When you head into a strength session, you have one mission: Choose a set of dumbbells and start lifting. But sometimes your intentions to get the most out of your workout can backfire, causing you to rush through your reps, or worse, get hurt.
Whether it's a break in form from lack of strength or improperly handling the weights, it's easy to fall prey to dumbbell mistakes. To help you reap more gains during your next workout, watch out for these common faulty movement patterns and form mishaps and steer clear of a few common dumbbell exercise errors.
5 Common Dumbbell Mistakes
1. You Hold Dumbbells With Bent Wrists
Before you even start lifting weights, it's important to make sure you have the correct setup, including the way you hold the dumbbells.
No matter which lift you're performing, it's crucial to keep your wrists straight and rigid throughout the entire movement, Samuel Chan, PT, DPT, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City says. This means that when you're holding dumbbells, you want the weights to be stacked directly over your wrists. "There should be no angle or bend at the wrist at all," Chan says. Repeat it to yourself if you have to: flat wrists.
Whether you're doing push or pull movements, keeping your wrists straight will also enhance your grip on the weight by engaging your forearm muscles. You don't ever want to lose control over the weight when you're lifting it. "Poor form at the wrist can lead to injury," Chan says.
Keep your wrists straight and rigid while you lift. If this feels difficult, decrease your weights to ensure joint safety during your exercise.
2. You Use Momentum to Lift the Weight
When you rely too heavily on momentum, "this is a sign [you're] using weights that are too heavy for you," Chan says.
What does using momentum look like exactly? Let's use the biceps curl as an example: If you're using momentum from swinging your arms and upper back to lift the weights to your shoulders, you're not getting the most out of the movement because your biceps aren't doing the work.
That's why trainers always say to keep your elbows pinned to your torso when performing a biceps curl. This ensures that you're initiating the movement with your biceps.
Similarly, if you're doing a shoulder press and you're using your legs to drive the weight overhead, then you're not challenging the shoulder muscles to their full potential.
It's common for people to compensate lack of strength with momentum. But if you want to avoid injury and make sure you're engaging the right muscles, choosing lighter weights will help you better understand which muscles you should be working, and how to execute exercises with proper form.
"There should be no excess motion from your body during lifts," Chan explains. "You should be able to perform eccentric or negative portions of each rep over two to three seconds." FYI, the eccentric portion that Chan refers to is the muscle-lengthening phase of an exercise. In a biceps curl, it's when you lower the weight back down.
Watch your form in the mirror and choose weights that are 5 pounds lighter or more, depending on how much momentum you're using.
3. You Don't Complete Your Reps
While you don't always need to be breaking parallel with your squats, you do want to perform your dumbbell exercises with full range of motion to reap all the benefits of your workout.
Back to the biceps curl example: "If you aren't fully straightening and bending your elbow during a biceps curl, you're not getting the full benefit of the exercise," Chan explains.
To strengthen your muscles properly, they need to be trained in all angles and ranges of motion. Stopping mid-range may feel easier, but it won't give you the results you're looking for — and it won't be a true test of your strength and progress.
If you can't perform a move with full range, you probably need to tweak your weights. In some cases, this may mean lowering the weights of some exercises you're already doing, Chan says.
That said, there is a place for performing exercises in partial range of motion. For example, you can do squat pulses to increase time under tension and recruit more muscle fibers in your glutes, but in order to do this, you need to be able to nail the move with full range first.
Practicing full range of motion can also help you improve the depth of your movements and keep you injury-free. So, if you want to squat or lunge deeper, for instance, don't shy away from getting low.
Decrease the weight as much as needed to comfortably perform your exercises with full range of motion and proper form.
4. You Forget to Work Against Gravity
From the beginning of a rep to the end of it, you want to avoid breaking down your form, so you have to position your body a certain way to engage the right muscles. But with hinging movements, you may not be lining yourself up right.
The best way to picture this mistake is with a triceps kickback. This exercise involves hinging at your hips to bring your torso parallel to the ground. "If your torso is too upright, or your upper arm and elbows aren't parallel to the floor, you won't be getting the full benefit of the weights," Chan explains. The goal is to extend your arms straight behind you to engage your triceps.
This concept also applies to exercises that involve anti-rotation, too. For example, when you're performing a dumbbell row, you want to hinge at your hips and bring your chest parallel to the ground. You also want to keep your shoulders and hips square — not rotating to the sides — as you lift the weight by your rib cage.
Adjust exercises as needed to move against gravity while you work out. Remember to initiate movement from the muscles you're targeting.
5. You Don't Engage Your Core
Poor posture is a no-go, whether you're sitting at your desk or lifting weights. Engaging your core while lifting dumbbells is a simple way to fix most posture-related problems. That's because your core anchors your entire body and prevents you from recruiting other muscle groups that hinder the effectiveness of the exercise.
Think about what happens when you perform an overhead shoulder press: If you don't brace your core, you'll probably arch your lower back and rely more on your chest to press the weights into the air.
This can also cause low-back pain if you're excessively arching the low back, Chan says. But if you keep your abs tight, you'll avoid arching, and your body will rely strictly on the shoulders to do the bulk of the lifting. There shouldn't be a sway in your back or movement from your legs.
This applies to lower-body exercises, too. For example, if you don't tighten your core when performing a deadlift, your posture fails and your chest caves forward. But if you engage your abs, then you're able to avoid rounding your back.
Before you start a new set of exercises, remind yourself to brace your core. This will prevent posture issues and potential low-back pain.
6 Dumbbell Exercise Mistakes You May Be Making
Maybe you're not making any mistakes with the weights themselves but the dumbbell exercises you're doing could use some tweaking. There are a few common dumbbell exercise errors you should keep in mind as you work out.
