Dumbbell workouts might not have the pizzazz of barbell training, but they can still be damn effective.

And that’s especially true when you’re stuck doing home workouts because or don’t want to go to the gym.

Whether you want to do dumbbell back workouts to build a strong, thick back, dumbbell shoulder workouts to carve out those elusive capped delts, or dumbbell arm workouts to sculpt the perfect bis and tris, you can get there with a humble set of dumbbells and a bit of know-how.

In fact, with the right guidance (like you’ll get in this article), you can go further and do full body dumbbell workouts at home to train all your major muscle groups at once.

Unfortunately, though, such counsel is hard to come by—an Internet search for “the best dumbbell workouts” serves up a lot more trash than treasure.

Surely, you know what I mean: Bosu ball squats, petite pink dumbbells, arm swings, and other gym gimcrackery. 

You won’t find any such piffle here. Instead, you’re going to get the best dumbbell workout routines and exercises for training every muscle group in your body, from snout to tail. 

Benefits of Dumbbell Workouts 

Before we get into the exercises and workout routines themselves, here are a few benefits of working out with dumbbells.

1. Dumbbells allow you to train unilaterally.

A unilateral exercise is an exercise that trains only one side of the body at a time. 

Unilateral exercises are useful, because they . . .

  • Help you correct muscle imbalances by forcing both sides of your body to lift the same amount of weight (one side can’t “take over” from or “make up for” the other). 
  • Enable you to lift a little more total weight than you’d be able to with a bilateral exercise (an exercise that trains both sides of the body at the same time).

For example, if you can barbell row 200 pounds (using both hands), you might be able to one-arm dumbbell row with 105 pounds in each hand. If, however, you’re not training one limb at a time with dumbbells (rowing two dumbbells at the same time, say), you’ll be able to move more weight with a barbell exercise. 

2. Dumbbells allow you to train through a longer range of motion.

Research shows that muscles tend to grow more when they’re trained through a full range of motion as well as a stretched position.

However, when you use a barbell, your range of motion with some exercises is limited by the bar. For example, when you do the barbell bench press, you have to stop each rep when the bar touches your chest, even though you could probably lower your hands a few more inches without pain or problem.

You aren’t restricted by a bar when you do the dumbbell bench press, though, which allows you to use a greater range of motion and stretch your pecs more thoroughly in each rep.

That isn’t to say the dumbbell bench press is superior to the barbell exercise, though. In fact, it’s the other way around because although the dumbbell press allows for slightly more range of motion, the barbell press allows you to move more weight through a similar (and effective) range of motion.

And as far as gaining muscle and strength goes, using a bit more weight is more important than using a bit more range of motion.

Thus, I look at the dumbbell bench press as an excellent accessory exercise to the barbell bench press if you have access to barbells. And if you don’t, it’s a fine exercise in its own right. 

3. Dumbbells are versatile.

Because they’re inherently more maneuverable than a barbell, dumbbells can be used for more exercises than barbells can.

For instance, you can do dumbbell lateral and rear delt raises, flyes, and overhead triceps extensions., which aren’t really possible with a barbell. 

That said, dumbbells aren’t better than a barbell for most exercises that allow for both (like basic squatting, pressing, and pulling movements), and thus, barbell training will always be the foundation of any good strength training program.

Where dumbbells shine, however, is with exercises that aren’t suited to the barbell, which are usually isolation exercises like side lateral raises, chest flyes, or overhead triceps extensions.

4. Dumbbells help you train around injuries.

Dumbbell exercises allow your limbs to move more freely than many barbell exercises, which enables you to slightly alter your movements to avoid pain. 

For example, when doing a barbell bench press, your wrists are fixed in the same position during every rep. During the dumbbell bench press, though, you can rotate your wrists into a more comfortable position. 

This is particularly helpful when you’re trying to “train around” an injury, such as a wrist sprain, shoulder issue, or elbow tendinitis

Dumbbells are also helpful for maintaining your strength while injured thanks to something known as the cross education phenomenon.

