How to Strength Train With Dumbbells and the Best Exercises to Try

Invest in one medium and one heavier set of dumbbells and you'll have all you need to mix and match dumbbell exercises for your arms, chest, legs and more.
Image Credit: Jenner Images/Moment/GettyImages

Whether you're working out at your local gym or breaking a sweat at home, dumbbells are usually pretty easy to get your hands on. They also just so happen to be incredibly versatile and beginner-friendly.

Whatever your experience level with fitness — and personal fitness goals — may be, dumbbells can get the job done.

"Dumbbells are great resistance-training tools because they come in many sizes, shapes and weights and allow you to train your entire body," says Leigh Gerson, CPT, personal trainer and coach at Soho Strength Lab in New York City.

How do dumbbells work their magic, exactly? "Dumbbells allow us to apply one of the most important principles of driving adaptation through resistance training: progressive overload," says Ben Lauder Dykes, CPT, personal trainer and instructor at Fhitting Room in New York City. "This is important for any and all goals, whether it's strength, body composition or performance."

"Progressive overload" basically refers to gradually increasing the stress your workouts put on your body, Lauder Dykes explains. This triggers your body to adapt and grow stronger. Dumbbells are an easy way to put that external load on your body (and increase it) so that you can strengthen your muscles and other connective tissues, like your tendons and ligaments.

With the right dumbbells — and the right arsenal of effective dumbbell exercises and workouts — in your fitness toolbox, you'll be well on your way to a fitter, stronger you in no time. Here's everything you need to know to get pumping.

No Dumbbells? No Problem!

Try one of these creative alternatives you probably have around the house.

What Are the Benefits of Training With Dumbbells?

Dumbbells have long been one of the most beloved and trusted stregnth-training tools — and for good reason.

1. They Help You Build (Balanced) Muscle and Strength

As long as the dumbbells you use provide enough resistance to challenge you, they're super helpful for building strength and muscle, Lauder Dykes says.

"You can even increase the intensity of dumbbell exercises without changing weights by doing more reps or sets, adjusting the speed at which you perform your repetitions or reducing your rest periods," he says.

Another major perk of working out with dumbbells: "They allow more balanced development of the left and right sides of your body," Lauder Dykes says. While one side can easily compensate for the other when you work out with machines or a barbell, that's not the case when working with dumbbells, which provide separate resistance for each side of your body.

Asymmetrical effort could lead to major strength imbalances — or even injuries — over time, so that's a serious plus in dumbbells' corner.

2. They're Beginner-Friendly

Since dumbbells are easy to stash at home, beginners don't have to navigate unfamiliar machines or weights at the gym to get a great workout in, Gerson says.

Their very design is also beginner-friendly. "Dumbbells are safer than most other forms of resistance because their weight is evenly distributed on either side of the handle, which reduces some instability and gives you more control," Lauder Dykes says.

Plus, since dumbbells are "free weights" (meaning they're not attached to some sort of machine that restricts your movement pattern), they allow you to move however feels natural for your body, he explains. Not only is this important for your strength and muscle gains, but it also helps keep your joints healthy and injury-free over time.

Dumbbells also require a very low barrier to entry for new exercisers and make it easy to progress at your own pace, Lauder Dykes says. Since there are so many different weighted dumbbells available, you can easily start with four-pounders and progress to five- and then six-pounders as you build strength.

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3. You Can Train With Dumbbells Every Day

As long as you plan your workouts properly, you can safely use dumbbells every day, Lauder Dykes says.

There are two keys here: First, you need to follow the proper nutrition and recovery protocols (think: getting plenty of quality sleep) to prepare your body for daily dumbbell workouts. Second, give yourself two to three days of rest in between training a specific muscle group.

For example, if you used dumbbells to strength train your legs on Monday, you'd want to wait until Wednesday or Thursday to do a dumbbell leg workout again and focus on dumbbell chest workouts or dumbbell arm workouts in the meantime.

How To Strength Train With Dumbbells

How you personally choose to train with dumbbells depends on your workout experience and fitness goals.

That said, there is a massive number of different exercises you can perform with dumbbells — from compound movements that work multiple muscle groups at once like squats to muscle-isolating movements like biceps curls.

According to Lauder Dykes, all of these different movements deserve a spot in your dumbbell workout routine, since even those isolation movements can help you improve at compound exercises.

If you exercise in a gym (or have a full home gym set-up), you may have a variety of dumbbells to work with. However, if you're starting with the bare minimum, Lauder Dykes recommends purchasing a medium set and a heavy set, which should allow you to perform all sorts of dumbbell exercises.

From there, you can adjust certain aspects of your workouts — like the number of reps and sets you perform (and how much you rest) — to hone in on different goals, according to the American Council on Exercise.

