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Medium shot of a bodybuilder flexing his right arm while lifting dumbbells with both hands

14 Best Dumbbell Workouts and Exercises For a Full-Body Workout

If you’re not making the best dumbbell workouts and exercises part of your weekly fitness regimen, you should be. Despite their somewhat rudimentary design, these timeless tools remain fundamental to upper-body strength training. Even the burliest bodybuilders and celebrities – who have legions of expensive equipment at their disposal – still incorporate dumbbell workouts on a frequent basis. And who are you to ignore bodybuilders and celebrities?

Dumbbells are relatively inexpensive, highly portable and perfect for the home. This is great if you’ve suddenly found yourself unable to hit the gym. By picking up a few dumbbells online, you can ensure you have all the tools for the best home workout or gym session. So get the ball rolling (or bicep curling) with the best dumbbell workouts and exercises.

Medium shot of a bodybuilder’s back while lifting dumbbells with both hands
Best Dumbbell Workouts and Exercises | Images: MR. BIG Photography

Best Dumbbell Workouts and Exercises

You’re no dumbbell and that’s why you want to make the most out of your weekly fitness routine. Just remember that it’s better to start with lighter weights and work your way up than it is to start with heavier weights and work your way to the hospital. “It’s always better to use lighter weight with better form than to use the heaviest possible weights,” says personal trainer Sam Downing. With that in mind, here are some of the best dumbbell exercises for muscle building and more.

When it comes to the rep and set recommendations, we’re primarily sticking with intermediate level suggestions. If you’re just starting out workouts with dumbbells, reduce accordingly and work your way up. Here is a list of the 14 best dumbbell workouts and exercises for men.

1. Bench Press

Dumbbells typically offer a better range of motion than barbells, allowing you to build even more strength in the pectoral area. A quality dumbbell bench press will also spruce up those triceps and work the shoulder muscles as well. The key concept to follow with dumbbell exercises, like all exercises, is to squeeze at the top of the movement. This will ensure the muscles you are targeting remain active and engaged. Here’s how to execute a dumbbell bench press:

  1. Lie back on a bench and hold a dumbbell in each hand
  2. Keep each arm bent to the side of each shoulder, palms facing upward
  3. Extend your elbows as you press the weights above your chest
  4. Keep going until your arms are straight above your chest, but don’t touch the weights to one another
  5. Bring the weights back down just past shoulder level — lowering with control. In any dumbbell exercise, don’t just let the weight drop down
  6. Repeat

Reps: 8-12 per set
Sets: 3
Rest: 90-120 seconds between each set

2. Bicep Curl

One of the simplest and most common weight exercises is also one of the best. It works a host of bicep and tricep muscles. Throughout this movement, make sure you keep your back straight, core engaged and your upper body controlled. We’ve all seen guys at the gym with weights too heavy for them throwing dumbbells back with blatant disregard for their spine. This is a home dumbbell workout that is purely about isolated control. To perform a dumbbell bicep curl effectively, do the following:

  1. Stand upright and hold a dumbbell in each hand
  2. Each arm should be hanging by your sides
  3. Keep your elbows close to the torso and your palms facing outward
  4. Don’t move your upper arms as you curl the weights upward to shoulder level
  5. Contract your biceps and exhale as you go
  6. Return to the starting position — try a little squeeze in your triceps at the very bottom of the movement, to fully “deactivate” the biceps between reps
  7. Repeat

Reps: 8-10 per set
Sets: 3
Rest: 90-120 seconds between each set

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3. Shoulder Press

It’s important to have strong shoulders and this popular dumbbell exercise abides. While the shoulder press focuses primarily on two portions of the deltoids, it also works a wealth of other muscles; namely your trapezius, triceps and rotator cuff muscles. These structures all have to work in conjunction with your shoulders for this exercise to be successful. Here we go:

  1. Stand upright holding a pair of dumbbells at either side
  2. The dumbbells should be more or less even with your shoulders, your arms should be slightly bent, and your palms should be facing toward your body
  3. Press upward and twist your wrists as you go so that your palms are facing forward by the time you reach the top
  4. Lift the weights directly over your shoulders until your arms are straight
  5. Lower and repeat

