Mastering The Circus Dumbbell

August 20, 2021

The lifting of dumbbells dates back 2,000+ years to ancient Greece when people trained with what they called “Halteres”.

Originally written by Kevin Becker

These weights were not only used for strength training but also for a variation of what we know today as the triple jump. These stones, sometimes metal weights usually weighed between 12 and 35kg (26lbs and 77lbs).

The word dumbbell originated in the late Stuart period (1603-1714) in England and originally denoted the apparatus that was used for the ringing of a church bell. Designed to develop technique, with an emphasis on strength, the lack of noise produced by these practice bells earned them the title “Dumb” bells.

That name stuck throughout history. Perhaps the two most popular dumbbells in history would be the Thomas Inch (weighing 172.9lbs) and the Cyr Dumbbell (empty weighing 202lbs but loadable to 273 ¼lbs).

Both these dumbbells were owned by performing men who displayed their strength for crowds and challenged anyone who might be feeling strong that day.

Today, modern strongmen and women hoist dumbbells that mimic these historic bells and still earn the respect of crowds by single-handedly putting large numbers over their head.

Pre-Circus Dumbbell Training

Most shot/plate loadable bells will range in weight between 55lbs to 140lbs empty. Before I touch my dumbbell that weighs 85lbs empty and try to throw it over my head, I like to do a few things first to ensure my training session is going to go smoothly.

First and foremost I do a light jog to warm up the lower extremities, get some blood moving, and get in the mindset of training. Next, I will move onto Hammer curls because the clean will involve some biceps.

So! After my pump sesh and a few selfies, I’ll focus on the mobility of my chest, lats, and triceps. This can be done with a band or with a pullover variation.

Next, I will perform between 10 and 15 chins/pull-ups. If you don’t have a loadable handle or fat grips I highly recommend obtaining one or the other.

Whenever I am warming up to press I never throw 40% on the bar and go at it. I always start with an empty handle and work my way up to my Circus dumbbells weight.

Now, in my training throughout the week, I will clean and press every rep and work on my non-dominant hand as I do my dominant but in practice (specific event training) I will clean and press away if the upcoming contest constitutes it or clean and press each rep accordingly.

I never go non-dominant in practice. Neither did Barry Bonds.

My best shot at winning is increasing the work capacity of my dominant hand and training my non-dominant during the week in case I get injured or if I need to squeeze in a final rep or two.

Circus Dumbbell Set-Up

Make sure you have an appropriate shoe on, something with a stiff flat sole like chucks or indoor soccer shoes (my preferred) or weightlifting shoes. If you wear any supportive gear for example elbow sleeves, neoprene belt, or knee sleeves I like to have these pieces on at least 30 minutes before my working sets.

Wrist wraps, hard belts, and helmets can go on at your preference. Your dominant hand will grab the handle first followed by your assisting hand for the clean portion.  

Straddle the bell with approximately your squat foot position. I like to have the lower portion of the bell a little further forward than most. I position myself so that the lower bell is even with my toes so the handle is not centered directly underneath me.

Instead of pulling the bell from the floor, I bring the top portion of the bell in contact with the ground slightly behind my heels. I do this to one generate momentum and secondly because in competition when you’re asked to clean and press it is required that the bell makes contact with the floor.

This will also create a groove for being as efficient as possible within your allotted time frame. Most importantly this loads the hamstrings similar to a kettlebell swing and will conserve some much-needed energy for the press.

After you have successfully loaded your hamstrings you’re ready to accelerate that bell as explosively as possible driving your hips forward and guiding the bell to your shoulder with the opposite hand setting up for the rack position.

Circus Dumbbell Rack Position

By far the most critical component to a successful circus dumbbell is the rack position. Because there is a vast range of makes and sizes of bells out there I train the rack position with the lower bell resting as far back on my shoulder and as close to my skull as possible.

This is where lat and tricep mobility and strength play a key role. In order for that dumbbell to sit in the groove, you must first be able to get into position and maintain a slightly upward angle of the bell through the dip drive.

If you struggle with this, improving mobility through the banded stretch or pullover becomes crucial. If you struggle maintaining this position, then performing face pulls, weighted chins, and frequency with the bell will be of assistance.

Once in position without rotating the bell, position your elbow directly under the center mass so your palm is facing the ceiling or sky and remove your non-dominant hand.

Circus Dumbbell Dip/Drive/Catch

So you’re ready to press! The first thing you do after removing the non-dominant hand is bringing your feet slightly in from the clean position. The dip drive is not a long slow ¼ squat but an explosive quad-dominant movement to transfer as much energy as possible upward into the bell while pressing on the handle to maintain the rack.

After reaching full extension your feet will then return to your strongest position that should mimic your position of a squat. The bell at this point will be close to lockout and over your spine if you’ve maintained a good rack.

The catch or lockout is more efficient if there is less of a press present. “Fast” elbows into position not only will improve how you receive the bell but will also conserve some strength and improve efficiency.

A slight shift in torso angle is to be expected but excessive diversion can compromise shoulder health. After you have successfully received the dumbbell you will then bring your feet back into a narrower position and wait for the judge to give you a down command.

Circus Dumbbell Accessories

  1. Power cleans and heavy clean pulls to improve your clean
  2. Hammer curls, Kettle bell swings, and snatches for the clean and shoulder health
  3. Face pulls for stability along with ring dips
  4. Front squats for the dip drive
  5. Push jerks and split jerks to learn the catch
  6. Single arm DB presses to grease the groove
  7. Strict pressing
About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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