CrossFit participants could be exposed to any number of different movements throughout the course of a training week, and no small number of different lifting implements. This is one of the many aspects of CrossFit training that makes it unique among physical fitness methodologies. In the past five years, dumbbells have begun to play a much more prominent role because of their utility and adaptability. Historically, dumbbells were most often identified with bodybuilders preparing their biceps for display at their next physique contests or circus strongmen performing for entertainment at public festivities. But the programming of the dumbbell snatch in the 2017 CrossFit Open demonstrated the dumbbell’s suitability in other training contexts and popularized the idea that the dumbbell’s functionality far exceeds its already recognized application as a lifting implement for isolated accessory work.
Nevertheless, because of the dumbbell’s versatility, questions inevitably arise regarding proper loading. In fact, the single most common question I encounter as a CrossFit and weightlifting coach is: What dumbbell weight should I use? This question is entirely valid, and one I am pleased that my clients ask, but it remains an extremely difficult question to answer because of how context-specific the inquiry is. Rather than being answered by reference to simple, generic adjectives, like “light” or “heavy”, the inquiry depends on an evaluation of several multi-dimensional factors, including: 1) an individual participant’s capacity; 2) his or her unique training circumstances; and 3) the objectives of the exercise/workout/session. Below, I will dissect each of these criteria in turn and explain how each contributes to choosing the appropriate dumbbell weight. In doing so, I hope to provide readers and CrossFit participants with the tools necessary to make such determinations on their own.
An individual participant’s capacity is the first point of inquiry, and the most objectively discernable. Before we can decide what specific dumbbell weight (or the range of weights) an athlete should work at, we must assess the athlete’s objective ability to handle a certain load. (In this writing, I am concerned with an athlete’s functional capacity, versus his or her absolute capacity. That is, what matters to me is an athlete’s ability to safely handle the load while maintaining adequate physiological control over his or her technique. Reference to this principle will be made below.) The “capacity” category can be divided into several subcomponents: strength, endurance, and stability. For our purposes, strength is measured by the heaviest load an athlete can work at, with respect to a specific movement. Endurance, on the other hand, is measured by an athlete’s ability to sustain performance of a specific movement at some load. Stability is most relevant to compound weightlifting and powerlifting movements, and it is measured by an athlete’s ability to maintain motor control and to keep the body’s musculoskeletal structure secure while under load.
No single subcomponent is dispositive, and in conjunction with the other factors discussed below, all three must be assessed together in order to establish an athlete’s ability to support a dumbbell load appropriate for the training exercise/workout/session. Simply put, because an athlete has the functional ability to perform some amount of work at a load does not mean that the athlete should work at that load.
Once we have an adequate understanding of the individual athlete’s capacity, we can then consider all of his or her unique circumstances. When I use the term “circumstances”, I mean to say that the athlete is either healthy or the athlete is injured, deficient, afflicted, or some combination thereof. Unlike the capacity determination, which can be quite objective, circumstances are inherently subjective, and they exist on a lengthy spectrum between the points of perfect health and utter unhealthiness. Within the parameters of this paper, an athlete is healthy when he or she has no known injuries, deficiencies, or other afflictions (such as exhaustion/fatigue) that might prevent the athlete from working at an optimal dumbbell load. It should go without saying that dumbbell loading should decrease to reflect an athlete’s increasing degree of unhealthiness. I do, however, caution that I am not a doctor, nor a medical professional of any kind, and how I have characterized “health” is not necessarily in conformity with the encyclopedic, medical definition of same. But I think my terminology can be easily understood by those choosing to consult this draft, so I will continue to use it under that assumption.
It is the rare case that an individual is in a state of perfect health. I would, therefore, like to allocate a few extra lines to discussing injury, deficiency, and affliction. Injury can be understood as temporary or permanent physiological damage to the body caused by any number of minor or major traumas/strains/tears/breaks/etc., whereas deficiency is a short- or long-term physiological limitation on movement capability and/or quality that precludes the body from attaining safe and/or efficient positioning. Affliction is a catch-all term for other conditions that impact an athlete’s ability to perform, conditions like exhaustion/fatigue, lifestyle, anatomy, and exposure. Injury, deficiency, and affliction are all obstacles to capacity because they diminish the body’s ability to perform work, and they are usually identifiable because of the cognizable pain signals that they relay to the brain. Moreover, these things tend to play on one another if ignored when making dumbbell loading choices. Usually, the more injured, deficient, and/or afflicted an athlete is, the lighter the dumbbell weight should be, relative to the athlete’s individual capacity and the objectives of the training exercise/workout/setting.
