Athletes are always looking for a new challenge. Well, there may not be a bigger challenge out there than the Inch Dumbbell. What is the Inch Dumbbell? It’s a piece of weightlifting equipment that has over a century of history behind it. Why haven’t you heard of it before? To put it simply—because there’s a 99.9 percent chance you can’t lift it. That’s not an insult.
See, the Inch Dumbbell is not your ordinary dumbbell. It was specifically designed to be un-liftable for even the brawniest of meatheads—despite the fact its actual weight isn’t all that intimidating. Over the last hundred years, the Inch Dumbbell’s legend has grown with every muscle-bound beast who’s failed its challenge. STACK talked to J.L. Holdsworth, the owner of The Spot Athletics and a professional grip competitor who’s mastered the Inch Dumbbell, to learn more about this mythical piece of equipment.
The Inch Dumbbell has a long, illustrious history. The name comes not from the dumbbell’s dimensions, but its inventor. Thomas Inch was an english strongman born in 1881. He held the title of “Britain’s Strongest Man” throughout his career. From a young age, he collected thick handled “challenge dumbbells.” He included these dumbbells in his act as he toured around England and other countries challenging spectators and other strong men to lift them.
In about 1906, he unveiled what is now known as the famous Inch Dumbbell—a thick handled dumbbell which he claimed no man but him could lift. Inch took the insurmountable dumbbell on tour with him, challenging the top strongmen and courageous spectators. As legend has it, no man was able to successfully lift it—except for Inch himself, of course.
Due to the fact other strongmen from around the world were thought to be at least equal in strength to Inch, it was suspected that trickery was involved. He was accused of altering the dumbbell and using a modified one when he lifted it. Even though he passed away in 1963, the Inch Dumbbell is still used as a benchmark of incredible strength. The original Inch Dumbbell is said to be in the possession of Kim Wood, a legendary figure in the strength training community who served as the NFL’s first official strength coach. But many replicas have been crafted with the same dimensions as the famous dumbbell, and it is with these that modern competitors test themselves.
An Inch Dumbbell weighs 172 pounds. That’s heavy, but not so heavy that a professional strong man should struggle with it. The key to the Inch Dumbbell’s challenge is the handle, which has a diameter of roughly 2.5”. It has been compared to the thickness of a soda can. If it wasn’t hard enough to just pick up a normal 172-pound dumbbell, the insanely thick handle makes it nearly impossible.
The basic Inch Dumbbell challenge requires you to successfully Deadlift it with one hand. All you’ve got to do is grab it, stand up with it and successfully lock it out. Doesn’t sound too hard, right?
Well, picking up the Inch Dumbbell is really a test of grip and hand strength more than general lower- or upper-body strength.
“The Inch Dumbbell is an awesome test of thick bar grip strength. I own one and have it at my gym. They’re hard to come by, but it was well worth it. If you can pick it up, you can train at my gym for free,” Holdsworth says. Pretty sweet deal, right? All you’ve got to do is pick it up and you get a free gym membership. But Holdsworth can make such an offer in confidence because he knows how difficult beating the Inch Dumbbell really is.
How to Beat it
Holdsworth’s first experience with the Inch Dumbbell was extremely rare.
“The first time I saw an Inch Dumbbell was at an NSCA conference,” he says. “I had never seen it before, and I saw several people play with it but no one could pick it up. I walked up and I picked it up on my first try, not even knowing how hard of a feat I had accomplished. I’ve always had great grip strength from chopping wood as a kid and wrestling, but now I know there is technique to it.” Yes, Holdsworth is probably one of only a handful of people in the world who picked up the Inch Dumbbell on their first try.
Most of the technique on lifting the Inch Dumbbell centers around arresting its rotation. The most common failure in the Inch Dumbbell challenge (aside from not even getting it off the ground) is the dumbbell simply rolling out of the participants hand. Due to the thickness of the bar, it’s very difficult to keep it from rotating. Once it begins rotating, all 172 pounds of it builds momentum. Before you know it, the dumbbell has ripped from your grasp and landed on the floor with a thud. Preventing rotation requires phenomenally strong finger, thumb and wrist strength.
