Forgotten Exercises: The Dumbbell Swing


Almost a half-century ago the one and two hand swing lifts were very popular among lifters and bodybuilders alike, especially the one hand lift. Over the years, however, both of these lifts have slumped into oblivion so that today there are very few who ever practice them, either as an exercise or for record-breaking performances. Because of this the world record in both lifts still remains at that poundage that was lifted many years ago. The one hand record is 199 pounds, and the two hand record is 224 pounds, just 25 pounds more than the one hand swing.

John Grimek, The Dumbbell Swing (1959)

This weekend I had the pleasure of dipping once more into Arthur Saxon’s excellent work from the early 1900s, The Development of Physical Power. Notable, for me at least by Saxon’s no nonsense attitude and frankness, the work does not seek to deceive or flatter. Instead, one of the strongest men of his generation sets out his remarkable strength and some of the means used to sustain it. Many of the exercises set out by Saxon are still done today, except for the above mentioned dumbbell swing.

The purpose of today’s post is thus twofold. First, we’re going to examine what this exercise is and how to perform it. From there, we get to delve into it’s fascinating history.

The Dumbbell Swing

Writing in 1939, York’s Bob Hoffman described the dumbbell swing thusly

The dumbbell, which at the commencement of the lift must be at right angles to the lifter’s front, shall, kept in that position throughout, be taken to arm’s length overhead. The lift may be performed in one movement, or in a series of movements, but in the latter instance there shall be no pause between any of these movements, nor shall any part of the bell be brought into contact with the floor after it has been lifter therefrom. In “fixing” the bell the trunk and legs may be bent to any extent, and the bell may be brought into contact with the forearm; but to lock the arm out by pushing shall be cause for disqualification.

For those struggling to picture it, think of a modern day kettlebell swing, an exercise found in countless gyms. Now Hoffman’s prescriptions were heavily inspired by those of the British Amateur Weightlifting Association, published in 1933 but that’s another post for another time.

While there are many versions of the Dumbbell Swing floating about the internet, the video below gives one of the better approximations

You might be wondering why one would bother with such a movement?

Well having played around with it earlier, I can attest to its difficulty. Using the method shown by Logan (above) it combines the explosiveness of the Olympic Lifts with the simplicity of a kettlebell swing. As someone who failed, after several months of trying, to efficiently clean and jerk a barbell, the dumbbell swing promises a nice alternative.

It is a great test of strength, hits the posterior chain like its nobody’s business and is just a fun alternative for back day. What’s more, it’s one of those fun old-school exercises that has sadly dropped from our consciousness, a point that leads us on to its history.

The History of the Dumbbell Swing

As mentioned by both myself and Logan in the instructional video, Arthur Saxon’s work has helped introduce this lift to latter day readers such as myself. Pictured below, Saxon was quite praiseworthy of the lift

The muscles called into play are practically the same here as in the one-handed snatch , but the bell must be placed on end between the feet as shown in illustration. Keep the head down, then, with a perfectly straight arm, pull up, using a combination of muscular efforts and concentration as described in the snatch lift. Lean back and watch the dumbbell with your eyes, and when it is at a suitable height suddenly dip beneath same and twist your wrist violently, so that you may place a straight arm beneath the bell.


Arthur Saxon, The Development of Physical Power

Saxon however was only describing a move that was already being used by many within the world of physical culture. According to USAWA, the Dumbbell Swing was a common competitive lift in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Similar to the Press Overhead, discussed here, the lift could be done in one of two ways. In the first instance, there was the Classic French Style whereby an equally weighted dumbbell was used and swung overhead with a straight arm. The British style allowed you to bend your arm during the lift.

Though dumbbell snatches and cleans were used at the 1896 Olympics, it’s difficult to know whether they resembled the swing. In any case, Saxon’s view on the lift was echoed by many others. SimpleXstrong have some interesting stories about Thomas Inch and his mastery of the lift.


Inch supposedly learnt the lift from Professor Josef Szalay in London. Though long forgotten Szalay was one of the most influential instructors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century. That he taught it to students was hugely significant for its widespread popularity.

Now for those of you thinking that this lift disappeared after 1900, we have good reason to believe otherwise. From The Tight Slacks of Dezco Ban, we have the John Grimek article cited earlier in the post. Although Grimek noted that the lift has faded from memory of late (the article being written in 1959), the very fact that he was discussing it shows that its disappearance was not complete. Indeed just seven years previous, the great David Willoughby had published on the greatest dumbbell swings in history. More recently, there is evidence, albeit scant, that Jack Lalanne was popularising the swing well into the latter half of the twentieth-century.

Why has the lift gone the way of Old Yeller? It’s very hard to say, like many of the odd lifts from the mid-century, its absence from competition has undoubtedly affected its popularity. Furthermore the explosion in interest surrounding the kettlebell has not done it any favours. Though I plan on incorporating the lift more in the coming weeks to get a feel for it, the difficultly of the lift, not in terms of technique but rather the effort, would hardly attract many to it.

If anyone had any concentrate ideas, I’m all ears!

Finally, and as a source of motivation for myself, I include the USAWA’s top ten lifts in the Dumbbell Swing.

Rank Pounds         Lifter                                                           Date
1. 220 Hermann Goerner  (Germany) 1920
2. 219 Charles Rigoulot  (France) 1932
3. 202 Maurice Deriaz  (Switzerland) 1912
4. 199 Jean Francois LeBreton  (France) 1907
5. 198 Ernest Cadine  (France) 1925
6. 194 Emile Deriaz  (Switzerland) 1904
7. 190 Ron Walker  (England) 1937
8. 187 Arthur Saxon (Germany) 1905
9. 178 Stan Kratkowski  (United States) 1934
10. 176 Gabriel Lassortesse (France) 1907

I best get to work!

As always… Happy Lifting.

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