20 Best Dumbbell Exercises for Building Muscle

Muscle Building Dumbbell Exercises

Are you looking to build full-body strength, gain lean muscle mass, and shed unwanted fat? You're in the right place. This article is your guide to harnessing the power of dumbbells to achieve these fitness goals. Dumbbells are versatile tools that can help you sculpt your body and improve your overall health. In the following sections, we'll provide you with expert advice, workout plans, and tips to make the most of your dumbbell training journey.

Build Full Body Strength and Lean Muscle Mass with Just One or Two Dumbbells

With just one or two dumbbells you can build full body strength, muscle mass as well as lose fat. The goal of this article is to arm you (as in muscular arms) with some ideas for new movements you can use to build full body strength and muscle mass with dumbbells. The best way to reach any of these goals is to follow an expertly written plan, so we provide some ideas for that as well.

Do Dumbbells Really Work?

Almost any gym in the world will have at least one pair of dumbbells, which means by mastering just a few basic movements, your workout is never that far away. Dumbbells are also fairly compact, so if you are traveling by car, you can take a pair with you to get your workouts in while you travel. The bottom line is dumbbells are one of the single best pieces of equipment to know how to use because of the variety of movements, wide availability and relative ease of transport.

“Dumbbell exercises can be used to isolate specific muscle groups or target your entire body with one or two compound movements”, says Aaron Guyett, CSCS, Director of Education for Living.Fit. “I used to recommend that most of my clients own at least one pair of dumbbells because in the event they cannot make it to the gym, they can quickly follow a protocol I created for them at home”.

“Free weights like dumbbells and kettlebells also allow for a wide range of motion compared to working with machines or in some cases other free weights. The compact size and combination of weight allow for a deeper range of motion as opposed to being hindered by cables, machines or bars.”

Can I Build Muscle with Just Dumbbells?

Dumbbells should be a part of any well balanced exercise program. By following an expertly written plan you can build muscle with just dumbbells if you follow specific protocol for focusing on different parts of the body and follow scientific principles like progressive overload. You should couple this with a great nutrition plan as well for maximum results. 

Dumbbell exercises are ideal for creating hypertrophy if you want to put on size.  This is done by overloading muscles with  rep ranges 8, 10 or 12. If you want to focus on just building muscle and strength, focus on 8-12 rep.

Fuel Your Progress with Proper Nutrition:

Achieving your fitness goals isn't just about exercise; your diet plays a crucial role too. To optimize your results, consider the following nutritional guidelines:

  • Consume a balanced diet with a mix of lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day.
  • Eat smaller, frequent meals to maintain steady energy levels.
  • Incorporate post-workout nutrition with protein and carbohydrates to support muscle recovery.

Can Dumbbells Burn Belly Fat?

Yes!  To burn belly fat while using dumbbells you want to keep up the pace of your workout which gets your heart rate up throughout the entire dumbbell workout.  If you focus on full body workouts with lower rest times and couple this with a good nutrition plan, you will burn belly fat. Below, we will get into some of the best full body dumbbell exercises to burn belly fat. 

20 Best Dumbbell Exercises for Building Muscle

Aaron Guyett, CSCS, Director of Education for Living.Fit demonstrates 20 different dumbbell exercises to add to your workouts.  Each workout contains audio about how to do the workout as well text to teach you which muscle groups these target. For those interested in more, Living.Fit has close to 50 different dumbbell movements, plus workouts and other equipment movements.

Narrow Stance Dumbbell Squat

Muscles Worked On: 

Legs, Core, Back. This will force you to work on the inside part of the front thigh. 

How to do Narrow Stance Dumbbell Squat:

  • Keep your feet hip width apart or all the way together. 
  • Go down into the squat position.
  • Keep your core and back tight to control the weight of the dumbbells. 
  • Due to the position of your feet it is easier to lose your balance if you do not. 

Bent Over Dumbbell Rows

Muscles Worked On: 

Lats, Back, Core

How to do Bent Over Dumbbell Rows

  • Hinge at the hips, think driving your hips back, abs engaged, squeeze your scapulae together. 
  • Bring the dumbbells back towards your hips. 

