By Donny Shankle
I first started weight training at the age 13 with a 13lb. dumbbell. I think my father picked it up at a flea market and it eventually found itself at the foot of my bed. The first exercise I probably ever did with weights was a dumbbell overhead press. Soon I was going to the library or hanging out by the magazine racks to learn other exercises I could do to help me build muscle. I didn’t have a bench so I used a Styrofoam ice chest if you can believe it and practiced one-arm bench presses on top of it. Only my upper back and shoulders rested on the bench and I used an old piece of carpet draped across the top to keep me from slipping. I picked up another set of dumbbells within a few weeks as I got stronger and had to replace my bench because I got bigger and it cracked.
The stronger I got the better equipment I either purchased or put together myself. My gym which started with a 13lb. dumbbell and ice chest was soon replaced with a bench I got from Wal-Mart and one of those plastic and sand weight sets. Once I out grew that, I built my own squat rack out of concrete cinder blocks. I stacked the blocks to shoulder height and filled them in with more concrete on top of a concrete slab. At this time I was working at a car wash and saved my money for a quality bar and plates. Here is when my strength really began to improve. My squat rack was outside and I would be out there sometimes till midnight squatting barefooted. Every time I dropped the bar the weights would bury themselves in the soft Louisiana mud and I’d have to dig them out. Looking back I realize as much of a pain in the ass as that was it probably made me that much more stronger. That wasn’t even the dicey bit of it though. I had a lot of dogs growing up and of course they use to love walking right behind me and lay down when I was squatting. Sometimes people tell me I should get a gym dog. Every time I think about getting one though, I remember back to those days growing up and squatting outside. I’d be praying in the middle of my reps not to all of a sudden have a moment of weakness. Later on I saved up some more money and bought a power rack and squatted, pressed and pulled in the den. Outside is where I would challenge my strength and agility in other ways like carrying tires, throwing the shot put , jumping for height , playing basketball and even wrestling my dogs. Once I watched the Atlanta Olympics, I was hooked to the sport of Weightlifting.
I started practicing on my own in the den how to snatch and clean and jerk. I realized the foundation of the house wasn’t going to hold up so I moved back outside and practiced in the grass again. I laid down some gravel and scrap wood to keep the weights from sinking too far into the dirt and had no idea what I was doing but I was having fun. At the bare minimum, I was developing the flexibility I would need later on for when I found a proper coach 5 years later. All that fun progressive resistance which started with a 13lb. dumbbell transpired into becoming a 5 time Weightlifting National Champion.
My favorite piece of equipment in the gym to this day is the simple dumbbell. I sometimes travel a lot and you can bet if the hotel gym has an exercise room I’ll be by the dumbbell rack. Don’t get me wrong. I like the fancy machines but for some reason I’m comfortable around the dumbbells. Maybe it reminds me of home. The dumbbell can build some strong and well balanced muscle. There is no compensation when using the dumbbell especially for the dumbbell press. Each shoulder has to work on its own and the other shoulder can’t help it out as it would say in a machine or on a bar. I rarely press 2 dumbbells overhead because I like to work each shoulder independently and test my strength overhead using each arm. Once I go back to pressing on a bar I feel my strength is much more well balanced.
Other exercises I do using one dumbbell which I started doing over 20 years ago are bent over dumbbell rows to strengthen the back, suitcase pulls to give me strong abdominals, hammer curls to strengthen my arms, deadlifts, swings and muscle snatches to strengthen the entire posterior chain and an assortment of laterals to build the muscles in my shoulders. Your grip and the muscles in your hands and forearms also become stronger especially if you use a dumbbell with a fatter grip. Strong hands for a weightlifter are very important because its your hands which connect you to the bar. If the connection is weak you will lack the confidence to move the bar fast. Plus a weightlifters wrists and hands take a beating over the years which can lead to some arthritis later in life. Exercising your grip and hands with a dumbbell with a fatter grip really helps keep the hands strong.
Along with the strength and balance you will build throughout your entire body from using a single dumbbell, lifting on a dumbbell is fun. Instead of clean and jerking on a bar your next training session see what you can clean and jerk on a dumbbell for each hand. The change will be good and and you might find your imbalanced enough in one hand that you need to start with 13lbs.