A component of many great resistance training programs, dumbbells are an undeniably effective training tool. Aside from helping you build strength and promoting hypertrophy, they will hammer your stabilizer muscles and may also address muscle imbalances since they allow you to perform a combination of lateral and bilateral movements.
It’s a good idea to have a set of dumbbells at home for those days when you can’t get to the gym. As far as what to do with them—we’ve got you covered. These workouts were provided by Luke Pelton, C.S.C.S., N.S.C.A.-C.P.T., a competitive powerlifting coach and weight training instructor based in New York.
Instructions: If you’re looking for a total body workout, skip to slide 8. The first seven workouts are broken up into upper body push, upper body pull, a combo, lower body power, lower body strength, and core. You can slate out your week where you change your focus daily (For example: Monday is upper body push, Tuesday is lower body power, Wednesday is upper body pull, and Thursday is lower body strength). For a longer workout, feel free to pair up the workouts. For instance, you may wish to pair one of the push workouts with a pull workout or an upper body with a lower body one; you might also finish any of these workouts with the core workout (slide 10).
For the ultimate motivator, don’t forget to pick the right music to keep you moving through any and all of these routines. Here’s more info on how to create the perfect playlist.
*Rest should be no more than 90 seconds to 2 minutes between each set.
Upper Push 1 (Chest/Shoulders/Tris)
a. DB Floor Press
Sit on the floor with knees bent and feet on the floor. Grasp the dumbbells at your chest as you slowly lower your upper body to the floor. Extend the arms so that the dumbbells are in a bench press position. Lower the elbows to the floor, making sure to keep tension in the lats so that the upper arms are at 45 degrees to the torso. When your elbows touch the floor, extend the arms to the starting position. Perform 8-12 reps for 3-4 sets. Note: Be careful not to lose tension and collapse when the elbows touch the floor.
b. Wall Press
Begin standing with the dumbbells at the shoulders to perform a shoulder press. Approach a wall you don’t care too much about the appearance of; a basement or garage works great for this. Stand as close to the wall as possible and perform a shoulder press. The proximity to the wall will force you to maintain a proper movement path with the dumbbells. Note: start slightly away from the wall to get a feel for the exercise, and slowly move closer as your range of motion allows for it. Perform this movement for 4-5 sets of 6-8 reps.
Begin similar to the floor press, lying on the floor with the knees bent and the arms extended above the shoulders. With a neutral hand grip, carefully lower the dumbbells to the forehead. Contract the triceps to extend the elbows and return to the starting position. Note: perform these with light weight to start and focus on keeping the elbows in line with the shoulders. Perform this movement for 4-5 sets of 6-10 reps.
Upper Push 2 (chest/shoulders/tris)
a. DB Overhead press
Begin with the dumbbells at shoulder height, roughly over the collarbone. Palms can either be facing away for a pronated grip, facing each other for a neutral grip, or at an angle between the two, depending on personal comfort. Keeping a neutral back by bracing the core, push the weights up and slightly back so that the biceps are in line with the ears when the arms are fully extended. Return the dumbbells with control to their starting position. Do 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps with a moderate weight.
b. Bent-over kickbacks
Note: This exercise will be performed with one dumbbell at a time. Take a staggered stance and hinge forward at the hip, placing your left hand on a couch/table/object with the right hand, holding a dumbbell, hanging straight down. Row the dumbbell up to slightly below chest height to assume the starting position. While keeping the upper arm in line with the torso, extend the forearm backwards by contracting the triceps. Return the dumbbell to the starting position to complete one rep. Perform 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps on each arm.
c. The Shoulder Farm
Note: This may be best performed with lighter dumbbells to start! Begin by performing a front delt raise with one dumbbell; hold the dumbbell out in the top position. Then, perform a set of 8-10 shoulder presses with the opposite arm. Switch arms and repeat. This is one set; it may be enough! Focus on bracing the core to stabilize the upper body so that the work is being performed by the shoulder muscles. Try not to compensate by leaning back at the waist.