Reps: 6-10 per set
Sets: 3-4
Rest: 90-120 seconds between each set

4. Bent-Over Row

Maximise the potential of free weights with this classic muscle-building exercise, which works the back and shoulders. Just be advised that this one is not for beginners and that improper form can render serious damage. As mentioned with other exercises, it is important that you keep your back straight, core engaged and knees slightly bent; you want to be targeting your lower back, not overloading it. When ready, perform the following steps:

  1. Stand up with a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing the body
  2. Keep your legs and arms about shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent
  3. Bend no further than a 45-degree angle, bracing your core and keeping your back straight
  4. Lift the weights upward in a straight line, exhaling as you go
  5. Keep your wrists stiff and don’t move your legs
  6. Your arms should never pass shoulder level as you raise the hand weights
  7. It should feel like your pinching your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement
  8. Lower the weights into the starting position and repeat
  9. Do not change your posture until you’ve completed each set

Reps: 6-8 per set
Sets: 3
Rest: 90-120 seconds between each set

5. One Arm Swing

The beauty of dumbbells is that they yield tangible results out of simple routines. For proof, look no further than this full body dumbbell workout, the mighty one-arm swing. In addition to your shoulder muscles, it also works the leg muscles. While you might recognise this one as a popular kettlebell exercise, the one-arm swing is easily replicated with a dumbbell. A great multi-faceted move, this one can be added to strength routines or HIIT workouts. Here’s how to execute:

  1. Hold a dumbbell between your legs, keeping it at arm’s length
  2. Assume the squat position
  3. Swing the dumbbell through your legs as you drive yourself upward using the power of your hip and leg muscles
  4. Keeping your arm straight, bring the dumbbell all the way up to forehead level as you straighten your legs
  5. Repeat and then swap arms for a full set

Reps: 6-8 per arm per set
Sets: 3
Rest: 90-120 seconds between each set

6. Lunge

The lunge is a classic full body dumbbell workout. Make sure you have plenty of room and prepare to work plenty of muscle groups (legs, glutes, etc). Once again, try and remain controlled throughout the movement. Speed is not an issue on this dumbbell exercise, so take your time, keep your balance and squeeze at the top of the exercise. Perform the following steps and even try them at home:

  1. Stand upright and hold a dumbbell in each hand
  2. Hang your arms at either side with your palms facing inward and your feet a little less than shoulder-width apart
  3. Take a long step forward with your leg of choice, bending at the knee until your thigh is parallel to the ground. Your front knee should be over your front ankle — avoid driving the knee too far forward
  4. Land on the heel and inhale as you descend
  5. The rear leg should be bent at the knee and balanced on the toes — both knees should form right angles
  6. Push off the front foot, engaging your glutes and returning to the starting position as you exhale
  7. Swap legs and repeat for a full rep

Reps: 8-12 per set
Sets: 2-3
Rest: 90-120 seconds between each set

7. Calf Raise

Building your lower body isn’t all squats and lunges, however. Your calves play an important role in mobility and stability, so it’s worth adding some dumbbell exercises that target the area. After all, stronger calves are sexier calves and here’s how you can get in a full body workout with dumbbells that result in stronger calves:

  1. Stand upright and hold a dumbbell in each hand
  2. Keep your feet approximately shoulder-width apart
  3. Hang your arms below your shoulders and keep them straight
  4. Lift both feet until you’re standing on your toes
  5. You should feel the tension in your lower legs
  6. Return and repeat

Reps: 12-15 per set
Sets: 1-2
Rest: 90-120 seconds between each set

8. Triceps Kickback

The best way to perform this full body dumbbell workout is to start with lighter weights and increase the load as you improve. For the triceps kickback, a movement that targets the often over-look back of the arm, this is especially true. Assuming a similar position to the bent-over row, it’s important that you isolate the movement to purely your lower arm. Try to keep your shoulder and upper body as still as possible throughout this movement. Here’s how to execute:

