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Opinion

How To Maximize Your Workout With Light Dumbbells

Gains don't always require training with heavy weights.

If you’ve scoured the entire internet for heavy weights and come up empty, don’t despair. You can craft an effective lifting routine even with light dumbbells — you just have to get a little creative about how you use what you’ve got.

Advantages Of Working With Light Weights

Sure, it can be demoralizing to only have access to light weights when you’d prefer heavier stuff. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a lot of bang for your light dumbbell buck — they can offer things heavier loads can’t.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

[Related: Dumbbells vs. kettlebells — which is best for my goals]

Less Central Nervous System Fatigue

When lifting very heavy loads — especially compound lifts like squats and deads — you’re going to exhaust the heck out of your central nervous system (CNS). That’s why it’s generally advised to limit the amount of true HIIT work you do per week, and why you separate big lifts with training splits (and why you have to be extra careful about your recovery when working full body). It’s not all about muscle fatigueit’s also about taxing your CNS, which really doesn’t know the difference between “hey we’re in a life-threatening situation” and “hey we’re trying to hit our deadlift max.” Lifting lighter weights won’t send your nervous system into such an excited state, which can help make recovery that much easier.

Don’t worry — less CNS fatigue doesn’t have to translate into fewer gains. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that among 49 men experienced in lifting, even those who lifted as little as 30% their 1RM still made similar muscular gains as those who lifted as high as 90% their 1RM. (1) Of course, training with lighter weights means higher reps — between 20-25 per set, versus 8-12 per set with heavier weights. The trick seemed to be working to failure regardless of the amount of weight used. Read on to figure out how to get to failure with light weights without just doing hundreds of mindless reps.

Isolation Lifts

If all that is available is a heavy weight or two, you’re not going to be able to get in too many isolation lifts. Of course, you don’t want to only be training isolation moves, but the option to include them in your training can be especially uplifting when quarantine creates some changes in your body over time. You might normally rely on pull-ups and underhanded barbell rows to hammer your biceps, but if you don’t have a pull-up bar or barbell, hammer curls are an increasingly attractive option to keep your bis strong (and pretty). With lighter weights, you can really get into those isolation lifts without sacrificing form — think reverse flyes, lateral raises, all kinds of curls, and all manner of tricep extensions.

Unilateral Movements

You can incorporate unilateral training with heavier loads, too, but you’ll probably be able to sink into deeper ranges of motion with lighter weights. Lateral lunges, split squats, unilateral overhead presses, and a wide range of chopping moves are all suddenly much more accessible when you can more easily control your weights. But accessible doesn’t mean easy — deploy the strategies below to get the most out of those muscle-balanced moves.

How To Get The Best Workouts With Only Light Dumbbells

Creativity is your friend when it comes to mixing up your routine with lighter weights. Ideally, driving toward failure — without falling into endless and mindless reps — can give your body an extra challenge by manipulating time under tension.

Play With Speed

Tempo, tempo, tempo. Try a 4-0-2-0 pace for each rep if you can — doing something like reverse flyes can be especially tough when working toward 20-25 reps. Focus on control and moving as slowly as you can.

When ready to turn it up a notch, transition with minimal rest from a set of slow, tempo reps to a set of fast, explosive reps (just make sure to avoid kipping the weight or relying on momentum). Playing games with slow and fast speeds can recruit more muscle fibers.

Isometrics

When you’re about to hit failure, try stopping and just…waiting. In the bottom of your front racked squat or the mid-range of your bicep curl, find the sticking point for each particular lift, and try holding at that point for as long as you can during the last rep. Count the seconds — be honest with yourself, with a full “one chimpanzee, two chimpanzee” (rather than a breathlessly fast 1,2,3,4,5,look-how-strong-I-am) — and record it so you can track your improvement over time.

Dumbbell Row
Image via Shutterstock/Ajan Alen

Incorporate Giant Sets

Supersets are amazing for letting your back rest while your chest fires up. When working with lighter weights, the burn can be felt even more when working in giant sets. Think four or five back movements back-to-back (sorry, not sorry). By completely gassing each muscle group through giant sets,  your muscles will feel as beat up as they would if they were tasked regular sets involving heavier weights.

Don’t Put Your Weights Down

Even if you want to go the superset route instead of giant sets, make it your mission to avoid putting the weights down while transitioning from double overhead tricep extensions to hammer curls. That will increase fatigue and progress toward failure more effectively. Even while resting between supersets or giant sets, try to keep the weights in hand for as much of the workout time as possible. Your heart rate might be resting, but let your grip keep working as long as you can. It’ll also make the workout a lot more mentally engaging — when the mind is involved, the workout feels harder. It’ll probably create a lot more respect for light weights (and for yourself, for the massive effort you’re putting in).

Think Like A Bodybuilder

When training with light weights, it might be tempting to blast through reps like nobody’s business because, well…you can — avoid this. Focusing on tempo and isometrics can help, but mindfully counting is a lot better than doing so mindlessly. That’s where engaging your inner bodybuilder comes in.

At the top of each move, fully contract your muscles as though you’re a bodybuilder. For example: squeeze your glutes and quads at the top of your squat, and pull your shoulder blades together at the top of the reverse flye. Slow your mind down enough to think of each rep through the entire workout — give each and every one your full and complete focus. Engaging the mind as much as the muscles can help build mental strength and make you feel a lot better about lifting with lighter weights even when missing the heavier guys.

Light Weights For The Win

It can be easy to get discouraged and even panicked with access to limited equipment for an indefinite period of time. But if you use those little dumbbells properly, they won’t feel very little — and neither will your muscles.

References

  1. Robert W. Morton, et al. Neither load nor systemic hormones determine resistance training-mediated hypertrophy or strength gains in resistance-trained young men. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2016. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00154.2016

Feature image via Image via Shutterstock/Ajan Alen.

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