If there was ever a piece of gym equipment that will stand the test of time, you can bet dumbbells will always be there. Whether in your parent’s home gym or at your local one, the dumbbell is the definition of “ol’ reliable”. Despite its prevalence in gym culture, most people underestimate its usefulness for shaping the body. If you told the average gym-goer all they needed were the right amount of dumbbells to transform their physique, many would believe dumbbells alone aren’t enough. However this article will demonstrate that with the right approach, you can reach your goals with a solid dumbbell workout program.
Before we jump into specific exercises, it’s important to address some of the elements that make up and also hinder a quality dumbbell workout.
Using the Right Weight
Dumbbells can be very useful tools, the problem with them is you can often sell yourself short on the weight. We know that lifting heavier weight is usually incorporated in the muscle building process, but there’s something about dumbbells that make people under-achieve. Let’s be honest; how many times have you picked up a pair of dumbbells to curl or bench knowing you could easily push another 5 or 10lbs?
I see it all the time at the gym, I occasionally do it myself, it’s ok- but it does raise a few issues.
In my opinion, trying to stabilize and balance dumbbells in separate hands scares many from upping the weight, but there in lies the problem.
Without lifting a substantial amount of weight, you cant really have an effective workout. Case and point, find me a person with arms like Arnold Schwarzenegger who got them curling 15lb weights. If we’re being real you likely won’t, which means to get the most out of using dumbbells– lift heavier weights
I recommend adding supersets into dumbbell workouts for an extra challenge. Few get the same intensity out of dumbbells compared to barbells or machines because on top of lifting less weight, the temptation to rest too long between sets is there!
In layman’s terms less weight + more rest = very little results. So why sit around twiddling your thumbs between sets? Add supersets!
Supersets allow for working more body parts in less time while fatiguing the muscles in ways that are absent in a standard setup.
The trick to an effective superset is to work agonist and antagonist muscles one after the other.
Agonist or primary movers are the muscles that produce the force necessary to complete a movement. Antagonists are simply defined as the muscles that oppose the agonist movement.
For example starting with bicep curls and moving directly into skull-crushers makes for a good superset. This combination works the agonist muscle group (in this case the bicep) and its antagonist complementary muscle group (the triceps).
Include Explosive, Compound Movements
The difference between a great and mediocre workout can be as simple as the exercises you choose. Outside of supersets or shortened rest periods, I’ve found that the most naturally challenging exercises are multi-joint, compound movements.
If you’ve done leg days that use multiple exercises such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, and leg presses all in the same workout you probably understand.
Compound exercises are also essential because they replicate all of the movements found in activities of daily living (ADL). These exercises will stimulate multiple muscle groups all while improving functional movements necessary for daily activity.
9 Must-Have Dumbbell Exercises
Clean and Press
If you ever needed a one total body exercise, clean and press would be it. In a single, fluid movement it works virtually all of the muscle groups in the anterior and posterior chain. Generally practiced by Olympic lifters, clean and press has other practical benefits that transfer into fitness goals such as increased strength and muscle mass.
From the starting position at the floor, the body works in a coordinated effort at the calves through the legs into the hips to drive the dumbbell from the floor above the waist. The abdominal wall works to stabilize the spine as the hips extend and the back stands up straight. The muscles of the back contract to lift the dumbbell shoulder-height, and as the arms and deltoids work to press the weight overhead, the triceps and core fire to stabilize the body in it’s final position.
Training all of these muscle groups for multiple reps is useful for burning extra calories, making it an excellent addition for weight-loss programming.
21’s (Bicep Curls)
This bicep curl variation is an old classic that will develop your biceps like few other exercises can.
The curl is broken down into three parts; 7 reps from the bottom of the movement to 90 degrees, 7 reps from 90 degrees to the top of the movement (shoulders), and 7 reps of full-range curls from waist to shoulders. All of these are performed continuously for a total of 21 reps per set (hence the name 21’s)
21’s are a true test of endurance that will help to develop the full shape of the biceps. A friendly reminder: This exercise will be tough. You will likely feel like you can’t make it through the 21 reps- don’t give up! Fight through each one and choose a weight heavy enough to make the set feel like hell (this is where the magic happens).
