The humble dumbbell may seem super basic, but when it comes to strength training, that may be a good thing. Choosing exercise equipment that requires more skill and technique might actually turn you off from lifting weights.
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Using dumbbells is a great way to meet physical activity guidelines that recommend resistance training at least twice a week. Whether you work out at gym or in your own home, they're one of the easiest types of free weights to access and can be used for people of every fitness level.
Dumbbells have long been one of the most beloved and trusted strength-training tools — and for good reason. Here, experts lay out the major benefits of lifting with dumbbells.
When it comes to picking the right dumbbell weight for you, it all depends on your exercise goals, says Cameron Yuen, DPT, CSCS, director of physical therapy and training at Bespoke Treatments in New York City.
11 Benefits of Training With Dumbbells
1. They Help You Build Muscle Mass and Strength
As long as the dumbbells you use provide enough resistance to challenge you, they're super helpful for building strength and muscle, says Ben Lauder Dykes, CPT, personal trainer and instructor at Fhitting Room in New York City.
In fact, an August 2022 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness compared changes in muscle size, strength and power between free-weight and machine-based exercise and found that strength and muscle gains were similar. The researchers concluded that the best fitness equipment to increase general strength and muscle mass is whichever tool a person enjoys and will actually stick with.
"You can even increase the difficulty 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," Lauder Dykes says.
So, how heavy should your dumbbells be? To build muscle mass (and strength), you want to lift moderately heavy dumbbells for 3 to 6 sets of 6 to 12 reps. To build maximum strength, lift heavy dumbbells for 2 to 6 sets of 6 or fewer reps.
2. Dumbbells Help Build Muscular Endurance
While lifting with heavier dumbbells is great for building strength and muscle mass, you can also benefit from lifting lighter ones.
Using light weights and lifting with a high rep scheme (12 reps or more) is an excellent way to build muscular endurance, which is your muscles' ability to perform repetitive motions for an extended period of time without getting fatigued. Muscle endurance is important for carrying out daily activities with ease and performing well in your favorite sports and workouts.
3. They Help Reduce Muscle Imbalances and Asymmetries
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. "If you continue to only use barbells and get your dominant side stronger and the other side is not keeping up with it, eventually you will hit a plateau where the dominant side has to work beyond its capacity and you may get hurt," Yuen says.
With dumbbells, you avoid the risk of overusing one side and underusing the other.
4. They Challenge Stability
A dumbbell is naturally unstable, meaning that as you do an exercise with them, you have to engage your core to keep the weights in place and move in the correct motion, Travis says. Along similar lines, you can use dumbbells to do unilateral work — not something you can do with a barbell — which also challenges stability (and further reduces those muscle imbalances as well).
This is an especially important concept to nail down when you're just starting to strength train.
As you get stronger, having this foundational level of body awareness and stability is important for creating tension so you can get the most out of your lifts, Travis says. The instability that dumbbells provide also activates the small stabilizing muscles around the working joint, which is critical for avoiding injury.
For example, as you're lowering dumbbells during a chest press, you have to use the stabilizing muscles in your shoulders and elbows to prevent your arms from falling backward, out to the sides or rotating, Yuen says.
"You have to activate some of the muscles that stabilize the joints a lot more than you would with a machine or a barbell."
In fact, a June 2022 study in Bioengineering (Basel), which compared dumbbells, barbells and weighted vests on squat biomechanics, found that the dumbbell was best for beginner lifters, thanks to the added stability benefits.
5. Dumbbells Allow You to Customize Your Range of Motion
Since dumbbells are "free weights" (meaning they're not attached to a machine that restricts your movement pattern), they allow you to move however feels natural for your body, Lauder Dykes says.
Not only is this important for your strength and muscle gains, but it also helps keep your joints healthy and injury-free over time. That's because dumbbells allow you to lift in a way that works for your anatomy, which leads to more effective workouts and movement patterns that are healthy and natural for your body.
Everyone has different body shapes, limb lengths and pain from past or ongoing injuries, which affect your range of motion during exercise, Yuen says. For example, how low one person can squat will be different from another person.
It is also harder to customize the range of motion with barbells and weight machines versus dumbbells. For example, if you have a healthy range of motion in a chest press, a barbell will prevent you from moving your arms down any lower than your chest — it will literally hit your body.