The cross education phenomenon is a neurophysiological process where an increase in strength in one limb helps to increase the strength of the other one, even if it isn’t trained. 

In other words, if your left biceps is injured, training your right biceps could help maintain or increase strength in the left arm, even if you don’t train it directly.

In one study, participants who only trained one arm increased their biceps curl one-rep max by 9% in the arm that was trained and 7% in the arm that wasn’t trained. If they trained their right arm, their left arm still became 80% as strong, despite not doing any work. 

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Dumbbell Bench Press

Flat Dumbbell Bench Press

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: While sitting on a flat bench, hold a dumbbell in each hand and rest them on your thighs. Lie back and bring the dumbbells up so you’re holding them on either side of your chest by giving them a nudge with your thighs.

Press the dumbbells straight up over your chest until your arms are straight and your elbows are locked. Then lower the dumbbells to the starting position.

Why: The dumbbell bench press is one of the single best exercises for building almost every major muscle in your upper body, including your pecs, triceps, and deltoids. 

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

 

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: While lying on a bench that’s angled at 30 to 45 degrees, hold a dumbbell in each hand and rest them on your thighs. Lie back, hoisting the dumbbells up so you’re holding them on either side of your chest by giving them a nudge with your thighs.

Press the dumbbells straight up over your upper chest until your arms are straight and your elbows are locked. Then lower the dumbbells to the starting position.

Why: The incline dumbbell bench press trains your chest, triceps, and shoulders, but it’s also one of the best exercises for training your “upper chest.” Including it in your chest workouts ensures you build proportionate chest mass—“filling out” your entire pecs. 

Dumbbell Chest Fly

Dumbbell Chest Fly

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: While sitting on a flat bench, hold a dumbbell in each hand and rest them on your thighs. Lie back and hoist the dumbbells up so that they’re held at arm’s length over your chest with your palms facing each other. Slowly lower the dumbbells in an arc out to your sides as far as you comfortably can, then lift them back to the starting position while keeping your arms mostly straight.

Why: The dumbbell chest fly isolates your pecs, which means you can continue training your chest even when your shoulders and triceps are bushed.

Dumbbell Pullover

Dumbbell Pullover

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: While lying on a flat bench with your feet on the floor, hold a dumbbell at one end with both hands and rest it on your chest. Make sure your head is as close to the end of the bench as possible. Press the dumbbell over your chest until your elbows are almost completely locked out. While maintaining a slight bend in your elbows, lower the dumbbell in an arc over your head until your biceps are next to your ears, then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

Why: The dumbbell pullover is unique in that it trains both your lats and pecs simultaneously. It also trains your muscles through a full range of motion and in a stretched position, which increases muscle growth.

Dumbbell Overhead Press

Dumbbell Overhead Press

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: Stand up straight with a dumbbell in each hand. Hoist the dumbbells up so you’re holding them just above your shoulders with your palms facing away from you. Press the dumbbells straight up over your head until your arms are straight and your elbows are locked. Then lower the dumbbells to the starting position.

Why: As well as improving upper body strength, chest, shoulder, and tricep size, the dumbbell overhead press develops your whole-body balance and coordination.

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: While sitting on an upright bench, hold a dumbbell in each hand and rest them on your thighs. Hoist the dumbbells up so you’re holding them just above your shoulders with your palms facing away from you, giving them a little nudge with your thighs. 

Press the dumbbells straight up over your head until your arms are straight and your elbows are locked. Then lower the dumbbells to the starting position.

Why: Because it doesn’t require quite as much full-body coordination as the standing variation, you can normally lift heavier weights and progress faster on the seated dumbbell shoulder press.  

Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise

Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: Stand up straight with a dumbbell in each hand. Keeping your back straight and your core tight, raise the dumbbells out to the side until your upper arm is parallel to the floor. You don’t have to keep your arms perfectly straight—having a small bend in your elbows is normally more comfortable. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position. 

