The 12 Best Dumbbell Workouts for You to Build Strength and Muscle

Brett Williams, NASM
·9 min read
Photo credit: MRBIG_PHOTOGRAPHY - Getty Images
Photo credit: MRBIG_PHOTOGRAPHY - Getty Images

From Men's Health

Strength training is a broad practice which you can approach using any of a wide range of tools, depending on your goals, perspective, and resources. Heavy barbells, with their heft and rigid weight, are perfect for building total-body muscle with multi-joint exercises. Kettlebells provide impressive versatility, allowing for swinging movements and flows, along with presses and curls. Even bodyweight training can be incredibly useful, as you learn to leverage yourself for your own benefit.

But the most useful tools in the gym (or at home, if that's where you happen to work out) might just be the humble dumbbells. Dumbbells allow for more freedom of movement than barbells, which can be important for factors like shoulder safety during presses, and their design makes them easier to grab and maneuver than kettlebells for certain movements. They're a great option for purely practical issues too, allowing you to work in smaller spaces due to their (relatively) compact size. There's a lower barrier for entry than barbells or kettlebells, which can be tricky for beginners to handle—meanwhile, you can just grip the handles of a pair of dumbbells and let it rip (within reason, of course). And unlike barbells, you typically don't have to go through the trouble of adding or subtracting plates when it's time to level up or cool down.

Photo credit: Men's Health
Photo credit: Men's Health

Dumbbells allow you to take a wide range of approaches to training, too. From low-volume strength and power work to high-volume muscle endurance routines, the implements will serve you well. Isolate single muscles with moves like dumbbell curls or bring multiple groups into the equation with snatches and cleans—the options are nearly endless.

If you're dead-set on training with nothing but a set of dumbbells, check out these workouts as a jumping off point. You'll need other equipment, like benches, for some of them, while others can be completed with just the two weights and your determination to sweat. If you're stuck at home in a small space, check out these routines, which are specifically designed to be more minimal. Need some dumbbells for yourself? Check out these options.

Chest

Dumbbell Hell

Grab a timer and a pair of light dumbbells for this volume-based chest crusher from Bobby Maximus (via Westside Barbell). You'll still get a ton of work in the 5 minute period—the real question will be whether or not you'll be able to keep up with all those reps.

  • Lay back on a bench or the floor holding the dumbbells.

  • Press one arm up, holding the other weight at your side without resting it on your chest.

  • Continue pressing and holding for two-and-a-half minutes. If you need a rest, hold the dumbbell up in the press position.

  • Switch sides and repeat for another two-and-a-half minutes.

Dumbbell Incline Press Hellset

You'll need an incline bench for this routine, which challenges you with some unilateral work and constant tension presses. Just make sure that you don't go too heavy—Samuel recommends starting with a weight 10 to 15 pounds lighter than you would for a standard mixed-style incline press.

  • Sit on the bench holding the dumbbells in each hand. Press both arms up to get into the starting position.

  • Perform 2 explosive press reps with one arm, holding the press position with the other. Squeeze your core to keep your torso in position on the bench. After the reps, switch and repeat the process for 2 reps with the other arm. Repeat twice without stopping for 6 reps on each arm.

  • Once you're finished with the explosive alternating reps in the press position, lower both weights slowly through the eccentric portion of the press, taking 3 seconds to reach the bottom position.

  • Press just as slowly up, taking 3 seconds to reach the top, then squeeze your triceps and chest to finish the rep. Repeat for 4 to 6 reps.

Arms

Biceps, Triceps, and Core Circuit

When most people think of dumbbells, the first move they imagine is probably the bicep curl. There are few better ways to work your guns—but you can use smart programming to hit your other arm muscles, too. This circuit from Andy Speer uses some dumbbells, your body weight, and a ticking clock to give your arms and core a good once over. Perform each move for 40 seconds, then rest for 20 seconds to complete 1 round. Do 3 rounds to finish the workout.

  • Pronated (overhand grip/reverse) Curl - 5 reps

  • Hammer Curl - 5 reps

  • Supinated (underhand standard) Curl - 5 reps

  • Alternating Push Plank - 40 seconds

  • Hollow Body Diamond Plank - 40 seconds

Iso-to-Reps Biceps Mayhem

This routine shows how versatile dumbbells can be, even when they're outside of the classic gym environment. Men's Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. uses isometric holds to build up the time under tension—a go-to technique for building muscle—then pumps up your arms even more by packing in extra reps with a drop set scheme.

  • Start standing, holding either dumbbells or water jugs wrapped in your towels at your sides.

  • Curl up until your forearms are parallel with the ground, focusing on rotating your palms so they face the ceiling. Hold for 8 seconds.

  • Do 8 biceps curl reps, continuing to focus hard on rotating your palms so they face the ceiling.

  • Let your palms face each other. Curl up until your forearms are parallel to the ground. Pause and hold for 8 seconds.

  • Do 8 hammer curl reps.

  • That's 1 set. Rest 45 seconds. Do 3 sets.