When it comes to what to avoid, many trainers offer varying opinions based on what they feel is inefficient, ineffective or just downright unsafe if you're not experienced.
"The worst dumbbell exercises are the ones where you are using weight that is too heavy and your form is totally compromised," according to Ashley Borden, CPT, creator of the Hot at Home dumbbell training program. That's because these two things often lead to injury. To help keep you from getting sidelined or wasting your time, here are a few moves that give trainers pause.
1. Hurting Your Shoulders With Arnold Presses
Named after the Terminator himself (Arnold Schwarzenegger), this shoulder move is better left to experienced lifters. In fact, this — and even regular overhead presses — put the shoulder at risk.
"The majority of people do not have the shoulder mobility to properly extend and press overhead," Ross says. As a result, shoulder impingement could occur. He goes on: In order to be cleared for the exercise, you should get a perfect score on the reaching pattern portion of the Functional Movement Screen, which not many people do.
Instead: Do lateral raises, so you take out the rotational transition from biceps curl to overhead press and avoid the overhead pressing motion altogether.
- Stand with a slight bend in the knees, core engaged.
- A dumbbell in each hand, let your arms hang extended at your sides with a slight bend in your elbow, palms facing toward you.
- Raise your arms out to the side of your body to about shoulder level, keeping your elbows slightly bent throughout the movement.
- With control, lower the weights back down to the starting position.
2. Injuring Your Elbow With the Triceps Kickback
"[Triceps kickbacks] are a difficult exercise to get full range of motion, hard to increase the weight and also puts the elbow in a compromised position, risking injury," according to Darren Ross, CPT, owner of P13 Fitness.
Instead: Try triceps push-ups, even if you need to do them on your knees. This brings your core into the move and allows you to modify or progress based on your strength.
- Start in a high plank (or drop to your knees), hands underneath your shoulders.
- Bend your elbows, hugging them close to your sides, and lower your chest toward the floor while keeping your back flat.
- Press back up to the start.
3. Overextending Your Knee With Walking Dumbbell Lunges
"Due to the forward movement of a walking lunge, it is very easy for a beginner to execute this movement with poor posture," Courtney Paul, CPT, a New York-based trainer.
"Too often, I have witnessed people rush through this movement and lose balance or overextend the knee, which can pull ligaments and strain the muscles that surround the knee." Add resistance to this move, and an exercise that's already challenging to those who lack balance and stability becomes even more difficult.
Instead: Perform weighted lunges from a stationary position. These are a great substitute for dumbbell walking lunges and still 100-percent effective, Paul says.
- Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand with one foot a couple of feet in front of the other. Your feet should still be shoulder-width apart rather than having one directly in front of the other.
- Bend your knees and lower down until both knees are at 90 degrees, with the back one hovering just above the ground.
- Push into front foot to rise back to standing.
- After completing the desired reps, repeat the move on the opposite leg.
“Rotate the shoulders back and directly over the hips, with dumbbells directly at your side secures your center of gravity, to give you less chance of losing balance or injury,” Paul says.
4. Rocking Your Hips With Renegade Rows
According to Paul, this exercise is notorious for being done improperly, especially when fatigue sets in.
"Due to lack of core strength, the hips will rise, rock side to side, and the pressure of the body weight due to the raising of the hips go into the shoulders, making this core and back movement more of a shoulder destroyer," he says.
Ross agrees that the difficulty level of this move is high. "People do this exercise incorrectly by not stabilizing the hips on the row and not fully extending their arm back for a proper row."
Instead: Swap in bent-over rows. Most exercise programs lack "pulling" exercises, and the row, which helps train the posterior (back) muscles and is one of Atkins' favorite posture exercises, does just that.
- Stand with feet hip-width apart, a slight bend in knees and a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing in.
- Hinge at waist and lower your torso slightly, allowing arms to hang down. This is the starting position.
- Keeping a flat back, squeeze your shoulder blades and bend your elbows, pulling dumbbells to your sides.
- Slowly lower the weights back down to the start.
5. Rounding Your Back With the Russian Twist
Though loved by many, Atkins says that she'd prefer people steer clear of this core exercise, which finds you in a partial sit-up position for the duration of its execution.
"These are terrible for your lower back, especially when done under load," she says.
Instead: Perform farmer's walks. When done properly, Ross says this move "helps with posture by maintaining scapular retraction throughout the walk."
- Stand with a kettlebell or dumbbell on either side on you.
- Squat down between dumbbells, keeping your chest up and back flat.
- Grab a dumbbell in each hand and stand up tall.
- Keeping your abs tight and your shoulders down and back, walk forward for your pre-determined distance.
This move is also a great way to build grip and forearm strength as well as work on core stabilization. Ross also notes that the farmer's walk is a "very underrated exercise when it comes to increasing heart rate."
6. Poor Form With the Dumbbell Snatch
Let's be honest, dumbbell snatches look pretty cool when you do them properly (and they're a great strength-builder). But with poor form, they can be a recipe for injury.
Angela Manuel Davis, CPT, Nike athlete and co-founder and chief motivation officer of AArmy would rather you skip this explosive movement — which is essentially a very complex mixture of a deadlift, biceps curl and shoulder press — because of its advanced nature. (Unless, of course, you have a coach present to ensure proper execution.)
Instead: Opt for goblet squats. Not only does this mobility and strength move "help counterbalance the squat position to help train proper squat mechanics," explains Atkins, but it also closely "mimics real-life scenarios," such as picking up a heavy box from the ground.
Dumbbell Goblet Squat
- Stand tall with a dumbbell in both hands and feet wider than hip-width apart, toes turned out slightly.
- Hinge at the hips, pushing your butt back and sinking down into a squat. Make sure to keep your chest up.
- Press into the four corners of your feet to rise back to standing.