Dumbbells are the most accessible free weights so they’re the first most people tend to try, either in the gym or as part of a home workout. They’re also among the most versatile weights you can use, and even if you usually gravitate towards the barbell to tackle big lifts like the back squat, deadlift and bench press, there are plenty of reasons to make sure you also find time for dumbbell exercises.
“When using a barbell, your weaker side can get an easy ride,” says PT and Multipower ambassador Ant Nyman. “You can move the weight predominantly using your stronger side, meaning one side will always lag behind. Using dumbbells nullifies this problem because each side has to work individually, meaning you’ll develop strength and size evenly on both sides.
“The unstable nature of holding dumbbells also ensures that your stabiliser muscles have to work hard to keep you steady while you perform the movement. Without realising it you’ll be strengthening your core and other stabiliser muscles, which can help prevent injury.”
Here are Nyman’s favourite beginner, intermediate and advanced dumbbell exercises, and a few of our own, too.
Beginner Dumbbell Exercises
Stand holding a dumbbell in each hand next to your outer thighs. Keep your back straight and slowly lift the weights out to the sides until your arms are parallel with the floor. Your elbows should be slightly bent. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
“Lateral raises target the medial (outer) head of the deltoid muscle,” says Nyman. “You don’t need an awful lot of core strength to perform the movement, which is why it’s good for beginners.
“Imagine you are holding a bucket in each hand. As you raise your arms out to the side, tip the buckets as if to pour out the contents so that your thumbs point to the floor. This will ensure you hit the medial head as opposed to over-developing the front delt.”
Hold a pair of dumbbells in front of your thighs with your palms facing out. Slowly curl the dumbbells up to your chest and then back down again.
“Keep your elbows pinned to your sides,” says Nyman. “The minute your elbow comes up you are shifting the emphasis away from your biceps and onto your shoulders.
“If you’re a beginner you may be wary of picking up heavy weights. With biceps curls you won’t need to worry about that because it’s not about going heavy, it’s about the feel of the muscle lengthening and shortening. You can change grip to target different heads of the muscle but for a beginner I’d recommend using a supinated grip – palms facing up.”
Pair this move with the biceps curl to ensure you’re working both of the major muscle groups in your upper arm. Like the biceps curl, the triceps kick-back is an isolation move, in that it targets solely the triceps.
Set up a bench so you can place one knee, shin and foot on it, and then bend over until your torso is parallel to the floor, holding the bench with one hand. In the other hand, hold a dumbbell and place your upper arm against your body with your elbow bent at 90°. Straighten your arm, moving the dumbbell backwards until your forearm is parallel to the ground, making sure to keep your upper arm still so you’re only using your triceps for the lift. Slowly lower the weight back to the start.
Holding dumbbells by your sides, take a big step forwards and lower your body until both knees are bent at 90°. Then push up through the front leg and return to the starting position.
“Working your legs is essential for many reasons, including building strength, muscle and burning loads of calories,” says Nyman. “But if you’re a beginner the thought of getting under a heavy barbell for a set of squats may seem intimidating. So instead grab a pair of dumbbells and get lunging. It’s a great way to add resistance to your legs and glute work, without the fear of being left in a heap under the squat rack.”
You can do this either seated or standing. Hold a pair of dumbbells by your shoulders with your elbows out to the sides and bent at 90°. Extend through your elbows and press the weights overhead, then slowly bring them back to the starting position.
“While lateral raises are good for working the delts, performing heavy overhead (or shoulder) presses is a great way to add serious strength,” says Nyman. “Make sure you don’t arch your back too much. If you do you’ll probably end up using your upper chest instead of your shoulders.”
This is a great option for beginners if you stick to a weight you’re comfortable with. Using dumbbells will work more muscles around the shoulders and chest than using a barbell because they’re forced to keep the weights stable, and it’s well worth developing those muscles before moving on to heavier barbells. Lie on a flat workout bench with your feet flat on the floor. Hold the dumbbells above your chest, palms facing towards your feet with your arms fully extended. Bend at the elbows to lower the dumbbells slowly until they reach your chest. Pause for one second, then press both dumbbells up powerfully.
This variation on the dumbbell bench press puts less strain on your shoulders, and so is a welcome addition to the gym routine for anyone who has concerns about that particularly easy-to-injure joint. Lie a bench holding a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing each other – that grip is the only real change in the move. Press the weights above you until your arms are extended, then bring them back down slowly.
This functional exercise is terrific for core strength, with the rotational movement many of us lack in our gym routines – which often consist entirely of forward and back, up and down, and side-to-side moves. If you’re a golfer then make sure you start woodchopping ASAP, because the increase in rotational power you’ll gain will add serious yardage to your drives.
Stand holding a dumbbell in both hands, then lower into a squat and move moving the dumbbell to the right, until your thighs are parallel to the floor and the dumbbell is outside your right thigh. Drive up to standing and twist your torso to bring the dumbbell across and up until it’s above your left shoulder, keeping your arms extended throughout. Twist to come slowly back down to the starting position. Perform all your reps in one direction, then switch sides.
