Hanging Dumbbell Presses

by Al Myers

Al Myers demonstrating a Hanging Dumbbell Press, using a special made dumbbell handle that attaches to a chain that suspends the dumbbells at shoulder height.

A few months ago I started a training program utilizing seated dumbbell presses with the hope that they would be less stressful on my shoulder joints than straight bar shoulder presses.  Years ago I did LOTS of dumbbell presses and really liked them.   The natural rotation of pressing dumbbells feels better on your shoulders than a straight bar. Pressing dumbbells also makes you  very aware of shoulder strength imbalances.  With a bar, some of these “imbalances” can be compensated for with the stronger shoulder – but with a dumbbell that weakness is EXPOSED very quickly!  I started this dumbbell training program after Worlds in which I was VERY disappointed with my dumbbell press at that meet.  I have been able to “hide” my weak left arm pressing strength for quite a while by just using my right in competitions that require a lift to be done one handed. But at Worlds the Scots pulled a mean trick on me – and put in place  a “meet rule” that required both one arm lifts to be performed with alternate arms.  I really wanted to snatch with my right, so the dumbbell press was “left” to my “left”.  Needless to say, I did less for a max standing than what I USED to do for 5 reps seated.

This is a picture of the Hanging Dumbbell Handle.

I started the program out easy with light dumbbells and progressed a little every week.  My shoulders felt great.  No front delt shoulder pain.   However, soon I reached a point when the dumbbell poundages got heavy enough that I remembered another problem that dumbbell pressing causes.  My elbows started hurting!!! My elbow tendinitis flared back to full force like the days when I was bench pressing heavy.  Back then, it was a standard practice of mine to ice my elbows for an hour after every bench training session.  I don’t really want to go back to doing that now – just for dumbbell pressing!  The act of hammer curling or cleaning the dumbbells to my shoulders was the culprit here.  I was about ready to give up on dumbbell pressing because of this – but then I came up with a BETTER WAY!

I decided to make a “special” dumbbell handle that could be hung suspended overhead from my rack at the seated shoulder height.  This way I could hang the dumbbell using both hands – thus taking out the part of the lift that was causing me the elbow pain that seemed unnecessary. Now with the dumbbells already hanging, I just “take my seat” and start pressing!   I also feel a lot safer because if for any reason I would lose control of the dumbbells they would be “caught” by the chain and not do any damage to the floor or myself!   I have never heard of read of anyone else making a dumbbell handle like this so I want to share this idea.  Someone else may already have done this,  so I’m not going to make any claim to this idea.  That’s not my point.  If it would help someone else experiencing this same problem as myself and this idea would help them – that is enough for me.  The handle was very easy to make, and hopefully, will help build up my dumbbell press once again.

Stop The Rotation To Jumpstart Gains


by Ben Edwards


A lot has been written about training with thick-handled dumbbells and there are many methods to help you reach your strength goals.
Your training will usually consist of attempts to either increase your max lift for a single deadlift, or occasionally doing reps to increase the amount of time that you’re holding onto the dumbbell.  Occasionally it’s a good idea to switch your training up and focus on a different training method for a while to see if you can get break through a training rut or plateau.
A technique that has helped me drastically increase my Inch loadable dumbbell max over the past month is to stop the rotation of the dumbbell while performing a deadlift.  This is not something new and I’ve read about it being used by several guys who are training to lift the Inch Replica.
There are several ways to stop the rotation of a dumbbell

  • Press a finger against the plates with your non-lifting hand and apply inward pressure so that the rotation of the plates is arrested.  I used this technique after a grip contest about 5 years ago and lifted an Inch Replica to a full deadlift.  At that time I was about 40lbs away from a legitimate lift of an Inch Replica, so it’s a remarkable training tool.

  • Loosen the plates (applies to a loadable only) until they rattle when lifted and that will significantly reduce the rotation of the dumbbell.  I usually get about 10lbs more when I do this.

  • If you have an Al Myers Inch (loadable) Trainer -Use a hollow tube to slide over one of the “horns” on the screw-on collar.  Hold onto the tube with your non-lifting hand and that will prevent the dumbbell from rotating when you lift it.  This will add anywhere from 5 to 20lbs to your best unassisted lift.  The following pictures show this technique in action.

This is the starting position. The dumbbell hasn't left the ground yet. The left hand is already stabilizing the hollow tube, which prevents the dumbbell handle from rotating in your hand during the lift.

About a month ago I dusted off my Al Myers Inch Trainer and worked up to a max (contest-legal) lift of 139lbs.  I struggle with the rotation of thick-handled dumbbells.  I’ve trained it about 6 times since that test day and I did a contest-legal deadlift with 152lbs this morning.  That’s an increase of 13lbs in a month.  Some of that was just being a bit “rusty” with my thick-handled dumbbell technique.  But a good portion of that increase I attribute mainly to my rotation-stopping training.  Only on the first day did I actually do an unassisted dumbbell lift (without the rotation-stopping tube) during training.  The 6 workouts since that test day have consisted primarily of a few warmup 2-handed pulls and 1-handed negatives with 140lbs, and then 3 to 5 attempts – utilizing the rotation-stopping bar – with 150 to 170lbs.
I hope anyone training to lift an Inch Replica will put these suggestions to use and achieve their goal quickly and efficiently.  I’ve got a long way to go before I’m strong enough to lift an Inch Replica.  But at least now I’m closer than I’ve ever been.