Core/Shoulders

Delt-Defining Planks

This circuit of delt-smashing plank variations highlight just how versatile a pair of dumbbells can be in the right hands. Use a light weight to hit all three of these exercises with both arms for 8 reps, then rest for 1 minute to finish 1 round. Repeat the series twice for 3 total rounds.

  • Extended Plank Rear Delt Raise

  • Extended Plank Front Raise

  • Extended Plank Superman Press

Decline Dumbbell Ab Fryer

To build a truly strong core, you need to challenge yourself with an added load, just like you would any other muscle group. Do that—and make it even tougher—with this brutal addition of anti-rotation forces with the incline bench.

  • Anchor your feet in a decline bench, holding a pair of light dumbbells.

  • Lower your torso to a position that's parallel to the ground. Hold the dumbbells overhead with a neutral grip.

  • Shift one of the dumbbells out to the side and hold it in position. Perform six situp reps with your arms in this position.

  • After the first six reps, shift your other arm into the side position. Perform another 6 situp reps.

  • Bring both dumbbells into a position directly above your chest. Finish with 6 situp reps.

Back/Lower Body

Dumbbells Are for Deadlifts

You have to use your hands to hold dumbbells, but that doesn't mean you're stuck doing only upper body work. Try a few of these deadlift variations on your next lower or full body lifting day, starting with medium weight for 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps.

  • Straight-Leg Deadlift

  • Suitcase Deadlift

  • Staggered Deadlift

  • Single-Leg Deadlift

  • Single-Arm Deadlift

  • Single-Arm Suitcase Deadlift

  • Single-Arm and Leg Deadlift

  • Sumo Deadlift

  • Front Loaded Deadlift

  • Kneeling Front Loaded Deadlift

Elevated Plank Row

You've probably done plenty of bent-over rows and bench rows in your life, so why not give a new variation a try that will also work your core? You'll need a bench and maybe a pair of solid, grippy sneakers that won't slip. You'll crush your back, but you'll also be honing that V-taper torso shape you're going for, too.

  • Set up in an elevated plank position on top of the bench, placing your elbow and forearm on the surface for support. Squeeze your core and glutes throughout the series to keep your spinal position strong. Hold the dumbbell in your other arm, with the weight down.

  • Squeeze your back to row the weight up with your elbow flared out wide. Pause at the top for a count.

  • Row with your elbow close to your body, turning your palm inward so it faces your head. Pause at the top for a count.

  • Row with your elbow close to your body again, keeping your hand in position.

  • Perform 3 to 4 clusters of this series for 1 set.

Lower Body

25s Leg Workout

Take on this workout to get a lower body burn with nothing but a pair of 25-pound dumbbells. Beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels give everyone a good challenge to work their legs.

Beginner

3 to 5 rounds, 1 minute rest between rounds

  • Alternating Front Loaded Reverse Lunge - 60 seconds

  • Hip-Level Alternating Lunge - 60 seconds

Intermediate

3 to 5 rounds, 1 minute rest between rounds

  • Overhead Alternating Reverse Lunge - 60 seconds

  • Alternating Front Loaded Reverse Lunge - 60 seconds

Advanced

3 to 5 rounds, 1 minute rest between rounds

  • Overhead Alternating Reverse Lunge - 60 seconds

  • Alternating Front Loaded Reverse Lunge - 60 seconds

  • Hip-Level Alternating Lunge - 60 seconds

Goblet Squat Hellset

Have 10 minutes to spare? Then you can obliterate your legs with a dumbbell and a small platform to elevate your heels, like a weight plate. By the time you're through with these 24 goblet squat reps, you'll be shaking.

  • Stand holding a heavy kettlebell or dumbbell at your chest, core tight. A weight plate or platform about 2 or 3 inches in height should be behind you.

  • Step your heels back onto that platform, taking a slightly closer stance than your normal squat stance. Keeping your core tight, bend at the knees and sit back, lowering until your thighs are parallel with the ground. Stand back up. Do 8 reps.

  • Step forward off the platform or plate and widen your stance slightly to your normal squat stance. Do 8 squat reps, pausing at the bottom of each rep for 1 second. "Relish the pause," says Samuel. "Use it as a chance to find your squat form."

  • Finish with 8 squat reps, this time without the pause. Do 3 sets.

Full Body

7-7-7 DB Complex

This complex hits just about every muscle group to make it a true full body dumbbell workout. Make sure you use weights that you can handle for a wide range of exercises for an extended period of time—this one gets tough. Perform 7 reps of each exercise consecutively, then rest for 1 to 2 minutes. Repeat up to 7 times, depending on how much dumbbell punishment you can handle.

  • Overhead Triceps Extension

  • Hammer Curl

  • Overhead Press

  • Bent-Over Row

  • Drop and Stick Split Squat (L)

  • Drop and Stick Split Squat (R)

  • Sumo Burpee

Dumbbell Strength Interval Workout

Move quickly—but with intention—to crush this hard-hitting series, which is over in just 12 minutes. You'll perform each exercise for 30 seconds of work, then rest for 15 seconds. Repeat for 4 total rounds.

  • Single-leg reach and row (L)

  • Dumbbell skier swings

  • Single-leg reach and row (R)

  • Dumbbell alternating press

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