For many people lifting a pair of dumbbells forms their first weight lifting experience. Dumbbells are very simple and yet extremely effective. You can perform just about any weight lifting exercise with a dumbbell, or a pair of dumbbells and they have one major advantage over any other type of resistance equipment – they can be stored in a small space, such as under your bed or behind the sofa, making them a great way to do strength training at home.
Tip: Always start out with a pair of adjustable dumbbells. It is important that you can complete the required number of reps / sets for each exercise without either breaking form nor making too easy. Adjustable dumbbells are like having a full weights room.
Advantages of Dumbbells
Dumbbells actually have a big advantage over using barbells or resistance machines. Most people do not have equal strength on each side of the body, generally the right arm is stronger in right handed people, as this is more often used for work, carrying etc. By using dumbbells you can exercise both sides of your body equally to help balance your strength, and ideally, to create a symmetrical body.
Dumbbells also form a vital role in strength training for wheelchair athletes. In August in the run up to the Paralympic Games we took a brief look at how David Weir trains for competitions. Many of hist strength exercises are done with dumbbells.
We have mentioned dumbbells in various articles on MotleyHealth, such as on Weight Lifting Workout for Over 50 Year Olds (used in 3 exercises) and in the Beginners Guide to Weight Lifting Exercises (used in 5 exercises), but until now we have never provided a specific dumbbell workout.
Simple Dumbbell Workout
As with any form of weight training you will get best results from exercising a few times a week, but do not workout (with the same weight training routine) 2 days in a row. Weight training must also be progressive – you must lift more over time to develop your muscles. For this reason, no actual weights are given. Instead you need to determine what weight you use based on your current strength.
Basically, you need to be able to perform all the reps / sets without struggling too much, but it must not be easy either. It is important to keep a note / training log so that you know how much weight you should be working with for each exercise. For each exercise we have embedded a Youtube video that best demonstrates the movement.
Explanation of Terms
Reps = repetitions, or repeats and sets refer to one group of reps. So 3 sets of 12 reps means you perform 12 lifts without stopping, then take a short rest (usually 1-3 minutes, depending on how much weight you are lifting) and then repeat the set of 12 reps two more times. So in total you do 36 repeats of the same exercise divided into 3 sets.
Weight trainers generally start with 3 sets of 8-12 reps. Some progressive weight training plans use other combinations, such as 5 sets of 5 reps. As a general rule though, more reps leads to larger muscles. Lower rep ranges (assumed that you are using heavier weights, so working just as hard) leads to more athletic strength. This explains why Olympic weightlifters do not look as big and muscular as bodybuilders.
Ultimately, for the beginner the most important rule is to keep progressing – progressive overload – i.e. lift a heavier weight and / or perform more reps for any given exercise over time. This leads to one of the big advantages of purchasing adjustable dumbbells – you can easily increase the weight of the dumbbells to allow yourself to progressively overload the muscles.
Before you start the weight lifting it is advisable to warm-up with some light cardio such as jogging or skipping to get the blood flowing to your muscles. As a general rule, once you start to sweat, you are ready. Around 5 minutes is generally enough, feel free to do more.
This workout is without a weight bench. A chair can be used for the shoulder presses and concentration curls, although it is possible to do them standing.
1. Dumbbell Squat
Yes, you can squat with dumbbells! There are three main ways to squat with dumbbells. The first, the Goblet Squat is ideal for complete beginners as you only use one dumbbell. The second uses 2 dumbbells held in the “rack” position, and the third uses 2 dumbbells held by your side – these allow you to lift a heavier weight.
To perform a goblet squat stand up straight with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width / hip width apart, and toes pointing slightly outwards. Grasp one of the dumbbell discs with both hands at neck height, with the dumbbell hanging downwards. Keep the heel of your palms well under the weight to prevent it slipping out of your grip. Your forearms will rest on the lower weight disc.
From this position simply squat straight down as low as you can and then return to standing position. Focus on keeping your chest upwards (otherwise the weight of the dumbbell will pull you forwards). Also when squatting down ensure that your weight transfers to your heel. Your knees will point outwards slightly. Maintain tension in the legs and core. Once in the lowest position, power up again through the feet, thighs, hips and glutes. Take a look at our page dedicated to squatting to see a photo of a good squat.
To squat with 2 dumbbells you need to first lift them in to the “rack position”, which means you hold the weights with your forearms vertical, your upper arms tight to your ribs, so that most of the weight is supported by a combination of the tension in your forearm and torso. From here squat in the same way described above.
The third method just involves holding the dumbbells by your side. While this may seem the easiest way, and therefore the best option, you do have to squat with your legs closer together which generally means you will not be able to squat so deep. It is a trade-off between lifting a heavier weight and performing a better squat. Regardless of the type of squat you chose, perform the same sets / reps for each:
- 3 sets of 12-15 reps*
2. Chest Press
The chest press is the equivalent of the bench press but instead of using a bench you simply lie on the floor. Ideally use an exercise mat, or at least a carpet that is well cushioned. Start with the dumbbells held by your side, with your upper arm supporting the weight.
Then lift the weights straight upwards, away from your chest. While lifting keep the weights parallel to your body (palms facing each other). If it feels more comfortable to allow the weights to turn inward a little on the lift this is OK. Straighten your arms, gently locking out your elbows, before bring the weights back down to your side.
