How to Work Your 5 Major Muscle Groups With Dumbbells, Kettlebells or a Barbell

You have a lot of choices in the weight room, some of which might look more than a little intimidating (if not downright threatening) when you're just starting out. But with a little strategic planning, you'll be on your way to reaching your strength goals fast.

Dumbbells allow you to try lots of different exercise variations in your strength-training workouts.
Image Credit: EmirMemedovski/E+/GettyImages

Build Your Own Strength Routine

The ideal strength-training program will build all five major muscle groups (legs, back, chest, shoulders and arms), says Holly Perkins, CSCS, author of Lift to Get Lean and founder of Women's Strength Nation.

She recommends strength training at least twice a week and, ideally, three to four times a week. That gives you the time you need to hit each major muscle group twice every week for optimal results in muscle strength and size. "Don't train more than four days a week because your body needs time to recover," Perkins says.

To avoid overtraining, Perkins suggests picking two major muscle groups to work on the same day. Pick one pairing from the following for each workout:

  • Legs and back
  • Back and shoulders
  • Chest and arms
  • Legs and shoulders

Curious exactly how many calories you burn during your workouts? Download the MyPlate app for a more accurate and customized estimate.

Then it's time to pick your weight — dumbbell, barbell or kettlebell — depending on what you're looking to get out of the session.

You can move around easily with dumbbells, which makes them great for exercises like lunges, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Barbells are less versatile but allow you to add more weight, making them great for moves like the deadlift. Kettlebells up the intensity of your strength training and add a hit of cardio to the mix, according to the ACE.

Pick two exercises for each muscle group you're training to craft a workout from the options below.

Dumbells

Barbell

Kettlebell

Legs

Walking lunge

Deadlift

Sumo squat

Back

Bent-over row

T-bar row

Single-arm row

Chest

Flat chest fly

Bench press

Single-arm press

Shoulders

Side raise

Standing upright row

Overhead farmer’s walk

Arms

Overhead extension

Barbell bicep curl

Kettlebell kickback

How to Do Each Exercise

Perkins recommends doing 3 sets of 10 to 12 repetitions (reps) of each exercise and resting for 60 seconds between each set.

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Sets and Reps for Strength Training

Prioritize good form to avoid injury and muscle imbalances. (Watch video tutorials or ask a trainer at the gym to help you perfect your form.) Drink water as needed and extend your rest periods if you can't complete your reps with good form.

1. Walking Lunge

  1. Begin standing with a dumbbell in each hand, feet about hip-distance apart.
  2. Take a large step forward with your right leg.
  3. Lower into a lunge, letting both knees bend to 90 degrees and keeping your right knee behind your right toes.
  4. Pause when your left knee is about an inch off the ground.
  5. Press into your right heel to return to standing.
  6. Repeat with the left leg so you move forward.

2. Deadlift

  1. Stand with your feet hip-distance apart holding a barbell with hands about shoulder-width apart. Your hands should remain outside of your knees throughout this motion.
  2. Reach your hips back and maintain a flat back as you lower the weight toward the ground, keeping the barbell close to your lower body.
  3. Lightly tap the ground with the barbell and begin to reverse the motion, driving into your heels and pressing your hips forward as you pull the bar up to return to standing.

Read more: What Are the Benefits of Deadlifting?

3. Sumo Squat

  1. Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-distance holding a kettlebell by the handle in front of your chest.
  2. Sit your hips back, keeping your back flat and shoulders down. Sink into your squat until your knees are bent about 90 degrees.
  3. Press into your heels and drive up to starting position.

Tip

If you don't have a kettlebell, a dumbbell works for sumo squats, too.

4. Bent-Over Row

  1. Stand with your feet hip-distance apart holding a pair of dumbbells.
  2. Bend your knees slightly and hinge forward, allowing your arms to hang forward and keeping your back flat.
  3. Draw your shoulder blades toward each other and pull the dumbbells toward your sternum, drawing your elbows backward.
  4. Squeeze the muscles of your back before lowering the weights back to starting position.

5. T-Bar Row

  1. Using a T-bar row machine, straddle the bar facing away from the base of the machine.
  2. Sit into a partial squat and, using the handles, row the barbell up toward your chest, keeping your elbows close to your ribs.
  3. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and your elbows backward to contract your back muscles.
  4. Lower back to the starting position.