To build muscle size:

  • 3 to 5 sets of an exercise
  • 6 to 12 reps per set
  • 45 to 90 seconds of rest between sets

To build muscle strength:

  • 5 to 8 sets of an exercise
  • 3 to 5 reps per set
  • 2 to 3 minutes of rest

To build muscle endurance:

  • 2 to 3 sets of an exercise
  • 10 to 20 reps per set
  • 0 to 60 seconds of rest

5 Super-Effective Dumbbell Exercises To Try

Though there are dozens and dozens of dumbbell exercises for your back, arms, chest, abs and more out there, trainers particularly love compound exercises, which get multiple joints and muscle groups working at the same time.

Goblet Squat

Goblet Squat
Image Credit: Ben Lauder Dykes
Body Part Butt, Legs, Back and Abs

Lauder Dykes loves goblet squats for beginners and advanced trainers alike, since the move helps you keep a straight back and braced core as you squat down, meaning you safely and effectively work your core, back, glutes and legs all at once.

  1. Hold a heavy dumbbell by one end at chest-height.
  2. Begin with your feet just wider than hip-width distance apart. (Toes can face forward or turn out slightly.)
  3. Keeping your chest tall and core tight, hinge your hips back and down to sink down into a squat so your upper legs are parallel with the floor (or as low as you can comfortably go with good form).
  4. Press through all four corners of your feet to return to standing.

Overhead Press

Overhead Press
Image Credit: Ben Lauder Dykes
Body Part Arms, Abs and Shoulders

Dumbbell overhead presses build upper-body strength and stability (especially around your shoulders), Lauder Dykes says. Performing overhead presses also requires you to stabilize your core and keep your shoulder joints healthy.

  1. Start standing with your feet under your hips and your core tight, holding dumbbells at your shoulders, palms facing in.
  2. Keeping your core engaged, push the dumbbells straight up toward the ceiling, extending your arms overhead. Your upper arms should stay close to your ears.
  3. Slowly bend your elbows to lower the dumbbells back down to your shoulders with control.

Plank Pull-Through

Plank Pull-Through
Image Credit: Ben Lauder Dykes
Body Part Abs, Arms, Chest, Shoulders, Butt and Back

One of Lauder Dykes’ favorite core movements, plank pull-throughs work nearly every muscle in your body, firing up your entire core and glutes as you work to stay stable. “You don’t need to do a lot of reps and get so much more bang for your buck than most other core movements,” he says.

  1. Start in a high plank position with your wrists and elbows directly beneath your shoulders, your core tight, and your body forming one straight line from head to hips to heels.
  2. Position a dumbbell so it rests just behind your left hand.
  3. While keeping the rest of your body as still as possible, lift your right hand up off the floor and over to grab the dumbbell behind your left hand.
  4. Engage your core to stay still and stable, then drag the dumbbell beneath your chest so it comes to rest behind your right hand.
  5. Replace your right hand on the floor, then lift your left hand to repeat the drag on the other side.

Thruster

Thruster
Image Credit: Leigh Gerson
Body Part Abs, Arms, Back, Butt, Chest, Legs and Shoulders

Dumbbell thrusters basically combine the benefits of squats and overhead presses, transforming these two movements into one fluid (and exhausting) exercise. You’ll challenge pretty much every muscle in your body with these, Gerson says.

  1. Start standing with your feet just wider than hip-distance apart, core tight, dumbbells in your hands at your shoulders, palms facing in. Toes can face straight forward or be turned out slightly.
  2. Keeping your chest tall and core tight, hinge your hips back and down to sink down into a squat.
  3. Press through all four corners of your feet to return to standing.
  4. As you straighten your legs, press the dumbbells straight up toward the ceiling. Your upper arms should stay close to your ears.
  5. Slowly bend your elbows to lower the dumbbells back down to your shoulders with control.

Contralateral Deadlift

Contralateral Deadlift
Image Credit: Leigh Gerson
Body Part Back, Butt and Legs

This challenging dumbbell movement — one of Gerson’s favorites — fires up the muscles in your posterior chain (the back of your body). It's a fun twist on the classic deadlift that's guaranteed to keep your body guessing.

  1. Start standing with a dumbbell in your right hand at your side, your left foot beneath your left hip, and your right foot about a step behind your right hip with your heel lifted. Your knees should be bent slightly.
  2. Keeping your core tight and your back straight, hinge at the hips to press your butt back and lower the dumbbell (and your chest) toward your left foot.
  3. When your torso is about parallel with the floor, press through your left foot to reverse the movement and return to your original standing position.
  4. Repeat on the other side.

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