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December 16, 2019 10 min read

The dumbbell clean and press is an exercise seldom seen performed around today's gyms and weight rooms, but we’re here today to change all of that. By the end of this article, you’ll be convinced that the dumbbell clean and press is the best upper-body exercise there is, and it’s guaranteed to become one of your go-to workout movements. It’s similar, but not quite the same, as the much more well-known barbell clean and press, and there are a few small details that we believe makes it even better. 

The dumbbell clean and press is an explosive movement, great at building strength and muscle, and a fantastic fat-burning activity too. It works a lot of the same muscles as a clean and press with barbells, but there’s actually a smaller risk of injury and a smoother learning curve. This workout exercise targets almost every different part of your upper body, using muscles in your back, chest, and arms.

It’s a great all-around workout, so if you’re short on time you can do a few sets of dumbbell clean and presses, instead of a bunch of different workouts to target different areas. Let’s jump into some more details about this fantastic bodybuilding exercise. 

Some colorful weights on the ground.

What muscles does a dumbbell clean and press work?

If you’re looking for a total-body exercise, the dumbbell clean and press is a great choice. It uses almost every one of the major muscles along the posterior and anterior chains of your body. These are the muscles that work together down the front and back of your body, creating what powers your whole movement.

The Posterior Chain refers to the structures along the back of your leg and spine, the main muscles being calf muscles, hamstrings, gluteus maximi (glutes), latissimus dorsi (lats), and erector spinae muscles (this is what keeps your back straight). The Anterior Chain works directly opposite the posterior chain, to counterbalance it so that your body maintains it’s structural integrity and pelvic stability. The major anterior chain muscles are the pectoral muscles (pecs), abdominal muscles (abs), hip flexors, and quadriceps (quads). 

When you do a dumbbell clean and press, the movement hits all of these huge major muscles. If we describe this workout starting from the bottom of your body, firstly some lower-body muscles bring the weights up from the floor (or their hanging position by your knees).

In your calves, the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles work in tandem with the quads, hamstrings, and glutes to lift the weights and extend the hips. While these lower-body muscles are doing most of the work, there are a lot of other muscles activated for strength and stability. 

Your abdominal muscles, including the rectus abdominus, traversus abdominus, and internal and external obliques all help provide stability for your spine as you extend your hips to stand up straight. We all know how important these core muscles are for overall body strength and stability, so in a movement like a dumbbell clean and press, these core muscles are well activated and worked hard to keep you on your feet and standing tall. 

Once you reach this standing position, your dumbbells are still by your sides, and not much work has been done by your upper body yet. However, the following part of this movement, bringing the weights up to your shoulders and completing the dumbbell clean, changes all that. A powerful shrug utilizes your trapezius muscles (traps), latissimus dorsi (lats), and rhomboids to raise up the dumbells to your shoulders. 

For the final press, your hand and forearm muscles work hard to maintain a sturdy grip on the weights, and your biceps are activated too. However, the most powerful muscles here are the deltoids, upper pectoral muscles, and triceps, which all give an immense amount of power to raise the dumbbells above your head. Once again, your core will be fully activated and working hard to maintain stability during this time. 

As you can see, the dumbbell clean and press activates huge muscle groups in every different part of the body. It works out such a wide range of areas with just a single movement, if your form is good then the dumbbell clean and press can serve and a single-movement workout if you’re in a hurry. Just jump into the gym for 20 minutes, and hit a few sets of the dumbbell clean and press to efficiently hit almost every major muscle in one go. 

What makes the dumbbell clean and press so great?

This fantastic workout move is a perfect choice no matter what your gym goal is. The dumbbell clean and press is an amazing move if appearance is important to you, it’s great for building muscle and toning up, helping you to get a shredded body.

It builds total-body strength and pure power, as well as building stability in your shoulders and balance overall. This movement has the perfect range of motion, as you carry dumbbells all the way from the floor (or from your knees) to above your head in a completely controlled manner. 

This total body workout burns a lot of calories for just a single exercise because it hits so many different muscles. You know what that means; if fat loss or weight loss is your goal, then the dumbbell clean and press is your new favorite exercise. Admittedly, most lifters will clean and press a higher weight using a barbell rather than a dumbbell, but it’s not all about this single number. The dumbbell clean and press is still a heavy-lifting exercise, one that’s optimal for building strength and size.

Although you’ll have to sacrifice a small amount of loading weight when choosing a dumbbell over a barbell clean and press, we think the benefits more than make up for it. Firstly, using two separate weights instead of a single unified object makes this exercise unilateral; so it works out both sides of your body separately.

You have to remain in full control of two independent weights while coordinating and moving them in unison. This makes the exercise a considerable amount more challenging, it puts more strain on your core and a lot of the body’s stabilizer muscles. This includes those all-important shoulder muscles that are paramount to the safety of any press exercise. 

When using dumbbells for a clean and press, as we’ve mentioned the range of motion is greater. With an increased range of motion, more muscles are activated, which is another benefit to the dumbbell clean and press. Another reason we love the dumbbell clean and press is that it’s a great introduction to Olympic lifts. It’s an easier exercise than a deadlift for example and doesn’t require quite the same experience level.

In comparison to a barbell clean and press; you get almost every benefit, and avoid common issues such as stress on the wrists and other joints. A clean and press is such an efficient movement for lifters, it activates so many different muscle groups and areas of the body. Combine this with the lessened joint strain and improved range of movement that you gain using dumbbells, and it’s easy to see why this exercise is one of our favorites. 

A strong man in a gym.

