There's many reasons why dumbbell exercises are so popular – not only do they offer more variety than almost any other piece of gym kit going, providing you use a little imagination, dumbbell exercises will also help you expedite fat loss, develop total-body strength, build maximum muscle mass and even level up your cardio.
But there's more...
If you're using dumbbells, you haven't got to fiddle with weight plates, you'll never need to stress about barbell collars and you can guarantee that there will always be a pair of dumbbells available on the gym floor. Something we can't guarantee about the weight bench – especially if it's chest day. But more fool them. For those in the know, there's a pot of gold waiting for you, a world of exercises you never knew existed and workouts that will achieve the same results as those lifting heavy iron from the floor. And we're going to show you how.
"Dumbbell exercises are more advanced as they require more stabilisation and activation muscles that might not get used or missed in bilateral or barbell exercises," explains MH fitness editor Andrew Tracey. "Dumbbell exercises allow for movement – think how rigid barbell exercises are – and therefore, build muscles that are more transferable to everyday life.
"Also, because you are able to manipulate and move dumbbells around more than a fixed machine, you can get a greater range of motion. For example, the barbell bench press. When the bar hits your chest, your arms are in a locked position. With dumbbells, you are able to go that little deeper and get a bigger stretch through the chest which will result in more muscle growth. This applies to many dumbbell exercises."
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Benefits of Dumbbell Exercises & Training
- Dumbbell exercises... increase stabilisation and muscle activation, therefore recruiting more muscle fibres.
- Dumbbell exercises... are generally safer to perform when training alone.
- Dumbbell exercises... force limbs to work unilaterally, identifying weaknesses.
- Dumbbell exercises... are effective at overloading muscles for hypertrophy and will increase range of motion.
- Dumbbell exercises... are the most readily-available and easily-scalable weights on the gym floor
- Dumbbell exercises... allow you level out any pesky muscle imbalances as they arise. Evenly-distributed gains keep injury at bay later down the line.
Are Adjustable Dumbbells Worth it?
If you're struggling to use your gym membership and your living room isn't big enough to house the squat rack, weight bench and barbell, then adjustable dumbbells are worth their weight in gold.
Naturally, they will be a bit pricier than a pair of 16s, but a good adjustable dumbbell set that can provide up to 24 different weight options will help minimise clutter and maximise gains. Let us break down the benefits:
- Adjustable dumbbells... are versatile, allowing you to cater your workout based on the muscle you are targeting and the type of exercising you are performing.
- Adjustable dumbbells... allow you to progress, making it easy to switch easily between weights.
- Adjustable dumbbells... save space.
- Adjustable dumbbells... are portable... Ok, it may be tricky lugging the whole thing to the park, but pick a weight, choose a workout (from the list below), and there's no stopping you.
5 Most Underrated Dumbbell Exercises
If you prefer to get your information visually, check out these five most underrated dumbbell exercises from our fitness editor. Not only does Tracey demo the moves, he also explains why each exercise deserves its spot on the list. How's that for personal training?
27 Best Dumbbell Exercises For Chest, Arms, Shoulders, Back & Legs
Here, PT Ollie Frost and Men's Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel recommend the best dumbbell exercises to add to your arsenal. You’ll discover why each exercise is worth its salt, find out which specific muscles the move targets, and learn how to execute it with faultless form:
Scroll on for our pick of the best dumbbell exercises for building muscle – all 27 of them. There’s no time like the present, so get to work.
1. Bicep Curl
Muscles worked: Biceps, deltoids, brachialis and brachioradialis.
How: Holding a dumbbell in each hand and with your arms hanging by your sides, curl the weights up to shoulder level while contracting your biceps.
Why: This list wouldn't be complete without curls, which are a perfect beginner exercise. The trick is not to go heavy; it's all about lengthening and shortening the muscle, so grab a weight you're comfortable with and away you go.
2. Goblet Squat
Muscles worked: Quads, calves, glutes, abs, arms and grip strength.
How: Stand with feet set wider than shoulder-width and hold a dumbbell with both hands in front of your chest. Sit back into a squat, then drive back up and repeat.
Why: Are you a nervous newbie or a long-time hard gainer? It doesn’t matter with this move. “Goblet squats are perfect for any level,” says Frost. “They specifically target glute activation whilst improving both hip and thoracic mobility.”
3. Arnold Press
Muscles worked: Deltoids, triceps, traps.