This will incorporate the lats and back muscles 

Backstep Dumbbell Lunge

Muscles Worked On: 

Glutes, Core, Back, Hips, Hamstrings

How to do Backstep Dumbbell Lunge

  • Step back and drop the weight towards the heel of the forward foot. 
  • This will incorporate your hamstring and glutes. 
  • When you step back forward, drive up and forward like a traditional lunge

Dumbbell Alternating Single Clean and Jerk

Muscles Worked On:  

Glutes, Hamstrings, Hips, Core, Shoulders

How to do Dumbbell Alternating Single Clean and Jerk

  • Use your hip hinge and upward movement in your squat to drive the dumbbell up. 
  • Then you are going to drop your hips down as you roll your arm and hand under the dumbbell to ‘catch’ the dumbbell in the rack position as you lower yourself under it.

Dumbbell Shrugs Exercise

Muscles Worked On: 

Shoulders, biceps, core

How to do Dumbbell Shrugs

  • Hang the dumbbells at your sides and shrug your shoulders upward. 
  • Make sure not to protract or retract your shoulders. 
  • Keep your shoulders lateral next to your body the entire time.

Dumbbell SeeSaw Floor Press

Muscles Worked On: 

Core, pecs, lats

How to do Dumbbell SeeSaw Floor Press

  • Lying on your back, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hold a dumbbell in each hand. 
  • Press the dumbbells upward in a seesaw fashion. This means you are pressing one arm up while the other is coming down. 
  • Push the dumbbells up with your lats and pecs. This is a good way to notice any potential asymmetries on either side if you notice weakness on either side.

Dumbbell Plank Rows

 

Muscles Worked On:

Core, Back, Lats

How to do Dumbbell Plank Rows

  • Assume the plank position, row the dumbbell up towards your hips. Think as if you are bringing your hands into your hip pockets. 
  • Keep your elbows tight to your side to keep lat and upper back  engagement.  
  • You can widen your feet for more stability. 

Dumbbell Lying Tricep Extension

Muscles Worked On: 

Triceps, Core, Back

How to do Dumbbell Lying Tricep Extension

  • Lying on your back, press the dumbbells up over your chest, bend at the elbow to drop the dumbbells behind your head in a controlled manner. 
  • Keep your core tight with your back and glutes on the floor the entire time.

Dumbbell Seated Calf Raises

Muscles Worked On: 

Calves

How to do Dumbbell Seated Calf Raises:

  • In a seated position, place the head of the dumbbells on your knees or quads. 
  • Press your legs upward with the balls of your feet using your calf muscles. 
  • To make this more challenging you can place the balls of your feet on an object which forces you to go below parallel when you lower your legs.

Dumbbell Deadlift

Muscles Worked on: 

Hips, Hamstrings, Core, Glutes

How to do Dumbbell Deadlift

  • Start with the dumbbells right in front of your toes or just outside of your feet. 
  • You can incorporate just a bit of knee bend, but this should be primarily driven by engaging your hamstrings and glutes.  
  • As you drive your body upward with your hips and glutes, the dumbbells should simply follow by being held in each hand.  
  • Keep your abs engaged and your chest proud. 
  • Lower your body back down by driving your hips back. The dumbbells do not need to touch the ground at the bottom.

Dumbbell Bent Over Reverse Flys

Muscles Worked On:

Back, core 

How to do Dumbbell Bent Over Reverse Flys: 

  • Start in a hinged position. 
  • Keep your abs and upper back engaged to protect your lower back.  
  • With your elbows slightly bent, bring the dumbbells from the hanging position outward and up to engage all of your upper back muscles

Dumbbell Alternating Forward Lunge

Muscles Worked On:

Quads, Glutes, Core, Back

How to do Dumbbell Alternating Forward Lunge

  • Stand with a dumbbell in each hand. You could put them in a rack position. 
  • Step forward with one leg while keeping your abs engaged with your chest proud and back. At the bottom of the lunge, drive back up through your heel. Load 80% of the load into our stepping foot with most in the heel. 
  • Do not lunge so far forward you cannot come back up out of the lunge.

