Kentucky Strong: The Circus Dumbbell: Technique & Programming

TAGS: Dumbbell Press, Chase Karnes, programming, strongman

The circus dumbbell clean and press is here to stay in the sport of Strongman. The old school movement seems to appear in more and more competitions every year. This is great if you are someone who is naturally good at hoisting 75-90% of your bodyweight to your shoulders and then pressing it overhead with one arm. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t. I’ve witnessed this event take many guys out of the running for a win because they either couldn’t get a rep on it or weren’t proficient enough to put up a respectable number. In turn, some very strong overhead pressers (on the barbell, log, axle, etc.) have zeroed in this event, and probably just as many have injured or tweaked their shoulders while training for this particular event.


Technique is very important on the circus dumbbell. I recommend breaking it down into three cues so as not to overthink things when it really matters. Every time you train the circus dumbbell, you should run through the cues in your head before doing your set. Also, you need to visualize each step and see yourself doing a perfect rep before you step up to the dumbbell. Use what works for you, but I prefer using these specific cues:

  1. Big breath, big clean.

  2. Set and stable.

  3. Dip, drive, and drop.

Now, let’s break these down a little bit, and I’ll explain what each entails.

1. This step actually begins with getting your feet set. I recommend a front squat stance. Stand with the dumbbell centered between your feet. Now, bend forward at the waist and grab the dumbbell with both hands, grabbing with the hand you plan to press with first. Take a deep diaphragmatic breath—as if you are fixing to pull a heavy deadlift. Then, drop your hips and pull your chest up, arching the low back as hard as possible. Pull the dumbbell off the floor as fast and explosively as you can, guiding it to the shoulder you plan to press from. Once the dumbbell is approximately parallel with the ground, remove your non-pressing hand and grab under the end of the dumbbell farthest from you to help guide the dumbbell onto your shoulder.

2. If the dumbbell is fairly short, you’ll be able to rest it against the side of your face/head and shoulder. If it’s a longer dumbbell, you’ll have to place the bell that is closest to you behind your head (while still resting it on yours shoulder). Either way, you’ll want to push your pressing elbow up as high as possible and have the dumbbell slanted down towards you. Use your non-pressing hand to help position the dumbbell until you’ve reached a stable position. If possible, you want to hold your breath from the initial pick up until the dumbbell is locked out overhead. This is ideal as you are able to stay tighter and more stable. Once you’ve purged your air with a heavy weight on your shoulder, it’s hard to get in enough air to get as tight as if you hadn’t purged your air. Sometimes this just isn’t possible, as the dumbbell takes too long to get set and stable. If this is the case, just get the best breath you can before moving on to the next step.

3. Now, remove your non-pressing hand and dip as if you were going to do a push press/jerk still in your front squat stance. Make sure your elbow stays up when you dip. Now, jump as if you were trying to touch a basketball rim while simultaneously pressing up hard with your pressing arm. As soon as you’ve reached full triple extension, drop under the dumbbell as fast as possible while jumping your legs out to the side (but be sure to keep your knees tracking over your toes). Once the dumbbell is locked out overhead, bring your feet together while controlling the dumbbell. Bring the foot of your non-pressing arm in towards the foot of your pressing arm. (This is important, as stepping with the wrong foot could cause you to lose control of the dumbbell before showing control of the dumbbell in the locked out position). Once the dumbbell is held and locked overhead, and your feet are brought back to parallel, then control the dumbbell to the ground without bringing it to the shoulder first. This is more of a controlled drop and helps to minimize any eccentric component on the shoulders and triceps so as to minimize fatigue.


I’ve found programming the circus dumbbell to be a tricky task. You need to hit it often enough to produce adaptation and to learn and practice the proper technique; however, if you train it too often or too heavy, it will beat your shoulders (and even your low back) to death.