How: Sit on a bench with dumbbells held in front of you, palms facing your shoulders as though you’ve just finished a bicep curl. Push the dumbbells up over your head while rotating your arms until your palms face away from you. Straighten your arms, pause, then reverse the movement.
Why: If the fact that it was invented by Schwarzenegger himself wasn’t already reason enough, this potent upper-body move is unique in that it hits all three sections of your deltoid – the round-looking muscle that caps your shoulders – adding thickness and width, and reinforcing the joint.
4. Dumbbell Clean
Muscles worked: Glutes, calves, quads, biceps.
How: Flip your wrists so they face forwards and bring the weights to your shoulders, slightly jumping as you do. Slowly straighten your legs to stand. Then lower the weights down to your thigh before moving into squat position and repeating.
Why: If you want to look like an Olympian, you’ve got to train like one. “Incorporating these powerlifter lifts into your training will not only build lean muscle tissue but also build explosive power,” says Frost. This move also rushes blood to your glutes, hamstrings, shoulders and arms to maximise your muscle-growing power.
5. Renegade Row
Muscles worked: Traps, lats, rhomboids, delts, abs, obliques, biceps, triceps, forearms.
How: Get into a press-up position with your hands on the handles of two dumbbells. Keeping your core tensed, row the right dumbbell up to your abs then return to the start position. Repeat with the left dumbbell to complete one rep.
Why: Build a strong back, ignite your abs, and develop anti-rotational core strength in one fell swoop. While it’s tempting to focus on the ‘row’ aspect of the movement, the secret to getting the most out of this move is to double down on your plank positioning.
6. Farmers’ Walk
Muscles worked: Upper back, shoulders, triceps and biceps, forearms, abs, glutes, hamstrings, quads, adductors, abductors and calf muscles.
How: Walk forward taking short, quick steps. Go for the given distance, as fast as possible.
Why: For once, there’s no sophisticated form rules to worry about (except for ‘brace your core’. Always brace your core). And you’ll supercharge your grip strength, which is a serious plus. Additionally, this move fortifies your rotator cuffs, protecting your shoulders from injury during bigger lifts.
7. Zottman Curl
Muscle worked: Biceps, brachialis and brachioradialis.
How: With a pair of dumbbells by your sides and with your palms facing forwards, curl the weights up to your shoulders. Once you reach the top of the movement pause, and then turn your hands so your palms are facing downwards as you slowly return then dumbbells back to the starting position using this overhand grip. When the dumbbells reach your thighs again, turn your hands so your palms are back in the starting position facing forward.
Why: As well as training your biceps, this move will also fire up your forearms.
8. Flat Dumbbell Flye
Muscles worked: Delts, pecs, rhomboids, serratus anterior, rotator cuffs, biceps.
How: Lie down on a flat bench holding two dumbbells at your shoulders with your palms facing inwards. Press the dumbbells up until your arms are almost fully extended. This is your starting position. From here, with a slight bend in your arms, arc the weights down to your sides until you feel a stretch across your chest. Squeeze your pecs to return the weights to the start position by reversing the movement.
Why: Believe it or not, this move is better than the bench press for stimulating the chest muscle fibres that spark growth – and you don’t need anywhere near as heavy weights to do it. Just take care not to lock your arms out during the extension, or you’ll transfer the load away from your pecs and onto your elbow joints.
9. Bent-Over Row
Muscles worked: Lats, shoulders, forearms, biceps, spinal erectors, hamstrings, glutes.
How: Keep your core tight and your back straight as you row the weights up to your chest. Lower and repeat.
Why: “Rows will target several muscles in your upper body including the traps, rhomboids, lats and biceps perfect for getting you that ‘V’ shape,” says Frost. And not only that, it’ll hone in on your deltoids to create some T-shirt-filling boulder shoulders, too.
10. Dumbbell Uppercut
Muscles worked: Biceps, delts, obliques, abs, glutes, quads.
How: Stand holding two dumbbells at shoulder height with an underhand grip. Adopt a fighting stance and punch upwards with your right arm, pivoting on your right foot as you do so. Return to the start position and repeat on the other side.
Why: This move’ll raise your heart rate quicker than you can say ‘knockout’. Aside from the potent cardio hit, it builds power and push-strength. The emphasis might be on your guns, but pay attention to your boxing stance and posture. It’s the key to a killer uppercut.
11. Two-Arm Dumbbell Stiff Legged Deadlift
Muscles worked: Hamstrings, erectors, lats, glutes.
