Dumbbell Olympic Lifts For Strength & Performance

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Dumbbell Olympic Lifts For Strength & Athletic Performance

Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.

Nearly every workout I program for an athlete, bodybuilder, or powerlifter, I implement at least one explosive movement.  At least half of the time this includes some form of an Olympic weightlifting variation including cleans, snatches, jerks/push presses, jump shrugs, power shrugs, etc. 

However, I don’t always use the traditional barbell for performing these.  In fact over the last several years I periodically (approximately every 3 or 4 workouts) implement dumbbells into variations of Olympic lifts such as cleans, snatches, and explosive overhead movements.  In this video you’ll see me and one of my NFL athletes Marquell Beckwith performing hang snatches and hang cleans below the knee in an isolateral fashion (two dumbbells instead of one).

Here are 10 reasons why dumbbell Olympic lifts are so effective.

1. Improves and Requires Better Mobility On The Snatch

If you’ve never performed isolateral dumbbell snatches (2 dumbbells at once) the very first thing you’ll notice is how difficult the overhead catch position is.  That’s because when you eliminate the ability to create lateral tension on the barbell (i.e. pulling the bar apart or pushing out against the bar), you’re forced to rely more on smaller stabilizers in the shoulders, core, hips, and upper back that normally would not be called into play.

In addition, because you’ll be catching the dumbbells in a closer position rather than the traditional wide hand placement, this requires significantly greater levels of shoulder mobility.  Simply put, the isolateral dumbbell snatch is one of the most effective movements for building simultaneous stability, mobility, and motor control in the glenohumeral joint.  As an added bonus this overhead instability combined with a sudden overhead catch is absolutely brutal on the core and spinal stabilizers.

2. Requires Greater Motor Control And Stability

An interesting trend I’ve noticed over the years is that athletes with poor motor control and significant instability are oftentimes able to perform Olympic lifts with fairly solid mechanics.  However, once you move them to dumbbells or kettlebells their movement efficiency drops significantly as they lack the ability to control two separate objects.  It’s one thing to produce power but it’s another thing altogether when the athlete is required to control and harness that power. 

Performing Olympic lifts with dumbbells requires the lifter to not only produce significant power, torque, and speed to launch the weights up, it also forces them to control their body and the load with significantly greater levels of stability and motor control than what would typically be required during barbell movements.  This has a tremendous impact on the transfer to a variety of athletic skills as learning to control your power is critical in nearly all sports as power that can’t be controlled is essentially useless.

3. Provides A More Functional Catch Position On Cleans

Lets face it, performing barbell cleans by racking the bar on your shoulders in the typical Olympic weightlifting front-racked position, i.e. extended wrists and semi-contortionist arm positions, is not very functional when it comes to every day tasks or athletic performance.  In fact, you could make the argument that the traditional front-racked barbell clean position promotes dysfunctional upper body mechanics, i.e. over-extended wrists and overly flexed elbow joints, particularly when it comes to maximizing joint stability in the upper extremities.  

Unless you’re an Olympic weightlifter it’s really not that necessary.  Furthermore, unless you are actually using an Olympic barbell, the traditional front-racked clean position is almost impossible to accomplish in the same fashion with any other tool. In other words it’s very specific to the sport of weightlifting and not much else.

In contrast, cleaning dumbbells requires the lifter to use their own muscle mass and functional strength to catch the load near their body rather than allowing it to collapse to their shoulders and roll into their fingers.  Simply put this represents a more functional approach to how humans would typically hoist a weight to their body.

Here I have NFL athlete Brandon Chubb demonstrating proper form for dumbbell cleans as we prep him for the upcoming season.

4. Eliminates Wrist Issues But Crushes The Forearms

The front racked position can also be quite stressful on the wrists due to the over-extended position.  Cleaning dumbbells requires little if any wrist flexibility and mobility.  However they do require a significant degree of forearm and grip strength as well as motor control and full body tension particularly during the catch.

5. Requires More Brute Force And Raw Strength 

The dumbbell Olympic lifting variations rely more on brute force, power, and sheer aggression rather than precisely timed sequencing of events.  If you’re an Olympic lifter nailing every component of the sequence is critical as technique is paramount to the sport.  However, most athletes aren’t interested in becoming professional Olympic weightlifters, therefore relying a bit more on sheer power rather than precise execution of each and every individual sequence is something to consider when programming Olympic lifts for athletes. 

6. Provides More Low-Back Friendly Clean And Snatch Variations

Dumbbell Olympic lifts tend to be easier on the low back than standard variations predominantly because the lifter can use much lighter loads to produce a strong training stimulus.  In essence the lifter will use approximately 70% of the load they would typically use on barbell variations (when the weight of the dumbbells is combined) yet the stimulus to the hips in terms of teaching high power output is still exceptionally high.  If you’re looking for high effort variations of Olympic lifts that are low-back and generally speaking very joint friendly, the dumbbell cleans and snatches are tough to beat.

7. Minimizes The Drop And Catch Effect

Unless you’re a competitive Olympic weightlifter, learning to drop and catch under the bar is not entirely necessary.  In fact, overemphasizing the drop and catch can oftentimes minimize the triple extension effect as the lifter is overly concerned with dropping under the bar, ultimately creating a scenario where they short-change the extension phase.  Because the lifter won’t be able to drop under the dumbbells more than several inches (as doing so feels very unnatural with dumbbells especially snatches) this forces the lifter to launch the load up with extreme aggression as anything less will result in the weight stalling out before the lift is completed.  

