Updated: Aug 22, 2019
Dumbbells are the most iconic and recognizable pieces of fitness equipment today. Consisting of a single bar with equal weights on each end, a dumbbell is a versatile piece of equipment that has been used for a variety of exercises for the last 2,000 years!
A Quick History of Dumbbells
In its most basic form, dumbbells can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, who first invented halteres, oblong-shaped weights with handles. Greek athletes would hold a haltere in each hand, quickly throwing the weights backward in mid-air to gain momentum in long jumping competitions. Another version of a dumbbell evolved around the same time in the Middle East. Known as a "nal," the weight was longer than a dumbbell, but shorter than a barbell and used by wrestlers and bodybuilders to build muscle strength and stamina. The clubs, which originated in India, were different weights so they could be used for calisthenics and weightlifting. British colonists eventually adopted these weights and brought them back to the West.
The word “dumbbell” was officially coined in England during the sixteenth century when athletes trained with handheld bells with the clappers removed. Without these clappers, the bells were ‘dumb,' hence, dubbed “dumbbells”. In 1864, with the release of John Blundell's book, "The Muscles and Their Story," dumbbells became even more popular and a commonplace among fitness enthusiasts everywhere. Eventually, the literal "dumb" bells were replaced with iron weights that could be adjusted. These first versions of adjustable dumbbells had canisters to hold sand or shot. Anyone from an athlete to a Regular Joe could purchase these dumbbells and fill their canisters up to adjust the weight. Eventually, these adjustable dumbbells became too time-consuming to change out, so adjusting the weight by changing out the plates became more popular.
Types of Dumbbells
Times have changed since and the first versions of the dumbbell. Today, there are three common types of dumbbells: adjustable, fixed, and selectorized.
Adjustable dumbbells allow the user to adjust the weight based on specific needs or exercises. These dumbbells usually consist of a dumbbell bar, weight plates, and a lock to hold the plates still. The biggest advantage of adjustable dumbbells is that they don’t require a lot of space or cost for additional dumbbells.
Fixed dumbbells are the dumbbells that you can spot at your local gym. These dumbbells are either made of cast iron or plastic/urethane-coated iron with weights that cannot be removed. These dumbbells are ideal if you have a workout routine that requires different weight amounts and you don't have much time between sets to adjust the weight.
Finally, selectorized dumbbells are adjustable weights that offer more convenience when changing the weight. While adjustable weights require you to slide weights on and off and secure with a lock (known as a collar or clip), selectorized dumbbells allow you to adjust the weight by moving selector pins or turning a dial.
Benefits of Dumbbell Training
What makes dumbbells stand the test of time? Their versatility and the number of benefits they provide. While dumbbells are often overshadowed nowadays by the latest fitness equipment, serious strength training and hypertrophy can be achieved using dumbbells. Dumbbells provide an effective way to target major muscle groups of the entire body and can be used anywhere - the gym, home, the outdoors - with no setup. Whether you are focused on isolation exercises such as bicep curls or more multi-planer movements such as walking lunches, dumbbells provide the ideal external resistance. When used correctly, dumbbells require greater stabilization, activating more muscle fibers. Additionally, dumbbells force limbs to work unilaterally so that no side is weaker or overcompensating for the other. This can be helpful for those just starting or have a strength imbalance due to a past injury.
Most notably, dumbbells allow for a greater range of motion, much more than bench pressing with a barbell can be, for example. While your arms and shoulders are in a fixed position pressing with a barbell or using a weight machine, pressing with dumbbells allows you to alter your movement slightly and work other muscles.
Since dumbbells allow a wider range of motion, it's important to consider some safety precautions to reduce injury. Dumbbells must be used with care to avoid serious injury. Warm-up and stretch before every workout to get muscles ready. Choosing the right weight is also important; while some may feel that a heavier dumbbell will provide quicker, more effective results, using a lesser weight with more repetitions can also provide results and reduce the risk of injury.
Proper form is also important. Unlike weight machines, dumbbells build up momentum during exercise and this momentum can cause injury if not handled properly. Practice form by trying each movement without dumbbells. This allows you to have a good understanding of your range of motion and the path the dumbbell must travel. Always lift with your legs, not your back. A common injury that occurs is when you pick up and put down weights. As you bend and pick up weights, keep your back in a straight, neutral line. Do you not allow your shoulders or spine to curve as you bend down. Instead, bend your knees and press through your heels to lift the weights. Even with the proper lifting technique, choosing the right weights for your strength level is also important. Choosing weights that are too heavy to pick up can cause injury.
Enlisting a person to spot you, whether you are using light or heavy dumbbells, can ensure that you have the correct form and lifting in a safe environment. If you start to feel any pain, stop, and lessen the weight and/or repetitions. If pain persists, stop, and try again the next day. If the pain is persistent or excruciating, it's best to consult a doctor. We all know the phrase, 'no pain, no gain,' but it's important to listen to your body to reduce the risk of seriously damaging muscles and joints. Lastly, if trying out a new workout routine, do not start with the heaviest weights first! Instead, start with lighter weights and gradually work up to more moderate or heavier weights.