  1. Stand upright with a dumbbell in each hand
  2. Keep your knees slightly bent and your palms facing inward
  3. Tighten your core and keep your spine straight as you hinge at the waist
  4. Keep going until your torso is almost parallel to the floor
  5. Your upper arms should stay close to your body, your head and spine should form a straight line, and your chin should be slightly tucked in
  6. Exhale as you straighten your elbows, all without moving your upper arms
  7. Hold and squeeze the triceps at the top of the movement, inhale, and return to the starting position

Reps: 10-15 per set
Sets: 2-3
Rest: 90-120 seconds between each set

9. Lateral Raise

Another great movement that targets your deltoids, the lateral raise has been a favourite amongst bodybuilders since the dawn of the sport. With an added emphasis on the outside rotor of the muscle, this exercises is key to those hulking shoulders you’ve been searching for. Maintaining proper form is key to this effective full body dumbbell workout. Keep your motions small and careful and try to lead with your elbows as you go. Here are the steps:

  1. Assume the standing or seated position
  2. Hold a dumbbell at each side, palms facing inward
  3. Your back should be straight and your core braced
  4. Slowly lift the hand weights out to your sides until your arms are parallel with the floor
  5. All the while, your elbows should be slightly bent
  6. Carefully lower and repeat

Reps: 10-12 per set
Sets: 3
Rest: 90-120 seconds between each set

10. Lying Dumbbell Fly

You can perform this dumbbell exercise on a variety of platforms, including an incline bench, flat bench, or even a gym ball. For this specific movement, we’ve gone with the tradition flat-bench technique. This allows you to target the mid-section of your chest, however, by utilising an incline or decline bench, you will be able to hit upper and lower sections of the muscle group. Obviously, not everyone will have access to a bench, so a flat bed that allows for movement, or a Swiss ball can easily do the trick. (Remember that a Swiss ball has less stability, so opt for lighter dumbbells than you would on a bench.) Nevertheless, here’s how to do it on a flat or incline bench:

  1. Lie back-down on the bench and keep your feet flat on the floor
  2. Hold the dumbbells directly above your chest, palms facing one another with a soft bend in your elbows
  3. Lower the free weights out to the sides as far as you can comfortably take them. Keep your awareness on your shoulders — they shouldn’t shrug up to your ears as you lower the dumbbells
  4. Push from your hands to engage your pectoral muscles as you return to the starting position
  5. Maintain a slight bend in your elbows and keep your back straight (i.e. un-arched) the entire time
  6. Repeat

Reps: 8-12 per set
Sets: 2-3
Rest: 90-120 seconds between each set

11. Glute Bridge

Here’s another bodyweight exercise that delivers even greater results when you bring a dumbbell into the equation. You definitely would have seen people rock this one at the gym, and while it may make you feel a little strange, there is method to the madness. The glute bridge activates a key component of the body’s largest muscle group. By squeezing really tightly at the top, you help build an area that controls stability and overall strength. Do the following and expect strong glutes in return:

  1. Lie back-down on a mat and bend your knees
  2. Keep your feet flat on the floor and position them so that your feet are underneath your knees
  3. Grab a relatively heavy (20 pounds or so) dumbbell and place it on top of your lower abs, holding it in place with both hands
  4. Arch your hips toward the ceiling, engaging your abs and glutes along the way
  5. Form a diagonal line with your body that goes from your shoulders to your knees
  6. Hold at the top for three seconds — imagine “tucking your tail” between your legs to fully engage the glutes
  7. Lower to the starting position
  8. Repeat

Reps: 10-12 per set
Sets: 3
Rest: 90-120 seconds between each set

12. Russian Twist

Come on baby, let’s do the Russian twist! That joke might be a little before your time, but all the Chubby Checker fans out there will love it. Anyway, here’s how to perform this quality core exercise:

