The Best Dumbbell Exercises for Every Body Part

weights on an exercise mat for dumbbell exercises
asian woman wearing white and yellow selecting a weight from a dumbbell rack
Dumbbells are a versatile piece of gym equipment you can use to strengthen every major muscle group in your body.
Image Credit: Kilito Chan/Moment/GettyImages

With so many pieces of gym equipment and even more exercises to choose from during any given workout, it can be hard to narrow down what exactly you should do during your movement session.

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Dumbbells are a great training tool for building strength, muscle and endurance. They're one of the most effective pieces of equipment you can use at the gym. There are many benefits to dumbbell training:

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  • They're ubiquitous.‌ You can find dumbbells at nearly every gym, including hotel gyms.
  • They're versatile.‌ You can train every muscle in your body using dumbbells.
  • They're joint friendly.‌ Dumbbells allow for more freedom of motion at your joints. For this reason, many people find their knees, shoulders, elbows and wrists feel better using dumbbells over barbells.
  • They build grip strength.‌ Training with dumbbells — especially heavy dumbbells — can be challenging on your grip. This is a good thing, because according to an August 2019 article in ‌Clinical Interventions in Aging,‌ a stronger grip is correlated with better overall health as an older adult.
  • You can scale to your ability level.‌ Many dumbbell exercises are easy to learn, which makes them ideal for weight room beginners. Intermediate and advanced exercisers can use heavier dumbbells and harder exercises to continue making gains for years to come.

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To take the guess work out of your weight-lifting sessions, we share how to use dumbbells to strengthen every major muscle group and our favorite dumbbell exercises for every body part and ability level below. We've broken down the exercises into beginner, intermediate and advanced categories.

If you're new to the weight room, start with the beginner exercises. Focus on adding reps and weight first before using harder exercises.

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If you've been training a while, you can still benefit from doing the beginner or intermediate exercises. Focus on improving your form and continue adding reps and weight when possible. You can also try some of the advanced exercises for an added challenge.

Choose movements that feel good on your joints, allow you to use a full range of motion and are appropriate for your skill level. Then, use the chart below to determine how many sets and reps you should perform for your unique goals. Choose weights that feel challenging (without compromising form) within the given rep range.

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Sets and Reps by Goal

To build muscle size

3-5 sets

6-12 reps

45-90 seconds rest between sets

To build muscle strength

5-8 sets

3-5 reps

2-3 minutes of rest between sets

To build muscle endurance

2-3 sets

10-30 reps

0-60 seconds of rest between sets

Source(s): American Council on Exercise

Best Dumbbell Exercises for Your Back

Beginner: Dumbbell Chest-Supported Row

The chest-supported row removes your lower body and core from the equation, which allows you to focus exclusively on your back.

Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Back
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Set up an incline bench at a 30- or 45-degree angle.
  2. Lie facedown on the bench so you head is above the top of your bench. Hold a pair of dumbbells in each hand with your palms facing in toward each other.
  3. Initiate the movement by pulling your elbows up and back toward your hips. Pull until your elbows are even with or a bit past your sides. Keep your shoulders down away from your ears.
  4. Finish the rep by lowering the weights back toward the floor until your arms are straight.

Tip

If you find this chest-supported row position uncomfortable. you can skip this exercise and move right to 3-point dumbbell row below.

Intermediate: 3-Point Stance Dumbbell Row

You're only working one arm at a time with the 3-point stance dumbbell row, but this move requires core strength to resist trunk rotation as you pull the weight.

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Skill Level Intermediate
Body Part Back
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Stand in a wide stance in front of a bench, box or another elevated surface.
  2. Get into a bent-over position by bending your knees slightly, reaching your hips back and placing the non-pulling hand on the bench. Grab a dumbbell with your other hand.
  3. Initiate the movement by pulling your elbow of the hand holding the dumbbell up and back toward your hip. Pull until your elbow is even with or a bit past your side. Keep your shoulders down away from your ears and keep your supporting arm straight.
  4. Finish the rep by lowering the weight back toward the floor until your arm is straight.