Why: The dumbbell side lateral raise is one of the best ways to isolate the lateral (side) head of the deltoids, which is important if you want your shoulders to have full, proportionate development.

Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise

Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: Whether standing or seated, bend at the hips so that your upper body is as close to parallel to the ground as possible. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, and while keeping your back flat, lift the dumbbells out to the side until your upper arm is parallel to the ground. You don’t have to keep your arms perfectly straight—having a slight bend in your elbows is normally more comfortable. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.

Why: The dumbbell rear lateral raise is a great exercise for training your rear delts, which are small, stubborn muscles that often need a bit of extra attention if you want them to grow as quickly as your other shoulder muscles.

Dumbbell Goblet Squat

Dumbbell Goblet Squat

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: Stand up straight with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes turned slightly out, and hold a dumbbell vertically against your chest. While keeping your back straight, squat down until your thighs are parallel with the ground. Stand up to return to the starting position. Remember to push your knees out in the same direction as your toes throughout each rep. 

Why: The dumbbell goblet squat is a fantastic exercise for training all the major leg muscles, including the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. The goblet squat also strengthens your upper- and lower-back muscles and improves your balance and coordination.

Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat

Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: While holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand about two to three feet in front of a bench, couch, or set of stairs. With your right foot (and heel in particular) firmly planted, place the top of your left foot on the surface behind you. 

Look at a spot on the floor six to ten feet in front of you, and lower your butt toward the floor by bending at your right knee. Keep lowering yourself until your right thigh is roughly parallel with the floor. Then, stand up and return to the starting position.

Why: Like every squat variation, the dumbbell Bulagrian split squat is a great exercise for training all the muscles of the legs. Because the Bulgarian split squat trains just one leg at a time, it’s particularly useful for identifying and evening out any muscle or strength imbalances you might have.

Dumbbell Lunge

Dumbbell or Kettlebell Lunge

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand up straight with both feet about shoulder-width apart. Take a long step forward with your right foot—about two-to-three feet. With most of your weight on your front foot, kneel down until your left knee touches the floor. Then, reverse the motion by pushing off the floor with your front foot and leaning slightly backward, allowing your legs to straighten. Once you’re standing, bring your right foot back to the starting position. 

Why: Research shows that lunges are one of the best exercises you can do to train all the muscles of your lower body, including your glutes. What’s more, stabilizer muscles across your entire body are trained because your balance and coordination is challenged as you walk.

Dumbbell Farmer’s Walk

Dumbbell Farmer’s Walk

Sets: 3 | Reps: As many steps as possible | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: Stand up straight and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Keeping your shoulder blades pulled together and down, take small, quick, even steps forward. If you run out of space to continue walking forward, turn around and walk back to the starting point without dropping the dumbbells. Walk for a set distance, number of steps, or until you feel like you have to drop the dumbbells.

Why: The dumbbell farmer’s walk trains pretty much every muscle in your body, but it’s particularly taxing for the upper back, core, and forearms. This makes it a great accessory exercise for other pulling exercises like deadlifts, and for improving whole-body strength and coordination.

Dumbbell Deadlift

Dumbbell Deadlift

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: Position your feet so they’re slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed slightly out. Hold a dumbbell in each hand so they’re slightly wider than your shins While keeping your head in a neutral position, drive your body upward and slightly back by pushing through your heels. Reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

Why: The dumbbell deadlift is more or less the same movement as the conventional barbell deadlift, except you use a pair of dumbbells instead of a barbell. This means you can still get most of the benefits of deadlifting when you only have access to dumbbells.

Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift

Dumbbell or Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: Hold a dumbbell in each hand. With a flat back (no rounding!), lower the weights toward the floor in a straight line, allowing your butt to move backward as you descend. Once you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, bend your knees slightly more, and continue lowering the weights until your lower back begins to round—just below the knees for most people, and about mid-shin for those who are particularly flexible. Then return to the starting position. 

