Bodybuilding is typically what comes to people’s minds when they think of dumbbell training. Exercises like chest presses, bicep curls and lateral raises using dumbbells are very effective for strength and adding muscle.
But in addition, dumbbells can be very effective for functional exercises. In other words, movement that uses the entire body as opposed to training muscles in isolation.
“Why should we train for movement?” you may be wondering. The answer is more apparent when we examine what the human body is designed for. The human body not only functions by pushing, pulling and lowering/raising the body’s center of mass, but also rotating and maintaining balance, stability and posture. With this in mind, there are three things that should be used in our approach to using dumbbells for function.
The first is training for movement. Muscles work in synergy. The term “synergy” comes from the Latin word meaning “work together.” The nervous system innervates the musculoskeletal system to work as a complete unit. A baseball player throwing a ball with maximum velocity or simply the act of running best illustrate this point. The muscles work in harmony. Performing more compound exercises that involve multiple joints and allow the body to work as a whole unit has a higher carryover into day-to-day life. Also, training for movement will yield greater strength gains, improve coordination and increase stability.
Second is training in multiple planes. The human body works in three planes of movement (sagittal, frontal and transverse), or movement that involves rotation, moving forwards and backwards and side to side. Being three-dimensional with our exercises helps minimize muscle/movement imbalances, decrease risk of injury and improve overall function.
Third is training balance and stability.
University of Sydney exercise physiologist Dr. Rhonda Orr defines functional training this way: “Strength is transferable from an unstable environment to a stable environment but not the other way around.” In other words, training muscles strictly from an isolated setting will yield little or no improvement for your balance or stability. In order to improve balance and stability, you must train for it. And it will improve not only balance and stability, but strength as well.
Now that we know the benefits of adding functional movement to our dumbbell workouts, here are four of my favorites that I use in conjunction with more traditional dumbbell exercises.
RENEGADE ROW (CHEST, BACK, CORE/STABILITY)
Begin in a pushup position with your feet wider than hip-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand. Engage your core and pull the dumbbell in your left hand just past the outside of your body with a rowing motion, while slightly rotating your torso. Using control, lower the weight back to the floor then repeat the same motion on the right side.
Continue for 10 repetitions per arm. For modification, perform the exercise from the knees. For an advanced option, add a push-up after each row.
RUNNING LUNGE (LEGS, SHOULDERS)
Begin in a standing position with a dumbbell in each hand. Starting with your left leg, lunge forward bending at the knees and lowering the hips while simultaneously raising the right dumbbell to about eye level with a 90-degree bend in your elbow. At the same time your left arm should be swinging back until the dumbbell is lined up with your hip while also keeping about a 90-degree bend in your arm.
Return to the starting position and repeat on the opposite side. Perform 10 repetitions per side.
SINGLE LEG DEADLIFT/REAR FLY (BALANCE/POSTURE, SHOULDERS)
Begin by balancing on your left leg, holding a pair of dumbbells. Engage your core and hinging at the hip until your upper body is about parallel to the floor. Maintain this position and pull your arms away from each other and retracting your shoulder blades until your arms are in a “t-position” in line with your upper body. Slowly release your arms, unhinge at the hips, returning back into an upright position while maintaining balance. Repeat for 5-6 reps then switch sides.
SQUAT TO LATERAL RAISE (LEGS, SHOULDERS)
Begin in a standing position with a dumbbell in each hand. Keeping your weight in your heels, squat and lower your body by hinging at the hips and bending at the knees until your thighs are about parallel to the floor. As you return to the standing position, simultaneously raise your dumbbells away from your body while bending your arms to a 90-degree angle until your arms are parallel to the floor.
Repeat the motion for a total of 15 repetitions.