How: Lower the dumbbells to the top of your feet, as far as you can go by extending through your waist, then slowly return to the starting position.
Why: It shreds your legs into powerful pins by targeting your fast-twitch lower-body muscles. Plus, stiff legged deadlifts ensure your entire posterior chain is functioning effectively and prevents hip and lower back injuries, says Frost. It’s one of the best free weight exercises to build up your lower body – injury free.
12. Dumbbell Kickbacks
Muscles worked: Triceps.
How: Hold a dumbbell with your right hand and place your left knee and left hand on a bench. Start with your arm bent, bringing the dumbbell next to your chest so your upper arm is parallel to the floor, and straighten your arm behind you using your forearm. Return slowly to the start position and repeat.
Why: Hands up if you’re guilty of neglecting your triceps? Yeah, we thought as much. They mightn’t be mirror muscles, but strong tris are essential for effective upper-body training, and your chest and shoulders in particular stand to benefit. This move targets the lateral head – the most visible of the three heads on your tricep – to build sleeve-filling muscle.
13. One Arm Swing
Muscles worked: Glutes and hamstrings, abs, quads, shoulders.
How: Sink into a squat and swing the dumbbell through your legs before immediately driving yourself forward, bringing the weight up towards your head as you straighten your legs. Repeat this movement, then swap sides.
Why: With proper form, this swing will not only recruit muscles within your posterior chain but it will also build your grip strength, co-ordination, lower back muscles, quadriceps and shoulders. In other words, it’ll give you the momentum your body transformation workout needs. Most traditional kettlebell moves can be replicated.
14. Dumbbell Bench Press
Muscles worked: Pecs, shoulders, triceps, forearms, lats, traps, rhomboids.
How: Lie on a flat bench holding two dumbbells over your chest with an overhand grip. Push up until your arms are straight, then lower under control.
Why: If you’re looking to build quality pecs appeal then always opt for a dumbbell press over barbell. Why? A weight in each hands allows for a greater stretch at the bottom of the lift, building a bigger chest. And if you want to take this move further? “Squeeze your pecs together at the top of the lift to recruit as many muscle fibres as possible,” says Frost.
15. Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Muscles worked: Delts, traps, triceps, pecs, core.
How: Position your feet shoulder-width apart and stand holding two dumbbells at shoulder height with an overhand grip. Press the weights up above your head until your arms are fully extended. Return slowly to the start position.
Why: You want boulder shoulders, right? This compound move is essential for building strength, size and power. By performing it standing, you’ll recruit your abdominal muscles, which will improve your posture and stability. Be sure to brace your core throughout the full range of motion – protruding ribcages and arched backs are a no-go.
16. Cross Body Hammer Curl
Muscles worked: Biceps, brachialis, forearms.
How: One at a time, curl each weight up towards your opposing shoulder. Return under control to the start position and repeat on the other side.
Why: To win the arms race, divide and conquer. Focusing on one arm at a time creates a large neural drive, which engages the nervous system to recruit more muscle fibres.
17. Dumbbell Upright Row
Muscles worked: Delts, traps, rhomboids, biceps.
How: Hold a dumbbell in one hand in front of your body with an overhand grip. Raise your elbow up and to the side using your shoulder muscles to raise the weight up towards your chin. Lower under control back to the start position.
Why: As a unilateral exercise, the upright row can help you address any muscle asymmetries that have developed along your weightlifting journey. The movement also boosts your range of motion, which is integral to pretty much every upper body exercise you can think of. Remember to keep your elbows higher than your forearms.
Muscles worked: Quads, hamstrings, glutes, core.
How: Place your right foot onto the elevated platform and push up through your heel to lift yourself up and place your left foot on the platform. Step back down with your left foot, concentrating on flexing your hip and the knee of your right leg. Repeat on the other side.
Why: It’s a sure-fire way to maximise your gluteus maximus, the major muscle responsible for extending, rotating and adducting and abducting from the hip joint. Plus, as a single leg exercise, it will increase stabiliser strength of the smaller muscles around the joint, protecting you against injuries.
19. Dumbbell Spider Curl
Muscles worked: Biceps, triceps.
How: Lie on an incline bench and hold a dumbbell in each hand, letting them hang underneath your shoulders. Use your biceps to curl the dumbbells towards your shoulders. Slowly return to starting position and repeat.
Why: There are a few benefits. For one, with your arms hanging forward, you have a greater range of motion than your classic curl allows for. Plus, the nature of the position means your arm muscles are under constant tension throughout the full range of the move.
