Monday, November 27th, 2017: Dumbbells: Did You Get the Message?November 26, 2017
10 air squats
10 pass throughs
10 figure 8’s
Clean & Jerk
55/40 cal row
It’s been almost a year since the Great Dumbbell Shortage of 2017.
Provoked by a single photo shared on Instagram by CrossFit Games Director Dave Castro, the shortage was the result of thousands of affiliate owners who rushed to purchase dumbbells for the 2017 Reebok CrossFit Games Open, nearly depleting retailers of their wares while inciting fury among those who had long mistaken the dumbbell for a glorified doorstop.
So what’s happened since then?
Did you get through the Open only to return to the barbell like a long-lost lover? Or did you recognize a hole in your fitness and spend the year filling it?
Here, affiliate owners react to the 2017 season and share how it affected their approaches to training and programming.
When affiliate owner Chris Lomen saw Castro’s post, he wasn’t as worried about finding dumbbells as he was about teaching his members how to use them. CrossFit Sabertoothalready had what Lomen described as a “decent set” of dumbbells—a couple of pairs of everything from 10 to 50 lb. for approximately 80 members—but “for the most part they’d collect quite a bit of dust between uses,” he admitted.
It wasn’t that he didn’t see the value of dumbbell training. Before affiliating in 2013, Lomen had trained a small group of people in his garage. With little money or space for barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells were staples of his early programming.
But the more his membership grew, the more convenient the barbell became. Instead of running heats or forcing people to scale up or down when the last 35-pounders were taken, with barbells “it’s just a little bit easier for everyone to get the exact weight that they’re looking for,” he continued.
Before the 2017 Open, Lomen would program dumbbell work—usually the snatch because the movement requires only one dumbbell per athlete—once every few weeks, if that. And if an athlete didn’t happen to come to class on just the right days, she might not touch a dumbbell for several months at a time.
Lomen said he wasn’t surprised when Castro dropped his hint—“We definitely don’t use (dumbbells) as much as we should,” Lomen acknowledged—and so the gym owner gave his members a crash course, sprinkling in as many different dumbbell movements as he could come up with in the six weeks prior to the Open.
A few times per week, he programmed his go-to dumbbell snatch but also dumbbell cleans, jerks, front squats, weighted step-ups and overhead squats. It was more dumbbell work than most of his members had ever done.
“It quickly became obvious that we needed to implement the dumbbells into our programming more often,” Lomen said. “Not only did it freshen up the programming but it exposed a weakness in our athletes: Dumbbells were outside their comfort zone—big time. It was a humbling experience getting crushed by a workout with a 35-pound dumbbell.”
Athletes who could easily clean 135 lb. with a barbell struggled to clean a 35-lb. dumbbell in each hand, and athletes across the board required more rest breaks in dumbbell workouts than they typically took in barbell workouts with the same movements.
The dumbbells also revealed deficiencies in strength on one side or the other, as several coaches and experts pointed out in the September CrossFit Journal article “Dumbbell Smarts.”
“With the barbell it’s a lot easier for your weaker side to just get compensated for by your stronger side, but the dumbbells—they don’t lie like the barbells can sometimes,” Lomen said. He noted that his athletes described the dumbbell workouts as “way harder” than they had anticipated.
Dumbbells also reveal limitations in mobility, and not just in the shoulder, said Eric Lewis, owner of Glacial Lakes CrossFit.
“I have some bad range of motion in my ankles,” he said. “So to get all the way down with that ’bell touching the floor, for myself, was difficult because it’s a lot lower than the barbell.”
Like CrossFit Sabertooth, Glacial Lakes CrossFit had a reasonable supply of dumbbells even before the Open but rarely programmed them into the daily workout. When Lewis did include the implement, movements were limited to dumbbell rows, biceps curls or farmers carries.
I can remember weeks where they just sat there being unused, you know, in the corner of the gym,” he said.
Also like Lomen, Lewis gave his membership a crash course in dumbbell movements in the weeks before the Open. The most common flaw he saw among his athletes was a tendency to be a bit wobbly. One arm would move faster than the other and athletes generally had trouble stabilizing the slower arm.
