Dumbbell workouts: a grassroots article

From HARDGAINER issue #89

By Paul R. Ethridge

Progression with dumbbell workouts can be difficult. Moving from, say, 70-pound dumbbells to 75-pound ones, means a total of 10 pounds, but due to the instability of the dumbbells it’s actually a greater increase than 10 pounds on the barbell bench press. For example, a 300-pound bencher would normally use maybe 110s or 120s on the flat bench, for reps, not 150s.

I’ve experimented with magnetic and other types of fractional add-on weights, but for me at least, they don’t seem to work well with dumbbells, because they increase the dumbbell instability.

Recently, I began a cycle using dumbbells on an adjustable incline bench. A progression system I used was as follows: Following about a month of “run up” time where I approached full-bore training, I decided to use the incline angle to my advantage. The idea is that the more vertical the angle, the more difficult the set. At the lowest angle, the incline bench I’m using is about 25 degrees. Although the bench will go to vertical, 90 degrees, I wanted to use this exercise primarily as an upper-chest movement. The angle can be changed in one-inch increments, and I guesstimated that about seven increments covered the 25- to 40-degree sweet spot that I wanted to hit. With this in mind, and after the one-month break-in period, I decided to progress using some rep progression (five to eight reps) in tandem with the angle progression.

For example, after the one-month run-up, I was using 80-pound dumbbells for five reps at the lowest (25-degree) angle. After a couple of weeks, I was at eight reps at the same angle. When I hit eight reps, instead of going directly to the 85s, which would be a big increase for me, I increased the vertical angle one notch. This one notch increase brought my reps down to six. The next workout, I got eight reps again at this level, and I then moved one notch (or several degrees towards vertical) further up, to make the exercise slightly more difficult. When I’d got to the 40-degree incline, I went back to the 25-degree angle, and began the progression again, but with the 85s.

Here are some comments on this format:

  1. The system provides dual approaches to progression — weight increases and angle progression.
  2. You have variety in your progression. If you’ve been progressing well, and you feel particularly strong, you could skip two notches, or perhaps go to the heavier dumbbell. The options are yours, although I recommend increasing in small increments.
  3. The slightly different angles, coupled with varying weights, offer variety in your training. Sometimes, this variety is lacking in hard-gainer type training.
  4. You don’t have to hassle with microloads or add-on plates. These work fine with a barbell, but with dumbbells they are more problematic.
  5. Many people, such as myself, enjoy dumbbell work, but until I tried this approach it was difficult to progress incrementally. Also, training volume doesn’t have to be increased.
  6. You need to keep records of (a) which notch you’re on, and (b), the weight of the dumbbell. Try to make each workout a little bit harder in the manner described above. Keep working, and soon you’ll increase the dumbbell size significantly.