Dumbbell Front Squat 

Muscles Worked On:

Quads, Glutes, Core

How to do Dumbbell Front Squat: 

  • Load the dumbbells up by your shoulders in front of your chest. 
  • You can have them touching or separate. 
  • You can grip the dumbbells in multiple ways. 
  • Drop into a squat position. 
  • As your glutes become parallel to your knees start to drive yourself back upwards

Dumbbell Turkish Get Up

Muscles Worked On:

Shoulders, Core, Quads, Glutes

How to do Dumbbell Turkish Get Up:

  • Lying on your back, start with your right knee and right arm up holding the dumbbell. 
  • Press, rotate, prop up onto the elbow. 
  • Go from elbow to hand, then lift up your hips, swing that leg underneath your hips and drive up from the lunge position. 
  • Look at the dumbbell the entire time to maintain balance. To get down, repeat this sequence in reverse.

Dumbbell Floor Pec Flys

Muscles Worked On:

Core, Pecs 

How to do Dumbbell Floor Pec Flys: 

  • Lying on your back on the floor or a bench, you will lower the dumbbells away from your body horizontally. 
  • Do not touch your elbows to the ground. Use your pecs to pull the weight back towards you to align the dumbbell over your chest before lowering again. 
  • Keep a slight bend in your elbows as you lower them. 
  • You should be controlling the dumbbells the entire time with your pecs on the way down and pull them back up with your pecs.

Dumbbell Core Twists

Muscles Worked On: 

Core

How to do Dumbbell Core Twists

  • With one or two dumbbells, start in a seated position with your heels slightly on the ground. Focus on leaning back which will engage your core even more. 
  • Rotate from the left to the right and back. 
  • Do not over rotate or with too much speed. 
  • Make sure to be in control of the weight the entire time.

Single Dumbbell Sit Up to Press

Muscles Worked On:

Core, Shoulders

How to do Single Dumbbell Sit Up to Press:

  • Using a single dumbbell in one hand, start lying on the floor. 
  • Crunch up and roll up into a sit up. 
  • At the top, press the dumbbell overhead. 
  • Then come back down into the floor press position. 
  • You can switch hands while at the top of the sit up position. 

Dumbbell Curls

Muscles Worked On: 

Biceps, Core.

How To do Dumbbell Curls:

  • Stand with dumbbells at your side. 
  • Engage your biceps by pulling the dumbbells toward your shoulder. 
  • Keep your elbows tight to your side with your core tight. 
  • Lower the dumbbell in a controlled manner to engage the bicep. 
  • A 2 or 3 count on the way down is helpful for monitoring this.

Dumbbell Farmer Carry

Muscles Worked On:

Core, Biceps, Triceps, Back

How to do Dumbbell Farmer Carry: 

  • Stand with dumbbells at your side. 
  • This is a simple and effective way to work out your entire body. 
  • With dumbbells hanging at your side, engage your core and back, keep your chest proud and walk with dumbbells in hand. 
  • You can walk forward, backward or multiple directions. 

Dumbbell Alternating Cleans

Muscles Worked On:

Quads, Glutes, Back, Core

How To do Dumbbell Alternating Cleans: 

  • Stand with your feet wider than your shoulders. 
  • With a dumbbell in each hand you will use your lower body to generate the momentum which brings your dumbbell up to the rack position. 
  • Since this is an alternating movement, you will be lowering one dumbbell as the other is being raised. 
  • Think of your lower body as pumping the entire time to constantly generate the force to drive the dumbbells to the rack position.

Sample Dumbbell Workout Plans

To help you get started on your fitness journey, here are some sample dumbbell workout plans tailored to different goals:

Strength Building Workout:

  • Dumbbell Squats: 3 sets x 8 reps
  • Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 sets x 8 reps
  • Bent Over Dumbbell Rows: 3 sets x 8 reps

Muscle Building Workout:

  • Dumbbell Lunges: 4 sets x 10 reps
  • Dumbbell Chest Flyes: 4 sets x 10 reps
  • Dumbbell Bicep Curls: 4 sets x 10 reps

Fat Loss Circuit: 

Perform these exercises in a circuit with minimal rest between sets. Repeat the circuit 3 times.

  • Dumbbell Thrusters: 3 sets x 12 reps
  • Dumbbell Renegade Rows: 3 sets x 12 reps
  • Dumbbell Russian Twists: 3 sets x 12 reps (each side)

Adjust the weight of your dumbbells according to your fitness level, and remember to warm up before starting your workout routine.

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. 

