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Are Dumbbells Really Dumb?

I mean, I’m always having to count out my own reps

Whomever the publicist is for dumbbells, they ought to be fired. How else can you competently explain how the barbell was labeled with a benign, adequately descriptive title that specifically refers to its prominent bar feature, while dumbbells were saddled with a name that doubles as a common grade-school insult?

Far from being dumb, dumbbells are usually a more practical training tool than their barbell cousins, and unless someone’s lifting routine requires them to manipulate hundreds of pounds at a time, it’s difficult to promulgate a situation where the barbell is the superior strength-building selection.

How did dumbbells get a name that sounds so insulting in the first place?

This is the result of one of those accidents of history where the common terminology of the time combined with the limitations of comparison to produce a less than ideal name for such a valuable object. The dumbbell was given its name by writer Joseph Addison in his magazine called The Spectator, when he wrote that he had exercised with a “dumb bell.” 

During Addison’s era, “dumb” was often used to describe something that had been reduced to a condition of silence. Since the early version of the dumbbell that Addison trained with apparently resembled a church bell, he hastily and clumsily named it a “dumb bell” in print, not realizing that he was christening perhaps the most practical fitness device ever devised with a label ill-befitting of its worth.

What makes dumbbells so wonderful?

I don’t even know where to start, but I suppose it all comes down to adaptability and natural ranges of motion.

If you’re lying on your back and performing a bench-pressing motion with a barbell, your hands are locked into a fixed position on the bar, and they don’t engage in any lateral movement as the weight is lifted and lowered. Ultimately, your hands will reach a point during the pressing motion where they would have been able to move further upward and inward if the bar wasn’t forcing them to remain anchored in place. This means that some of the potential muscle contraction — and therefore some of the potential chest muscle development — is left unattained if you train their chest exclusively with a barbell. 

In addition, the freedom of movement allotted by a dumbbell permits you to monitor and modify hand, shoulder and elbow positioning on the fly. This enables you to become better attuned to the engagement of your muscles during training sessions, and how modifications in motion and position change the way the muscles react. Put simply, training with dumbbells transforms you into a more enlightened lifter. 

So there’s nothing dumb about dumbbells at all!

If you own a set of dumbbells, you can efficiently train every major muscle group in your body, whether you decide to do it in a basic fashion, or in a manner requiring significantly more creativity. While you’re training with dumbbells, try to conjure up a name for them that’s more befitting their usefulness and legacy. Because the only dumb things about dumbbells are their disrespectful name — and the people who think barbells are always better.