Lastly, we can never disregard the objectives of the relevant exercise/workout/session when choosing a dumbbell weight. The subcomponents of what I call the “objectives” factor are fairly easy to understand. What the movement is, the setting in which the movement is being performed, and what we hope to get out of performing the movement all contribute to this point of the inquiry. When it comes to the movement itself, for which the dumbbell is being used, it will generally be classified in one of three ways. The movement will either be an isolated accessory movement, a compound weightlifting or powerlifting movement, or a midline stability movement. An isolated accessory movement is a movement that targets a specific muscle or a very localized group of muscles, and a stereotypical example of such movement is the classic bicep curl or one of its variants. A compound weightlifting or powerlifting movement, by contrast, is a movement that requires the coordinated efforts of various muscles and groups of muscles throughout the body. Although technically a compound movement, I have given the midline stability movement its own designation: a movement that trains the muscles of the body’s trunk to maintain structural integrity under sustained load. All functional isolated and compound movements emanate from the core, and any productive physical training program should include a mix of all three movement types. As you can imagine, an athlete performing a classic compound weightlifting or powerlifting movement will generally be able to support a greater dumbbell load than an athlete performing an isolated accessory movement, but even that result is contingent on things like technical efficiency, experience, and which muscles or groups of muscles are being used. With respect to load selection for a midline stability movement, it varies because an athlete can usually carry or hold (in a static sense) much more weight than an athlete performing a dynamic midline stability movement, like a Turkish getup.
But the inquiry does not just stop at what the movement is. How the movement is being employed is also essential to load selection. Is the movement being used in the warm-up or in the workout? Further, what do we hope to get out of performing this specific movement in this specific setting. In a warm-up, our goals are usually basic. Either we want to increase blood flow to a certain area of the body, or we want to prepare our body’s neurological responses to stimuli by focusing on muscle activation/recruitment. In addition to everything else we have discussed previously, our dumbbell load must reflect these warm-up goals. The weight should be heavy enough to wake the body up and allow the brain to adequately instruct and manage movement, but it should not be so heavy as to tire the body out, cause it to stop performing work, or force the brain to provide poor movement guidance.
Similarly, workouts themselves are forums for addressing goals, but those goals are usually distinct from warm-up goals. And so, selecting dumbbell weights should reflect those different goals, as well as the structure and duration of the workout. For metabolic conditioning workouts, that are oriented more towards enhancing general physiological endurance, goals range from breaking a simple sweat (choose a lighter or more moderate dumbbell weight) to breaking all manner of training barriers (choose a dumbbell weight beyond your comfort zone). Accessory work, on the other hand, comes in slightly different flavors. The more traditional flavor is the progressive overload—the gradual increase of dumbbell loading over time for a specific movement. This is how we address functional strength, endurance, and stability deficiencies then existing in the smaller muscles and groups of muscles that make up the critical mechanical elements of compound movements. “Burnout” or “drop” sets are a little bit less common, but they can supplement traditional accessory work by working towards the same goals and facilitating additional ones, such as aesthetics and physique.
*“Maxing out” is not really something that comes up when discussing dumbbell movements in the CrossFit training context, so I will not waste time on that topic in this paper. Rehabilitation is also a training setting in which dumbbells may be employed, but it is not necessarily a setting I am qualified to speak on. Accordingly, I have made no direct reference to same herein.
When it comes to advising athletes on dumbbell loading, I hesitate to provide generic answers because of how context-specific the relevant inquiry is. Capacity, circumstances, and objectives are all essential to the determination, and discussing these factors in depth with clients is critical for their safety and productivity in the gym. The only exception to this is when I would like to preempt athlete autonomy because of athletes’ frequent propensities for making selections that are too heavy or too light. For example, if I am asked about an appropriate dumbbell weight for performing lateral or reverse flies, I usually make it unmistakably clear to everyone that the weight needs to be on the lighter end because of the complexity of the movement, the athletes’ collective lack of exposure to the movement and experience with it, and the tendency of athletes to choose loads much heavier than they should. Aside from these such occasions, though, I carefully consider all the factors discussed above when answering a question about dumbbell loading, and I encourage all athletes to think about these same criteria when making decisions on their own.