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How To Train Hardcore With Light Weights

Written by Sean Hyson Topics: Fitness

kobe-bryant-01Guest Post By Sean Hyson

One time, I made the mistake of Tweeting that I had to modify my workout in order to make better use of light dumbbells, which was all the equipment I had available to me at the moment. Seconds later, some “bro” responded, smugly suggesting that if I’m serious about training, I should seek out a better, more “hardcore” gym with heavy dumbbells.

Obviously, he didn’t know me, because there are few places on earth I’d rather be than in a hardcore gym at any given moment. And, normally, I have no interest in using light dumbbells, or light anything, for that matter. I felt like Tweeting back, “Hey, tough guy, the day may come when you’ll have to squat 135 in some place other than Westside Barbell, and what will you do then?”

I didn’t Tweet that—even though I’m pretty sure it was under 140 characters. Still, it was more than just an angry reaction. There are times in every lifter’s life when they can’t go as heavy as they’d like and have to make the most of whatever equipment they have. You may find yourself traveling, with access to only a hotel gym or a douchey health club. Sometimes, your options can be limited when you least expect them to be, such as when you’re in the gym during peak hours and can’t get the weights you want or the equipment you need is broken or missing. Also, you may just not be able to load up weights due to injury, and need a new challenge to keep building muscle without pressuring your joints. Of course, body-weight training is always an option, but if you don’t have a chinup bar or suspension trainer, you may feel limited.

As I’ve learned, you can make whatever iron you have to work with feel heavy and get just as good a training effect with it as you would if you had the perfect gym at your disposal. Here’s how you train hardcore with light weights. (“Bros” who are too strong for the rest of us need not read on.)

Get a Mechanical DISadvantage

A barbell, even an empty one, can suddenly get much heavier depending on how you hold it. You can get a torturous biceps workout with little to no weight by doing curls with an overhand grip (reverse curl), then moving quickly to a wide, underhand grip, and then a narrow grip. Finally, finish up with conventional, shoulder-width grip curls.

You could do these as a drop set or as straight sets. The point is simply to increase your mechanical advantage as you fatigue. You start in your weakest position—the reverse curl, where palms are down—and gradually transition to increasingly stronger positions. Your biceps get baked, but not so quickly that you can’t perform reps in hypertrophy ranges, so your intensity stays high. Also, you don’t need to lessen the weight, as is often the case with drop sets, which reduces the muscular tension.

Along the same lines, you can turn the barbell into a lever. Wedge one end into a corner and load the other side. Now you can perform one-arm rows and presses, and it won’t take much weight to wear you out (tip: grip the bar lower to make it tougher). Incidentally, a lot of people find that pressing at an angle is easier on their shoulders than doing so straight overhead or on a flat bench.

Go Fast

Generally, reps should be done explosively if you want your training to have carryover to athletics. You also recruit the biggest and strongest muscles fibers that way. But when your loads are limited, it’s especially smart to power up your reps. A light barbell gives you an opportunity to do speed bench presses: Take 45–60% of your max and perform 5–10 sets of 3–5 reps as fast as you can. Speed pressing can help you overcome sticking points.

Explosive training also encompasses the Olympic lifts. A good, and probably safer, substitute for grinding out upright rows is high pulls, which you can do light and fast and get multiple benefits from. You can train O lifts with dumbbells, too. One-armed snatches and seated dumbbell cleans (where you simulate a clean by leaning forward and then extending your hips, shrugging, and popping the weights up to shoulder level) don’t require more than 35 pounds to be effective.

Don’t Lock Out

By not locking out your elbows or knees, you keep tension on the muscles without the joints taking over for a moment to support the load. This old-school bodybuilding technique will fatigue you faster than if you treat every rep like a single, and can lead to more muscle growth despite lack of load.

Go Slow

Just as there’s an advantage to going fast, there’s value in performing your reps more slowly too, at times. The longer a set lasts, the more time the muscles spend under tension and the more they become exhausted. Deeply fatigued muscles grow back bigger, so they’re better able to handle the workload. Combine this idea with not locking out and you can do something like one-and-a-half reps, which make for very long sets, yet don’t stress your joints. A one-and-a-half rep is where you go all the way down, come back up half way, go down again, and then come back up all the way. For instance, do a full squat, come back up to a quarter squat position, hit rock bottom again, and then lock it out.


Try doing dumbbell curls (especially preacher curls) while you press the ends of the dumbbells against each other. You can also do chest presses this way, either lying down or standing. Squeezing them together as hard as you can while you perform an exercise creates more tension throughout the whole body and increases activation in the muscles you’re targeting. You’ll be surprised at how fast it tires you out.

In fact, you don’t even need dumbbells. Try chest presses standing up with just a few weight plates in your hands. Squeeze the plates together so they don’t fall and press out and back. It’s like bench pressing while holding the top of a cable crossover.

Use Complexes

A complex combines lifts whose movements flow into one another, so you can use one weight and work the whole body—without even moving from your spot on the floor. Complexes are perfect for crowded gyms.

Each exercise in a complex should set you up for the next one so you can perform the reps immediately. For instance, the finish position of a hang clean puts you in the starting position for a front squat. After the squat, you can press the bar straight overhead, and from there, perform an overhead lunge. Try that combination for five reps each, resting only after you’ve completed all four exercises. This works great with just 25 pounds on each side of the bar.

Of course, you can apply the same principle to dumbbells.

Hold On

Throw in some static holds, either at the hardest point of each rep or the last one. For example, hold one arm in the midpoint of a curl while curling normally with the other hand. If you’re training shoulders, you could hold dumbbells in the top of a lateral raise with palms facing down OR up and keep still for time. This is called a crucifix, and it’s a favorite of strongmen. A real character-builder.

Go One At A Time

Training unilaterally always makes less weight feel like more, especially on leg exercises. You may not have enough weight to make squats tough, but a lunge or stepup can always be challenging.


Do Combos

Get creative and put exercises together to make your own superlifts. Combinations like the pushup on dumbbells to a one-arm row (a renegade row) and deadlift with a shrug at the top work more muscle at once and cut down on workout time.

Change The Angles

Most guys learned to do dumbbell rows with the elbow against your side, but if you’re at Grandma’s house and she has only a pair of pink dumbbells she’s been using for doorstops, that’s not going to challenge you. Flare your elbow out 90 degrees, however, and you get a tougher movement and a better rear-delt hit.

Instead of lunging front and back, do lateral lunges. Changing the plane of movement can make old, familiar exercises feel difficult again, even when you only have pansy weights to do them with.

For more ideas on how to train anywhere with anything, pick up 101 Best Workouts Of All Time, by Men’s Fitness training director Sean Hyson, available at

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