Advanced: Dumbbell Bent-Over Row

Bent-over rows are an advanced exercise because you need a strong core and strong legs to maintain the proper body position during your set.

Skill Level Advanced
Body Part Back
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing in, stand with feet hip-width apart and knees bent slightly.
  2. Hinge at your hips until your chest is parallel with the floor and your back is flat.
  3. Brace your core as you pull your elbows up to your sides until they touch your ribs while squeezing your shoulder blades to your spine.
  4. Return to start, extending your arms down toward the floor.

Best Dumbbell Exercises for Your Shoulders

Beginner: Dumbbell Incline Bench Press

Not all trainees will be able to press weights overhead at first. Use an incline bench to bridge the gap and practice pressing at a more shoulder-friendly angle.

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Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Shoulders
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Set a weight bench to a 30- to 45-degree angle.
  2. Begin sitting up on the edge of the bench. Place a dumbbell upright on each thigh.
  3. Use your legs to help push the weights up to your chest as you carefully lie back onto the bench. If you have a spotter, they can hand you the weights once you're lying on your back.
  4. At the start of each rep, your arms should be fully extended above your chest. Keep your feet flat on the floor. (Place weight plates or blocks underneath your feet if they don't reach the floor.)
  5. Initiate the movement by lowering your elbows down toward your chest in a controlled manner. Keep your hands and elbows at a 45-degree angle from your sides (or as close as possible).
  6. Once the weights reach chest height, finish the rep by driving them back up to the ceiling until your elbows are fully extended.
  7. When you're done with the set, lower the dumbbells to the floor before sitting up. If you have a spotter, have them carefully take the weights out of your hands before you sit up.

Intermediate: Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Dumbbell Overhead Press

When you're ready to introduce some vertical pressing, use half-kneeling single-arm presses. Pressing with one arm at a time requires much less upper body mobility. The half-kneeling position makes it harder to excessively arch your low back. Together, both of these make it easier to press with good form.

Skill Level Intermediate
Body Part Shoulders
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Start in a half-kneeling position with your right leg in front of you, bent at 90 degrees, foot planted on the ground. Kneel on your left knee.
  2. Hold the dumbbell at shoulder height in your left hand, palms facing in. Make a fist with the non-pushing hand and hold it out to your side.
  3. Initiate the movement by pressing the dumbbell up toward the ceiling. As you press, your palm will rotate to face in front of you. Press until your arm is straight and your biceps are even with your left ear. Don't shrug your shoulder or arch your low back.
  4. Finish the rep by lowering the dumbbell back to its starting position in a controlled manner.

Advanced: Standing Dumbbell Overhead Press

Experienced lifters can use this exercise if they have a strong core and good upper-body mobility. You must be able to fully extend both arms overhead with your biceps in line with your ears without arching your lower back.

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Skill Level Advanced
Body Part Shoulders
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Hold a pair of dumbbells in each hand, palms facing in, and stand upright with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Initiate the movement by pressing the dumbbells up toward the ceiling. As you press, your palms will rotate to face in front of you. Press until your arms are straight and your biceps are even with your ears. Don't shrug your shoulders or arch your low back.
  3. Finish the rep by lowering the dumbbells back to their starting position in a controlled manner.

Best Dumbbell Exercises for Your Chest

Beginner: Dumbbell Floor Press

Floor presses use less range of motion than bench presses, which lets you build pressing strength with less demand on your shoulders.

Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Chest
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Begin sitting upright on the floor with your legs extended straight out in front of you and a pair of dumbbells at your sides. Carefully place one dumbbell upright on top of each thigh.
  2. Keeping the weights close to your chest, lie backward until your back is flat on the floor. You can use your knees to help push the weights back with you.
  3. Bend your legs 90 degrees and plant your feet on the floor.
  4. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and position them next to your shoulders while your elbows rest on the floor.
  5. Initiate the movement by pressing the dumbbells up away from your chest until your elbows are fully extended.
  6. Finish the rep by lowering your arms all the way back to the floor in a controlled manner.
  7. When you're done with the set, lower the dumbbells to the floor before sitting up.

