will show a slew of dumbell marks which were recorded under official conditions. Do we have any such incentive today? You bet! Under the auspices of the IAWA we currently have 27 registered dumbell lifts to go after. And, brother, if you thought my insistence on training barbell limits in past articles was taxing, I’m really setting you up for a wonderful world of pain this time.

No, you may not be interested in jumping into one of our dumbell competitions – the British would call these “single arm championships” – but you sure can obtain huge overall strength gains while bringing out previously unnoticed lumps, bumps and strands of muscle. All that’s required is the desire to see just how heavy a single rep you can eventually achieve with one or more dumbell lifts. Specialize if you care to, or build a total routine on 4-10 dumbell moves per week.

A Lesson in Abbreviation

A good friend of mine – our U.S. National All-Round President, Howard Prechtel – relates how he once specialized for a one-year period on the dumbell clean & press as his only upper-body exercise. His only other exercise was the half-squat in a power rack. He stayed away from his regular gym at the time to increase his concentration on these two movements (and to avoid unnecessary “advice” from training partners who would have chided him for such limited training). When the year was up, a muscularly massive Howard Prechtel confidently strode into the training hall to easily clean and strict press over 300 pounds on a barbell – at least 50 pounds more than he had ever done before. Teammates were literally flabbergasted – this was absolutely without steroids, and they couldn’t figure out how this gym drop-out pulled it off. You can bet, tho’, that ole Howie didn’t wave around lightweight bells during his escape time from conventional stale routines.

The Nuts and Bolts

Sort of a surprise for any who have read my previous articles expounding the use of heavy single-rep lifts, but dumbell strength training is best done is sets of 3-6 reps. At least a triple seems necessary to develop coordination and groove, absolutely essential to successful dumbell work. In many gym experiments I’ve discovered I could take a particular poundage and do three good but fairly taxing reps with the dumbell, then go but 5 pounds heavier only to find the stubborn ‘bells just wouldn’t budge an inch. Friends related exactly the same experience. So, if a “gym limit” can usually be pumped for 3-4 reps instead of only one, you might as well shoot for this number.

Singles can be attempted on widely spaced occasions – you need something to shoot for. But with dumbells there’s a lot more control factors against you, and conditions won’t always be regulated as with a barbell. Your mood, drive, groove, coordination, incentive, and a well-rested, ready body has to be exactly in tune for that new dumbell record. Plus, as any experienced dumbell aficionado will tell you, it’s all too easy to mentally burn out on the short bars if you attempt too many maxes too frequently. Sad to report, misses with even previous marks occur a lot. Seems you must lose a little occasionally before your body allows you to advance. But take heart. When you do hit a new limit you’ll discover a unique exhilaration, ‘cause the dumbells will let you know that you’ve really worked for and deserve it.

Many of us find that our top dumbell weights are most easily achieved when done for a single set of 3-5 reps performed directly following a short session of singles with a similar barbell move. For instance, we work a standard barbell press for 70% x 1, 80% x 1, 90% x 1, then finish – almost a “backdown set” – with a dumbell press for, say a set of 4 reps. Since the dumbell move is tougher and always lighter than its big brother barbell exercise, the body, and especially the mind, are better prepared (tricked) for dumbell intensity when backing down to it instead of progressively building up in sets. It’s just so important to allow that first dumbell rep to go smoothly and seem fairly light. Following that, reps 2, 3, 4 and, maybe 5, almost always flow easily. But there’s no second chance if the first one sticks.

A few barbell-up, dumbell-down combos you may wish to try include snatches/swings, barbell hack squats/dumbell deadlifts, push presses/one arm jerks, cheat curls/incline dumbell curls, power cleans/dumbell pullups, etc. Again, not that dumbell lifts can’t be trained by themselves – some, such as all-rounds torturous two-hands anyhow, can’t be trained any other way. It’s just that quicker advances in poundages and better quality training come when the dumbell lifts are combined with heavy single barbell movements. Just remember the formula of 4 sets of 1 with the barbell, 1 set of 4 with the dumbell.

Progression can best be summed up this way – don’t be in too much of a hurry. Keep plugging at that set of 3-5 reps with a consistent poundage, workout after workout, until it starts to feel light and easy. Then just nudge the dumbells up by 5 pounds the next session. Some may prefer to gradually raise reps, starting at 4 and eventually achieving 7 with a given weight before upping the poundage and starting over at 3 or 4. Regardless of which progression you prefer, always be a bit cautious during that next workout with the weight jump – attack it, because that addition of a mere 5 pounds per hand may prove far heavier than you expect. Smaller weight increases with loading dumbells can be achieved by off-loading, or adding a single plate to only one side of the bell.