This is the finished position of the dumbbell deadlift. The left hand is still holding on to the hollow tube. At this point in the lift, you could either continue to use the rotation-stopping effect of the hollow tube while you lower the dumbbell to the ground under control, or you could pull the hollow tube off the "horn" of the collar and try to control the dumbbell on the way to the ground without the rotation-stopping benefit of the hollow tube.

About a month ago I dusted off my Al Myers Inch Trainer and worked up to a max (contest-legal) lift of 139lbs.  I struggle with the rotation of thick-handled dumbbells.  I’ve trained it about 6 times since that test day and I did a contest-legal deadlift with 152lbs this morning.  That’s an increase of 13lbs in a month.  Some of that was just being a bit “rusty” with my thick-handled dumbbell technique.  But a good portion of that increase I attribute mainly to my rotation-stopping training.  Only on the first day did I actually do an unassisted dumbbell lift (without the rotation-stopping tube) during training.  The 6 workouts since that test day have consisted primarily of a few warmup 2-handed pulls and 1-handed negatives with 140lbs, and then 3 to 5 attempts – utilizing the rotation-stopping bar – with 150 to 170lbs.
I hope anyone training to lift an Inch Replica will put these suggestions to use and achieve their goal quickly and efficiently.  I’ve got a long way to go before I’m strong enough to lift an Inch Replica.  But at least now I’m closer than I’ve ever been.




Barbells Up, Dumbbells Down Part 4 – Bob Karhan


by John McKean

My all-round cohort and good buddy from Cleveland, Bob Karhan, has done more dumbbell 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 dumbbell pressing. He’s kindly agreed to share some of his findings:

When training dumbbells 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 dumbbells and do a set of 5-6 reps in the dumbbell 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 dumbbell 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 dumbbells 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 dumbbells 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 dumbbells to work a lift in the most comfortable manner.

One other way to develop dumbbell power is to employ 2” dumbbell 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.

Barbells Up, Dumbbells Down Part 3 – The Nuts and Bolts

by John McKean

Sort of a surprise for any who have read my previous articles expounding the use of heavy single-rep lifts, but dumbbell 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 dumbbell work. In many gym experiments I’ve discovered I could take a particular poundage and do three good but fairly taxing reps with the dumbbell, 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 dumbbells 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 dumbbell record. Plus, as any experienced dumbbell 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 dumbbells will let you know that you’ve really worked for and deserve it.

Many of us find that our top dumbbell 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 dumbbell press for, say a set of 4 reps. Since the dumbbell move is tougher and always lighter than its big brother barbell exercise, the body, and especially the mind, are better prepared (tricked) for dumbbell intensity when backing down to it instead of progressively building up in sets. It’s just so important to allow that first dumbbell 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, dumbbell-down combos you may wish to try include snatches/swings, barbell hack squats/dumbbell deadlifts, push presses/one arm jerks, cheat curls/incline dumbbell curls, power cleans/dumbbell pullups, etc. Again, not that dumbbell 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 dumbbell 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 dumbbell.

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 dumbbells 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 dumbbells can be achieved by off-loading, or adding a single plate to only one side of the bell.

Barbells Up, Dumbbells Down Part 2 – A Lesson in Abbreviation

by John McKean

A good friend of mine – our past U.S. National All-Round President, Howard Prechtel – relates how he once specialized for a one-year period on the dumbbell 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.

Barbells Up, Dumbbells Down Part 1 – Dumbbell Training

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 dumbbells 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 dumbbell work.

Unfortunately, most dumbbell 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 dumbbell rack is as dusty and untouched as their bench uprights shiny and worn.

Why is this? Simple – dumbbells hurt. That is, in exactly the opposite manner to how exercise machines ease and rob the work of a similar barbell move, dumbbells call for even more total bodily involvement than a long bar. Where machines isolate, dumbbells, 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 dumbbells 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 dumbbell lifts. Of course, back then they regularly contested dumbbell 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 dumbbell 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 dumbbell 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 dumbbell 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 dumbbell lifts. Specialize if you care to, or build a total routine on 4-10 dumbbell moves per week.

Seven Priniciples for Cleaning and Pressing Dumbbells

by John McKean

Mark Mitchell, of the Dino Gym, holds the Overall Record in the Clean and Press - 2 Dumbbells in the 125+ KG Class with a lift of 230 pounds (this is a picture of that record). This record was performed in the 2004 IAWA Postal Meet.

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.