The beauty of a gym is that it’s filled with equipment, machinery, and plenty of space. The beauty of working out at home is that it’s convenient, private, and you’ll never have to wait your turn.
And the beauty of the best dumbbell exercises? They’re versatile but straightforward.
They make the transition from home to the gym and back again. For any beginner, they’re invaluable. And as you make gains, a dumbbell workout can adapt and grow with you. Difficulty or complexity can be tailored to the person.
What Are Dumbbells and What Are They Good For?
We’ll cover the basics here first before outlining the exercises in detail below.
- Dumbbells are smaller, one-handed free weights (as opposed to weighted machines) that come in pairs. Perhaps the most recognizable type of dumbbell has a fixed weight on either end wrapped in a colorful rubber shell. They may be bought as individual pairs or in sets.
- Your local gym may opt for plain, black, and metal dumbbells with knurled grips like these. While they’re a classic and nearly indestructible choice, they can be rough on the hands (gloves recommended for extended use) and tend to be more expensive than rubber counterparts.
- Different adjustable dumbbells are also available, which you can think of as miniature barbells. (Barbells are the large free weights on a bar that you deadlift or support across the shoulders.) They allow you to increase or decrease weight based on your progress and goals, whereas you might outgrow fixed weight dumbbell, or worse yet, overestimate your own strength. Certain models can be space-saving, too.
- An adjustable consumer favorite is the Bowflex Select Tech, but it’s a significant investment for a beginner. Cheaper “spinlock” alternatives exist, where you screw or unscrew weights on the ends. Many of the best adjustable sets are just plain pricey, however, since you’re essentially getting 3 to 6 sets of dumbbells.
Fixed or adjustable, at home or the gym, dumbbells make a great workout companion. Obviously, a dumbbell exercises muscles in the arms, but the back, shoulders, core get a workout as well. Depending on what you go for, a dumbbell workout engages multiple muscle groups, may improve elasticity, burns fat, and builds muscle.
Perhaps most importantly, dumbbells can add a weight training element to existing routines, or you can build out an almost entirely dumbbell-centric drill. Read on to find everything you’ll need for a total dumbbell workout plan.
8 Dumbbell Workouts for Beginner and Intermediate Level (and 2 Variants)
Note: You should be able to complete at least two sets of 10 repetitions for dumbbell exercises (3 or 4 sets is the usual). If you find yourself unable to raise your arms after a single set — or even just a few repetitions — you’ll need to start with a lighter weight. If there isn’t an adequate weight available, try 2 to 3 sets with 5 repetitions.
1. The Dumbbell Add-On
Many moves leave your hands out of the loop, usually core building and leg day routines. But simultaneously holding dumbbells can help tighten up your balance, further work your core, and build muscle.
You could even try to do a full (but simple) upper body dumbbell workout in tandem, like lunging with bicep curls (#5).
So grab onto your DBs for:
- Upright Toe Taps
- Calf Raises
- Side Lunges
- Seated Leg Raises
- A power walk
2. Shoulder Press or Squat Into Press
This exercise calls out shoulders but is often done with the weights held sideways, slightly in front of you, not held front to back over the shoulder. Both are OK, though. It can be performed while sitting or standing.
Hold dumbbells at shoulder height. Wrists should face out for weights held side to side. Keep your arms a little tucked, not at a right angle to your body, then lift those heavy suckers up over your head until your arms are fully extended. Hold momentarily until you slowly return to a ready position.
To incorporate the squats, for a somewhat full-body dumbbell workout, just scrunch into a squat once your arms have lowered. As you come up out of it, raise your arms into a completed press. Just be sure the form of neither exercise suffers.
3. The Renegade Row or Upright Row
Are you sick of at-home arm workouts that only involve pushing or pulling or holding up your own bodyweight? The renegade row may be for you.
This move is floor based so you might be inclined to keep it on house duty. Think of the up position of a push up — keep legs outstretched and arms fully extended, holding you up. Your body should be naturally angled. Hands and feet go about shoulder-width apart, dumbbells grasped with your wrists facing each other.
Alternating sides, pull your arm straight up (keeping it tucked close to you) until the dumbbell is parallel with your ribs.
The upright variant is comparatively simple: Grip weights overhand, stand up straight with your arms hanging in front of you, then pull both arms up (letting them extend outward) until the dumbbell is level to your chest or collar bone.
4. Bicep Curls
This classic dumbbell arm workout is actually sort of boring, but so effective. It should be in every exercise tool kit since you can do it with other equipment as well.
Slight variations of form result in whole other exercises (i.e., if you hold your wrists differently, you’ll now be doing a hammer curl), so we’ll tell you the classic form, and you can experiment as you’d like.
Stand up and hold the dumbbells underhand, your wrists facing out, arms hanging loosely in front of you. No locked elbows, please. Curl at the elbow to bring your hands to shoulder height.
This is the bicep curl’s spiritual match. There are a few tricep workouts with dumbbells, but this one has arguably the simplest motion. However, it is most accessible while using a bench, so it may not make the cut for your arms workout at-home regimen.
Kickbacks are an alternating side exercise. Pick up a dumbbell and on your opposite side, bend your knee onto the bench and steady yourself with your arm. Your back should be angled or horizontal, not fully upright. The arm with the dumbbell should be tucked close, bent at a right angle.
Then just pull your arm backward along your body, into a fully extended position. Treat your elbow as a hinge and try to keep everything else as still as possible.
6. Dumbbell Bench Press
Hero to buff gym-goers everywhere, the humble bench press doesn’t discriminate against dumbbells. A DB bench press is similar to the shoulder press above, except you’re lying down, so the angles are different. It’s also another one of those tricep dumbbell exercises that we just mentioned!
So go lay yourself down on that bench, feet on the floor, dumbbells firmly in hand. Hold your arms at right angles to your body and with your elbow bent at a right angle. Wrists should face out. Then extend your arms up over your chest, bringing them slightly together as you go.
7. Lateral Raise
Did you know a lateral raise and a flye refer to the same move? This workout and the next are cut from the same cloth.
To perform a lateral raise, stand with your feet hip or shoulder-width apart, and the dumbbells held at your sides, wrists facing each other. There’s some wiggle room here though, At “your sides” could be near your hips, in front near the pelvic bone, or vaguely in front of your thighs. Any placement is fine as long as your grip remains correctly oriented.
Anyway, you’re going to take off now. Raise your arms to either side of you like you’re striking a T-pose, and then swing them back down to center position. As you repeat the exercise, you will look like a human who is trying to learn to fly.
8. Reverse Flye
Speaking of flying! This move is technically simple but physically demanding with weights. Being a human bird is tough work.
This is the only move on the list that explicitly requires you bend at the hip. Do so with feet hip or shoulder-width apart and a slight bend in your knee. Your back may be relatively straight or angled, depending on how far forward you want to be.
Hold arms straight down, like they’re dangling, and grip the dumbbells with wrists facing each other. Swing your arms open to the sides, until dumbbells are at shoulder height. Repeat like a fledgling attempting to breach its nest’s perimeters. You can also reverse flye with an angled bench or weight machine, although the forms won’t match up 1:1.
That was a good spread, don’t you think? Remember that dumbbell exercises for arms are also for the back, shoulders, and core, as well.
Using these exercises with cardio or leg regimens could make a full-body workout possible in half the time. Or if you’re just trying to build out your arms, don’t forget to aim for weight milestones as you go!
Whatever your goal, and whether you’re reaching for it at home or a gym, these 8 dumbbell exercises should help you grasp the fundamentals and get on your way.