Why: The dumbbell Romanian deadlift is an excellent exercise for training your hamstrings and glutes. It’s also considerably less fatiguing than the conventional deadlift, which means you can do it more often without wearing yourself to a frazzle. 

Bent-Over Dumbbell Row

One-Arm Dumbbell Row

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: Hold a dumbbell in your right hand. Plant your left knee and arm firmly on a bench, your right foot on the floor a foot or two from the bench, and let your right arm (the one holding the dumbbell) hang straight down toward the floor). Keeping your back straight, pull the dumbbell upward until it touches your torso, and then return the dumbbell to the starting position. Once you’ve completed the desired number of reps, repeat the process with your left arm.

Why: The main benefits of the one-arm dumbbell row are that it trains each side of your body independently and that you use a bench for support. This means you can lift more weight per side than you can when you do barbell rows, leading to more progressive overload (and gains!).

Dumbbell Upright Row

Dumbbell Upright Row

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: Stand up straight with a dumbbell in each hand. Hold the dumbbells so that they’re in front of your thighs, with your palms facing toward you. Lift the weights straight upward until they’re at the level of your lower chest, making sure to keep your elbows higher than your forearms throughout the movement. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.

Why: The dumbbell upright row is one of the few exercises that trains all three heads of the deltoids at the same time, which helps you to develop capped, “3D” shoulders.

Incline Dumbbell Curl

Incline Dumbbell Curl

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: Sit back on an incline bench set to 45 degrees. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and let your arms hang straight down with your palms facing each other.

Without moving your left arm, flex your right arm and curl the dumbbell up until it’s in front of your right shoulder. As you lift the dumbbell, rotate your wrist so that your palm is facing toward your shoulder at the top of the rep. Lower the dumbbell to the starting position, and repeat with your left arm.

Why: The incline dumbbell curl trains your biceps when they are behind your body. Unlike with other biceps exercises, this places a high amount of tension on the biceps throughout the entire range of motion, which is important for developing balanced size and strength.

Alternating Dumbbell Curl

Alternating Dumbbell Curl

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: Stand up straight holding a dumbbell in each hand, with your palms facing each other and your arms hanging straight at your sides. Keeping your left arm at your side, flex your right arm and curl the dumbbell up until it’s in front of your right shoulder. As you lift the dumbbell, rotate your wrist so that your palm is facing toward your shoulder at the top of the rep. Lower the dumbbell to the starting position, and repeat with your left arm.

Why: Alternating dumbbell curls allow you to train each arm independently, which helps prevent one arm from getting bigger or stronger than the other. 

Dumbbell Hammer Curl

Dumbbell Hammer Curl

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: Stand up straight holding a dumbbell in each hand, with your palms facing each other and your arms hanging straight at your sides. Keeping your left arm at your side, flex your right arm and curl the dumbbell up until it’s in front of your right shoulder. Keep your thumb pointing toward the ceiling during the entire rep (don’t rotate your wrist). Lower the dumbbell to the starting position, and repeat with your left arm.

Why: The hammer curl emphasizes the brachialis—a small muscle that can help to push up the biceps brachii—making your upper arms look bigger and improving the appearance of your biceps “peak.”

Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension

Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension Mike

 

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: Grab a dumbbell and sit on a bench with the backrest adjusted so it’s nearly vertical. Extend your arms to push the dumbbell over your head, giving it a little nudge with a thigh if needed. Adjust your grip so your palms are supporting the weight of the dumbbell and are pointing toward the ceiling. Lower the dumbbell behind your head until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle, then extend your arms to return to the starting position.

Why: The dumbbell overhead triceps extension is an excellent exercise for training the slightly smaller medial and lateral heads of the triceps, ensuring you have defined, proportional upper arms.

