The Only Upper-Body Dumbbell Workout You'll Ever Need

Curvy black woman doing a dumbbell upper-body workout
This 20-minute upper-body workout is all you need to build power, strength and stability.
Image Credit: Ridofranz/iStock/GettyImages

A strong upper body isn't just built on having sculpted arms; it's also about having supple, stable shoulders, a robust and flexible back, and powerful chest muscles.

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So in order to have all of that and more, you need to do an upper-body workout that focuses on this winning formula: stability, strength and power.

This dumbbell workout has all of these ingredients. Designed with pulling, pushing and explosive movements, this 20-minute upper-body workout is everything you need to build well-rounded strength for carrying out everyday activities and crushing your fitness goals.

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For the best results, do this 20-minute upper-body workout two or three times a week, but make sure to limit power exercises to one or two times a week to allow proper recovery.

Check out more of our 20-minute workouts here — we’ve got something for everyone.

1. Dumbbell Overhead Rainbow

Rainbows help improve shoulder mobility, making them a great warmup move for your upper body. Because you're isolating your shoulders, it also forces you to recruit your core to keep the rest of your body stable. This move is harder than it looks, so keep the dumbbells light, around 2.5 to 5 pounds.

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Sets 4
Reps 10
Body Part Abs and Shoulders
  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs, palms facing forward.
  2. Soften your elbows and begin to sweep your arms to the sides and then overhead, finishing with your biceps by your ears. Avoid allowing the dumbbells to touch each other in the overhead position.
  3. Reverse the motion and return the weights back down to the starting position.

Modification

If you don't have the shoulder mobility to do rainbows, you can do lateral dumbbell raises instead. Brace your core and raise the weights out to your sides until they reach shoulder height. Then slowly lower the weights back down.

2. Weighted Superman

The superman targets your lower back, glutes, hamstrings and abs, and adding weights only makes it that much more challenging. This classic pulling movement also helps correct rounded shoulders and a hunched-over back from poor posture by strengthening your entire posterior chain and improving mobility.

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Sets 4
Reps 12
Body Part Back and Shoulders
  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and lie on your stomach with your arms extended overhead and your legs straight behind you.
  2. Squeezing your glutes, hamstrings and quads, lift your feet and legs off the ground. At the same time, lift your chest off the ground. This is the starting position.
  3. Maintaining this lift in your body, draw your elbows back and pull the dumbbells by your sides, squeezing your shoulder blades together and forming a "W" with your arms.
  4. Press the dumbbells back overhead. Don't drop the weights or lower your body to the ground until you've finished all reps.

Modification

You can modify this exercise by keeping your legs, chest and forehead on the floor and doing the same movement with your arms.

3. Close-Grip Bench Press

A close-grip bench press is a great way to increase pushing power because it utilizes your triceps, chest and shoulders. As soon as the dumbbells touch your chest, explosively press the weights up to activate those fast-twitch muscle fibers.

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Sets 4
Reps 8
Body Part Chest
  1. Lie flat on your back and bend your knees with your feet flat on the floor. If you have a spotter, have them hand you the dumbbells and hold one in each hand, palms facing in. If you don't have a spotter, sit in an upright position and pick up the weights before you lie down on the ground.
  2. Hold the dumbbells close together by your chest.
  3. Press your arms toward the ceiling until they are fully extended.
  4. Keeping the dumbbells together, slowly bring them back down to the starting position.

Modification

Sometimes a triceps-dominant movement, like the close-grip bench press, can be challenging. To make this exercise slightly easier, do a wide-grip bench press, holding the dumbbells with a prone (overhand) grip. Check out these other chest press variations for more ideas.

4. Seated Incline Dumbbell Curl

The incline dumbbell curl directly targets your biceps brachii, the biggest muscles in your arm. Doing this exercise sitting down on the ground on an incline engages your core and creates a greater contraction in your biceps than doing a curl standing up.

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Sets 4
Reps 8
Body Part Abs and Arms
  1. Sit on the ground with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Lean back until you feel your abs engaged and then lift your feet off the ground. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing up.
  2. With a slight bend in your elbows, pull the dumbbells to your shoulders, squeezing your biceps at the top.
  3. Lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position.

Modification

If this incline position is too challenging, sit with your feet flat on the floor as you curl the dumbbells upward. This allows you to still be in an inclined position, but it removes the high resistance of gravity.

5. Single-Dumbbell Snatch

Great for building explosive power, the dumbbell snatch strengthens both your lower and upper body. You drive through your legs to pull the weight up and then use your shoulders and arms to press it overhead.

Sets 4
Reps 4
Body Part Back, Legs, Shoulders, Abs and Arms
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold the dumbbell in one hand at arm's length. Extend your other arm to the side to help stabilize your body. Squeeze your shoulder blades back and down to engage your lats. Brace your core.
  2. Hinge your hips behind you so that your shoulders are above your hips, and your hips are above your knees.
  3. Keeping your feet firmly planted on the ground, quickly drive through your legs to "float" the dumbbell up to shoulder height. (This is called a high pull.)
  4. Quickly flip your elbow underneath your shoulder and press the dumbbell overhead, "catching" the dumbbell with soft knees.
  5. Pause, then straighten your legs and bring the dumbbell back to the starting position.
  6. Do 4 reps on each side.

Modification

Dumbbell snatches are advanced movements that take some practice. To build the same kind of upper-body power, do a single-arm push press. Start with the dumbbell resting on your shoulder and slightly bend your knees to drive the weight overhead as you straighten your legs.

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