A few days ago I came across a video of someone demonstrating a few classical dumbbell exercises (of Attila and Sandow) and he concluded that these exercises may be forgotten for a reason, because they put too much stress on the joints (in this particular case the elbow joints). I agree that one should not blindly follow some exercise program and that it is always best to research why one should do this or that. In this particular case, the person in question simply looked at the outer form of the exercise and applied the modern mind-set of weight lifting to the exercises. For example, he criticized that these exercises use a very long lever which stresses the joints too much when weights are applied, while at the same time the target muscles are not hit enough. First, it is clear that the old time strongmen are not infallible (meaning they could err as much as anyone) and exercise science progressed quite a bit since that time. But one must remember that Attila, Sandow and contemporaries used the exercise differently than a normal weight lifting exercise. In the exercises very light weight is applied and the goal is not to lift the weight per se. The dumbbell is an aid to willingly increase the muscular tension at the target muscle. Interestingly the long lever is deliberately used, because it also helps to focus the muscular tension.
Still one must be mindful on how one uses the dumbbell in these exercises correctly and how one applies the tension. Frankly, when I started working out with this protocol I made some errors too because I was over-enthusiastic or simply paid to little attention to some important details. Thus, I want to give you some pointers:
- The goal is not to lift the weight. Because of our strong egos, we think heavier is better. Forget about that. The goal is to repeatedly create focused tension on the target muscle. If you want to lift heavy weights, choose other methods. This method is indeed not suitable for this! The person from the video was right about the lever and stress for the joints.
- Do not hurry through the exercises. Practice slowly (but not snail speed), continuously and with flow. Too much speed and you will stress the joints again. Rapidly tensing at the end of a movement creates a braking effect and the weight will create shear forces on your joints, i.e. you will repeatedly joint lock yourself (especially at exercises with high movement amplitude)!
- Be relaxed as much as possible, but not too much. The exercises require a relatively high reps schema. You want to repeatedly generate a continuous flow of tension and relaxation in the target muscles. Too high tension hinders the continuous alternation of tension and relaxation. If you want to train with high tension, it is best to use other methods, e.g. isometrics.
- Do not tense muscles that are not used in the movement. You will tire too quickly, your movement quality of the exercises and most importantly your ability to be relaxed in your daily life will be suffering.
- Do not forget about applying the right amount of tension in the target muscles. If you want to simply work on you strength endurance with light weights, then even this weight is too low (but then again, do not use these exercises!)
So are these exercises “forgotten” for a reason, because they are useless and harmful? I would answer:
“No, not at all – far from it. But one must look beyond the external appearance of the exercises and not look at them from the perspective of modern weight lifting. Instead one must carefully try to understand the intention and inner workings of this method.”
Still, if you do not want to train with “focused muscular tension”, one should look at other methods. It is harmful and suboptimal to apply a normal hypertrophy protocol to most of these exercises.