How to do a clean and press with dumbbells

When learning how to do a dumbbell clean and press, you’ll need a little flexibility from your usual technique with barbells. The first difference is the grip you’ll use to maintain a good hold on your weights. When lifting a barbell, your grip is dictated by the 7-foot bar upon which the weights sit. This bar gives you no choice but to use a pronated grip, with your palms facing down and your knuckles towards the front.

Otherwise, you’d be doing huge curls instead, and likely fall over back towards the end of the movement. The stability is much improved with a dumbbell push press rather than a barbell push press, and following the dumbbell clean this is the second part of the movement. 

Any workout featuring a bar usually uses a pronated grip, including the clean and snatch, as well as deadlifts. It’s the most instinctive way to grip the bar, giving you comfort and stability with a weight that’s large in size. The great thing about dumbbells is that they don’t force you into any grip at all; you can grasp the weights in whichever way you deem most comfortable.

Trying to use a barbell grip in a dumbbell clean and press will feel unnatural and clumsy, especially during the first part of the movement; the dumbbell clean. In this primary step, it’s best not to think of the movement as a clean at all, rather a huge and powerful curl from the floor. 

When lifting dumbbells, there’s no limitation that you have to hold the weights in a straight line, which has a huge effect on muscle activation. You can hold each weight as a more natural slant, and this will give you a much-improved range of motion and let you hit the muscle groups in your arms and shoulders more effectively.  

Step 1: Start by placing two dumbbells on the floor. You can line them up horizontally in front of your feet, vertically outside of your feet, or at an angle that feels most natural and comfortable to you. If the floor feels too far away, and you feel that lifting the dumbbells while maintaining a straight back isn’t possible, then just start with the dumbbells hanging by your sides. It’s very common for lifters to start the dumbbell clean and press with the weights by their sides to begin with, as this is much better than ruining your form by taking too much weight, arching your lower back, and possibly causing an injury. 

Step 2: Your feet should be in a comfortable and stable position, facing straight and about hip-width apart. Assuming you’re starting with dumbbells on the floor, hinge at the hips bending them backward and folding your knees until you can reach the dumbbells on the floor. It’s almost the same starting position as a deadlift; back straight, squat down, arms outside your legs. Firmly grip the dumbbells with your arms straight and fully extended. For perfect form, your head, spine, and pelvis should be in a straight line. 

If you’re hitting the dumbbell clean and press without lifting all the way from the floor, you’ll be starting with the weights already in your grip. In this case, bend your knees and hips in the same way as described slowly, until the dumbbells hang by your knees.

Whichever your starting position, next you’ll need to draw your shoulders back like you’re sticking out your chest. Make sure to keep a flat back throughout the whole lifting movement. It’s alright if the dumbbells move slightly from right next to your knees, as long as you keep them under control, without allowing the weights to swing. 

Step 3: Next you’re going to explode upwards to take the dumbbells from knee level up to shoulder height. We’ll break it down into three steps in order to isolate the muscles you’re working out, to ensure good form and a well-rounded exercise. You’ll need to push down hard with your feet, and tense your abs and glutes. Extend your hips and knees to start the dumbbells momentum moving upwards, so you’re standing more straight. 

Step 4: Once the dumbbells reach a height above your knees, shrug hard with your shoulders, and momentum should carry the dumbbells up to in front of you with a curl-type movement. 

Step 5: As the weights reach shoulder level, push your elbows forward to catch the weights, and bend down into a quarter squat to absorb some force from the dumbbells’ landing. This is the end of the dumbbell clean segment of the exercise. You should have the weights on either side, with your palms facing each other and thumbs pointing backward. 

Step 6: Positioning for the dumbbell press should start with your back straight still; you can tuck in your tailbone a slight amount so that your pelvis is parallel to the floor. Take a quick breath before starting the next part of the movement. Brace your abs and glutes tightly, pulling your ribcage down, and press the dumbbells straight overhead to lockout. There should be no jerky movement and no energy from your legs, this isn’t a clean and push press. It’s better in our opinion to keep a natural grip on the dumbbells here, rather than rotating the weights to a palms-forward position. 

This is a benefit of the dumbbell clean and press over barbells. Using a more natural grip that isn’t policed by a straight line helps preserve muscular energy, an important factor in such a huge exercise. If you aim to do any number of reps, keeping your grip relaxed will make them much easier, as well as increasing front deltoid and tricep activation. This position is also more stable biomechanically, which is better for your joints and will improve your pressing strength over time. 

Step 7: Take another quick breath, and reverse your movements. Lower the weights down to your shoulders, and in a negative hammer curl movement to your waist. Maintain a flat back throughout, you can use a slight knee dip to lessen the impact on your other joints. Squat down to place the weights back on the ground, or to return to the position beside your knees. 

A gym with lots of weights.

Time to get to work

This dumbbell exercise is a great choice to build muscle, for strength training or visual rewards. It’s just one exercise that utilizes many different muscles, but as you can see it’s no walk in the park. If your goal is pure strength and power, then just three to six reps are enough to get all the muscle-building benefits of this workout.

If you’re aiming to increase your endurance, and maximize muscle gains, then a slightly lesser weight can be used for ten to twenty reps. With the dumbbell clean and press, you risk poor form due to muscle fatigue if you do too many reps, as it is first and foremost a heavyweight exercise. If you’re new to the exercise, it’s best to start with low reps until your technique is flawless. 

The dumbbell clean and press is a big deal for weightlifters, so don’t worry if you can’t master it straight away. You can work on the foundation moves like the deadlift and press to build up to the full clean and press. A dumbbell snatch is also a great option for building strength in one arm at a time.

Our parting advice regarding the dumbbell clean and snatch is to be very careful with your form. This exercise means lifting weights above your head, so ensure to keep a straight back and engaged core throughout. If you experience any pain which working out, especially back pain, stop immediately and rest.