Using dumbbells to score an intense workout is a no-brainer. They can help you pack on the muscle and crush even more calories. Trainers love them too, because "you can perform many variations of exercises while also progressing in load," Darren Ross, CPT, owner of P13 Fitness tells LIVESTRONG.com.
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Dumbbells are also incredibly challenging, since you have to work to stabilize them throughout your movements, celebrity trainer Ashley Borden, creator of the Hot at Home dumbbell training program, tells LIVESTRONG.com
For all the good dumbbells can do, though, getting the most out of your training sessions means selecting a challenging yet doable weight, performing the right exercises correctly and steering clear of moves that aren't in your best interest.
Here, top trainers share their thoughts on what you need to know about training with dumbbells — safely and effectively.
Avoid These Dumbbell Exercise Mistakes
When it comes to what to avoid, many trainers offer varying opinions based on what they feel is inefficient, ineffective or just downright unsafe if you're not experienced.
Still, Borden sums it up best: "The worst dumbbell exercises are the ones where you are using weight that is too heavy and your form is totally compromised," she says. That's because these two things often lead to injury. To help keep you from getting sidelined or wasting your time, here are a few moves that give trainers pause.
1. Arnold Overhead Press
Named after the Terminator himself (Arnold Schwarzenegger), this shoulder move is better left to experienced lifters. In fact, this — and even regular overhead presses — put the shoulder at risk.
"The majority of people do not have the shoulder mobility to properly extend and press overhead," Ross says. As a result, shoulder impingement could occur. He goes on: In order to be cleared for the exercise, you should get a perfect score on the reaching pattern portion of the Functional Movement Screen, which not many people do.
Instead: Do lateral raises, so you take out the rotational transition from biceps curl to overhead press and avoid the overhead pressing motion altogether.
- Stand with a slight bend in the knees, core engaged.
- A dumbbell in each hand, let your arms hang extended at your sides with a slight bend in your elbow, palms facing toward you.
- Raise your arms out to the side of your body to about shoulder level, keeping your elbows slightly bent throughout the movement.
- With control, lower the weights back down to the starting position.
2. Triceps Kickback
Ross says this move is simply inefficient. "[They're] a difficult exercise to get full range of motion, hard to increase the weight and also puts the elbow in a compromised position, risking injury."
Instead: Try triceps push-ups, even if you need to do them on your knees. This brings your core into the move and allows you to modify or progress based on your strength.
- Start in a high plank (or drop to your knees), hands underneath your shoulders.
- Bend your elbows, hugging them close to your sides, and lower your chest toward the floor while keeping your back flat.
- Press back up to the start.
3. Dumbbell Walking Lunge
"Due to the forward movement of a walking lunge, it is very easy for a beginner to execute this movement with poor posture," Courtney Paul, CPT, creator of Courtney Paul in the House Virtual Training tells LIVESTRONG.com.
"Too often, I have witnessed people rush through this movement and lose balance or overextend the knee, which can pull ligaments and strain the muscles that surround the knee." Add resistance to this move, and an exercise that's already challenging to those who lack balance and stability becomes even more difficult.
Instead: Perform weighted lunges from a stationary position. These are a great substitute for dumbbell walking lunges and still 100-percent effective, Paul says.
- Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand with one foot a couple of feet in front of the other. Your feet should still be shoulder-width apart rather than having one directly in front of the other.
- Bend your knees and lower down until both knees are at 90 degrees, with the back one hovering just above the ground.
- Push into front foot to rise back to standing.
- After completing the desired reps, repeat the move on the opposite leg.
“Rotate the shoulders back and directly over the hips, with dumbbells directly at your side secures your center of gravity, to give you less chance of losing balance or injury,” Paul says.
4. Renegade Row
According to Paul, this exercise is notorious for being done improperly, especially when fatigue sets in.
"Due to lack of core strength, the hips will rise, rock side to side, and the pressure of the body weight due to the raising of the hips go into the shoulders, making this core and back movement more of a shoulder destroyer," he says.