But if you have a larger range of motion available to you (read: pain-free and muscles are still engaging and working), dumbbells can allow you to tap into that, Yuen says.
"The benefit of increasing range of motion is that you get increased muscle use," he adds.
6. They Work Different Planes of Motion
This can be helpful if you're dealing with injuries. "Working with a fixed bar, you can only move the weight up or down; you can't rotate or turn sideways," Yuen explains. "With dumbbells, you change the orientation of your arms, and bring them out to the side as you're lowering and raising."
By moving in a different plane of motion — to the side versus out front, for example — you can engage the same muscles a bit differently and recruit other muscle fibers than you usually do with the same exercise.
This is great for building overall strength, and also very helpful when you need to work around pain or movement limitations, Yuen says.
For example, if you don't have great shoulder mobility or you have pain lifting in certain positions — presses are a big one — you can keep your elbows closer to your body during certain lifts to reduce the amount of strain on this delicate joint.
"A lot of people don't have a tremendous range of motion through the glenohumeral [shoulder] joint," Travis says. "If you put them in a fixed position right away, the shoulder can feel tweaked. The beauty with dumbbells is that we can move into a position that's more comfortable for them."
7. They're Functional
Dumbbells tap into your stability, allow you to move in a way that's most fitting for your range of motion and anatomy and leave you free to move through all planes of motion — all of which makes them great for doing functional exercises. Functional movements are those that mimic things you do in everyday life, whether it's carrying groceries or lifting a car seat out of a car.
By training your strength, endurance and stability in a functional way, you'll be more prepared for daily life. That also means you'll be less likely to injure yourself doing everyday things.
8. Dumbbells Are Beginner-Friendly
Dumbbells are easy to stash and use at home, are portable and require essentially no setup, Travis says. "And you can do every single movement pattern and variation of those patterns with dumbbells," he adds.
This makes them easy to use for beginners — especially compared to barbells or weight machines that require more of a learning curve to set up and use.
They're also generally safer if you can't complete a rep and have to ditch them: Unlike a barbell, you won't find yourself in a position where the dumbbell is overhead and the only way out is to drop it on yourself.
Dumbbells also have 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 1- or 2-pound weights and progress in small increments as you build strength.
9. They Can Be Used 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.
10. Dumbbells Help Build Bone Health
Resistance exercise is extremely important for improving bone health and preventing osteoporosis, a condition that causes bones to become weak and brittle.
Although it can happen at any age, osteoporosis is more likely the older you get, as natural changes cause the bones to lose density and mass, according to the National Institutes of Health. One of the best ways to improve bone health and density throughout life is doing resistance training.
Strength training puts stress on your bones, which can help condition your bones to take on more stress and spring bone-forming cells into action. This ultimately creates stronger bones, according to Harvard Health.
Dumbbells are a great option for this because of all their other great attributes: good for beginners, easily customizable to all fitness levels, and more accessible and affordable than other weight-training equipment. And using dumbbells from a standing position, for example, is going to build more bone strength than a seated machine — even though they are both resistance training — as you're bearing more weight when standing.
Plus, building muscle mass and balance can also prevent falls, further reducing the risk of fractures and complications due to reduced bone health, per the NIH.
11. They Can Help Improve Heart Health
We often think about cardio as the best type of exercise to improve heart health, but strength training is great for your ticker, too. A January 2017 study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that women who strength trained reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease by 17 percent.
Even better: Those who did both strength training and aerobic exercise experienced an even greater reduction in risk. A January 2019 study in PLOS One showed a similar result: As little as eight weeks of combined training (aerobic and resistance training) can provide more cardiovascular benefits for those at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease than just one type or the other.
Dumbbells make it easy to add resistance training to your routine and reap these benefits.
The Best Dumbbells to Buy for Your Home Gym
- Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness: "A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis Comparing Changes in Muscle Size, Strength, and Power"
- Bioengineering (Basel): "Influence of Different Load Conditions on Lower Extremity Biomechanics during the Lunge Squat in Novice Men"
- National Institutes of Health: "Osteoporosis Overview"
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: "Strength Training and the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease"
- PLOS One: "Comparative effectiveness of aerobic, resistance, and combined training on cardiovascular disease risk factors: A randomized controlled trial"
- Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Strength Training Builds More Than Muscles"