Dumbbells vs. Barbells: Q&A with Suzanne

Five years ago this week, this blog was born of that idyllic place between lifting a weight and putting it down. I’m still a passion freak in the weight room and think I’m a pretty badass coach, too. So in honor of this occasion, I’m kicking off a new weekly feature, Nirvana Training with Suzanne. I’ll answer your questions and share about my weekly training, both of which I hope will help you grow as a lifter and reach your goals. Thanks for reading and sharing your passion for strength training and eating clean with a gal who can’t get enough of owning it.

To participate in next week’s mailbag, post your training and nutrition questions on my Facebook page, ping me on Twitter, or drop me a line. This is gonna be fun!

Dumbbells vs. Barbells | Nirvana Training with Suzanne

Q: Does it matter whether I use dumbbells or a barbell for an exercise?

A: Not everyone has access to a full gym, and if you don’t have a barbell, you’ll still get a damn fine workout using dumbbells. But it doesn’t always work in the reverse. There are good reasons for using dumbbells instead of a barbell:

  1. To train unilaterally or with alternating reps to increase core activation and/or bring up the weaker side
  2. To take pressure off your shoulders, if you have a past or present shoulder issue
  3. Because you’re a beginner and need to learn basic strength-training movements first

On the other hand, you can build crazy strength and muscle using a barbell. That’s because you can generally lift more weight with a barbell – you don’t have to work as hard to stabilize your body and you’re using two arms (obviously!). But if you don’t have a barbell and plates, you can still get big and strong using dumbbells. (Yes, I did just say >> BIG <<  and no, and I don’t mean as big as a dude. Just so you know.)

Q: How do I know if I’m lifting enough weight? 

A: Think of it as how do I lift more instead.  You’re not just trying to get away with the minimum… you’re pushing to your limits (safely, of course). You have to progressively overload your muscles for them to change. What does that look like? There’s a lot of different ways to progress with weights, but here is one way:

Have a specified rep range you’re going for. When you get to the top of the range easily or you can do one or two more, it’s time to increase the weight.

For example, if you’re aiming for 8-10 reps, increase the weight when you can do more than 10 reps with good form. If you can’t eke out the 8th rep with good form, lower the resistance so that you can do 8-10 reps. What if you can’t quite get to the next plate for 8 reps? Try slowing down the tempo on the eccentric portion or decreasing your rest.

Q: Are there any decent commercially prepared foods or is it always better to cook from scratch?

A: Believe it or not, we non-perfect types do eat commercially prepared food. I mean, pretty much anything you buy at the store is commercial prepared (excepting produce), so what you’re looking at is the level of processing and the ingredients. If it’s overly refined and full of sodium, fat, sugar, or other additives – or it has 25 unpronounceable ingredients – it isn’t food that’s close to its natural state (and that’s your rule of thumb). If it’s processed but low in additives and high in fiber and nutrients, it’s a winner! I would add that lean protein is always a plus for Nirvana readers, whether you’re losing fat or building muscle.

Your main question should be: Does this food meet my goals? There are plenty of frozen foods that do meet my criteria, and I find many of them in the “natural” section of my grocery store or at natural foods grocery store. Check out this cool list at prevention.com for specific brands.

(Also think about making your own prepackaged foods and freezing them in individual-sized servings. Once you get in the routine you can’t live without it.)

This Week’s Training

In case you’re new here, I had a preventative mastectomy on March 11, 2015. It ain’t an easy or short recovery process, and it’s even more difficult due to temporary tissue expanders, which stretch my pectoral muscles and skin and cause considerable pain and discomfort.

On May 20th, I’ll have a much smaller surgery to exchange the tissue expanders for soft, glorious silicone implants. Can you tell I’m excited?

And now for a few questions I’ve received that relate to this admittedly grueling but worthy experience.

Q: Have you lost or gained weight, muscle, brain cells, etc.?

A: Surely I have lost muscle, as I haven’t lifted anything heavy in nine weeks. I’ve lost a couple of pounds, too. But I still feel completely fit and am more concerned with regaining full range of motion than anything right now. The surgeon added saline to the expanders once a week for seven weeks, each time taking me a step backwards. Plus there’s been the fatigue – yeah, that. It’s getting better now, but for a full two months I got tuckered out pretty easily.

Overall, I’ve made fabulous progress and have much better range of motion than a month ago (weeks of physical therapy has made that possible). Besides physical therapy (only a couple more sessions), I do an at-home routine every day that helps me increase mobility and strengthen my back, shoulders, and lower body. I’ll share it with you next week – how does that sound?

Q: Er, how do they look, dammit?

A: Plastic surgery today is freaking amazing. I have no doubt my girls will look even better than before once I recover from surgery #2.

Even though the temporary expanders are stiff and held in fixed positions (no bounce quite yet), they look incredibly natural. They’re about the same size as I was a few years ago and I got to keep my own nipples. (Ok, now that’s even TMI for me, geesh!)

The thing to know is that my surgeon is highly reputable. He was recommended to me by three other doctors. People travel from different states to work with him. I’ve also been working with the same breast surgeon for many years and she did a fantastic job as well (two surgeons perform a mastectomy with reconstruction). It’s also important to understand that there could be additional minor surgeries later on to tweak the breast appearance, such as fat grafting, scar tissue removal, etc.

Right now I’m just counting the days til I can say adios to the expanders, because it’s only then when I can get closer to lifting weights again. I’m happy to answer any questions about this process, by the way.

That’s it for this week. Hate these questions? Got a better one? Just post it on my Facebook page, ping me on Twitter, or drop me a line to participate in next week’s mailbag.

See you in nirvana,

This article originally appeared on www.workoutnirvana.com

4 thoughts on “Dumbbells vs. Barbells: Q&A with Suzanne

  1. My aunt had breast cancer and reconstructive surgery recently, and nipple talk seems par for the course. =) Glad you’re doing well and I thought the barbell vs dumbbell thing was very interesting! I feel totally clueless when it comes to barbells but I’ve always kinda thought that that’s what “real” weightlifters use. However, I’m gymless for the time being so I am content with my dumbbells!


  2. ahhh when you said you’ll have a “small surgery” i had no idea what that was..but i’m very happy all these positivity in you!! I’m sure you’ll look even better after the 2nd surgery and not to mention when you’re back to the gym again xxx


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