From the 2017 CrossFit Open onward, dumbbells have become an increasingly popular tool for improving fitness.
Nowadays, any CrossFit athlete– recreational or competitive– should expect to see the RX weight of 50/35 lb dumbbells pop up in a given workout.
Dumbbells aren’t new by any means , but they are quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the CrossFit community.
Why? They’re great way to change up training, expose weaknesses, and improve strength and fitness in ways that barbells can’t.
In this ultimate guide, we’ll look at what dumbbells can do for you and your fitness goals. And at the end, you’ll find 5 killer dumbbell CrossFit workouts to start building strength and improving fitness.
What Is A CrossFit Dumbbell Workout?
Defined as “constantly varied, functional movements performed at high intensity”, CrossFit is known for shaking things up.
Since 2009, dumbbells have been one tool the crew at CFHQ have used to keep us guessing, but they only recently became popular in competitive workouts.
Traditional CrossFit workouts are structured as AMRAPs (as many rounds as possible), EMOMs (every minute on the minute) “Chippers” (long duration workouts like Hero WODs), and intervals like Tabata.
There are more, but to list them all would be a separate article.
Dumbbells fit nicely into any style of CrossFit workout. For example, CrossFit Open 17.1 and 17.2 WODs used dumbbells for walking lunges, snatches, and power cleans.
How Effective are Dumbbell Workouts?
Dumbbell workouts promote strength gains in a way barbells can’t.
They are an effective tool for training unilateral exercises (performed with one limb), like in the split squat.
They are also great for training coordination and stability, as the bells typically sit on opposite sides of the body.
Traditionally, dumbbells are fantastic for isolating muscle groups (i.e. the biceps in a bicep curl). If nothing else, they are great for accessory work.
Dumbbell VS Barbell Workouts For Crossfit
There are benefits to using dumbbells and barbells in a CrossFit workout. Depending on your goals, one may be preferable to the other.
Dumbbells take up less space, require less equipment, offer unique training benefits (stabilization and coordination, for example), and can help “mix up” your training.
Barbells are more widely used in CrossFit workouts. If your goal is to increase max strength, set a new 1 rep max PR, or do Olympic lifts, barbells are the better choice.
You always have the option to substitute dumbbells for a barbell workout, but keep in mind that replicating the amount of weight on the bar for most RX workouts will be unlikely.
Even a workout like “Fran” (using 95lb thrusters) would not be the same workout if you were to “roughly” equate the RX weight using 45lb dumbbells. That workout would quickly turn into a much heavier version of Fran.
Still, you can easily get stronger and add muscle using either dumbbells or barbells in your CrossFit training.
Setting Up For Dumbbell Workouts
When you set up for a dumbbell workout, you have the advantage of lining your dumbbells up in a space that makes transitions seamless. Unlike barbells, dumbbells can fit under or next to pull-up bars or even tag along on a ride to the local track.
When you pick up dumbbells, setup should look similar to a barbell. Just because the weight is lighter and the bells are on your sides and not in front doesn’t mean form should suffer.
Keep a tight back, use your legs to pick the bells up, and keep your breath steady during the movements.
Dumbbell Workout Benefits
Here are 5 benefits for using dumbbells during your training:
- Build Muscle– Heavy dumbbells used to perform medium to high reps (6-12) can help increase muscle mass.
- Health Benefits of Resistance Training– Just like with a barbell or any other type of resistance training, dumbbells help make your bones and joints stronger, muscles thicker, and body healthier.
- Burn Fat/Lose Weight– Depending on the type of training, dumbbells can help you burn fat easily. They are a fantastic tool for Tabata or other types of HIIT training.
- Stability/Coordination– You’re forcing your body to stabilize and coordinate movements in unison when you use dumbbells. This is a slightly different type of resistance training that offers unique benefits.
- Transportability– Unlike larger equipment, a set of dumbbells can fit in the backseat of a car and go anywhere.
These give you a reason to stop thinking of dumbbell training as a step down from barbell training. Just because the weight is lighter doesn’t mean the benefits aren’t real.
Best Dumbbell Exercises For CrossFit
While there are myriad exercises you can perform with dumbbells, there are some popular ones that come up a lot in CrossFit. Here are some of the best exercises to try out or start training more frequently:
- Dumbbell Overhead Walking Lunge– One dumbbell or two, these will really force you to stabilize the weight overhead and get strong holding a challenging position.
- Power Clean/Hang Power Clean/Hang Power Clean and Jerk– Appearing for the first time in the 2018 CrossFit Open (the 1-arm version), the dumbbell power clean trains explosiveness, power, and strength.
- Power Snatch/Power Snatch Variations– Full body, unilateral training exercise that plugs into any style of CrossFit workout. Also trains explosiveness, power, and strength.
- Dumbbell Squat– The darling of CrossFit Open 18.2, double dumbbell squats are surprisingly taxing and jack your heart rate up. A simple exercise great for conditioning or changing up your squat accessory work.
- Dumbbell Thruster– Dumbbell thrusters are the perfect “hotel gym” exercise. Most gyms equip to about 40 lbs of dumbbells, which is plenty heavy to kick your butt doing a version of “Fran” or a killer like “Freight Train” (see below).
5 Killer Dumbbell CrossFit Workouts
Here are 5 workouts to test your strength, fitness, and coordination with dumbbells.
1. “Freight Train”
3 rounds for time:
- 10 Dumbbell Thrusters, 50/35 lbs
- 15 Burpees
- 30 Air Squats
2. Dumbbell Kalsu
Perform 5 burpees on the top of each minute. In the remainder of the minute, do as many dumbbell thrusters as possible. Time stops when you reach 100 thrusters.
Weight: 50/35 lbs
3 Rounds For Time:
- Run 800 meters
- 30 Dumbbell Squat Cleans, 50/35 lbs
- 30 Burpees
Check out more Hero WOD guides for workouts like Helton.
4. Man Maker/HSPU Couplet
- 10 Dumbbell “Man Makers“
- 10 HSPU
- 8 Dumbbell “Man Makers”
- 8 HSPU
- 6 Dumbbell “Man Makers”
- 6 HSPU
- 4 Dumbbell “Man Makers”
- 4 HSPU
- 2 Dumbbell “Man Makers”
- 2 HSPU
5. CrossFit Open 18.1 WOD
- 8 Toes To Bar
- 10 Dumbbell Hang Clean and Jerks
- 14/12 Calorie Row
When added properly to your training, dumbbells are anything but a “step down” from the barbell.
In fact, using dumbbells offers many benefits barbells don’t, including increased coordination and stability training. If nothing else, you’re getting stronger with different equipment in your hands, which is kind of what CrossFit is about.
Use this guide as the impetus to start adding dumbbells to your workouts. You won’t regret it!