Building a stronger, more powerful upper body doesn’t require a warehouse full of weightlifting contraptions.
In fact, you can train all of your upper-body muscles, including your shoulders, back, chest, and arms, with nothing more than a bench and some dumbbells.
To get the most out of your upper-body dumbbell workouts, though, you need to do the right exercises in the right way, use the right amount of weight, and do the right number of sets and reps.
And if you organize your exercises into an upper-body dumbbell circuit, you’ll finish your workouts faster, too.
In this article, you’ll learn all of that and more.
Table of Contents
Equipment for a Full Upper-Body Dumbbell Workout
To do all of the exercises in this upper-body dumbbell workout you’ll need . . .
If you’re working out from home you probably don’t have a full rack of dumbbells at your disposal.
In this case, the best solution is a set of adjustable dumbbells, or two or three pairs of dumbbells of varying weights. If you aren’t sure what weights to use, a good starting place for most people is a pair of 10 lb, 30 lb, and 50 lb dumbbells.
- A flat or adjustable bench.
You can do this upper body workout at home with weights using a flat bench, but if you want extra back support while doing overhead pressing exercises, it’s best to use an adjustable bench.
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Warming Up for an Upper-Body Dumbbell Workout
Doing a thorough warm up before your first exercise in each workout accomplishes several things:
- It helps you troubleshoot your form and “groove in” proper technique.
- It increases the temperature of and blood flow to your muscles, which can boost your performance and thus muscle and strength gain over time.
When you do an upper-body dumbbell workout, you don’t need to warm up before every exercise.
Instead, a thorough warm up before your first exercise in each workout should adequately prepare you for the rest of your workout.
Here’s the protocol you want to follow before your first exercise of the workout:
- Estimate roughly what weight you’re going to use for your three sets of the exercise (this is your “hard set” weight).
- Do 6 reps with about 50% of your hard set weight, and rest for a minute.
- Do 4 reps with about 70% of your hard set weight, and rest for a minute.
Then, do all of your hard sets for your first exercise, and then the rest of the exercises for that workout (you only need to warm-up for your first exercise).
How to Do This Workout as an Upper-Body Dumbbell Circuit
To make your upper body dumbbell workouts more time-efficient without compromising performance, turn your workout into an upper-body dumbbell circuit by alternating between exercises that train different muscle groups (a technique known as “supersetting”).
My favorite way to implement supersets is to use antagonist paired sets, which involves alternating between two exercises that train different muscle groups and resting shorter than normal between sets than regular supersets (so you can get out of the gym faster).
Basically, instead of doing your entire workout as a circuit (rotating between every exercise with little to no rest in between until finishing all of your sets), you do several mini circuits, alternating between just two exercises at a time and resting longer between sets.
For example, you could do a set of dumbbell bench press (which trains your chest, shoulders, and triceps), rest a minute or so, and then do a set of one-arm dumbbell rows (which train your back and the biceps), and rest another minute. You’d keep alternating between the two exercises until you finish all of your sets for both.
This allows you to use the sets for one exercise as rest periods for another (your “dumbbell bench press muscles” are resting while your “dumbbell row muscles” are working, and vice versa). As a result, you don’t have to rest as long in between sets, which helps you finish your workouts faster without compromising your strength.
In this upper-body dumbbell circuit, the paired exercises are marked “A” and “B.”
Do exercise “A,” rest for the given time, then do exercise “B” and rest for the given time. Repeat this process until you’ve done all the sets for that pair of exercises, then move on to the next pair of exercises and repeat the process.
The Best Full Upper-Body Workout with Only Dumbbells
Before you learn how to do the individual exercises, take a look at the whole workout so you know what to expect:
1A. Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 60-to-90 sec rest
1B. One-Arm Dumbbell Row: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 60-to-90 sec rest
2A. Arnold Press: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 60-to-90 sec rest
2B. Dumbbell Pullover: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 60-to-90 sec rest
3A. Biceps Curl: 3 sets of 10-to-12 reps with 60-to-90 sec rest
3B. Overhead Triceps Extension: 3 sets of 10-to-12 reps with 60-to-90 sec rest
Now let’s get into the nitty gritty . . .
1. Dumbbell Bench Press
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.
- 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.
- Lower the dumbbells to the starting position.
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2. One-Arm Dumbbell Row
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!).
- 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.
3. Arnold Press
Most overhead pressing exercises emphasize the anterior deltoid (front part of the shoulder), but because of the way you rotate your wrists in the Arnold press, you shift the emphasis to the side delts, ensuring you develop proportional shoulders.
- 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 in front of your shoulders with your palms facing toward you, giving them a little nudge with your thighs.
- Press the dumbbells straight up over your head while rotating your wrists until your arms are straight, your elbows are locked, and your palms are facing away from you.
- Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.
4. Dumbbell Pullover
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.
- 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.
- Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.
5. Alternating Dumbbell Curl
Alternating dumbbell curls allow you to train each arm independently, which helps prevent one arm from getting bigger or stronger than the other.
- 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.
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6. Overhead Triceps Extension
As the name implies, the dumbbell overhead triceps extension positions the arms overhead, which trains the triceps in a different way than most other pressing exercises. Specifically, it fully stretches the long head of the triceps, which research shows likely leads to more muscle growth.
- Sit up straight on a bench.
- Grip one end of a dumbbell using both palms and lift it overhead so that your arms are straight. Your palms should be flat against the end of the dumbbell, and facing toward the ceiling.
- Lower the weight until it’s behind your head by bending at the elbow, then straighten your arms and return to the starting position.
+ Scientific References
- Oranchuk, D. J., Storey, A. G., Nelson, A. R., & Cronin, J. B. (2019). Isometric training and long-term adaptations: Effects of muscle length, intensity, and intent: A systematic review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 29(4), 484–503. https://doi.org/10.1111/SMS.13375
- Landin, D., & Thompson, M. (2011). The shoulder extension function of the triceps brachii. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 21(1), 161–165. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.JELEKIN.2010.09.005
- DJ, O., AG, S., AR, N., & JB, C. (2019). Isometric training and long-term adaptations: Effects of muscle length, intensity, and intent: A systematic review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 29(4), 484–503. https://doi.org/10.1111/SMS.13375
- BJ, S., & J, G. (2020). Effects of range of motion on muscle development during resistance training interventions: A systematic review. SAGE Open Medicine, 8, 205031212090155. https://doi.org/10.1177/2050312120901559
- JM, J., & PD, C. (2001). Bilateral and unilateral contractions: possible differences in maximal voluntary force. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology = Revue Canadienne de Physiologie Appliquee, 26(1), 12–33. https://doi.org/10.1139/H01-002
- DW, R., WB, Y., DG, B., & WR, P. (2010). Agonist-antagonist paired set resistance training: a brief review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2873–2882. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0B013E3181F00BFC
- AJ, F., TR, Z., & JM, S. (2010). Effects of warming-up on physical performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(1), 140–148. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0B013E3181C643A0