Dumbbell Exercises: How to Hack Them for Maximum Awesomeness

Dumbbell Exercises: How to Hack Them for Maximum Awesomeness


So the last article went over, in way more depth than I had planned, how to get a solid and demanding training sessions using only dumbbell workout exercises. This one is all about making dumbbell exercises work for you in a less than ideal world.

Now in an ideal world you would have access to dumbbells that are up to at least 100 pounds…maybe 150 if you’re a beast. But since we’re preparing for situations where you ONLY have dumbbells readily available we know that it most certainly is not an ideal world.

That would include 10,000 sq ft of turf, a few power racks, texas power bars, bumper plates, steel plates, aforementioned heavy ass dumbbells, kettlebells, tires from those massive open-pit mining trucks, sleds, yokes, prowlers, plyo boxes and this woman offering “favors” for every PR (that video is most definitely NSFW so consider yourself warned).

The Biggest Problem with Dumbbell Exercises

So let’s assume you only have dumbbells that only go up to 45-50 pounds. Will you be able to become hulk huge with only 45 pound dumbbells?

Absolutely not. But that’s overrated and shouldn’t be your main goal anyways. Remember that being the Alpha Male is imperative on your abilities to be strong, fast, agile and be able to move in space…not on getting massive fucking biceps.

The last thing we’re going to do with this light weight is higher reps. I don’t care what “celebrity” and/or “trainer” says that sets of 20+ reps are for toning. If you talk to anyone who has been in the game for a while, or you yourself have been in the game for a while, you’ll know that this is absolute horse shit and whoever is vomiting that non-sense is a complete asshat. Dumbbell exercises can, and are, used for strength and power all of the time.

How in the hell do we take a weight that can be done for 20+ reps and use it for a movement where the goal is to get 3-12 reps…and still have room to go up in weight?

Leverage my friend. By shifting the weight into a position that you are not used to you can create a new and incredibly challenging exercise. That whole “hitting the muscle from different angles” thing that bodybuilders used to talk about is essentially the same thing.

When you usually use dumbbells you usually have them at your sides, arms fully extended with your hands neutral (thumbs facing forward). Or if you’re on your back they are at nipple level and your hands are pronated (thumbs facing in towards each other).

While this is all fine and dandy if you have dumbbells that are heavy enough, when you’re traveling or just plain stuck in a shitty gym you might not have that luxury. So here are the most common ways that you can change the leverage and make dumbbell exercises harder when you’re stuck with ones that are lighter than you’d prefer.

dumbbell exercises

Making Dumbbell Exercises Work for You

Off set the weights

As in use two separate weights for the movement. For example, if you were doing a standing military press you would use a 15 dumbbell for your left hand and a 25 pound dumbbell for your right hand. You will still lift them in a singular, coordinated movement. The difficulty comes from having to focus more on keeping your balance and actually thinking about what you’re doing and not just throwing the weights up as fast as you can. This can be done for literally every exercise that you need 2 dumbbells for.

Weight placement

Like I said above, the most common placement for dumbbells when using them is down at your sides or at nipple level depending on what you’re doing. Other options for some exercises are to load the dumbbells on your shoulders or to hold a single dumbbell by its end at chest level. Those two options are best used for lower body movements. For upper body you have the option of holding it by the middle of the handle, by the extreme end of the angle (either your thumb and pointer finger in direct contact with the weighted portion or your pinky in direct contact with the weighted portion) or by standing the dumbbell vertically and holding it by the weighted portion instead of the handle.


If you’re used to always holding a dumbbell like a barbell (pronated) you will feel a pretty significant difference when switch over and hold it with a neutral or supinated grip. This is most effective for pressing movements but can be incorporated into pretty much all movements. Just to make sure everyone is clear…a pronated grip is holding on to something with your thumbs facing in towards each other (think regular bench press), a neutral grip is holding onto something with your thumbs facing out and/or up (think hammer curls) and a supinated grip is holding onto something with your thumbs point away from each other (think regular bicep curls).

Uni-lateral vs Bi-lateral

This is actually a great tip for all exercises, not just dumbbell exercises. Doing any movement with only 1 arm/leg is completely different from doing the same movement with 2 arms/legs. First off, just like when you off set the weights, you just plain have to think more which is incredibly taxing for our tiny, little meatheaded brains. More importantly though you have to brace with your core much more because you don’t have the second weight to counter balance your self.

Weight Over Head

When you hold the weight over head you are shifting your center of gravity up from where it usually is (your navel) to a place you almost never experience it (just below the start of your sternum). Since this not what you normally do it takes a few reps to get used to the balance and movement and is incredibly hard even after you get used to it. This method is almost exclusively used for lower body movements since you’re already pressing the weight over head in upper body movements.


How do you make dumbbell exercises work for you when your choices are limited?