While triceps don’t have the largest selection of exercises with dumbbells, they do have some of the most effective. In an ACE study observing the effectiveness of 8 common triceps exercises, 15 healthy female subjects were tested for EMG activity while performing each exercise. Researchers found that while triangle push-ups produced the most muscle activity, kickbacks came in close second with 87 percent mean activation of both the long and lateral heads.
With this exercise you will stimulate nearly the entire tricep, but proper form is essential for recruiting all of the muscle fibers to the highest degree. Make sure your upper arm is parallel with your torso at the starting position and simply drive your forearm back towards your hip. As long as your upper arm remains stationary at all times you will feel a major contraction at the top of the movement.
What I like about dumbbell squats are the multiple variations at your disposal. Depending on how you hold the weight or which form you choose, your body may respond in very different ways. For example you may find cradling a single dumbbell between both hands during a goblet squat is more comfortable in terms of positioning and form. This comfort will allow you to lift a heavier overall weight opposed to holding two lighter dumbbells in separate hands– resulting in more bang for your buck.
Elevated dumbbell squats enable you to sit deeper into the movement, promoting glute activation to a higher degree than standard squats.
Ultimately the variation you choose depends on your individual goal. Regardless of which kind you choose, add squats to your workout never hurts.
The Deadlift is another exercise that thoroughly work multiple muscle groups: the forearms, lats, glutes, hamstrings, core stabilizers, upper, middle, and lower back. This exercise will work your entire backside, a region where many muscle groups are often neglected.
While I am a fan of deadlift variations, a safe bet for any exercise practitioner are standard deadlifts. Studies show that conventional deadlifts are a better technique for building multiple muscle groups like the bicep femoris and glute maximus than the likes of romanian deadlifts.
The standard hip thrust effectively targets the glutes and hamstrings and develops core stability by engaging muscles around the hip, back, and abdomen. It’s important to target the glutes specifically through an exercise like hip thrusts. It is true that exercises like squats, deadlifts, and leg presses build strong legs, but few target hip extension specifically. This can lead to both under-developed glutes and less effective lower-body lifts as a whole.
To develop a well-rounded physique, glute exercises and hip extension can’t be ignored.
This exercise is normally performed with a barbell, but you can perform it by resting both ends of the dumbbell on either side of your pelvis.
Truth be told: there are few things worse than having squats and lunges in the same session. The two just naturally make for a tough workout– which is exactly why you should do both. After all the only thing harder than doing squats is doing them on a single leg.
You can do this move with the support leg on the ground or on a bench, but ultimately the focus should be on the leg in front of you. Find a comfortable way to hold the dumbbells and concentrate on the contractions in the quads as you lower yourself.
Dumbbell Bench Press
What would a well rounded workout be without bench presses? Using dumbbells for this exercise will provide greater range of motion, and the numerous bench positions to choose from will ensure you develop all the muscles of the upper, mid, and lower chest.
If you are truly considering a dumbbell workout with bench press PLEASE- use enough weight to make it challenging!!
I understand trying to balance two dumbbells in separate hands can be difficult, but pressing a minimal amount of weight isn’t going to do anything for you.
Normally I would recommend a specific type of bench press for muscle growth, but honestly you should incorporate a variety of them.
The dumbbell bent over row is a great variation of the dumbbell row for a few reasons. Targeting both sides of the back with separate dumbbells prevents you from relying heavily on a stronger side to lift the weight. It also allow you to fix any muscular strength imbalances you won’t be aware of using machines or barbells.
Whether you choose standing , bench or incline rows, focus on bringing your elbows back towards your hips instead of simply pulling the weight up. This will ensure that you engage the lats and keep the other muscles of the back tight.
Putting It All Together
The workout below is a combination of all of the previous stated elements; supersets, compound movements, full body exercises, etc. If you can tie it all together with weights that present a considerable challenge for each exercise, then you’ve got yourself a winner. I won’t lie to you; unless you live for a challenge- you probably won’t like this workout, but you will like the results;)
Full-Body Dumbbell Workout