While most exercise machines are expensive and can typically be used in performing only one exercise, dumbbells are relatively cheap and adaptable to a huge range of exercises. Allen Hedrick, who once served as a strength and conditioning coach at the United States Olympic Training Center and has worked with medalists such as speed skating's Bonnie Blair, says that nearly every barbell exercise you can think of can be performed with dumbbells. “Add all the exercise variations that are possible with dumbbells that are not possible with barbells, like single-arm and alternating-arm exercises, and you quickly see that the number of potential dumbbell exercises is quite large,” he explains.
In addition to their affordability and adaptability, Hedrick notes seven other practical advantages of working out with dumbbells as detailed in his book, Dumbbell Training:
- Explosive training. Hedrick says most machines do not lend themselves well to explosive training. Dumbbells, on the other hand, are suited to explosive training, which is the focus of most of the exercises his athletes perform.
- No need for specialized equipment. Many exercises performed with barbells require specialized equipment—bench, squat rack, Olympic lifting bar, bumpers, platform. In contrast, most dumbbell exercises require only an open space for training, a rubber mat or piece of plywood to protect the floor, and an adjustable exercise bench.
- Minimal space requirements. As far as storing dumbbells and exercising with them, little training space is required for dumbbell training. Compare this to machine training (where multiple machines are required for training the entire body) and barbell training (where training occurs with an eight-foot-long barbell and a recommended two-foot cushion on either end of the barbell). Thanks to their size, dumbbells require very little space during training. As Hedrick points out, “While you do want a safe buffer around an athlete training with dumbbells, it is possible to train more athletes in a smaller area than could train on either machines or with barbells.”
- Limited number. Very few dumbbells are required for training the entire body. For most people, a weight range from 5 pounds to 70 pounds in 5-pound increments will provide the resistance required for most exercises. This limited number of dumbbells makes it possible to train all of the major muscle groups.
- Safety. Dumbbells are safer than barbells when performing certain exercises, such as one-leg squats or lateral box crossovers. Dumbbells are easier to drop safely than a barbell. “With a barbell across your back, it is more difficult to drop the barbell safely without risking injury to yourself or to someone standing nearby or damaging the equipment,” Hedrick says.
- Beneficial for people with injuries. Dumbbell training makes it easier for people with injuries to continue to train without aggravating the injury. While an athlete with an arm or shoulder injury would not be able to train the upper body using a barbell, it is possible to perform one-arm dumbbell training using the uninjured arm. Similarly, a lower-body injury would prevent an athlete from performing Olympic lifts with a barbell, but by using just one dumbbell, stabilizing the body by holding on to something stable with the opposite hand, and lifting the injured leg off the floor, an athlete can adapt the Olympic lifts to accommodate one leg.
- Easier to teach. In general, dumbbell exercises are easier to teach than barbell exercises. “Most strength and conditioning coaches agree that on average it is much easier to teach someone how to correctly catch a dumbbell clean than to teach that same person how to catch a barbell clean,” Hedrick explains. “This means you can get through the teaching process and on to productive training more rapidly when training with dumbbells, something that is especially important when working with large groups.”
When all the benefits are considered, Hedrick believes there is little doubt that both athletes and those training for general fitness should include dumbbells in their training programs. In Dumbbell Training he offers a comprehensive guide to training with dumbbells for strength and conditioning enthusiasts and athletes alike. The book includes a number of exercises and programs that increase power, speed, agility, and balance in many popular sports.