Upper Pull 1 (Back/Bis)
a. One-arm row
Assume a bent-over position with support as in the kickback exercise. Row the weight up to the torso so that the upper arm is in line with the torso. Make sure to keep the elbows tucked in line with the body; excessive flaring of the upper arm will not only limit the proper muscular engagement of the exercise but increase the likelihood of chronic irritation in the shoulder joint. Perform 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps on each side.
b. Cross-body hammer curls
Stand with the dumbbells hanging at either side of your body. Curl the weight across the body with a neutral grip, so that the dumbbell ends up straight up and down roughly in front of the opposite pec. Focus on squeezing the biceps and brachioradialis (muscle that runs across the top of the forearm into the elbow joint). Alternate each arm for sets of 6-12. Perform 3-4 sets.
c. Shrug/wrist curl combo
Begin standing with the dumbbells at your sides. Perform a shrug by contracting the traps and pulling the shoulders towards the back of the ears. Hold at the top position and curl the wrists into the body. Squeeze and then straighten the wrists and lower the shoulders to the starting position to complete one rep. These can be performed for 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps with a lighter weight or for 4-5 sets of 6-10 reps with a heavier weight.
Upper Pull 2 (Back/Bis)
Note: This exercise requires use of a low stool or ottoman; any sturdy box-like object will do! Begin by resting your upper back and shoulders on the box, with your feet planted on the ground and hips extended so the body is in a straight line from shoulders to knees. Raise one dumbbell with both hands above the chest with arms extended. Keeping the elbows straight, carefully lower the dumbbell behind the top of the head; a stretch through the lats should be felt. When a deep stretch is felt, contract the lats to bring the weight back overhead. Perform 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps.
b. Strict Curls
Stand with the dumbbells at your side and your back against a wall. Perform alternating curls by supinating (rotating in) the forearms and flexing the elbows. Focus on keeping the movement solely at the elbows. The wall will allow you to use proper form, as any swinging or motion of the upper back and/or shoulders will immediately become apparent! Perform 4-5 sets of 8-12 reps on each arm.
c. Seated wrist curls
Sit with the forearms supinated on the thighs so that the wrists are past the knees. Curl the weight towards the body by contracting the wrist flexor muscles; squeeze at the top of the motion before carefully lowering the dumbbells to the starting position. Perform 4-5 sets of 8-10 reps.
Upper Combo (Push/Pull)
a. Pushup/Renegade Row combo
Begin in a pushup position, holding the dumbbells on the floor in a neutral grip. Perform a pushup to the dumbbells and once you have returned to the starting position, perform a one-arm neutral grip row. Repeat the pushup and row on the other side. This pairing of agonist/antagonist musculature (push/pull) provides a balanced workout for the entire upper body. When a row has been performed on each side, the first “rep” is completed. I would suggest doing multiple sets of 8-10 “reps.” Those who have difficulty performing a pushup may want to start with a lower rep scheme, or modify the pushup by starting with the dumbbells on a couch or other fixed object so that the body is at an inclined position from the floor.
b. Curl ‘n Press
Note: these can be performed either alternating or both arms at once. Begin in a standing position with the dumbbells at your side. Perform a curl. At the top of the curl, rotate your palms away from you so that the dumbbells are in a shoulder press position. Perform a shoulder press, then lower the weight(s) back to the shoulders. Rotate the palms back in towards the body and lower the weights as you would in a curl. That is one rep. 2-3 of 6-10 are advised, since the combined workload may make these more fatiguing than a normal curl or shoulder press.
c. Cuban press
This is a fantastic exercise for ensuring health of the rotator cuff muscles. Standing with the dumbbells at your side, perform an upright row so that the dumbbells are roughly at chest height. Then, carefully rotate the upper arms so the dumbbells end up in an overhead press position. Note: be sure to keep the shoulders stable during this portion of the movement. Perform an overhead press. Then, lower the dumbbells to ear height, rotate the upper arms back down with control to chest height, and lower the dumbbells to the starting position at your sides. Perform 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps with a light weight to start.