  • 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

Putting it All Together

The key to all of these movements is first to know them and do them correctly. Depending on your goals, you will do these with different variations of weights or repetitions. If your goal is to burn belly fat with dumbbells, you should follow a plan that has little rest times between movements and gets your heart rate up the entire workout. Keep your rest times in the 20-30 seconds range. If your goal is to build strength, you will need to follow a plan with wait times that are a bit longer. Something in the one minute rest range should suffice for that goal. 

If you do not have a background in exercise science, the most proven way to reach your goals is to follow an expertly crafted workout plan.

Avoid These Common Dumbbell Training Mistakes:

While dumbbells are effective, improper techniques and training habits can hinder your progress. Here are some common mistakes to avoid:

  • Using improper form, which can lead to injuries.
  • Neglecting certain muscle groups, causing imbalances.
  • Overtraining without giving your body adequate rest and recovery.
  • Using weights that are too heavy, sacrificing form for intensity.

Be mindful of these pitfalls and prioritize safe, effective training.

Stay Safe During Dumbbell Workouts:

To prevent injuries and ensure a productive workout, follow these safety guidelines:

  • Prioritize proper form and technique over heavy weights.
  • Warm up before each workout to prepare your muscles and joints.
  • Use a weight that allows you to complete each exercise with control.
  • Listen to your body, and don't push yourself to the point of exhaustion.

Remember, safety should always be a top priority in your fitness routine.

Here Are Some Recommended Dumbbell Workout Plans

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.

Frequently Asked Questions About Dumbbells 

Can I build muscle with dumbbells?

Yes, you can definitely build muscle with dumbbells. Dumbbells are versatile and effective tools for strength training and muscle building. By performing a variety of exercises and progressively increasing the weight and intensity of your workouts, you can stimulate muscle growth and achieve your desired physique.

Should I buy heavier dumbbells?

The need for heavier dumbbells depends on your fitness goals and current strength level. As you progress in your training, you may eventually need heavier dumbbells to continue challenging your muscles. Gradually increasing the weight is essential for muscle growth and strength development.

Should I use two dumbbells or one?

Whether you use one or two dumbbells depends on the specific exercise and your training goals. Some exercises, like bicep curls or dumbbell presses, typically use two dumbbells for balanced muscle development. However, certain movements, such as single-arm rows or lunges, involve using one dumbbell to address imbalances and engage stabilizing muscles.

How long should I lift weights for?

The duration of your weightlifting sessions should align with your fitness goals and workout plan. Generally, a well-structured weightlifting session can last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, including warm-up and cool-down. Focus on quality repetitions and exercise selection rather than just the length of the workout.

Can you get ripped with 20 lb dumbbells?

While 20 lb dumbbells can be used effectively for many exercises, the extent to which you can get "ripped" depends on your individual fitness level, diet, and workout intensity. Over time, you may need to progressively increase the weight to continue making gains in muscle definition and size.

Will 30 lb dumbbells build muscle?

Yes, 30 lb dumbbells can certainly help you build muscle, especially if you are a beginner or intermediate lifter. As long as you challenge your muscles with proper form and a variety of exercises, you can achieve muscle growth and increased strength with 30 lb dumbbells.

Should I start with 15 or 20 pound dumbbells?

The choice between 15 or 20 pound dumbbells depends on your current strength level and fitness goals. If you are new to weightlifting, starting with 15 lb dumbbells and gradually progressing to 20 lbs as you become more comfortable with the exercises is a reasonable approach.

What size dumbbells should beginners use?

Beginners should start with a range of dumbbell weights to accommodate different exercises and muscle groups. Typically, a set of dumbbells ranging from 5 to 20 pounds is suitable for most beginners. This allows for a gradual progression as strength improves.

Which type of dumbbell is best for beginners?

For beginners, adjustable dumbbells or traditional fixed-weight dumbbells are both suitable options. Adjustable dumbbells offer versatility and convenience, allowing you to change the weight as needed. Fixed-weight dumbbells come in various sizes and are easy to use for specific exercises.

Can you get big arms with 20 lb dumbbells?

Building big arms with 20 lb dumbbells is possible, but it may take time and a well-rounded workout plan. Incorporating exercises like bicep curls, tricep extensions, and compound movements into your routine can help develop your arm muscles. As you progress, you may need to increase the weight to continue building muscle mass in your arms.


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