Intermediate: Dumbbell Bench Press

Once you feel confident with floor presses, you can move to an exercise bench to increase the range of motion and more effectively target your chest.

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Skill Level Intermediate
Body Part Shoulders
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Begin sitting on the edge of a flat weight bench. Place a dumbbell upright on each thigh.
  2. Use your legs to help push the weights up to your chest as you carefully lie back onto the bench. If you have a spotter, they can hand you the weights once you're lying on your back.
  3. At the start of each rep, your arms should be fully extended above your chest. Keep your feet flat on the floor. (Place weight plates or blocks underneath your feet if they don't reach the floor.)
  4. Initiate the movement by lowering your elbows down toward the floor in a controlled manner. Keep your hands and elbows at a 45-degree angle from your sides (or as close as possible).
  5. Lower the weights to chest height, then finish the rep by driving them back up toward the ceiling until your elbows are fully extended.
  6. When you're done with the set, lower the dumbbells to the floor before sitting up. If you have a spotter, have them carefully take the weights out of your hands before you sit up.

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Advanced: Single-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press

It might seem like single-arm dumbbell bench pressing is easier because you're using less overall weight, but don't be fooled. This variation is deceptively difficult, and it increases the demands on your core muscles in addition to targeting your chest.

Skill Level Advanced
Body Part Chest
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Begin sitting up on the edge of a bench. Place one dumbbell on top of your right thigh.
  2. Lie back onto the bench and use both hands to push the weight overhead. Be careful when you take your second hand off the dumbbell — make sure it is fully secured first. If you have a spotter, they can hand you the weight once you're lying on your back.
  3. At the start of each rep, both arms should be fully extended above your chest. Make a fist with your left (empty) hand and keep it in the upright position throughout the set.
  4. Keep your feet flat on the floor. (Place weight plates or blocks underneath your feet if they don't reach the floor.)
  5. Initiate the movement by lowering your right elbow down toward the floor in a controlled manner. Keep your right hand and elbow at a 45-degree angle from your side (or as close as possible). Don't allow your body to rotate on the bench as you lower the weight.
  6. Lower the weight to chest height, then finish the rep by driving it back up to the ceiling until your right elbow is fully extended.
  7. When you're done with the set, lower the dumbbell to the floor before sitting up. If you have a spotter, have them carefully take the weight out of your hand before you sit up.

Best Dumbbell Exercises for Your Arms

Beginner: Dumbbell Hammer Curl

Hammer curls are easier on your elbow and shoulder joints because they're performed with both palms facing in.

Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Arms
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Begin standing upright with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing in, and your arms fully extended down at your sides.
  2. Initiate the movement by bracing your core and bending your elbows and curling the weights up toward your shoulders. Resist the urge to swing the dumbbells up using extra momentum.
  3. Finish the rep by lowering the dumbbells down toward the floor in a controlled manner until your arms are straight.

Intermediate: Lying Dumbbell Triceps Extension

This is a powerful exercise for building triceps strength and size, and it requires core strength to keep your back flat on the bench.

Skill Level Intermediate
Body Part Arms
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Begin sitting on the edge of a bench. Place a dumbbell upright on each thigh.
  2. Use your legs to help push the weights up to your chest as you carefully lie back onto the bench. If you have a spotter, they can hand you the weights once you're lying on your back.
  3. At the start of each rep, your arms should be fully extended above your chest. Keep your feet flat on the floor. (Place weight plates or blocks underneath your feet if they don't reach the floor.)
  4. Initiate the movement by bending your elbows and lowering the dumbbells down toward your shoulders. Try to keep your upper arms still and your elbows up as you lower the weights.
  5. Finish the rep by pushing the weights back up toward the ceiling until your arms are straight.

Tip

If you find this exercise bothers your elbows, skip it and work your triceps using other equipment if possible.

Advanced: Dumbbell Incline Biceps Curl

Performing curls on an incline bench increases the stretch on your biceps, which makes the movement more challenging.

