Dumbbell Training Builds Lifting Power
by Charles A. Smith & Doug Hepburn (1953)
In this interview Doug Hepburn tells how the two hands dumbbell clean and press makes terrific contributions to pressing strength, shoulder development and lifting stamina.
The quality that the Old Time strongmen possessed, the one that has never failed to impress me, was their brute power. It is the fashion of modern weightlifting statisticians to compare the performances of the past with those of the present, to the detriment, be it said, of the present, and when one examines the feats of the Old Timers, takes into consideration that these feats were performed on clumsy, shot loading, solid type globe bells, then glances at the lifts of modern heavyweights and the implements they use to supply evidence of their strength, one cannot help but wonder what men like Swoboda, Turck, Steinbach and their fellow strongmen would have been capable of, if they had had the advantages of modern revolving barbells and out present training and lifting techniques.
No man who has ever lifted on an ordinary exercise bar and an international type bar will fail to appreciate the difference the revolving bar makes to his performance. The expression used most of all is . . . “That exercise bar has no life . . . no whip.” You will find that forty and more years ago, strongmen were cleaning 300 pounds and above, on bells that had as much “lifting life and whip” as a block of granite. Examine details of their training even more closely than their records and you’ll see the majority of the feats were dumbbell lifts, that their training was most liberally sprinkled with dumbbell exercises. Herein lay the secret of their brute power, their mighty pressing strength and the incredible stamina that enabled them to take part in contests of six lifts or more.
This colossal breed of men seems to have died out over the years finding re-incarnation in a modern Goliath of power – mighty Doug Hepburn of Canada. Here is an athlete who has all the strength qualities of the old timers rolled into one. No one has pressed more, or put more weight overhead than he has, pressed more with dumbbells one or two hands, bench pressed or squatted or curled or crucifixed more weight – and Doug tells me he owes much of his incredible power to dumbbell training! It is this training that laid the basics of his present strength. It is this training that has enabled him to become a threat to the best Olympic lifters in the world and increase his total by over 130 pounds in a single year. For dumbbell work gave him the basic power to make rapid gains in snatching and cleaning, on he started working to increase his quick lifts.
“An example of what I mean,” said Doug in a recent letter to me, “is contained in the following experiment. Take any lifter who is capable of cleaning 250 pounds on a revolving barbell. Ask him to clean an identical poundage in the shape of two 125 pound dumbbells. And just watch him fail dismally. But take a man who can clean these two ‘bells and I’ll bet he’ll make a 300 pound clean with little or no trouble, if he’s an Olympic specialist.”
For the heck of it, load up a heavy dumbbell to a poundage you can just about squeeze seven reps out of in fairly strict military pressing style. With each hand, run through six sets of these seven reps, finishing the six sets, even though you are unable to make seven reps! Then next day, just see how stiff you are, and not only in the triceps, biceps and deltoids, but in the forearms, trapezius, oblique muscles, hips, upper thighs and lumbar region. Dumbbell lifting supplies an almost complete schedule in itself, for every major muscle group. To heighten the effect on the upper back and shoulder girdle, lower back and thighs, clean the dumbbell for every press. After you have recovered from the effects of this workout, use TWO dumbbells instead of one, cleaning them to the shoulders for each press you make. This experiment, more clearly than any explanation I can give, will illustrate the tremendous effectiveness of the two dumbbell clean and press.
Doug Hepburn has always had a liking for heavy dumbbell cleaning and pressing, but has until recently confined his work to single-bell lifting. Except on rare occasions, the stronger of his arms, the right, got the major share of the work, but when he tried to press two dumbbells at once he soon knew where he had gone wrong – his right arm could press 30 pounds more than the left. Doug quickly saw the value of dumbbell pressing lay in the equal power it could have to each arm and shoulder and as soon as he began to concentrate on two dumbbell pressing his ordinary barbell press immediately began to increase, in addition to his cleaning power. Soon after he had set a new world record by pressing two dumbbells of a total weight of 325 pounds he was able to set a new Olympic World press record of 361, clean 380 from the hang, push press 450 from the shoulders with a barbell and make a training total of 1040.
“Dumbbell pressing,” says Doug, “is one of the finest of all the assistance exercises. If a lifter is concentrating on barbell pressing, and finds one arm is weaker than the other, no matter how long he continues his barbell workouts that weak arm will seldom improve. But as soon as it is worked ON ITS OWN, with one arm military presses, it at once increases in power, and as a consequence increases the barbell press. In fact, this goes for any type of dumbbell pressing – alternate, single or two arm dumbbell pressing. If I had utilized this idea before and had developed equal pressing power in each arm, I fell certain I would right now be capable of a 400 pound clean and press Olympic style.
For proof of the value of the two hands dumbbell press I need only point to the performances of such men as John Davis, Steinbach, Melvin Wells and Louis Cyr. All these men displayed maximum shoulder power and a very high degree of muscular bulk, and their dumbbell training played no small part in developing this power and massiveness.
It is my opinion that if a lifter is interested in handling maximum dumbbell poundages, he should certainly learn not only to clean them WITHOUT a split, but also WITH a split. He will benefit two ways. He’ll not only increase his snatching and cleaning power by cleaning dumbbell without a split, but he’ll also maintain a lot of his speed and control by splitting while cleaning the dumbbells. Personally I never bother to split, relying on my biceps strength. By splitting, a lifter can save energy for the press itself. Since I have yet to increase my clean to a point where it equal to my press, I concentrate more on developing pulling power with the dumbbells rather than pressing strength, despite the fact that my barbell press has benefitted considerably.
