Let’s Bring Back the Dumbbell Swing
“The ‘swing’ lift is a great favorite in France,” the weightlifter and barbell-maker Alan Calvert wrote in 1911. He described it “rapidly coming into favor in England, along with the ‘snatch’ lift.” But while the snatch grew in popularity, leading eventually to the two-handed barbell lift featured in CrossFit and in the Olympics today, the swing is the kind of thing you only find in, well, antique weightlifting books. And I say we should bring it back.
The history of the dumbbell swing
The swing is a dumbbell lift. You may have done a miniature version of it when hoisting dumbbells up to your shoulders to press them—this would properly be called a “swing clean.” A full dumbbell swing involves swinging the dumbbell on an arc, at arm’s length, from between your legs up overhead. You could do it with a single dumbbell, or with two at a time.
Before loadable barbells were common, a lot of weight-lifting was done one-handed, often with large dumbbells. It just looks cool to put a massive dumbbell overhead, whether you manage to snatch it, swing it, press it, or execute the notoriously difficult bent press.
Today, heavy one-handed lifts are pretty much unknown outside of a few circles of kettlebell enthusiasts. The dumbbell versions have fallen by the wayside in favor of bodybuilding-style work that is meant to pump up the muscles rather than to wow onlookers with feats of strength and balance.
I suspect one of the reasons the swing in particular fell out of fashion is that, as Calvert points out, there’s a natural limit to how heavy you can take it. Humanity is still pushing the boundaries of other lifts, like the deadlift (Hafthor Bjornsson pulled 1,104 pounds in 2020) and the barbell snatch (Lasha Talakhadze snatched 492 pounds in training in 2021). But the dumbbell swing requires you to counter the arc of the bell with your own bodyweight. Calvert writes that “a 150-pound man swinging aloft a 140-pound dumbbell would be a star in this particular lift.”
How to do a dumbbell swing
First, decide if you’ll be swinging one dumbbell, or two. One-handed swings look cooler, but two-handed swings are more work (in a good way) for your core and legs. It’s good to learn both.
If you’re going to swing one bell, you’ll want to wind up for it by swinging the bell between your legs. If you’re going for a double swing, you can do the backswing either with the bells between your legs, or you can hold them at your sides.
Let’s hear Calvert describe it:
The lifter stands with his feet about 12 or 15 inches apart, and places the dumbbell in front of him, with the bell parallel to his feet [that is, with one side or “sphere” in front of the other from the lifter’s point of view]. …the lifter will stoop down and grasp the bell with one hand immediately behind the front sphere. Then he swings the bell back between his legs in order to give momentum, and then makes a tremendous effort and swings the bell forward and upward, keeping the lifting arm rigidly straight.
The simultaneous straightening of the back and the legs and the swinging motion of the arm will bring the dumbbell on the level of the lifter’s face, and then he has to make a sudden dip of the legs, the same as in the ‘snatch,’ in order to get under the bell.
In other words, you extend your hips and knees to get the bell as high in the air as possible, and then bend to drop under it. The path of the bell is like a letter “C,” beginning from the swing through the legs and ending above your head. From there, you’re supporting the bell with your straightened arm, and can stand up and show everyone that you’re holding it under control.
There are a few ways to do the catch. Calvert describes dropping under the bell in a squat position, and adds that some lifters prefer a sideways sort of hinge. It’s also possible to catch a dumbbell swing in a lunge position, much like a split jerk.
The first time you try a swing, you’ll probably find it’s tough to extend all the way and quickly reverse the motion to drop under the bell. Either you’ll get the extension right but catch it with straight legs, or you’ll be in such a rush to catch the bell low that you cut your extension short. Videoing yourself, and playing the video back in slow motion, will help you to figure out what you need to work on.
A note on safety: You don’t want to lose your grip in this exercise. Use chalk as needed (liquid chalk is great if you train at a Planet Fitness or something) and be aware of where you are pointing the dumbbell. A heavy bell will tend to fall straight down if you let go, so it’s not as dangerous as you think, but it’s still worth taking precautions. And if you load an adjustable dumbbell for this, make sure the collars are very secure.
Benefits of the dumbbell swing
Besides looking cool, what is the dumbbell swing good for? A lot of things, it turns out.
For one thing, it’s an explosive movement. If you want to train for power and speed, barbell snatches and power cleans are among the top choices to do that in a weight room. But if you don’t have access to a gym with bumper plates, kettlebell and dumbbell moves are great alternatives. Kettlebell swings and dumbbell snatches have long been favorites; the dumbbell swing combines elements of both.
Dumbbell swings require explosive hip and knee extension, meaning they work your quads and your butt while also sharpening your coordination. The backward lean that’s required to pull the weight upward uses your core and the pulling muscles of your back, like your lats. And finally, stabilizing the bell overhead works your arms and shoulders. The asymmetrical load of a single-arm swing challenges core muscles like the obliques.
Go with double dumbbells, and you can increase the total load. For me, swinging a single 60-pound dumbbell is tough; that’s just about my max. But two 30-pounders feel light enough that I can easily swing them for reps.
With the double swing, we have a full-body movement that you can do light or arbitrarily heavy. You can train it as a strength movement, or you can use it for conditioning. It’s a great alternative to the burpee, or you can even combine it with burpees for a particularly hellish workout. The devil’s press is the only common use of dumbbell swings that I’m aware of in modern lifting: It’s simply a burpee where the jump is replaced with a double dumbbell swing. (The squat catch is often left out, but otherwise it’s the same move.)
And if you want to do dumbbell swings in the truly old style—heavy, and in pursuit of records and competition wins—you can check out the United States All-round Weightlifting Association. The USAWA is keeping a lot of the old lifts alive (disclaimer: I compete in and volunteer for this organization) and holds meets where single and double swings are still contested.