The best way I have found to increase your circus dumbbell is to actually increase your overhead press through the strict press and push press/push jerks. This should be a combination of overhead strict press, log press, and axle press. These are your main strength builders, but you’ll still be training the circus dumbbell for strength, just not a ton of super heavy work. You’ll want to gradually ramp this up over time. In turn, accessory/supplemental work should include anything that targets the triceps and shoulders.

Accessory/Supplemental Work Options:

  • Incline Bench Press
  • Dumbbell Shoulder Press (Standing)
  • Z-Press
  • Bench Press
  • SlingShot Bench Press
  • Close-grip Bench Press
  • Dips

I’ve found that sticking to multi-joint movements in order to increase the overhead press does a few things. For one, it’s great for training economy. You can pick one of those movements and hit it hard, and I can guarantee that you’ll get more out of it than doing single-joint triceps extensions, lateral raises, or any other single-joint options. It also puts a lot less stress on the elbows. It’s hard to press anything if your elbows are always beat up and hurting. Strongman tends to be very unforgiving on the elbows and musculature around the elbow. Keep that in mind and choose wisely. On the same note, if you feel that a certain single-joint movement works for you without causing any issues, then feel free to use it.

15 Week Circus Dumbbell Progression

Take your 1RM and figure 95% of it. This is the number you use to calculate your training percentages for this cycle. This is very important.

Week 1: 72% x 8, 77% x 6, 82% x 4

Week 2: Off

Week 3: 75% x 7, 80% x 5, 85% x 3

Week 4: Off

Week 5: 77% x 6, 82% x 4, 90% x 2

Week 6: Off

Week 7: 80% x 5, 85% x 3, 95% x 1

Week 8: Off

Take your original 1RM and figure your training percentages off of it for the next cycle.

Week 9: 72% x 8, 77% x 6, 82% x 4

Week 10: Off

Week 11: 75% x 7, 80% x 5, 85% x 3

Week 12: Off

Week 13: 77% x 6, 82% x 4, 90% x 2

Week 14: Off

Week 15: Testing week. Work up to a new 1RM.

Take 95% of this number and repeat the 15 Week Cycle.

Quick Tips:

  • During your warm-up sets, hold the dumbbell locked out overhead and take a step forward and backward and even side-to-side. This does a great job of activating the musculature used during the press and helps increase proprioception. This is especially important for being able to control the dumbbell when walking the feet back to parallel after locking the dumbbell out overhead. (Or allowing you to lock out that occasional press that gets out of your normal groove).
  • Shoulder stability an issue? The bottoms-up kettlebell press is a great movement to incorporate into your program.
  • If you are missing your lockout, yet have strong triceps, work on your shoulder mobility, thoracic mobility, and stretch your pecs. These are all issues I see with people, and if the dumbbell isn’t able to travel up in a straight line because of restrictions, chances are you will miss the lockout even if your triceps are strong.
  • Chalk your shoulders and upper back to help keep the dumbbell from sliding once it’s been set on your shoulder.
  • I find that wearing a neoprene belt, as most Strongman competitors wear under a belt that has a Velcro fastener (such as the Spud Deadlift belt), helps with stability, especially when the weights get heavier. I prefer the Velcro fastener on these over a buckle or lever fastener. The buckle or lever seems to get in the way on the clean.
  • Face pulls, face pulls, face pulls. You can’t do too many face pulls in my opinion. While they are great for posture and hitting the often weak lower traps, rear delts, and rotator cuff, they also keep your shoulders healthy and increase shoulder stability. More stability = more potential for strength.
  • While this article is about the circus dumbbell press, this is an important point: Strongman competitors do a ton of pressing. It’s the nature of the sport. Make sure you are keeping your upper body in balance with a heavy dose of rows, chins, pull-ups, etc. If you are not in balance, you increase your risk of shoulder injuries. You also have less stability, which will decrease the pounds you are moving overhead. Lastly, you are only as strong as your weakest link.

So, there you have it. Proper technique coupled with a 15-week program to help you increase your circus dumbbell clean and press. Remember to keep focusing on building your strength with your regular overhead barbell and implement work while using this program.

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