In resistance training, harder is better

Featured Freeweight Equipment: barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, fixed weight solid steel dumbbells with urethane coating, rubber gym mats, dumbbell racks, rubberized gym flooring, rubber puzzle tiles, urethane coated dumbbells, rubber hex dumbbells

The trend in resistance training is to create modes, machines, devices and methods that make resistance training easier and therefore more sellable. For instance, a chest press machine has a payload that travels on a ball-bearing smooth motor-pathway. The machine eliminates the ‘3rd dimension of tension,’ the need to control side-to-side motion. The elimination of the need to control the payload from the pathway makes pushing and pulling easier – and easier is inferior. Smoothness and ease are insufficient to trigger hypertrophy. The adaptive response only occurs in response to stress. The more stressful the resistance training the greater the results. In resistance training, brutal and crude trump ease and smoothness.

In a perfect world, all tools and modes would deliver equal results: that would be fair. In the real world there is a proportional relationship between effort and results: the greater the effort the greater the results, i.e. muscle growth, dramatic increases in power and strength. Resistance machines are stable and allow trainees to devote 100% of available strength to push or pull: barbells and most particularly dumbbells, are unstable, and force muscle stabilizers to fire in order to keep the payload from straying sideways. From a muscle stimulation standpoint, dumbbells are the undisputed King of muscle fiber stimulation.

  • Dumbbells force each arm to carry its fair share
  • Dumbbells force the trainee to consciously adhere to a specific motor-pathway
  • Dumbbells can be used in an amazing array of effective exercises
  • Dumbbells are not just for the upper body; dumbbells are used in squats and calf raises
  • Dumbbells are the ultimate tools for extending ROM

Elite strength athletes will periodically shift to an “all dumbbell” format to break up the staleness of training with a barbell exclusively. Here is an example of an all-dumbbell weekly training split. This is tough work and the trainee would ‘smart bomb’ after each session with a post-workout regeneration replenishment protein/carb shake.

Monday - goblet squats, 5 sets; single leg calf raise holding dumbbell, 5 sets*
Tuesday - dumbbell bench press, 6 sets; seated dumbbell curls, 5 sets; overhead dumbbell tricep extensions*
Wednesday - stiff-leg dumbbell deadlift, 5-sets; hamstring dumbbell deadlift, 3 sets; dumbbell rows, 5 sets
Thursday - off
Friday - incline dumbbell bench press, 5 sets; dumbbell bicep curl, 5 sets; seated dumbbell triceps extension*
Saturday - dumbbell cleans 5 set; Dorian 70-degree reverse grip rows
Sunday - seated dumbbell presses, 5 sets; standing dumbbell lateral raises 4 sets

*arms are super-setted, alternated, set of biceps, set of triceps, rest, repeat

Generally speaking, every set is successively heavier, topping out with an all-out “top set”

CrossFitter Jackie Perez utilizes IRON COMPANY rubber hex dumbbells in her CrossFit training.
CrossFitter Jackie Perez utilizes rubber hex dumbbells in her CrossFit training.

A dose of straight dumbbell training will make barbells feel fresh and exciting. The idea is to get as strong as possible in all the dumbbell exercises; then when the trainee switches back to barbells, the barbell poundage seems ridiculously easy compared to the awkward dumbbells.

Another point: a lot of trainees scoff at the idea that any serious leg training can be done with dumbbells. We seriously suggest you give the goblet squat a serious test ride: use an ultra-deep upright torso style: generally speaking, a man with a legitimate 315-pound squat, raw and below parallel, will find he will be unable to complete 10-reps with 80-pounds in the deep goblet. Strong men will clean a pair of dumbbells to the shoulder and front squat: kettlebells and dumbbells held under the chin become more of a grip exercise than a leg exercise when the bell get past 80-pounds. Between the goblet/dumbbell front squat and single-leg calf raise, you can blast your legs fully, completely, optimally with no compromise. A limited set of ultra-deep goblet squats, say 8-10 reps with the final rep barely completed and you will be decimated, shattered.

The single-leg calf raise done on a block or stair-step can tax calves every bit as much as loading a standing calf machine to 400 pounds or a seated calf raise machine to 200 pounds. Start repping on left side. Hold a light dumbbell in your right hand, at your side. Use your left hand to grab onto a pole or doorway to maintain balance. Place the right foot behind the left ankle. Now relax and stretch downward as far as possible, let the payload, the bodyweight and the dumbbell, increase the depth of the stretch. Now go all the way up onto the inside ball of the foot and hold this tiptoe position for a full second. Rep until failure. Switch feet. Rep to failure again. Now do both legs quickly for 15-20 fast reps. Do three sets. Your calves will be maximally blowtorched.

The ideal top set ends with the barely completed rep, a rep so difficult that attempting another rep is out of the question.

We love the new generation of fixed weight solid steel dumbbells with urethane coating. There is not too much in the way of technology that I embrace, however, urethane dumbbells used atop rubber gym mats has revolutionized free-weight training. In the not to distant past, the worst fate that could befall a gym floor was iron and metal dumbbells dropped on the floor, repeatedly and continually. Dumbbell racks would periodically have to be moved because of the beating the floor took right in front of the dumbbell racks. And the noise was jarring and disturbing.

Rubberized gym flooring, i.e. thick rectangular rubber mats and rubber puzzle tiles, helped deaden the noise but when dropped iron and metal dumbbells tore expensive rubber gym flooring to shreds. Now, thank the Gods, we have classy, compact, rubber and urethane coated dumbbells that when dropped hit the floor, absorb the energy and rebound. Drop the rubber or urethane dumbbells on a rubberized floor and they bounce like they were made of flubber. In a perfect world, it is preferable to periodically be able to drop dumbbells without damage or noise. Now we can do that. In the not too distant past, rubberized dumbbells were oversized and inflated, cumbersome and cheap. The new generation of rubber hex dumbbells and solid steel urethane dumbbells are dense as plutonium and have incredible sculpted handles that are diamond knurled to improve grip. This is Star Trek stuff. Not all tech is superfluous.

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.