Skill Level Advanced
Body Part Arms
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Set up an incline bench at a high angle.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and lie back on the bench. Your arms should be fully extended and hanging back behind your body. Keep your palms facing away from you throughout the set.
  3. Initiate the movement by bending your elbows and curling the weights up toward your shoulders. Resist the urge to swing the dumbbells up using extra momentum.
  4. Finish the rep by lowering the dumbbells down toward the floor in a controlled manner until your arms are straight.

Best Dumbbell Exercises for Your Core

Beginner: Half-Kneeling Dumbbell Wood Chop

This exercise trains you to use your core to connect your hips and upper body, which is the main way your core functions in daily life. This is a good choice for people who aren't able to comfortably lie down on the floor.

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Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Abs
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Start in a half-kneeling position with your left leg in front of you, bent at 90 degrees, foot planted on the ground. Kneel on your right knee.
  2. Hold a dumbbell with both hands on the outside of your right thigh.
  3. Lift the dumbbell diagonally across your body, slowly twisting your torso to the left side (but keeping your hips and legs still), and finishing with the dumbbell to the left side overhead.
  4. Finish the rep by bringing the weight back down diagonally to the right side.

Intermediate: Dumbbell Pullover Dead Bug

This move helps you build anti-extension core strength, which refers to your ability to move your arms and legs without arching your lower back or flaring your ribs. This type of core strength will improve your ability to perform other exercises such as squats, deadlifts and overhead presses.

Skill Level Intermediate
Body Part Abs
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Lie flat on your back with both arms reaching straight toward the ceiling, holding a dumbbell vertically with both hands.
  2. Lift your feet off the ground so your legs are bent at a 90-degree angle.
  3. Keep your lower back in contact with the floor through the entire duration of the exercise.
  4. Slowly and with control, extend both arms back toward the floor so your biceps are by your ears. At the same time, extend your right leg out.
  5. Return your arms and right leg back to the starting position.
  6. Slowly and with control, extend both arms back toward the floor so your biceps are by your ears. At the same time, extend your left leg out.
  7. Return your arms and left leg back to the starting position.
  8. Continue alternating legs with each rep.

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Advanced: Side Plank With Dumbbell Raise

This combination movement works your core while also targeting your shoulders. It's best to hold off on trying this exercise until you can hold a standard side plank for at least 30 seconds per side.

Skill Level Advanced
Body Part Abs
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Lie on your right side and place a dumbbell on the ground in front of you.
  2. Prop yourself up on your right forearm with your elbow in line with your shoulder.
  3. Keeping your knees straight, stiffen your torso and lift your hips off the ground, balancing on your forearm and outer foot.
  4. With your left hand, pull the dumbbell off the floor and up to your chest, then push it up to the ceiling directly above your shoulder. Keep the dumbbell close to your body as you move it.
  5. Lower the dumbbell back to your chest and then down to the floor in a controlled manner.

Best Dumbbell Exercises for Your Quads

Beginner: Dumbbell Goblet Squat

Goblet squats are a foundational exercise that every new exerciser should learn. They make it easy to practice good squat form because they automatically turn on your core muscles.

Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Legs
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Stand with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart and your toes facing forward or slightly outward.
  2. Hold an upright dumbbell securely with both hands at chest height and your elbows close to your sides.
  3. Keeping your feet flat on the floor and your back straight, brace your core and push your hips back and down until your thighs are parallel to the floor (or as low as you can comfortably go).
  4. Pause here for a brief moment, then drive through your heels to stand back up.

Intermediate: Dumbbell Goblet Reverse Lunge

Once you feel comfortable with squats, it's time to introduce single-leg movements to your workouts. Reverse lunges are a great place to start because they are more knee-friendly than other single-leg exercises.