Intermediate Dumbbell Exercises
Lie on your back on a flat bench with your feet on the floor. Hold the dumbbells above your chest with your arms almost straight, palms facing each other. Slowly lower them out to the sides, then bring them back up above your chest. Your arms should have a slight bend in the elbows throughout.
“Doing chest flyes is a great way to isolate the chest,” says Nyman. “Most pressing chest movements will enlist the help of the shoulders and triceps, but flyes keep the focus purely on the chest.
“Exaggerate the arch in your lower back slightly. This will help keep the tension on your chest as opposed to your shoulders.”
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees and lean over from your waist, keeping your neck lined up with your spine. Let the dumbbells hang with straight arms, then slowly bring them up to your chest by squeezing your shoulders together.
“Using dumbbells to perform bent-over rows is a great way to ensure you develop both sides of your upper back evenly,” says Nyman.
“Think of Donald Duck – stick your bum out and ensure you maintain the natural curve in your lumbar spine (lower back).”
Hold a pair of dumbbells up by your shoulders with your elbows by your sides and palms facing each other. Lower into a squat until your thighs are parallel with the ground, then drive back up to the starting position.
“It’s not as daunting as getting under a loaded barbell, and performing squats while holding dumbbells by your shoulders will challenge your core in a different way to the barbell version,” says Nyman. “Because the weight is slightly in front of you, you’ll place more emphasis on your quads, too.”
The first thing to know about this exercise is that it works the front part of your shoulders. The second thing to know is that you need to use light dumbbells. You don’t need much weight at all to work this area, and going too heavy risks a shoulder injury. You can lift two dumbbells simultaneously or work one arm at a time. Hold the weight in front of your thighs in an overhand grip, so your palms face your body. Keeping your arms extended and your back straight, lift the weight in front of you to shoulder height, then lower it slowly.
A press-up with a twist, quite literally. The T press-up enhances the already considerable benefits of the exercise by increasing the challenge to your core. Take a pair of dumbbells (hexagonal ones are ideal for this because they provide a more stable base) and get into the press-up position, holding a weight in each hand directly under your shoulders, with your feet shoulder-width apart. Perform a press-up and once you’ve pushed back up, lift one dumbbell off the ground and rotate your torso until that arm is extended towards the ceiling. Pause at the top, then rotate back down slowly and go into another press-up.
Everyone starts to think they’re the Terminator after a few good lifting sessions, so here’s a move the Terminator himself made famous. The Arnold Press works all three sections of your deltoids – or,machine-gun stabilisers, as we’re sure the The Austrian Oak refers to them – and keeps your muscles under tension for longer than a standard overhead press.
Stand holding dumbbells in front of your chest using an underhand grip, as though you’re midway through a biceps curl. Open your arms out to the sides while rotating your wrists 180° then, without pausing, press the dumbbells above your head.
Advanced Dumbbell Exercises
Get into a staggered stance, holding dumbbells by your sides. Using your legs, slowly lower as far as feels comfortable, then push back up to the starting position. For a tougher variation of the split squat, put your back foot on a bench.
“These are tough at the best of times but performing them with a dumbbell in each hand will take it to a whole new level,” says Nyman. “You’ll feel every muscle in your legs and glutes working hard just to stabilise yourself.
“Keep your chest up throughout the movement. Push up through your heels as opposed to your toes to target the quads and glutes instead of your calves.”
Lie on your back on a bench, holding a dumbbell in both hands above your head. Keep your arms straight but not locked. Slowly lower the dumbbell behind your head until you feel a stretch in your chest. Return to the start position and squeeze your chest hard at the point of contraction.
“This is a great way to finish off a chest workout and target the upper and inner sections of your chest,” says Nyman.
This full-body exercise relies on a rock-solid technique to be effective, so don’t overdo the weight when you first start doing the dumbbell snatch. Stand holding a dumbbell in one hand. Lower into a squat and touch the dumbbell to the floor between your feet. Then drive your hips forwards to stand up and lift the weight explosively. Once it reaches chest height, flip your wrist under the dumbbell and then push it above your head until your arm is fully extended.
Do it right and the final press will be a fluid extension of the move using the momentum created by your legs and hips. If you have to press the weight overhead using mostly your arm, then get your technique checked and/or use a lighter weight.
The most demanding dumbbell row asks you to hold a plank while pulling the weights up to your chest – a stern test, especially if you don’t rush your reps. Use dumbbells with hexagonal weights to provide a firm base, otherwise you risk turning your wrists. Get into the top press-up position, holding the handles of the dumbbells with your hands under your shoulders and spreading your feet wide to ensure a stable base. Brace your core and keep your torso as still as possible throughout the move. Lift one dumbbell towards your chest, keeping your arm close to your body. Lower under control, then repeat on the other side. Continue, alternating sides.
A dumbbell thruster is a fiery little move – literally, because you’ll feel the burn in a lot of different muscles. It’s also a great way to build up to the barbell thruster and to iron out any strength imbalances.
Stand holding dumbbells at shoulder height with your palms facing. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outwards.
Squat down slowly, then explode up, thrusting the dumbbells above your head so that your arms are extended. Work on making the action from the bottom of the squat one fluid movement – it shouldn’t be a squat followed by an overhead press.