As you start your clean, take a deep breath, which you should expel as the dumbbells arrive into pressing position at the shoulders. Then, DON’T WAIT BEFORE YOU BREATHE AGAIN, but take another breath at once, on the rebound from the exhalation as it were, and press the bells overhead. If you allow too long an interval before you breathe in again, your shoulders will tire from holding the dumbbells in position. Another method is to use ONE breath for the entire lift, taking your breath before you clean the ‘bells and exhaling just when they pass the sticking point as they travel to arm’s length overhead. When the weights are in at the shoulders, concentrate on driving them overhead with all you have. Lock the thighs at the knees, contract the buttocks and spinal muscles, grit the teeth . . . . then DRIVE!”
Don’t forget the point Doug made in a foregoing paragraph, that both the clean section of the lift and the actual press are wonderful exercises, no matter if you do them separately, together, or clean the ‘bells for each press. If the lifter is concerned with development rather than strength, he should use the lift as two separate exercises, cleaning the dumbbells to the shoulders without a split and repeating. This will give him forearm, trapezius, lat and erector development. Pressing the weights overhead for a required number of repetitions develops the triceps, deltoids, biceps, (through holding the ‘bells in at the shoulders) and a certain amount of leg development because of the static contraction of the leg muscles. If the dumbbells are cleaned, pressed, returned to the ground for cleaning and pressing again, and continued in this fashion, it will prove to burn excess fat and provide an excellent means of achieving definition.
“Another point to remember when pressing the dumbbells is NOT to change the position after the clean. Normally the bars will point from front to back. Try and keep them in this position throughout the lift,” says Doug, “and keep the elbows into the sides as best you can, because this will give you a firm base to press from, as well as providing better leverage. Let the dumbbells tip slightly back – that is, give them a slight back hang, since this will provide balance and you will not waste energy trying to control them.
You can, of course, for the sake of change, press with the ‘bells pointing from side to side, but you’ll find that in this position it takes a lot out of you trying to stop the weights from falling away from the shoulders down to the sides. However, if you care to use a lighter poundage, this pressing position will provide a lot or work for the anterior deltoids and a different form of exercise for the triceps. The position at the shoulders with the bars pointing from front to back gets the lateral deltoids a lot, while the latissimus dorsi are also worked. As you will observe, they are vigorously contracted in order that the ‘bells have a firm foundation from which to be pressed.
Here are routines which I recommend for the advanced lifter and weight trainer, realizing the fact that one is interested solely in power and the other in musculature. Both men should warm up first with a weight about 40 pounds below maximum. This is extremely important because of the greater tendency to injury due to the large number of muscles used in concert, and the ranges they are worked over. Therefore, ALWAYS warm up well first. Do one set of 5 reps. From this point on the schedules for the two men differ in the number of reps and poundage used.
The advanced lifter should, for his regular routine in two hands dumbbell pressing, use a poundage he can just get 3 repetitions out of. He should use 4 sets and work up to 4 sets of 5 repetitions, by adding one rep at approximate intervals or whenever possible. As soon as he reaches 4 sets of 5 reps the exercising poundage should be increased by five pounds, as well as the warmup poundage.
The bodybuilder should choose a poundage he can COMFORTABLY get 4 sets of 6 repetitions out of. He should work up to 4 sets of 12 reps by adding a repetition when he feels it is possible. As soon as he is able to perform the 4 sets of 12 reps, he should increase the exercising poundage by five pounds, drop down to 6 reps again and work up.
Weight trainers who are not accustomed to dumbbell pressing will experience considerable stiffness in the deltoids and sides of the torso. If you have a tendency to lean back in your presses, watch the small of the back for any signs of unusual stiffness, since this can mean a sprain. A lot of stress can be taken off the legs, back and trunk by dumbbell pressing while seated on an incline bench, or with your partner’s knee in the middle of your back as a support. But you’ll find the poundage you can use will be less and the benefits you obtain, while good for the arms and shoulders, will not be so great overall. Therefore, always practice your two hands dumbbell presses standing, taking care not to strain at the lift, but at the same time working as hard as you can.
It is my experience that no other exercise, if you can call it that, has given me so much coordination of arm and shoulder power, control over heavy poundages and sheer basic power as dumbbell pressing, especially the two hands dumbbell press. Although physically handicapped, I am within 23 pounds of the world’s record total. I can tell you that I will be the first man to clean and press 400 pounds and I expect to one day clean and jerk 450 pounds. There is no doubt in my mind, Charlie, that I’ll break the world’s record total and continue breaking the press record until I reach 400 pounds. Who knows? I might even go on from there. Whether or not I shall clean and jerk 450 remains to be seen, but if I do, dumbbells will have played no small part in my attaining this figure.”
Editor’s note – Many readers have written us expressing appreciation of Doug Hepburn’s input and interviews, and how his training hints, relayed to you through Charlie Smith and put into article form by Charlie, have helped them with their lifting. We forwarded these thanks to Doug and his reply is characteristic of his warm friendly nature. Said Doug, “I’d be a pretty poor man if I didn’t pass along what I learned from my own experiences. I am always anxious to help lifting and lifters.”