Lewis made a connection: The wobbliest athletes were also the ones who, with a barbell, had a tendency to “press out” at the end of the jerk, one arm dragging behind the other or listing out of the frontal plane.
“Maybe we need to go to a dumbbell and (work on) some single-arm stuff,” he thought to himself.
Phil Benyo, owner of CrossFit Drums, has also spent the last several months using dumbbells to correct flaws in weightlifting technique that were hidden by the barbell.
“There’s nothing different. The extension, your pull, your shoulder rise, your hip rise—all those things are the same,” he said, comparing the dumbbell clean or snatch to the barbell equivalent.
Teaching complex movements such as the Olympic lifts can be even easier with dumbbells, he continued. With a heavier barbell, inexperienced athletes will often rush to finish the lift, failing to open their hips completely and achieve triple extension. The lighter dumbbell, Benyo said, is a little less intimidating. Athletes can focus on the technique without worrying about whether the weight is going to go up or not.
But it hasn’t been that way since the beginning at CrossFit Drums.
“Dumbbells? Never,” Benyo said when asked how often he programmed them before the 2017 Open. He noted the occasional exception: Athletes with shoulder mobility issues might swap the barbell for a dumbbell on bench-press days.
As a newer gym—the affiliate opened in 2015—CrossFit Drums didn’t own very many dumbbells, and Benyo said he modeled his programming after recent CrossFit Games events such as 2015’s max clean and jerk and the barbell speed ladders of 2015 and 2016.
Watching his athletes snatch and clean the dumbbell in the Open, he said, was “eye-opening.”
“The people who used proper technique … did really well,” he said. “The people who didn’t—who were just strong guys and girls who could just kind of delt-row that thing up and down—they died. They hit a wall and just fell apart.”
Since the Open, Benyo has programmed dumbbell movements—cleans, jerks, thrusters, deadlifts—about twice per week and says he’s seen improvement all around.
“I think just because the way the dumbbells are inherently much less weight, you’re able to tweak out some of those little errors and translate it to better technique in general,” he said. “I think people have gotten a better understanding of how they need to move.”
Alison Gimbi, a CrossFit Drums athlete of a little more than two years, said the increased dumbbell training has worked for her.
Before the Open, the 26-year-old former competitive cheerleader thought her mobility was great “until I began to work with dumbbells,” she wrote in an email. Dumbbells, she said, require “a lot more activation of smaller muscles.” At first, she found herself struggling to maintain a tight core and keep her shoulders stacked.
Things are different after eight months of dumbbell work
“I can say my stability has improved and I have gained strength from these movements,” Gimbi said. “I have learned a lot more about activation of smaller muscles and how to isolate certain muscle groups.”
Lewis and Lomen have also seen improvements in their members’ fitness after incorporating regular dumbbell work over the past several months. Lomen recently tested his members with a redo of Open Workout 17.5, except with dumbbells instead of a barbell.
“Some people got really similar times to the barbell even though I think pre-Open they would have thought it was a joke that they had to do 90 dumbbell thrusters,” he said.
Similarly, Lewis has taken to rewriting benchmark workouts such as Fran and Elizabeth with dumbbells instead of barbells, “pointing out to people that you might be really good with a barbell, but when it comes to single-arm movements or independent movements, you’re not as strong,” he said. He’s also programmed re-tests of the dumbbell workouts from the 2017 Open and reported that many members have shaved minutes off their times.
“I don’t think it was necessarily that they got stronger or that their cardio is better, but … they’re more comfortable with that single weight,” he said.
A Worthwhile Investment
Now a believer, Lomen is continuing to expand his dumbbell collection. He said he understands the frustration of affiliate owners who had to buy dumbbells for the Open last year but doesn’t excuse it.
“It’s an investment in your people’s fitness; it will help make them better,” he said. “CrossFit’s supposed to be constantly varied. We’re not supposed to just do the same movements with the same implements every time.
“We’ve seen our members work out muscle imbalances, gain more confidence and just get fitter since the Open.”
Cover image: Shaun Cleary