8 Best Dumbbell Exercises for Combat Sports Performance
People ask me all the time:
What are the best dumbbell exercises for combat sports performance?
The real answer is… It depends. It depends on how close you are to competition, what your weaknesses are, what your training experience is, and so much more.
But, today I’m going to attempt to answer that question by sharing my 8 favorite dumbbell exercises for combat sports performance. The first four I share are used during general physical preparedness while the second four are for more specialized training.
(Before we jump in, I wanted to invite passionate coaches to book free calls with myself and my team of coaches. We’ll answer your questions, help you through your struggles, and help you get from where you are to where you want to be. You can book your free call here. But act soon, the schedule is going to fill up fast.)
Let’s get into it:
Exercise #1: Goblet Squat
The goblet squat is one of my go-to exercises for combat sports for many reasons. For one, it’s a great builder of the quads and core. The front rack position places more emphasis on the quads and forces you to maintain a tight core, else you’ll lose your positioning.
The goblet squat is also a great teaching tool. This movement makes it easy to get the hinge necessary for a full-depth squat, and that teaches you to become comfortable sitting back into the squat position.
The goblet squat is also easy on the shoulders. Many combat sport athletes have tight shoulders, and some squat variations may place their shoulders in painful or straight up compromised position. Although you do have to do the work of holding up the dumbbell, the goblet squat is relatively easy on the shoulders.
How to Perform a Goblet Squat:
- Grab a dumbbell and place it in front rack position
- Place the feet just outside of hip width
- Actively screw your feet into the ground
- Push the hips back slightly and drop down into the bottom of your squat position
- As you do this, try to push the floor apart
- Drive up from the bottom position and lock out your hips.
Exercise #2: Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
The next dumbbell exercise for combat sports athletes is the dumbbell Romanian deadlift. This is a hinge-focused movement that targets the posterior chain, a commonly weak area of many fighters, but one that’s critical for power. The posterior chain consists of the glutes, hamstrings, erector spinae, posterior deltoids, traps, and more.
This movement really targets the hamstrings and glutes, though it does require you to maintain good posture with the muscles of the mid and upper back. That said, it’s a great builder of the lower extremities and it goes a long way in supporting solid posture.
How to Perform a Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift:
- Place your feet shoulder width apart
- Pick the dumbbells up off the ground and stand tall
- Lock the hips out
- Slightly bend the knees
- Lock the shoulders down and back
- Push the hips back until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings
- When that stretch in the hamstrings becomes too much, extend the hips and return to the top position
- Reminder: Keep the chin tucked when performing this movement
Exercise #3: Dumbbell Bench Press
The third on the list of dumbbell exercises for combat sports is the dumbbell bench press. The dumbbell bench press is great for combat sports for many reasons.
First, you get true activation of the chest and pec fibers with the dumbbell bench press. The freedom of the dumbbells allows for a full stretch of the chest and shoulder muscles, and the stability required for the dumbbells is a great builder of the stabilizers.
The dumbbell bench press is also easier on the elbows and shoulders than a barbell bench press. I know a lot of fighters who are compromised in the fixed position of the barbell bench press. The dumbbell bench press doesn’t lock you in this fixed position, and it allows for a full stretch at the bottom position while getting full extension of the triceps as you drive up.
All of this said, the dumbbell bench press is great from a hypertrophy standpoint, as well as a stability and strength standpoint
How to Perform a Dumbbell Bench Press:
- Start in a seated position with the dumbbells on your knees
- Fall back and let the knees drive to your chest with the dumbbells on top
- Gain control of the dumbbells while you push your feet into the floor to activate the glutes
- Squeeze the dumbbells tight and pin the shoulders down and back
- Drive the dumbbells up, squeezing the pecs at the top
- Lower down to get a full stretch and repeat for desired reps
Exercise #4: Dumbbell Bent Over Row
Next we have the dumbbell bent over row. The dumbbell bent over row is a great dumbbell exercise for combat sports athletes because it hammers away at a weakness most fighters have – weak mid and upper backs. The dumbbell bent over row is a great builder of size and strength in these areas, and it can play a role in increasing structural integrity of the shoulder complex.
I like to perform the dumbbell bent over row with two dumbbells at once in a hinged over position. This not only works both sides at once, but also draws upon the core to remain stable in this fixed position.
