The 10 Best Dumbbell Exercises for Building Muscle

Dumbbell Exercises for Building Muscle

Dumbbells are one of the most used and most recognized pieces of gym equipment.  And for good reason too. They are highly versatile, easy to learn how to use and provide a great training stimulus if they are used correctly. Dumbbells can be used for many different types of training, but this article will focus on the ways you can best use Dumbbells to build muscle.   

Any good workout routine or program should take into consideration a few key variables. The ones I focus on here are: 

  1. Exercise selection, order, and load
  2. Rest and/or Recovery time

There are several factors to consider when making decisions on these variables. A few of these are:

  1. The training age or skill level of the person doing the exercises
  2. The time available to perform the workouts each day and each week
  3. Any other training or activities that are being done concurrently
  4. The type of condition the person is in going into the workout program
  5. The main goal(s)of the program.  

Helpful Resources:

  • Free Daily workouts with dumbbells here
  • Equipment like dumbbells here

The more experience you have with training and the better condition you are in allows for more variability in your training because you already have many of the requisite skill, form, and technique qualities at an adequate level.  When you are new to training, coming off an injury or long layoff, or are in poor physical condition, you will need a simpler training routine that focuses on basic movement patterns and strength gains before you progress to more advanced training programs. 

Get the 16 Best Dumbbell Exercises for Full Body Workout

+ The Dumbbell Workout Plan To Build Muscle At Home, Weekly Workout Ideas & More Content Like This!

 

When using Dumbbells to build muscle it’s important to know what weights you have available.  Ideally, you will have access to some lighter dumbbells (5-15lbs), some medium (20-40lbs), and some heavy weights (50lbs or more).  If you have these options, your programming is much easier and straightforward.  However, even if you only have access to two dumbbells of a medium or light weight, you can still build significant muscle mass if you program thoughtfully. 

Here are a few general guidelines to help you know how to program based off the weights you have available:

  1. When using heavy weights, do fewer repetitions (8 or less), with longer rest times in between sets (90-120 secs). 
  2. When using light weights, do higher repetitions (15 or more), with shorter rest in between sets (45 secs or less).
  3. When using medium weights, do between 10-16 repetitions, with moderate rest in between sets (60-90 secs).
  4. The number of overall sets will depend on how many workouts you are doing each week, how much time you have available each workout, previous training and conditioning, and ability to recover (which can be affected by age, stress, sleep, nutrition, and hydration, among other things).  But in general, each workout should be between 10-15 sets and no more than 20.  This will allow you to get a great training stimulus each workout, but also be able to recover fully before the next workout.  This will ensure you keep making progress, don’t overtrain, reduce injury/strain risk, and keep your energy and stress levels well balanced. 

Now that we have covered the basics of how to build a training program, let’s move on to choosing the best exercises for building muscle!  To build muscle most efficiently with Dumbbells, you will want to focus on exercises that use large muscle groups, exercises that allow for adequate muscle stimulation using only dumbbells, and exercises that can be scaled or modified as the individual gets stronger and adds muscle.

There are three main types or mechanisms for muscle Hypertrophy, or muscle growth.

Mechanical Tension 

Which is simply the muscular force produced to move our joints and bodies against resistance.  This is most greatly affected by the amount of weight being moved. 

Metabolic Stress

Which are the metabolites (chemical byproducts) that build up in muscle tissue as a direct result of muscle tension and duration. Often referred to as “the pump” you get from moving a muscle through a constant range of motion without stopping.  

Muscle Damage

This is where we break down the actual muscle tissue through either load, volume, or both.  If this is overdone, you will be overly sore and unable to recover adequately before the next workout. 


When using Dumbbells for muscle building, you can take advantage of all three of these mechanisms if you have the necessary weights available.  And even if you only have light or medium weights available, you can utilize two out of the three mechanisms.  And if you are a beginner or simply new to weight training, you will be utilizing all three mechanisms by default, which means you can make very quick progress early on.

The last thing to consider is the Tempo of your exercises. You can vary the Concentric (muscle shortening) or Eccentric (muscle lengthening) phases and increase your Time under Tension (TUT) by manipulating your exercise tempo to take advantage of the three mechanisms I listed above. When looking at tempo numbers, in general, the first number is the lowering(eccentric) phase of the exercise. The second number is the pause at the end range of motion. The third number is the lifting (concentric) phase of the exercise.  And the fourth number is the pause at the top before starting the next repetition. (For a Bicep Curl exercise with a 2-1-2-1 tempo: this would be 2 seconds to lower the weight, 1 second pause at the bottom with the arm fully extended , 2 seconds to lift the weight, and 1 second to squeeze and/or pause with the arm fully flexed.)

  1. For Mechanical Tension - A 2-1-2-1 tempo is ideal.  
  2. For Metabolic stress - A 2-0-2-0 tempo is ideal.  This tempo eliminates the pauses so that there is constant movement during the exercise to maximize the “pump” or metabolic stress.
  3. For Muscle Damage - A 4-2-1-1 tempo is ideal.  Here you are lengthening the Eccentric (lowering) phase of the exercise to maximize muscle damage and TUT. 