20. Dumbbell Scaption
Muscles worked: Back, shoulders.
How: Arc the weights up to your sides keeping your arms straight at all times until you feel a strong stretch across your shoulders. Return slowly to the start position.
Why: Rotator cuff, shoulder impingement and tears are common issues from overuse exercises, but not if you use the scaption. By targeting your stabilising muscles it protects the shoulder joint and ligaments surrounding it.
21. Bent Arm Dumbbell Pull Over
Muscles worked: Lats, shoulders, triceps, pecs, serratus anterior.
How: Lie down on a flat bench. Hold the dumbbell in both hands above you with slightly bent arms. Keeping your arms bent, arc the weight back behind your head and then slowly return to the start position.
Why: This exercise trains opposing muscles in your chest and back, improving stability, range of motion and posture. A Schwarzenegger staple, it doubles down on your pecs and lats, stimulating unprecedented muscle growth. You’ll also need to brace your glutes and core muscles to stabilise yourself as you extend the dumbbell behind you.
22. Reverse Dumbbell Lunge
Muscles worked: Calves, abs, lower back.
How: Stand with dumbbells at your side and palms facing your body. Lunge backwards as far as you can with your right leg, bending your front knee so it almost brushes the floor. Use the heel of your right foot to push your upper body back to the starting position. Repeat with the opposite leg.
Why: Don’t sleep on this classic. Often the original moves are the most effective. Weighted lunges will strengthen your back, hips, and legs, while also improving your mobility and stability. Win-win.
23. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
Muscles worked: Hamstrings, glutes, ankles and core.
How: Hold two dumbbells in front of your thighs, palm facing inwards. Slowly lift one leg straight behind you, bending the other slightly, and lean forward so that your arms lower the dumbbells towards the floor. Pause, then return to upright position.
Why: Since it requires full coordination from your ankle, knee, hip, and spine, unilateral leg training makes for a far stronger deadlift. Pro tip: don’t allow the hip of the lifted leg to rotate upwards on the way down, and resist the urge to lose your form once you return to the starting position. Keep it tight.
24. Single Dumbbell Shoulder Raise
Muscles worked: Delts, triceps, traps, upper chest.
How: Place one hand on either side of a dumbbell and let it hang between your legs. Lift the dumbbell directly above your head, then lower it back down and repeat.
Why: As the name suggests, the shoulder raise primarily strengthens the shoulders, but also works the upper chest muscles.
25. Dumbbell Calf Raise
Muscles worked: Calves, grip strength.
How: Stand upright holding two dumbbells by your sides. Place the balls of your feet on an exercise step or weight plate with your heels touching the floor. With your toes pointing forwards, raise your heels off the floor and contract your calves. Slowly return to the starting position.
Why: A staple of leg day, calf raises will build you bigger calves, as well strengthening your ankle stability and mobility.
26. Hollow Body Skullcrushers
Muscles worked: Triceps, core, abs.
How: Lie with your back on the ground, legs straight, two dumbbells held directly over your shoulders. Tighten your abs, pressing your lower back into the ground. Raise your legs an inch off the ground. Raise your shoulder blades off the ground. Keeping your arms straight, shift your upper arms back slightly. Bending only at the elbows, lower the weights until they nearly touch your shoulders, keeping the rest of your body tight in the starting position. Press back up, straightening only at the elbows.
Why: “Very often, people arch their backs slightly during skullcrushers,” says Samuel. You can’t do that in the hollow body position, he says, because the position inherently forces you to operate with abs tight, closing your ribcage.
27. Rotational Decline Weighted Sit-up
Muscles worked: Core, abs.
How: Start by positioning yourself in the decline bench, gripping a light weight with both hands. Lower your torso down so that its parallel to the ground. Hold the weight straight out from your chest, keeping your arms as straight as possible. Rotate your torso and arms to one side as far as possible, twisting from low in your torso. Pause for 1 or 2 seconds. Rotate back to center while also squeezing your core to perform a sit-up, keeping your arms straight and brining the weight overhead. Repeat on the opposite side.
Why: “This move is one-stop shopping for your abs,” says Samuel. “Among the things your core does for you: it braces your torso, flexes your spine, rotates your torso, and fights rotation of your torso (anti-rotation). You’re doing these four things in this one move.”
The Best Dumbbell Workouts
Now you know the moves, it's about time you added them into your workouts. Lacking in imagination? Don't sweat, we've got you covered with our collection that target all goals and every body part.