How to Perform a Dumbbell Bent Over Row:
- Start with the dumbbells in your hands
- Hinge the hips back until the chest is parallel to the ground
- Make sure the chest is up and the chin is tucked
- Get a good stretch in the lats
- Drive the elbows past your trunk getting a good squeeze at the top
- Lower back down and repeat
Exercise #5: Propulsion Squat
Now we’re moving into more specialized dumbbell exercises for combat sports. The first is the propulsion squat.
The propulsion squat brings a storm of benefits to the user. First off, it allows for a full range of motion due to the athlete’s heels being raised. This allows you to work the muscles of the quads, hips, and hamstrings through a larger range of motion. It also activates the adductors due to the pad being held between the legs. The adductors play a role in hip extension, movement quality, and rotational power. It goes without saying that building them up would correlate to your combat sports performance in many ways.
How to Perform a Propulsion Squat:
- Place the heels on an elevated surface
- Squeeze a block between your knees to activate the adductors
- Grab your dumbbell and place it in front rack position
- As you lower down, drive your legs into the block
- Drive through the heels on the way up
Exercise #6: Split Stance Hinge
The split stance hinge is a unilateral variation of a hinge exercise. Just like the dumbbell Romanian deadlift, the split stance hinge builds the strength and size of the hamstrings and glutes. It just does it in a unilateral fashion, meaning it works one leg in isolation.
This exercise is great for combat sport athletes because it’ll carry over to your takedowns as well as your grappling.
How to Perform a Split Stance Hinge:
- Stand about two feet away from the wall with your back turned to it
- Place your foot against the wall so you’re in a split stance
- Squeeze the backside glute so it stabilizes your pelvis
- Grab your dumbbell with same side arm of the foot that’s against the wall
- Push the hips back and extend the chest forward
- Get that stretch in the hamstrings
- Drive through into hip extension
- Repeat on both sides for desired reps
Exercise #7: Dumbbell Floor Press W/ Bridge
You may have seen me perform the dumbbell floor press w/ bridge before, but you probably don’t know why it’s so effective for combat sports. First of all, it’s another movement that builds, or at least activates, the posterior chain. If you’ve been paying attention, you already know that’s a commonly weak area for fighters.
The incorporation of the glutes also allows for maximum force production from the upper extremities.
So while you’re getting less stretch with the dumbbell floor press, you’re working more of the anterior deltoids and triceps while isometrically contracting the glutes and hamstrings to stabilize the posterior chain.
How to Perform a Dumbbell Floor Press With a Bridge:
- Get into a glute bridge position on the ground
- Grab your dumbbells
- Pin the shoulders down and back
- Drive the dumbbells up
- Lower them down in a slow and controlled fashion
- Do not bounce off the ground
- Repeat for desired reps
Exercise #8: Bird Dog Row
Stability, strength, structural integrity – these are the benefits of the unconventional bird dog row. Admittedly, the bird dog row isn’t pretty to look at, but it’s a great movement for all athletes.
Because it requires you to maintain your stability and structural integrity while overcoming resistance.
The bird dog row also teaches you to row through the right range of motion. Many athletes over-row, or round forward when they row. This is cancelled out by the bird dog row because if you over-row or round forward, you’ll lose your positioning.
This movement also encourages proper shoulder positioning, scapular mechanics (protraction and retraction), and of course, it builds stability.
How to Perform a Bird Dog Row:
- Grab a dumbbell
- Get in a bird dog position on a bench. That means the opposite hand and opposite knee are supporting you on the bench while the others are in the air
- Grab a dumbbell with the same side hand of the knee that’s resting on the bench
- Keep the hips level as you drive the elbow past your rib cage
- Keep the core engaged, leg lifted
- Repeat on both sides for desired reps
Reps, Sets, and Intensities for The 8 Best Dumbbell Exercises for Combat Sports
The first four exercises on this list are used for general physical preparedness. The second four are used for more specialized training closer to competition. That being said, the reps, sets, and intensities will vary based on the athlete I’m working with, the circumstances they’re in, and their goals.
That being said, here are some general guidelines:
I usually perform anywhere from 5 to 8 reps and 3 to 5 sets. As far as intensities go, I use rate of perceived exertion or RPE. This is a measurement of how hard you feel like you’re working, and it’s measured on a 1 to 10 scale. 10 means you’re going until failure. 9 means you leave one rep in the tank. 8 means two reps left in the tank. And so on.
I usually program between 7 and 9 RPE.
Again, all of this depends on the athlete, his circumstances, strengths and weaknesses, proximity to camp, and so much more.
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