Mini Study: Dumbbell Strength Training Maintains to Slightly Increases, 1RM Barbell Strength


By Rob Shaul


Five experienced, veteran MTI Lab Rats tested the ability of Dumbbell Strength Training to increase 1RM (1 repetition max), max effort barbell strength.

Results found that dumbbell strength training maintained to slightly increasing max effort barbell strength, but did a much better job at increasing dumbbell-based strength.

  • Average Overall Barbel 1RM % Change: 6.24%
  • Average Overall Dumbbell 8RM % Change: 15.67%


During the training cycle, the lab rats performed dumbell-only strength training with the exception of the pre and post cycle 1RM Barbell Strength.

The results of this mini study reinforce the utility and easy loading and handling ability of the basic barbell and weight plates as the premier max effort strength increasing fitness tool available. However, it also shows that assess, thought out, and progressed dumbbell strength training can at a minimum maintain 1RM barbell max effort strength, and possibly slightly increase it.

This proves dumbbell-based strength training can be an effective tool for training and maintaining max effort strength for athletes who don’t have access to a barbell and plates, have space limitations, or simply want a break from the barbell.

However, a significant limitation of dumbbell strength training is very strong athletes can exhaust their gym’s collection of heavy dumbbells. Few gyms have dumbbells heavier than 70-80 pounds, and I’ve never seen one with dumbbells heavier than 100 pounds. Increasing resistance (load) is the only proven way to increase max effort strength, and thus for strong athletes who can completed 8+ reps of dumbbell front squats or 1-arm bench presses with a 100# dumbbell, their max effort strength gains will be limited.



A previous mini study found that Max Effort Strength Training improves Sandbag Strength Endurance more than Sandbag Strength Endurance improves max effort strength.

Going into this mini study, we hoped to learn ….

  1. The effectiveness of assessed and progressed dumbbell training to increase 1RM, max effort, barbell strength.
  2. A dumbbell strength progression design based on an 8RM assessment, and single-limb exercises to increase two-limb barbell exercises
  3. The ability of veteran athletes to follow an intense, relatively high repetition dumbbell strength progression, and identify those strong athletes who’s progress was limited by the heaviest dumbbells in their gym.

Mini-Study Design

We advertised for remote lab rats with full gym access and designed a 3-week training cycle bookended by both a barbell 1RM strength assessment and a dumbbell 8RM strength assessment. We then applied a version of MTI’s Big 24 programming methodology to the dumbbell assessment and the athletes completed 3 weeks of progressed dumbbell strength programming. At the end of the three weeks, the athletes re-assessed barbell 1RM and Dumbbell 8RM Strength.

Below are the three 1RM Barbell exercises tested and their corresponding 8RM dumbbell exercise used in the programming:

The major strength training issue with dumbbell strength training is loading. Few gyms have sets of dumbbells in excess of 100 pounds, and most only go up to pairs of 70-80 pound dumbbells.

To accommodated for this we manipulated the dumbbell strength testing and progression to 8RM efforts (8 Repetition Max). By forcing the athletes to do more reps for their assessment and follow on progressions we hoped to thread the needle between training strength with dumbbell size limitations, but not pushing the effort away from strength training and into hypertrophy.

The upper end of MTIs tradition set/rep scheme for max effort strength training is 8 reps, and most the time, we like to keep max effort work at 6 reps or below, per set. But for this study, we pushed the dumbbell work to 8 reps, again, to work within dumbbell size limitations. Many athletes may be able to do 1x dumbbell front squat with a pair of 100# dumbbells, but few could do 8.

As well, for the bench press and hinge lift, we mandated 1-limb dumbbell versions of these exercises. Again, this was to address dumbbell size limitations in most gym.

In terms of the dumbbell strength progression, we deployed a version of our Big 24 Strength Methodology. This progression is super simple, and uses a progression of 10 or 5 pounds, per dumbbell below the 8RM, vs. percentage-based loading. This again best fit the nature of dumbbell sets in the typical gym.

Here was the weekly schedule:

  • Monday: Dumbbell Strength Progression
  • Tuesday: 45 Minute moderate pace Run
  • Wednesday:Dumbbell Strength Progression
  • Thursday: 40-minute Work Capacity/Chassis Integrity Grind
  • Friday: Dumbbell Strength Progression
  • Saturday: Rest or Outdoor Recreation
  • Sunday: Rest or Outdoor Recreation

Results and Discussion

See the charts below.


Even thought the athletes saw average gains in 1RM barbell max effort strength after 3 weeks of dumbbell strength training, we’re hesitant to say definitively that dumbbell strength training increases 1RM, max effort, barbell strength. Given the small number of lab rats, and the single-digit percentage increases in strength, it’s more accurate to say that Dumbbell Strength training does a good job of maintaining 1RM, max effort, barbell strength, and/or may slightly increase it.

However, the strength increases in the Dumbell 8RM strength across the three exercises, which averaged over 15%, was fairly impressive. Most of the athlete, however, reported wrist and handling issues for the heavy dumbbell front squats – which may have limited what could have been gained there.

In addition to finding that dumbbell strength training can at a minimum, maintain 1RM, max effort, barbell strength, in the process we created a new, effective dumbbellsstrength training progression methodlody deploying 8RM efforts, a version of Big 24 progression, and single-limb efforts.


Next Steps

Often in our base fitness cycles we’ll switch from barbell strength to dumbbell and/or kettlebell strength training to give the athlete some strength training variety and hopefully prevent training from becoming stale. This study, at a board level, reinforces that we can do this without sacrificing too much max effort strength.

Next? Two directions:

  1. Experiment with other types of dumbbell strength training progressions.
  2. Test the ability of bodyweight strength training to maintain and/or increase 1RM Barbell, max effort strength.

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