Now comes the best part!  What are the 10 best Dumbbell exercises for building muscle?  Let’s find out.

Dumbbell Front Rack Squat


This exercise targets the Quads, Glutes, Anterior (front) core muscles and the biceps and shoulders secondarily.

  • Start by curling the weights to the rack position, palms facing you, elbows vertical.
  • Breath in and brace the core before descending into the squat position. Initiate the movement by pushing the hips back first, NOT bending the knees.
  • When the knees reach around 90 degrees of flexion, pause, and then squeeze the glutes and quads while pressing through the whole foot to return to the start position.
  • Be sure that the knees do not cave in at the bottom of the movement by actively pushing them out.
  • Do not allow the shoulders, head, or chest to fall forward during the movement.  The spine should remain relatively straight throughout the movement. 

Helpful Resources:

  • Free Daily workouts with dumbbells here
  • Equipment like dumbbells here

Dumbbell Floor Press

 

This exercise targets the Pectorals (chest), triceps and anterior (front) shoulder muscles.

  • Begin this exercise by sitting on the floor with the Dumbbells by your sides.  
  • Lift the Dumbbells onto your legs with the dumbbell oriented vertically. 
  • As you lean back, let the dumbbells move up towards your chest as your elbows contact the ground. 
  • Keep your knees bent at a comfortable angle, feet flat on the floor.
  • Before pushing the Dumbbells up above the chest, take a breath in and squeeze your shoulder blades together.  This puts your shoulder in a better position to push without pinching ligaments and tendons in the shoulder joint. 
  • Keep the wrist relatively straight as you press the weights up and straight above the chest.  Do not allow the weights to move above the nipple-line towards your face. 
  • At the top of the movement, squeeze the chest muscles.
  • As you pull the weights back down let your elbows flare out naturally, (about a 15-degree angle) and descend until the back of the arm contacts the ground.  
  • Keep the tension in the chest as much as possible instead of using the shoulder muscles. 
Get the 16 Best Dumbbell Exercises for Full Body Workout

+ The Dumbbell Workout Plan To Build Muscle At Home, Weekly Workout Ideas & More Content Like This!


Dumbbell Alternating Forward Lunge


This exercise targets the Quads, Glutes, Hamstrings and Upper traps.

  • Begin this exercise by holding the dumbbells at your sides, standing tall with chest up and shoulders down.
  • As you step forward (about 2-3 ft), maintain core control, and do not allow the upper body to bend forward at the shoulders. 
  • When your front foot contacts the ground, think about pulling your back knee toward the floor.  
  • When your back knee is 1-2” off the floor, push through your front foot (mostly through the heel) to propel your body back to a standing position. 
  • Alternate which foot lunges forward each repetition.

Dumbbell Overhead Press


This exercise targets the entire shoulder, upper chest and works the core muscles as well.

  • Begin this movement by curling the weights up to your shoulders and then turning the palms facing forward and the elbows out to the side. 
  • The Dumbbells should be at or above the level of the shoulders. This will depend on the health of your shoulders and what feels comfortable.  You should never feel PAIN in the shoulder when doing this exercise. 
  • Breath in and brace the core before pressing the weight up vertically until your arms are straight and your biceps are in line with your ears. 
  • Pull the weights back down to the starting position, wherever that is comfortable for you.
  • Keep the forearms vertical throughout the movement. 

Dumbbell RDL


This exercise targets the Hamstrings, Glutes and Back muscles while also working the shoulders and core muscles. 

  • Begin this exercise by holding the dumbbells in front of your legs.
  • Breath in and brace the core before pushing the hips back behind you.  
  • As you keep the feet flat on the floor and weight in your heels, reach your butt back behind you as far as you can until you feel the stretch in your hamstrings.
  • Keep your back flat and shins vertically throughout the movement. (The knees will only bend a few degrees and should not travel forward at all). 
  • When you feel like you can’t push the hips back any further, squeeze the glutes and hamstrings to push the hips forward and back into the standing position. 

Dumbbell Bent Row


This exercise primarily targets the Lats, mid and upper back muscles, rear shoulder and secondarily the biceps and core muscles.

  • Begin this exercise in the same position as the RDL by pushing your hips behind you so that your knees are slightly bent, your back is flat and close to parallel with the ground, arms hanging in front of your legs with your palms facing your knees. 
  • This exercise can be done one-arm at a time or both arms simultaneously.
  • Row/Pull the Dumbbells up and back towards your hip.  This action should start at the shoulder blades, so that you could “pinch” someone’s fingers between your shoulder blades at the top of the movement. 
  • As you row the weights up, let your hands rotate so that your palms are facing each other at the top of the movement. 
  • Squeeze and hold at the top of the movement before slowly lowering the weight to the starting position.  
  • Brace the core and continue to the next repetition. 

Dumbbell Farmer’s Carry


This exercise targets almost all muscles in the body but is primarily used to strengthen the core musculature around the hips and shoulders. 