One technique involves tilting the dumbbell so the globe comes into contact with your thumb as you lift it. This friction can help prevent it from rotating and prying free from your grip. In response to this technique, competitors have begun lifting Inch Dumbbells with empty soda cans placed on top of it. This shows they aren’t tilting the bell as they lift it, proving their grip strength is insanely strong.
So technique is involved—but the most important requirement is undoubtedly raw, steel-shattering grip strength. “There are ways to edge an advantage out so you can hold on to it for longer, but at the end of the day there is a big element of sheer grip strength that goes into it. I’ve seen many people who can Deadlift 800 pounds or more fail to pick it up,” Holdsworth says.
The Inch Dumbbell plays a role in many sanctioned grip competitions. The Mighty Mitts, a premier grip competition held annually at the Arnold Fitness Expo, requires competitors to pick up an Inch Dumbbell in each hand and then perform a Farmer’s Walk. Even getting them off the ground and walking a couple of feet is a huge accomplishment. One of Holdsworth’s proudest strength moments came when he was able to farmer’s walk two Inch Dumbbells an incredible distance of 25 yards. “Most people can’t pick one up. To pick up one in each hand and walk with them that far was an amazing day,” Holdsworth says.
Perhaps one of the most impressive feats ever accomplished with an Inch Dumbbell occurred when Mark Henry, former World’s Strongest Man and current professional wrestler, successfully cleaned and jerked it.
Get a Grip
You probably shouldn’t go out and buy an Inch Dumbbell right this second. For one, they’re going to run you about 450 bucks plus another 200 for the shipping. Two, who are you kidding? You won’t be able to lift the Inch Dumbbell yet. Unless you want the world’s most permanent paper weight, you’re best served training your grip with things already in your gym while you work your way up to the Inch.
Developing a strong grip won’t just help you lift really heavy stuff—it’ll make you a better athlete. Grip strength plays a role in almost every sport. Swinging a bat, catching a pass, battling for a puck, shooting for a double-leg takedown—all of these skills depend on your grip strength.
Holdsworth recommends training your grip strength using short, heavy intervals as opposed to long endurance work. “Most people do long holds with a dumbbell but no one seems to do heavy grip work. Timed holds are endurance work, not absolute strength work. It’s like the difference between doing 25 Push-Ups or benching 500 pounds,” Holdsworth says.
Think about the type of grip strength you usually need in your sport. Do you typically need to grab and squeeze something for longer than 5 or 10 consecutive seconds? Not really. You should make an effort to do heavy grip work for short periods of time. Here are some exercises Holdsworth recommends for young athletes.
High Pin Double Overhand Deadlift Pulls
- Move the pins up high so you only have to pick up the weight a few inches to lock it out. This will allow you to use a heavy weight which will build your grip strength.
- Simply Deadlift the bar up to a lockout position (lift with your legs, not your back) using a double overhand grip.
- Hold for 5-10 seconds before releasing.
Heavy Plate Pinches
- Find two plates of equal weight.
- Pinch them on a smooth portion between your fingers and thumb, focusing on not letting them slip from your grasp.
- Use a challenging weight that will only allow you to pinch it for about 6 seconds before failure. If you’re pinching and holding 5-pound plates for several minutes, that isn’t doing much to build up your maximum grip strength.
Hex Dumbbell Holds or Bottom Kettlebell Lifts
- Hex Dumbbell Holds involve picking up a dumbbell by its head and holding it at your sides for a duration. Gripping such a wide object really builds your individual finger strength.
- Bottom Kettlebell Lifts are essentially the same idea. They involve grabbing a kettle bell not by its handle, but by the actual bottom of the bell, and holding it in place.
- Try to use a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell that only allows you to hold it for a maximum of 10 seconds before failure.
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