Ross agrees that the difficulty level of this move is high. "People do this exercise incorrectly by not stabilizing the hips on the row and not fully extending their arm back for a proper row."
Instead: Swap in bent-over rows. Most exercise programs lack "pulling" exercises, and the row, which helps train the posterior (back) muscles and is one of Atkins' favorite posture exercises, does just that.
- Stand with feet hip-width apart, a slight bend in knees and a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing in.
- Hinge at waist and lower your torso slightly, allowing arms to hang down. This is the starting position.
- Keeping a flat back, squeeze your shoulder blades and bend your elbows, pulling dumbbells to your sides.
- Slowly lower the weights back down to the start.
5. Russian Twist
Though loved by many, Atkins says that she'd prefer people steer clear of this core exercise, which finds you in a partial sit-up position for the duration of its execution.
"These are terrible for your lower back, especially when done under load," she says.
Instead: Perform farmer's walks. When done properly, Ross says this move "helps with posture by maintaining scapular retraction throughout the walk."
Also handy: It's a great way to build grip and forearm strength as well as work on core stabilization. Ross also notes that the farmer's walk is a "very underrated exercise when it comes to increasing heart rate."
- Stand with a dumbbell on either side on you.
- Squat down between dumbbells, keeping your chest up and back flat.
- Grab a dumbbell in each hand and stand up tall.
- Keeping your abs tight and your shoulders down and back, walk forward for your pre-determined distance.
6. Dumbbell Snatch
You'll definitely look like a pro if you can nail this move. The key word, however, is if.
Angela Manuel Davis, co-founder and chief motivation officer of AArmy would rather you skip this explosive movement — which is essentially a very complex mixture of a deadlift, biceps curl and shoulder press — because of its advanced nature. (Unless, of course, you have a coach present to ensure proper execution.)
Instead: Opt for goblet squats. Not only does this mobility and strength move "help counterbalance the squat position to help train proper squat mechanics," explains Atkins, but it also closely "mimics real-life scenarios," such as picking up a heavy box from the ground.
- Stand tall with a dumbbell in both hands and feet wider than hip-width apart, toes turned out slightly.
- Hinge at the hips, pushing your butt back and sinking down into a squat. Make sure to keep your chest up.
- Press into the four corners of your feet to rise back to standing.
Watch Your (Dumbbell) Weight
Whether you're building muscle and toning up or working to increase your strength and/or size, the weight rack can be one of your greatest assets. Before you start tossing the pounds around, though, evaluate your current fitness level. Not a regular lifter? Start sans weights first.
"You can build on the basics while building stability, mobility, and strength," Davis says."Start light and as you are able to move correctly, add weight as needed."
Once you're ready to load up, choose a weight that's challenging from the very beginning of your set and also makes you work to complete the last couple of reps. "If you are able to do the last 3 to 5 reps easily, that means it's time to increase the load," Ross says. That said, you should still be able to handle your chosen dumbbell without sacrificing your form.
The amount of weight you lift should also be determined by the body part you'll be working. Typically you'll go heavier if you're tackling, say, the glutes, which are a powerhouse muscle, versus something like your triceps.
A good rule of thumb: "If performing a move that requires 10 or fewer reps, select a pair of dumbbells that leave you breathless after said move," says Borden, who notes that if you're not, increase the weight by 5 pounds.
If you find yourself unable to isolate the muscle or you feel the load in other areas than in the targeted muscle (think: feeling it in your back when performing a biceps curl), chances are you need to lower the weight.
- Darren Ross, a certified personal trainer and owner of P13 Fitness
- celebrity trainer Ashley Borden
- Angela Manuel Davis, Co-Founder and Chief Motivation Officer of AArmy
- Le Sweat Founder Charlee Atkins, CSCS,
- Courtney Paul a certified personal trainer and creator of Courtney Paul in the House Virtual Training