In a world of specialization during an era of specialization, one of the lost aspects of effective training for powerlifters has come from the demise of dumbbell work. There are those like Louie Simmons who combine many new, innovative approaches to training with “old school” techniques and equipment and Louie specifically incorporates some dumbbell work into his programs. Most do not and for those lifters who are so specialized that they take an “Eastern European Olympic Weightlifting Approach” to powerlifting, doing only the three lifts or some variation of them, they may never use a dumbbell in any training program. For the powerlifters of the 1960’s when the sport was first organized, dumbbells were a staple of many training routines as both adjunctive and “major” exercises. As our previous installments in this series discussed the quality, differences, construction, and most other aspects of the barbells used in training and competition, a few descriptive words are warranted for the oft-forgotten and recently maligned dumbbells. Allow me please to first raise the hackles of numerous readers and many more self-appointed experts who have, in the past fifteen years, touted the praises of kettlebells.
It is true that any training modality can be effective in enhancing the muscular size and strength of a trainee. I have often stated that the tool used in training is far less important than the manner in which that tool is used. I believe a single, albeit lengthy, sentence can place kettlebells and kettlebell training in its proper perspective:
Many decades ago there was a great battle that spread across the globe, encompassing the time and effort of thousands of individuals and leading to the overhaul of long held dogma and activity, and in that great battle, kettlebells lost, dumbbells won.
It really is that simple. The fact, and it is a fact, that a balanced dumbbell allows for safer, more efficient, more effective, and a greater variety of training made it the overwhelming choice of those who lifted heavy objects for the purpose of providing exercise that would make them stronger. From the late 1930’s or at least by the end of the Second World War, until the mid-1990’s, you would have to trip over an elderly man’s stored possessions in a darkened, dusty basement to find a kettlebell in the United States. They were relics and rightly so. The limitations placed upon the trainee were too great to make them commercially viable in the gym business and most serious powerlifters and bodybuilders discovered that if they were going to do exercises where their choice fell between dumbbells and kettlebells, there was no choice, dumbbells would be used. When it became “fashionable” in the fitness industry and allow me please, to state that again and stress the term “fitness industry,” to lift and move heavy, awkward objects, someone’s light bulb went on and an entire new cottage industry was born. A series of articles in mid-1980’s issues of Muscular Development Magazine will indicate that I was in the forefront of what has unfortunately come to be called “functional training” because many of my trainees were asked to traverse our lengthy driveway while pushing what appeared to be a friction controlled lawn mower, flipping heavy tires, carrying sections of I-beam that I had welded handles to, dragging sections of anchor or rigging chain, and “finishing” with car or truck pushing on our street. I have never been comfortable with the term “functional training” because all productive training is functional. These “total body movements” were just hard work exercises done at a high level of intensity that made me get to the brink of “total annihilation,” a way to push myself even harder than the high rep squats might have done, thus, I adapted the types of heaving and carrying I did on the job with my father. The comments and letters sent to Muscular Development in 1985 or so were often of the “…what the hell is this stuff and why are you publishing it?” ilk as much as they were complimentary relative to coming up with something “different.”
As a high school and college student seeking to become bigger and stronger (without realizing I would also become significantly faster), I would walk or run up the steep, long stairway to the loft of my father’s iron shop holding a York 100 pound dumbbell in each hand; I would squat and then push my car up and down the street that we lived on (and to paraphrase from a decades old article, “…to the delight and consternation of my neighbors” as I often vomited either immediately after or while performing this specific exercise); I would farmers walk (and I will reiterate and again negate the claim of another that I came to name that exercise, as the name existed long before I did) various sections of beam to which I had welded handles. All of the above movements and exercises like them can be done progressively, intensely, and in a way that stimulates changes in one’s physiology, they are all useful. However, “functional training” has now come to be spoken of as if it is both a specialized and very special, exotic means to add to one’s levels of strength and fitness. Kettlebells are right in the middle of this mix and more than any other “functional modality,” kettlebells have become a “be-all and end-all” for many in the fitness field.
Kettlebells can certainly add variety to a session, as can any other unusual or infrequently used object. There are some effective exercises like swings, presses, cleans, and even curls that can be done but one could make the case that the same movements are as effective and in many if not most cases, more effective and safer if performed with dumbbells. There is no doubt that dumbbells are easier to handle and thus safer to handle. Kettlebell proponents will make their case that it is the relative inefficiency of handling the implement that makes kettlebell training effective. For any so-called advantage in performing a kettlebell movement in place of the same dumbbell movement in order to “give work to the small supportive muscles,” or “to add to the balance factor” one also suffers a decrease in training efficiency and intensity as well as focus upon the targeted musculature. Let me add here that in my opinion, one that obviously there will be disagreement with (especially from those who own or operate “all kettlebell gyms”), kettlebells can be an enjoyable way to add variety and a bit of fun to a workout. If a dumbbell press is a “good” exercise, a kettlebell press can be a “good” exercise. The dumbbell is an obviously more effective and safer tool where either implement can be used but I am not saying that “all kettlebell” training cannot be effective. There are some true physical specimens, strong, enduring, and flexible who have done the majority of their training with the ancient implements proving that but I would also quickly contend that they would have done as well if not better with a more efficient tool.
While this brief piece will set the internet chat boards buzzing and the new wave of fitness entrepreneurs and strength gurus hollering, especially those tied to commercial interests that sell kettlebells, kettlebell training courses, kettlebell seminars, and perhaps newly minted kettlebell attire screaming in protest and pointing fingers in my direction while using phrases like “know-nothing,” without the commercial and finance generated push kettlebell training has received only since the mid-1990’s, these objects would still be no more than a footnote to the history of the Iron Game. What some also don’t know is that dumbbells, like barbells and plates, have varied in type, quality, construction, and ease of use since their introduction to the strength and powerlifting world. As a footnote to this specific column it should be noted that my lovely and insightful wife Kathy noted the same disadvantages of kettlebell training while predicting it would “be the next big thing” in the commercial arena, way back in a 1987 issue of our STEEL TIP NEWSLETTER thus the more things change, the more they remain the same!