  • Begin this exercise by holding the Dumbbells at your sides with chest up, shoulders down and in line with the ears.  
  • Begin walking forward and backward while maintaining a good upright posture and a firm grip on the Dumbbells.
  • You can either carry for distance or time depending on the space and weights you are using. 
  • Focus on keeping the core braced while moving and breathing.  
  • Do not allow the shoulders or back to round forward and look straight ahead while walking. 

Helpful Resources:

  • Free Daily workouts with dumbbells here
  • Equipment like dumbbells here

Dumbbell Bicep Curl


This exercise targets the Biceps muscles primarily and the forearms muscles secondarily. 

  • Begin this exercise standing with the Dumbbells in each hand and the palms facing forward.
  • Brace the core and engage the lats to pull the elbows into your sides.
  • Then, curl the Dumbbell up without letting the elbow move from the body.  
  • Squeeze the biceps forcefully at the top of the movement before slowly lowering to the starting position. 
  • This can be done one arm at a time or both simultaneously.

Dumbbell Lateral Raises


This exercise primarily targets the Middle Deltoid muscle and the Upper Trapezius secondarily.

  • Begin this exercise standing with the Dumbbells at your sides, palms facing each other. 
  • While maintaining good upright posture and no head movement and mostly straight arms, raise the arms up until parallel (or slightly past parallel) with the floor. 
  • Pause slightly at the top before lowering slowly with control to the starting position. 
  • This can be done one arm at a time or both simultaneously.
  • Avoid shrugging the shoulders towards the ears during this movement. 
  • Use light weights for this movement until form is impeccable and full control is maintained at all times to avoid shoulder pain or injury. 

Dumbbell Alternating Lateral Lunge


This exercise Primarily targets the Quads, Glutes, and calves and secondarily the shoulders, core, and arms. 

  • Begin this exercise standing with the dumbbells at your sides, palms facing each other.
  • Step laterally to the right about 2-4 ft. (depending on your height and mobility). 
  • When your right foot contacts the ground, push your hips back behind you while bracing the core and keeping the back flat. 
  • The dumbbells will descend to either side of the right leg. 
  • The left leg will be straight at this point. 
  • Pause in this lateral squat position for a second before pushing through the right hip and foot to return to the starting position. 
  • Continue the movement by stepping laterally with the left foot, alternating each repetition. 
  • The toes should point mostly forward but can be slightly pointed out if that makes the movement more comfortable on the knee or hip or both. 

This list comprises what I consider the 10 Best Dumbbell exercises for building muscle.  However, it is by no means exhaustive and there are many other exercises or variations of these exercises that can be used as well.   These exercises will be very effective for muscle-building but will also help you to lose fat, increase metabolism, improve body composition, gain strength, and improve cardiovascular health.   

Building Muscle should be a goal for anyone at any age because it is our bodies’ best defense against all types of age-related illness and injury.  So, whether you are putting on muscle to look better in the mirror or for your partner, improving body composition to improve your health, or simply want to extend your quality of life into ripe old age, muscle-building exercises like the ones described above will help you reach these goals.

Dumbbell Workout Plans

We recommend following an expertly created workout plan to meet a specific goal. If you do not have the prerequisite knowledge or experience you run the risk of overtraining, under training, not focusing enough on the desired muscle group or following the right rep ranges and protocols to meet a specific goal. For example, you might have the goal of losing fat, but based on your knowledge, perform these movements in such a way that you focus more on building strength with less emphasis on fat loss. 

Helpful Resources:

  • Free Daily workouts with dumbbells here
  • Equipment like dumbbells here

Under Training

You run the risk of actually not doing enough to reach your specific goal. You might not perform the correct repetition ranges or weights. You also run the risk of not focusing on a potential muscle group enough. 

Over Training

You also run the risk of doing the opposite. Part of reaching your goals is leaving enough fuel in the tank for the next workout along with proper warm ups and cool downs so you come back ready and refreshed to the next workout. Without a thorough understanding of your body, you might unintentionally incorporate too much of a particular part of your body in a workout. This has the effect of leaving out other muscle groups but also making other workouts more challenging because of the muscle fatigue that sets in

The Best Dumbbell Workouts

Now that you have a base of knowledge, it is time to put it to work. If you do not have the experience to create and follow a plan, below are a few different dumbbell workout plans we recommend. 

Dumbbell Gains


We built this program for someone that is just getting started with training, or someone that has a lot of experience training with dumbbells. These are fairly basic dumbbell movements and the goal is to build muscle, not necessarily leave you dripping from sweat after each workout. When you follow this program you will improve your strength, lose body fat, increase your metabolic rate through improvements in lean body mass.  The focus of these exercises are on absolute strength, hypertrophic (muscle-building strength), and strength endurance, along with full body mobility warm-ups and cool downs before and after the workouts

Get the 16 Best Dumbbell Exercises for Full Body Workout

+ The Dumbbell Workout Plan To Build Muscle At Home, Weekly Workout Ideas & More Content Like This!

Helpful Resources:

  • Be alerted when we publish more like this to our blog here
  • Free weekly dumbbell written workouts here
  • Daily workout plans here
  • Fitness Equipment like dumbbells here
  • Follow along with $1 video workouts here

Author: Brendan Sills

My website: www.movementmedicinemastery.com

Email: sills.brendan@gmail.com

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