Just because you don't have a pair of dumbbells doesn't mean you can't start a solid strength-training routine. If you're trying to put together a home gym, you might be surprised to learn you don't actually have to invest a lot of money in it. You can re-purpose ordinary items and even other exercise equipment to use as dumbbell substitutes.
That's great news because strength training is one of the three essential elements in a workout program, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE) — the other two are aerobic exercise and stretching, if you were wondering.
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Strength training helps build muscle and make everyday tasks (think: carrying groceries, lifting kids, etc.) easier. It also counteracts the loss of muscle mass that comes with getting older, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).
So if you find yourself without a set of weights, try one of these creative options.
1. Canned Goods
Use canned soup, peas or beans from the pantry as a dumbbell alternative, according to Affinity Fitness, a gym located in Rockwall, Texas. Hold one in each hand and use them for biceps curls, triceps extensions or chest presses.
Smaller cans are easier to hold, but if you can grip them safely, graduate to larger cans when the exercise becomes too easy. Still too easy? Fill a bag with several cans and hold them as you squat, lunge and deadlift.
2. Filled Water Bottles
Use water bottles or other similar-sized plastic bottles as dumbbells, according to Affinity Fitness. The best water bottle for working out is the one you have on hand.
Water bottles work especially well for your upper-body workouts. Use unopened, new water bottles or refill empty bottles with sand or water. If you refill bottles, use the type that has a secure screw-on lid for safety's sake.
The hourglass-shaped bottles are easier to grip. Or, opt for a gallon of water (or repurposed milk jug) and use the handle to make things easier.
How Much Does a Water Bottle Weigh?
While water bottle weights can vary, a full 16-ounce water bottle weighs approximately 1 pound. And a full 1-gallon container weighs about 8 pounds. So, if you're wondering, for instance, how many pounds a 5-gallon water jug is, you'd be working out with something that's 40 pounds.
Thick, heavy books can make a good substitute for dumbbells at home, in the office or anywhere you can find them, according to Affinity Fitness. Fill up a backpack with books and use it for hip hinge exercises, like a hip thrust. You can also do exercises like Bulgarian split squats on a stack of books.
4. Ankle or Wrist Weights
Go old school and use your wrist or ankle weights to build muscular endurance — the ability of a muscle to repeatedly exert force against resistance. Ankle weights work well for exercises that target your leg and hip muscles, like leg lifts, while wearing wrist weights is a good option for upper-body exercises like biceps curls, according to Harvard Health Publishing
You can make your ankle or wrist easier to grip and less floppy by fastening them in a loop. Once you've looped them, you'll be able to use them in any of your usual weighted exercises. If you have the kind with removable weights, start with a light weight, like 1 or 2 pounds, and increase it as you get stronger.
Our Favorite Ankle and Wrist Weights
5. Resistance Bands
Elastic exercise bands or loops can substitute for dumbbells in giving you a complete upper- and lower-body workout, according to the ACE. Resistance bands come in varying strengths, similar to different dumbbell weights. Perfect for travel, they're lightweight and easy to pack even in a carry-on bag.
Resistance bands allow you to focus on the eccentric part of a movement (when the muscles you're working out are being lengthened) because you want to slowly return back to starting position instead of snapping the band back to where it was. In other words, your muscles will be under tension the entire time.
Our Favorite Resistance Bands
6. Laundry Detergent
Grab an extra-big bottle of laundry detergent next time you're stocking up on essentials to do overhead presses, lateral raises or single-leg deadlifts, per Affinity Fitness. Similar to other items on this list, you may have to work one side at a time or you can hold a single bottle at your chest for exercises like goblet squats.
Other Ideas for Alternatives to Dumbbells
While the above items are probably in your home right now, there are a few other, less common options that you're less likely to have (but who knows!).
- Paint cans
- Bags of sand, rocks or concrete mix
- Filled suitcase
- Buckets of water (or sand)
Put safety first. Take special care when lifting heavy weights, such as large books or large bottles filled with sand, and don't attempt to lift huge cans or other heavy items you cannot grip safely. Additionally, make sure you're wearing proper exercise clothing, including shoes, when you work out with the items listed above.
- ACE:"Whole-Body Exercise Band Workout"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Want to Live Longer and Better? Do Strength Training"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Wearable weights: How they can help or hurt"
- Affinity Fitness: "WHAT CAN I USE INSTEAD OF DUMBBELLS?"
- ACE: "Three Things Every Exercise Program Should Have"
- NSCA: "Resistance Training for Older Adults: Position Statement From the National Strength and Conditioning Association"