Dumbbell Kickback

Dumbbell Kickback Mike

 

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

How to: Hold a dumbbell in your right hand. Plant your left knee and arm firmly on a bench and your right foot on the floor a foot or two from the bench. Keep your right elbow next to your torso but bend it at about 90 degrees so the weight hangs toward the floor. Push the weight toward your hip by straightening your elbow, then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

Why: The dumbbell kickback emphasizes the long head of the triceps, which is the largest and thus has the greatest impact on the size of your triceps.

Dumbbell Shoulder Workout Routine

Dumbbell Overhead Press

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes 

Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes 

Dumbbell Back Workout Routine

Dumbbell Deadlift

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes 

Dumbbell Bent Over Row

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes 

Dumbbell Upright Row

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes 

Dumbbell Pullover

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes 

Dumbbell Chest Workout Routine

Dumbbell Bench Press

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

Dumbbell Pullover

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

Dumbbell Chest Fly

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

Dumbbell Tricep Workout Routine

Dumbbell Bench Press

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

Dumbbell Kickback

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

Dumbbell Bicep Workout Routine

Dumbbell Bent Over Row

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes 

Incline Dumbbell Curl

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

Alternating Dumbbell Curl

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

Dumbbell Hammer Curl

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

Dumbbell Leg Workout Routine

Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes 

Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes 

Dumbbell Lunge

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

Dumbbell Goblet Squat

Sets: 3 | Reps: 8 to 10 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

Total Body Dumbbell Workout Routine

Dumbbell Bench Press

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes

Dumbbell Bent Over Row

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes 

Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes 

Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift

Sets: 3 | Reps: 4 to 6 | Rest: 2 to 3 minutes 

FAQ #1: Can I get ripped with only dumbbells?

Yes, but not for the reason that you may think.

The key to getting “ripped” isn’t training your muscles in a special way, but using your diet to lose fat. If you want to lose a substantial amount of fat, dumbbell workouts alone won’t get you there. You have to get your diet in check, too.

That means consistently eating fewer calories than you burn and eating enough protein to recover from your workouts, support fat loss, and retain or gain muscle.

That said, good dumbbell workouts can help you lose fat faster and build muscle simultaneously.

If you want to learn more about how to set up your diet to maximize fat loss, check out this article:

The Complete Guide to Safely and Healthily Losing Weight Fast

FAQ #2: Can you build mass with dumbbells only?

Absolutely.

Building mass is largely a matter of getting progressively stronger at a few key exercises, namely the squat, deadlift, and bench and overhead press.

While these exercises are best performed with a barbell, there are plenty of good alternatives (most of which we’ve discussed in this article) you can do with dumbbells that will produce similar results.

So, if you want to build mass in your . . .

  • Dumbbell chest workouts, focus on getting stronger at the dumbbell bench press, dumbbell incline bench press, and dumbbell fly
  • Dumbbell back workouts, focus on getting stronger at the dumbbell deadlift, dumbbell Romanian deadlift, and dumbbell pullover
  • Dumbbell shoulder workouts, focus on getting stronger at the dumbbell overhead press, dumbbell lateral raise, and dumbbell rear lateral raise 
  • Dumbbell leg workouts, focus on getting stronger at the dumbbell Bulgarian split squat, dumbbell goblet squat, and dumbbell lunge

FAQ #3: How heavy should dumbbells be?

Given that your number one goal as a natural weightlifter should be getting stronger, you need to lift heavy dumbbells.

And by “heavy,” I mean working primarily with weights in the range of 75 to 85% of your one-rep max (1RM), or in the range of 8-to-10 (~75%) to 4-to-6 (~85%) reps.

What’s more, you should also strive to add weight or reps to every exercise in every workout. This is known as progressive overload, and it’s one of the best ways to maximize the muscle-building effects of weightlifting. 

The problem with dumbbells is that most people only have one or two pairs to use, which limits how much they can progress in their training. 

The best way around this is to buy a set of adjustable dumbbells.

Eventually, however, you’ll probably max out on the weight provided by adjustable dumbbells, and then, to keep progressing, you’ll want to switch to barbell training. 

+ Scientific References

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