In CrossFit, machines are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, much more value is placed on bodyweight movements and free weights. Free weights, if you didn’t already know, are any type of equipment used for weight training that is not connected to an external apparatus, such as a barbell, kettlebell or dumbbell. Many people that are now CrossFitter’s began training at a globo gym, and probably frequented a few machines during their workout sessions. Does anybody remember the good ol’ pec deck? Ahh, fun times. Thankfully, we all saw the light, and now realize just how valuable free weight in comparison to any weight machine. Need a reminder?

The benefits of free weights

  • One of the best advantages of training with free weights over machines is that they don’t limit your range of motion through a movement. Furthermore, free weights provide better overall strengthening than machines because they mimic natural movement patterns that occur in everyday life and sport.
  • Free weights engage stabilizing muscles throughout your body as you perform movements, thus improving overall strength, power and balance at the same time. In the January 2008 issue of “The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,” researcher Keith Spennewyn, who is the President of the National Institute of Health Science, investigated the differences in strength and balance outcomes in participants using free weights vs. resistance-training machines. The results of the study indicated that individuals who performed free weight exercises had a 58 percent greater strength increase than individuals who performed exercises on resistance-training machines. Additionally, participants who performed free-weight training had a 196 percent increase in balance vs. those who performed exercises on resistance training machines.
  • Free weights allow you train large muscle groups at once, which saves time and increases your heart rate—thrusters anyone?
  • Free weights are incredibly versatile and allow you to perform a huge variety of different exercises with the same piece of equipment. We often overlook the poor dumbbell in this case, but I explain why you should give them another chance below.
  • For the most part, free weights tend to be inexpensive, portable and take up little space. Of course, barbells and rigs are getting kind of pricey these days, but you can take a pair of dumbbells or a kettlebell wherever you go.

So why, out of all the free weights one can find in the box, have I chosen to write specifically about the dumbbell?

The benefits of dumbbells 
First off, I love an underdog, and while the barbell and kettlebell get a lot of love, the dumbbell is often ignored. Perhaps it’s because a dumbbell reminds us of those days at the globo gym, doing bicep curls and lateral raises to try and get ‘swole’. Obviously, we didn’t know what we had with the dumbbell, but now we’re making up for lost time. Just look at event 4 from the Regionals last year. Known as “The 100s”, part of the workout consisted of 100 alternating one-arm dumbbell snatches.

Highlight imbalances in muscle strength
We all have one arm that is naturally stronger than the other. Until you do a dumbbell strict press, for example, you might not have known how much stronger—or how much weaker your other arm is. After a few reps of heavy weight, your right arm will still be able to move the weight upwards, while your left arm is shaking and struggling to complete the rep. If you haven’t experienced this yet I suggest you try out a few heavy dumbbell presses, or better yet, dumbbell thrusters. It’s a strange feeling to tell your body to do something, and have one group of muscles refuse to work as your others perform the desired movement. Since CrossFit is about balance, you want to eliminate any disparities and weaknesses you have in strength, just as you would for specific flexibility issues you may have.

Useful alternate exercise if injured
If you’ve badly hurt a muscle that’s only affecting one arm, then dumbbells (and kettlebells in this instance) are your best friend, allowing you to still get a workout in with some weight without risking further damage to an existing injury.

Dumbbell training is a complex motor activity
When training with dumbbells you have to control two independent instruments rather than controlling a barbell or heavy kettlebell with both arms simultaneously. As such, it takes a greater degree of control, strength and coordination to execute a movement efficiently with two independent weights rather than one—skills you can develop with consistent dumbbell use.

Dumbbells are useful for sport-specific training
For many athletes, alternating-arm exercises and single-arm exercises provide a more sport-specific way to train, as many activities in sports involve single-arm movements (e.g., throwing a punch, spiking a volleyball, swinging a racket) rather than both arms moving simultaneously through the same movement pattern. In addition, athletes rarely apply force against a balanced resistance during competition (just look at water polo, rugby, football, etc.). Both alternating and single-arm movements provide a unique training stimulus compared with typical barbell training.

Great way to learn OLY lifts before progressing to the barbell
As I have mentioned, training with dumbbells helps to improve an athlete’s coordination, balance and strength— important elements in Olympic Weightlifting. In fact, many coaches admit that many people grasp the foundations of OLY lifts easier with dumbbells than barbells.