  1. Assume the seated position, with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor
  2. Grab a dumbbell with both hands and hold it in front of your chest
  3. Keep your spine straight and the crown of your head reaching to the ceiling
  4. Lean back slightly until your core engages and (this is optional, depending on ability level) lift your feet a few inches
  5. Slowly twist your torso to the left as you bring the dumbbell toward the left side of your body
  6. Return to the neutral position and then twist to the right, once again moving the dumbbell in tandem with your motion
  7. Return to the centre, keeping your spine long and core engaged throughout, and repeat for another rep

Reps: 15-20 per set
Sets: 3-5
Rest: 90-120 seconds between each set

13. Weighted Sit-Ups/Jack Knives

Whether you’re performing regular sit-ups or challenging jack-knives, you can incorporate a dumbbell. We’re going to assume you have sit-ups all figured out, so here’s how to do the jack-knife version:

  1. Lie on your back and raise your legs so that they point toward the ceiling
  2. Keep your arms straight as you hold a dumbbell over your chest
  3. Crunch upward, raising the dumbbell toward your feet
  4. Keep your legs straight and try not to arch your back as you lower your legs toward the floor
  5. Refrain from lifting your back as you lower your legs — keep your core engaged the whole time to stop this happening
  6. Lower your head at the same time
  7. Extend your legs upward once again and perform another crunch

Reps: 10-12 per set
Sets: 2-3
Rest: 90-120 seconds between each set

14. Tricep Extensions

Let’s cap off the best dumbbell workouts with this gym staple, which targets the triceps. For this movement, you can utilise a double or single-handed grip, however, the biggest thing to note is the position of your elbows. Try to keep your arms locked in tight to your body throughout the movement, as this will better target the triceps and help you to avoid injury, and don’t use a weight that’s too heavy to control. Here’s how to execute:

  1. Stand upright and hold a single dumbbell in both hands
  2. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and your core tight
  3. Fully extend your arm and raise the dumbbell over your head, palms facing upward
  4. You’re now in the starting position
  5. Bend your arm at the elbows and engage your triceps as you slowly lower the dumbbell behind your head
  6. Return to the starting position and repeat

Reps: 8-12 per set
Sets: 2-3
Rest: 90-120 seconds between each set

Close up of a man’s arm lifting a dumbbell from a row of dumbbells
What are Dumbbells | Image: Astarot

What are Dumbbells?

By definition, a dumbbell is a short bar with a weight at either end. Sometimes they come wrapped in different materials or even feature adjustable dials, but the core concept has been the same for centuries. Speaking of which, the forebears of these nifty hand weights date as far back as ancient Greece.

You can find dumbbells that weigh as little as 1 pound and as much as 375 pounds. That said, most dumbbells fall within the range of 5-25 pounds. At the nearest gym, the heaviest dumbbell usually weighs in at around 60 pounds. If you’re looking for anything heavier, you should be going to one of those special gyms because you’re a beast.

As classic free weights, dumbbells are typically used for joint-isolation exercises. You’ve seen them. You’ve probably used them. But can you use dumbbells for a full-body workout? The odds are, you’re not performing the best dumbbell exercises and workouts. So let’s find out.

You’ll also like:
10 Best Shoulder Exercises for Men
13 Best Bicep Exercises for Men
16 Best Calf Exercises and Workouts for Men
27 Best Oblique Exercises for Men

Dumbbell Workout FAQ

What are the best dumbbells for home?

Some of the best dumbbells you can now buy for the homefront are the Bowflex Selecttech, York Fitness Cast Iron Spinlock Set, Men's Health Adjustable Dumbbells, and Wolverson Fitness Rubber Hex, to name a few.

How much should I be spending on dumbbells?

A general rule of thumb is that each pound of dumbbell weight should run you about US$1.00-US$2.00. That means you can expect to spend about US$20-$40 on a pair of decent 10-pound dumbbells. Some higher-end adjustable models will cost more than the standard fare.

Are dumbbells just for shoulder workouts?

While a number of dumbbell exercises do indeed work the shoulder muscles, there are additional dumbbell workouts that target the pectorals, biceps, legs, glutes, and even calves.

Last medically reviewed on 28 June 2022