6. Single-Arm Row

  1. Stand with your feet hip-distance apart with your left hand supported on an exercise bench.
  2. Holding a kettlebell in your right hand, row the weight toward the side of your chest, driving your shoulders back and keeping your elbow close to your ribs.
  3. Slowly lower back down and complete your reps before switching sides.

Tip

You can also do the single-arm row with a dumbbell instead of a kettlebell.

7. Flat Chest Fly

  1. Lying on a flat bench, begin by holding dumbbells directly over your chest with arms straight and palms facing each other.
  2. Drive your shoulder blades together as you open your arms, keeping a slight bend in your elbows.
  3. Continue opening your arms until the dumbbells come to about chest height with your arms fully extended.
  4. Squeeze your chest muscles to pull your arms back together and return to starting position.

8. Bench Press

  1. Begin lying on a flat bench press with an unloaded barbell. Place your hands on the bar just outside of shoulder-width.
  2. Lift the barbell and slowly lower it to the middle of your chest, bending at the elbows.
  3. Keep your butt and head rooted to the bench as you contract your chest muscles and press the barbell up until your arms are fully extended.

Tip

As you grow more comfortable with the bench press, you can add more weight to the barbell.

9. Single-Arm Press

  1. Lying on a flat bench, hold one kettlebell in your right hand directly over your chest.
  2. Bend your right elbow and allow the weight to lower down toward your chest.
  3. Lower the weight until it's in line with your chest, 4 to 6 inches away from your body to the right.
  4. From the bottom position, exhale and press the weight straight back up to the center of your chest, extending your arm fully.
  5. Complete your reps before switching arms.

10. Side Raise

  1. Stand with feet hip-distance apart holding a dumbbell in each hand at your sides, palms facing in.
  2. With a slight bend in your elbows, lift your arms up and out to your sides until your elbows are about level with your shoulders.
  3. Pause, then lower your arms back to your sides.

11. Standing Upright Row

  1. Stand with your feet hip-distance apart holding a barbell in front of your thighs with your arms about shoulder-distance apart.
  2. Draw your elbows up toward the ceiling so that the barbell slides up your body.
  3. Pause when the barbell reaches about chest height and your elbows are slightly higher than your shoulders.
  4. Slowly lower the barbell back down, keeping it close to your body.

12. Overhead Farmer's Walk

  1. Hold a kettlebell in your right hand and press it directly up over your right shoulder, holding it up high, arm fully extended.
  2. Stabilize your shoulder and core while holding this position and take small steps forward.
  3. Take 20 to 30 steps, rest and repeat on the other side.

Tip

If you feel your arm begin to sink or your back begin to arch, opt for a lower weight.

13. Overhead Extension

  1. Stand with your feet hip-distance apart holding a dumbbell over your head with both hands.
  2. Without moving your upper arms, bend your elbows to lower the weight backward toward your shoulder blades.
  3. Squeeze the muscles of your upper arm to press the weight back up to the starting position.

14. Barbell Biceps Curl

  1. Stand with your feet hip-distance apart holding a barbell in front of you with palms facing away from your thighs.
  2. Draw your shoulder blades back and down and pull the barbell up toward your chest, keeping your elbows close to your ribs.
  3. Slowly lower back down.

15. Kettlebell Kickback

  1. Stand in a staggered position with your left foot forward and your left hand supported on your left thigh. Bend forward slightly.
  2. Hold a kettlebell in your right hand and keep your elbow close to your ribs so that your upper arm is parallel to the floor and your elbow is bent.
  3. From this position, press the kettlebell back to straighten your arm, keeping your elbow in place and squeezing your triceps.
  4. Bend your elbow back to the starting position and finish your reps before switching sides.

Read more: 13 Benefits of Weight Lifting That No One Tells You About

Get More Out of Your Strength Sessions

Eating animal- or plant-based protein after your strength-training session is vital for repairing and rebuilding the muscles you just worked. Learn which foods are best with LIVESTRONG.com and MyPlate's January Fuel-Your-Fit Challenge.

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