8. Improves Symmetry

Lets face it, every athlete has some degree of asymmetry and muscular imbalance from side to side.  More than likely this translates to one side of the body working more intensely when performing barbell Olympic lifts.  Using dumbbells helps eliminate this as each side of the lower body, core, and upper body must work equally and in synchrony thereby eliminating asymmetries and imbalances that commonly occur during explosive movements.

9. Eliminates Bar Quality Issues

Bar quality can make a significant difference when performing Olympic lifts.  If the barbell collars don’t spin or they have a tendency to get stuck when attempting to flip and catch the bar, this can not only make the clean or snatch quite awkward but it can actually cause various injuries.  In addition, some bars are overly stiff making it quite uncomfortable to catch especially during cleans. 

Lastly, the degree of knurling is also important as excessive knurling can make it feel as though the barbell is stuck to the hands thereby disrupting your catch or racked position.  Fortunately these issues are a moot point when performing dumbbell cleans and snatches as the quality of dumbbells has little if any impact on the efficiency of the Olympic lift variation.

10. Helps Minimize The Erroneous Jumping Cue

Many lifters place too much emphasis on trying to jump when performing Olympic lifts rather than emphasizing hip extension.  In fact, trying to implement an exaggerated jump and stomp, as is commonly employed by many coaches, is one of the worst cues you can implement when performing Olympic lifts, as it minimizes force output and hip extension.  The dumbbell variations help to eliminate this as you’re forced to maintain contact with the floor throughout the lift otherwise it will be difficult to maintain control of the weights especially on the catch.

Kneeling Variations

Dumbbell snatches and cleans can also be performed from a kneeling position as demonstrated by NFL Offensive Lineman Darrell Williams and collegiate high jumper Bailey Weiland. 

Many of the previously mentioned benefits of dumbbell Olympic lifts are further magnified when doing them from a kneeling position as they require even more hip drive, motor control, and full body stability not to mention proper mechanics.  If you’re unfamiliar with the benefits of kneeling Olympic lifts check out this article.

Note About Cleans

As you’ll notice in the videos demonstrating the dumbbell variations, each of the cleans involves a rotational catch at the top.  I’ve found this to be the most natural and efficient catch position that also ensures the weights stay close to the body.  It also tends to feel easiest on the shoulder joints as the supinated grip helps pack and centrate the glenohumeral joint into the most biomechanically sound and stable position. 

What About Single Arm Variations?

Most individuals are familiar with the single arm versions of snatches typically performed either with a dumbbell or kettlebell and a wider stance as shown below.  

While I’m still a big fan of single arm Olympic lifts, the only downside is that upper body strength is typically the limiting factor as the hips can often handle more total load than what a single arm can hold and control. 

It’s for this reason I prefer the double or isolateral versions (both arms loaded independently yet simultaneously) when performing Olympic lifts as the hips must work just as hard if not harder than the upper body.  Although the upper body does get taxed quite heavily on the dumbbell cleans and snatches, upper body strength is rarely a limiting factor.

Bottoms-Up Variations

If you're looking to improve motor control, stability, balance, and overall body mechanics to another level you can also perform cleans and snatches with a bottoms up protocol.  These can be performed with plates or kettlebells.

Just be prepared to lock every segment of your body in as these are some of the most physically demanding exercises you'll ever attempt.  

Other variations

Want to improve your first-step speed, unilateral power output, knee drive, hip extension, and lower body stability? Try this split stance dumbbell clean with an eccentric isometric protocol as I have 2 MLB pro baseball players Austin Meadows and Parker Meadows showing here. This is a great drill for teaching athletes how to burst out of that starting position and maximize their first step speed by relying on their hip drive. It’s also a great way to work on single leg Olympic lifts while still providing a slightly more stable base thereby allowing the athlete to focus more on power output and less on the instability.

I recommend dumbbells or kettlebells rather than a barbell for this particular variation as the split stance position would require the athlete to position the barbell significantly in front of their center of mass which ultimately places more tension the low back. Furthermore dumbbells allow the athlete to snap into the catch by supinating their arms which tends to feel incredibly natural & safe on the shoulders.

The eccentric isometric elements (slow eccentric phase followed by a pause in the stretched position) maximizes proprioceptive feedback & kinesthetic awareness due to the increased activation of the muscle spindles – a result of the emphasized eccentric elongation. Ultimately this allows the athlete to maximize their form, technique, body mechanics, as well as their speed & power output due to enhanced neuromuscular efficiency resulting from the eccentric isometric protocol.

Why Not Just Use Kettlebells?

Kettlebells are great options for cleans and snatches.  In fact I periodically incorporate these into my training as demonstrated in several of the videos.  Unfortunately cleans and snatches with kettlebells requires a substantial learning curve.  As a result many lifters are not able to focus as much on power and force as they typically would due to the higher levels of coordination and motor control involved.  In contrast I've found that dumbbell Olympic lifts require very little learning as most athletes are able to pick up on these very quickly.

To learn more about programming explosive movements such as these into your strength training programs and routines check out my Complete Templates Series.