- 3 sets of 10 reps
3. One Arm Bentover Row
The bent-over row is a great back builder. To perform stand in a staggered squat / high lunge position, with one foot forward. Lean forward a little, with your leading arm gently resting on the knee of your leading leg or use a chair / table to support yourself. Position yourself over your dumbbell then pick it up from the floor.
The row is performed by lifting the dumbbell from the fully extended position (straight-arm) until it reaches your ribs. Focus on using your back to lift, rather than trying to use only the arm.
Tip: start with your weakest arm and then on the final set work to failure, then match that with your stronger arm. This will help your weaker side to “catch up” with the stronger.
- 3 sets of 12 reps on each arm
4. Shoulder Press
Shoulder presses can be done either seated or standing. Simply start with two dumbbells held at shoulder height with palms facing outwards. Then press the weights overhead until your arms are straight. Concentrate on stretching the shoulder muscles to fully extend the movement.
When your arms are fully extended overhead your biceps should be in line with your ears and your shoulders back slightly to ensure that you are well-balanced. This is important as when you start to lift heavier weights you will struggle to hold them overhead if you are not bringing them back to be in line with your body.
- 3 Sets of 10 Reps
5. Single-Leg Deadlift
The single-leg dumbbell deadlift is possibly the hardest of these exercises to perform, but only because you need to train your balance a little. Using 2 dumbbells start with them held against the front of your legs. This differs from a barbell deadlift, which always starts with the bar on the floor.
In one movement extend one leg backwards so that your weight is entirely on the other leg while lowering the weights until they almost reach the ground. Then, extending through the ankle, knee, hips and then extending the lower back pull the weight back up to finish in an upright position while still keeping the rear leg off the ground. Reverse the movement to return the weights to the ground.
When lifting, the weights should remain close to your legs as you power up through the heels. There should be a slight bend to the knee, do not bend the knees too much or the movement will become more like a squat. Keep the back straight and do not overstretch, if you cannot bring the weights to the floor do not worry.
Single leg deadlifts target the Gluteus Maximus plus the hamstrings and lower back.
- 3 Sets of 12 Reps
6. Lateral Raise
With the lateral raise you use 2 dumbbells and lift them out to your sides to shoulder height. Start by standing up straight with each dumbbell by your side (outside your hips) with palms facing inwards.
Then in a steady movement (not a jerk) lift the weights upwards until they are level with your shoulders. As you reach the top position ever so slightly tilt the front of the dumbbell downwards to lift the elbow up so that it is above the height of the weight. Hold the position still for a moment, then return to your side. Keep the movement steady and controlled on both the lift and the descent.
Lateral raises work the lateral deltoids, which are the rear shoulder muscles.
- 3 sets of 12 reps
7. Triceps Kickback
The triceps are the largest muscle group in the arms, much larger than the biceps. So if you are looking to build bigger arms you need to work on your triceps and your biceps. While exercises such as the chest press and shoulder press work them, it is good to also isolate. The triceps kick-back is a simple way to do this.
Use the same stance as with the one-arm bentover row. With the dumbbell in the rear hand lift your elbow so that your upper arm is parallel to the ground and the forearm with the dumbbell hanging downwards. Note – you will only need a small weight to start with. Then extend your arm, keeping your elbow still, so that your triceps do all the work.
- 3 Sets of 12 Reps
8. Standing Dumbbell Curl
The curls are probably the most famous of all dumbbell exercises. They are done last because the biceps are the smallest muscles that we are exercising. You can either perform curls by alternating each arm, i.e. doing one “set” of 24 exercises, with a total of 12 on each side. Or by performing a set on the left and then a set on the right. Here we run through 3 variations of the bicep curl. You do not have to perform all three, but if you are really keen to increase the size of your biceps (often the main reason a younger guy will buy some weights) then you do need to “hit them from all angles“.
What is important is that if you curl on one arm and then the other that you work both sides equally. Alternating each arm has the advantage that you give your biceps a little longer to rest in between each exercise and so in theory you can work them harder.
Start with your dumbbells by your side with palms facing forwards. Then simply lift the dumbbells using only the biceps to your shoulder so that your palms now face towards you. Try very hard to keep your body completely still so that you do not generate momentum from the legs or core to power up the weights. Lifting slowly is effective as it really helps to maintain good form. The biceps curl targets the biceps brachii.
- 2 sets of 12 reps on each arm
9. Hammer Curl
The hammer curl is a variation on the standard curl.
Rather than starting the lift with your palms facing away from you, you lift with the palms facing your hips. Then curl the dumbbell, maintaining the line so that your palm continues to face in the same direction (inwards). Then return the weights to your side, ensuring that the arms are extended.
There should be no twisting of the forearm as you lift. Hammer curls target the brachioradialis (elbow flexors).
- 1 set of 12 reps
10. Seated Concentration Curl
Concentration curls are a pure isolation exercise in which you focus on building the peak of the bicep. You can perform them standing, in a similar position to the bent-over row but with the back of your forearm resting on your inner thigh. However, it is easier to do them while seated. Concentration curls target the brachialis muscle.
Simply sit down with your legs spread wide. Lean forward and rest the back of your forearm on your leg. Starting with the dumbbell in the lowest position, with your arm extended and palm facing upwards/outwards, then curl the weight up to your shoulder, keeping your body still at all times. The only part of your body that should be moving is the forearm, with the bicep contracting to lift it. It concentrates all the work on the bicep, and also when performing it you may look deep in though too!
- 1 set of 12 reps
So, there is the basic dumbbell workout that can be done at home, or in the gym. No bench required.
Photo by Glenn Francis of www.PacificProDigital.com