Skill Level Intermediate
Body Part Legs
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Hold an upright dumbbell securely with both hands at chest height and your elbows close to your sides.
  3. Move your left leg back behind your body while simultaneously bending your right knee and lowering your hips. Keep your torso straight.
  4. Stop when your right knee is at a 90-degree angle and your right thigh is parallel to the floor.
  5. Pause slightly and press into your right heel, squeezing your glutes to stand up, while bringing your left leg back to the starting position.

Advanced: Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat

Bulgarian split squats are one of the gold standard exercises for building strong, muscular legs. This exercise requires a good deal of balance, coordination and strength to perform.

Skill Level Advanced
Body Part Legs
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Stand a few feet in front of a bench, box or chair, facing away from it.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing in, with arms straight down at your sides.
  3. Reach your left foot back and place the top of your foot flat on the surface. To help with balance, widen your base of support by moving your left foot a few inches to the left.
  4. Lean your torso forward slightly and bend your front knee to sink your hips toward the floor as low as you can comfortably go.
  5. Your front-leg shin should be vertical or close to it, while your back knee should point down toward the floor. If either leg is out of place, move your front foot forward or backward until you’ve found the ideal positioning.
  6. Push through the middle of your front foot to return to standing.
  7. Repeat.
  8. Complete all reps on one leg before switching to the other.

Best Dumbbell Exercises for Your Hamstrings

Beginner: Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift

Romanian deadlifts (RDLs for short) are another staple exercise that everyone should add to their workout routine. Beginners will have a much easier time learning how to hip hinge using the top-down position of RDLs as opposed to trying to deadlift a weight off the floor.

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Skill Level Beginner
Body Part Legs
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand at your sides, palms facing in.
  2. Initiate the movement by bending your knees slightly. Keep your chest tall as you reach your hips back behind you. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Keep the dumbbells close to your legs.
  3. Reach your hips back as far as you can without rounding your low back or your shoulders.
  4. Finish the rep by driving your legs into the ground and returning to the starting position.

Tip

If you've never done RDLs before, it's recommended you do this exercise without weights first to learn proper form and prevent injury. As you become more familiar with the exercise, you can add light weights.

Intermediate: Dumbbell Kickstand Romanian Deadlift

Moving to a kickstand position increases instability while shifting the emphasis more to your front leg. This is a great stepping stone between traditional RDLs and single-leg RDLs.

Skill Level Intermediate
Body Part Legs
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Start with your feet together, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs.
  2. Step your right foot about 6 to 12 inches back. Throughout the movement, you'll balance on the toes on your right foot.
  3. Keeping your left knee slightly bent, perform a deadlift by hinging forward at your hips. During this movement, make sure your hips remain squared forward.
  4. Continue lowering the dumbbells until your upper body is almost parallel to the floor if that's within your range of motion.
  5. Keeping your back flat, brace your core and push through your left foot to return to standing.
  6. Do all your reps on one leg, then repeat on the opposite side.

Advanced: Dumbbell Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

You need a strong core, legs and feet, good control of your pelvis and lots of balance to perform single-leg RDLs. It's worth it to try to work your way up to these if you can because they have tremendous carryover to sports and daily life.

Skill Level Advanced
Body Part Legs
Goal Build Muscle
  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart with a slight bend in both knees.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand (palms facing in), your arms straight down at your sides.
  3. Engage your core and simultaneously press your butt back and hinge your hips forward, extending your right leg behind you. Press your left foot into the ground while doing so, and keep your left leg slightly bent.
  4. Hinge forward and continue lowering until your torso is parallel to the ground or you feel a pull in your glutes and hamstrings (whichever comes first). Keep your shoulders rolled down and back (so they are in line with the hips).
  5. Press into your left foot, squeeze your glutes and reverse the movement to return back to the standing start position.
  6. Repeat for the designated number of reps before switching legs.

Best Dumbbell Exercises for Your Glutes

You may have noticed that we didn't include any glute-specific exercises on this list. It's difficult to comfortably perform movements like glute bridges and hip thrusts using dumbbells.

However, fret not if growing bigger, stronger glutes is important to you. Exercises like squats, lunges, split squats and Romanian deadlifts all heavily target your glutes along with your quads or hamstrings.

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