Lower Body 1 (Power)
a. Split Squat/Jump combo
Begin with the dumbbells hanging at your sides, with your feet staggered in a lunge position. Drop the back knee to the floor in a split squat position while making sure to maintain core stability and an upright torso. Extend the hips and knees forcefully to move into a jump; while in the air, switch legs positions and land in a split squat. Note: it may be advised to practice this movement with only your bodyweight before trying it with the dumbbells. Since this a plyometric type movement, it may be best to limit rep ranges from 3-5. Multiple sets may be performed, but this is not a movement you want to push to fatigue. Focus on maintaining proper form and explosiveness.
b. DB swings
Being with legs slightly wider than shoulder width apart, holding one dumbbell by one end between the legs. Using the DM’s momentum, allow the hips to drop back and quickly contract the glutes and hamstrings to forcefully extend the hips. This forceful hip extension will swing the DB forward. Perform 4-5 sets of 5-8 continuous reps (one swing immediately into the next). Notes: Do not allow the DB to travel further than shoulder height, as this is both unnecessary and unsafe. Also, focus on generating force from the hips. Do not use the shoulders to simply perform a front raise.
Lower Body 2 (Strength)
a. DB front squats
Hold the dumbbells at collarbone height as in the overhead press or squat thrust. Take a stance slightly wider than shoulder width. Brace the core and the glutes to ensure proper spinal and hip alignment. Squat down by sitting back with the hips and pushing the knees out in the direction of the pinkie toes. Try to achieve proper depth if possible (crease of the hip passing below the top of the kneecap) and extend the hips to return to the starting position. Perform 4-5 sets of 6-10 reps.
b. DB Romanian deadlifts
Stand with feet at shoulder width. Hold the dumbbells in front of the thighs with arms straight. Hinge at the hips while keeping the shins vertical to lower the dumbbells down the front of the legs; a stretch should be felt through the glutes and hamstrings. When the dumbbells have passed the knees, extend the hips by forcefully contracting the glutes and return to the starting position. Note: Focus on pushing the hips back into the glutes and hamstrings, instead of rounding through the back to lower the weights. Perform 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps.
c. DB stationary lunge
Hold the weights at your side in a standing position. Step forward into a lunge so that the angles of both knees at the bottom position form roughly 90 degree angles. Push through the heel of the front foot to return to the staring position. Note: try to focus on keeping an upright posture by bracing the core and glutes. Perform sets of 5-8 reps on each leg for 2-3 sets.
a. Squat/thruster combo
Begin by holding the dumbbells at shoulder height with a neutral grip. Squat down and explode forcefully out of the bottom position. As you stand up, use your momentum to push the dumbbells overhead. This mimics the look and feel of a barbell push jerk. These can be done with a light weight for 3 sets of 12-15 reps for fat loss and muscular endurance, or for 4-5 sets of 6-8 reps for muscle and strength gains.
b. DB Romanian deadlift
3-4 sets of 8-12 reps.
c. DB floor press
4-5 sets of 6-10 reps.
a. Overhead walking lunge
Begin with the dumbbells at your shoulders and press so the arms are extended overhead. While maintaining core stabilization and tightness, perform a lunge in place and return to the starting position. Repeat the lunge on the other side. This is one complete rep. Perform 2-3 sets of 5-6. Note: these can also be performed as a walking lunge once you have proper core and shoulder girdle stability.
b. DB Front squats
3-4 sets of 8-12 reps.
4-5 sets of 6-10 reps.
a. Side plank rotations
Assume a pushup position, holding the dumbbells in each hand in contact with the floor. Brace the core and rotate out to one side so that the arms are extended and a line is made from the top dumbbell through the arms to the floor. Carefully lower the body to the starting position and repeat on the other side to complete one rep. Perform 3-4 sets of 5-8 reps.
b. Toe reach
Lie on your back with your legs straight in front of you. Grasp the dumbbells at your chest. Raise your legs off the ground and extend the arms so the dumbbells are out in front of the body for the starting position. Reach for the toes with the dumbbells by flexing the abs. Hold for a brief pause before relaxing the abs to return to the starting position. Note: do not flex too much at the lumbar spine. Simply reaching forward 5-6” with the dumbbells should suffice. Perform 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps.
c. DB Russian twists
Sit on the ground with knees bent and feet on the ground. Grasp the dumbbells at chest height in a neutral position. Lift the feet slightly off the ground. Rotate to one side, focusing on bringing the weight of the dumbbells across the midline of the body while rotating from the trunk. From this position, rotate across the body to the other side and back to the middle to complete one rep. Perform 2-3 sets of 12-15 continuous reps.