Bob Karhan

My all-round cohort and good buddy from Cleveland, 45-year-old Bob Karhan, has done more dumbell home training than most. Very few trainees these days can match big Bob’s pure pressing power, the result of many years of concentrated work with various forms of dumbell pressing. He’s kindly agreed to share some of his findings:

When training dumbells I usually do 1-2 sets after my barbell exercises. For example, after a heavy press behind neck session I take a heavy pair of dumbells and do a set of 5-6 reps in the dumbell press. If this is fairly easy, I’ll add weight and go for on more set of 3-5 reps. If the first set proves to be a gut-buster, I’ll skip the second set.

I prefer sticking to a rep scheme of 3-8. The first rep always proves to be essential to jockey for ideal dumbell positioning and establish coordination between muscle groups. Repetitions eventually enable one to discover a personal groove and fine tune it over the course of time. Only dumbells permit this minute adjustment of positioning. In fact, I seriously doubt whether any two individuals could have the exact same degree of push.

In IAWA competition, the center of the ‘bell handles for presses can’t be higher than the clavicles. This presents a new level of difficulty because the initial drive requires a shoulder and elbow rotation to get the ‘bells started. This motion has a tendency to get the dumbells out of one’s groove. By doing the exercise this way, the amount of weight is reduced by about 10-15% while shoulder aggravation is increased by 50%. It’s always important with dumbells to work a lift in the most comfortable manner.

One other way to develop dumbell power is to employ 2” dumbell handles. These are hard to control and they’re tremendous for developing the grip. Mostly, when you go back to the standard 1” handles they feel like mere toys in your hands.

Here are a few principles of pressing dumbells I adhere to:

1.) Principles of cleaning and pressing barbells apply. You need an easy clean. If you’re stumbling all over as you rack the dumbells, or have to muscle them in over the last few inches, your chances of making a maximum single, triple, or even a set of five are slim.

2.) Concentrate on speed when you clean dumbells. You have to turn the dumbells over fast which requires getting the elbows to move rapidly. Remember, you’re not doing hammer curls.

3.) Dumbell cleans are easier if one uses ‘bells with thin, flat-style plates. I prefer 12½’s myself, the fewer plates the better. Hexagon-shaped dumbells are noticeably harder to clean, at least 90’s and up.

4.) For home training, spiral-lock dumbells are best. They can be changed quickly, and you never have to worry about the collars falling off and causing potential injury.

5.) For pressing heavy dumbells it’s essential to have a solid base. Total-body work comes into play here as you must maintain tight thighs and hips.

6.) When pressing the heaviest dumbells, I prefer palms facing each other, with elbows facing forward and angled slightly outward (as opposed to elbows to the sides).

7.) Keep dumbells directly over the shoulders and concentrate on driving them straight up, always being attentive to prevent the ‘bells from wandering out to the sides.

Now for some comments on dumbell curls:

1.) I prefer them to a barbell primarily because the hand position can easily be altered to affect a different feel on the biceps.

2.) Any noticeable pain can be easily eliminated with a simple change in wrist position. Neither barbells nor machines provide this unique advantage.

3.) Dumbells supply almost endless curl variations – alternate curls, cheat curls, one-arm curls, seated curls, etc.

To finish with, two comments on hammer curls:

1.) They give the forearms fantastic work.

2.) They have a positive effect on the dumbell clean.

A Sample Routine

Here’s a sample routine which you might enjoy. Substitute similar exercises if you cannot safely do the ones listed – in particular, the cheat curl and the power clean are not suitable for everyone.


Barbell Press: 70% (of day’s maximum) x 1, 80% x 1, 90% x 1, 100% x 1.
One Arm Dumbell Press: 4 reps each arm.

Cheat Curl: same as Barbell Press.
Hammer Curl: same as One Arm Dumbell Press.

Squat: same.
Dumbell Deadlift: same.


Barbell Row: same as Barbell Press.
One Arm Dumbell Row: Same as One Arm Dumbell Press.

Power Clean: same.
Dumbell High Pull: same.

Barbell Hack Lift; same.
Dumbell Hack Lift: same.

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