Free weights are great. They’re all the rage in commercial gyms and are the basis for multiple different strength-based sports. But when you get down into the nitty-gritty of it, you might find yourself paralyzed by the options.
Do you base your workout around the barbell? What about kettlebells? They’re having a bit of a moment as well. And then, lined up in front of the mirror in nearly every commercial gym on the planet, stand dozens of dumbbells.
Dumbbells are one of the original tools of resistance training, and for good reason. You can put the power of changing your body (and mind) directly into each hand, and properly train every single muscle in your body as well.
Here are some of the best exercises you can perform with a pair of dumbbells, as well as the benefits they provide.
Best Dumbbell Exercises
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- Dumbbell Row
- Dumbbell Shrug
- Dumbbell Pullover
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
- Dumbbell Flye
- Dumbbell Lunge
- Dumbbell Hammer Curl
- Dumbbell Skull Crusher
- Incline Dumbbell Curl
- Goblet Squat
- Arnold Press
- Renegade Row
- Lateral Raise
- Wrist Curl
Any variation of a chest press will work just fine, but dumbbells specifically offer a few unique benefits to chest growth (and strengthening) that you can’t get from a barbell or a plate-loaded machine.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Bench Press
- Easier to perform in a crowded facility with multiple benches.
- Allows you to work your chest independently.
- Provides greater freedom of movement than a barbell.
How to Do the Dumbbell Bench Press
Sit on the end of a weight bench with the dumbbells resting on your knees. Brace your core and lean backward onto the bench, simultaneously straightening your arms as you settle into the starting position.
From here, lower the dumbbells slowly down until they graze your chest and then return them to arm’s length.
Coach’s Tip: Press up and slightly inward.
It may be hard to see your back without the assistance of a mirror, but, thankfully, a pair of dumbbells can help you build it just fine. The row (and its many, many variations) is a staple back exercise.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Row
- Can be performed safely with strict or loose form.
- Great for lat and biceps recruitment.
- Lets you even out any potential back imbalances.
How to Do the Dumbbell Row
Support your torso with your non-working arm and the corresponding knee on a bench. Use your working arm to grab a dumbbell and pull it up to your trunk.
Coach’s Tip: Think about putting your elbows in your pockets as you row.
There’s really only one reliable way to beef up your traps or neck, and that’s the shrug. Simply elevating and depressing your shoulders is an easy enough motion to learn, the real question involves what equipment you should turn to to get the job done.
[Related: Try the Kirk Shrug for Massive Trap Gains]
Benefits of the Dumbbell Shrug
- More convenient to perform than the barbell variation.
- Provides a strong isolated contraction to your traps.
How to Do the Dumbbell Shrug
Stand upright with a pair of dumbbells in each hand. Lean slightly forward. Strongly contract your traps by elevating your shoulders up to your ears, holding for a moment, and then lowering them back down.
Coach’s Tip: You can alternate your reps from shoulder to shoulder or shrug both at once.
There are a few exercises out there that are just a bit too useful. If you find a movement that works multiple opposing muscles at once — such as the pullover — you should stick with it, if not just for efficiency’s sake.
Luckily, the dumbbell is the perfect tool for performing (and perfecting) the pullover.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Pullover
- Works both your back and chest at the same time.
- Improves your shoulder mobility provided you have good technique.
- Provides a strong contraction with relatively light weights.
How to Do the Dumbbell Pullover
Lie on your back on a bench with your arms above you, hands clasping the plate of a dumbbell. Slowly lower it back behind your head until your arms are roughly parallel with your torso. Return the dumbbell to directly above your head.
Coach’s Tip: Try to get the dumbbell fully out of view to ensure proper range of motion.
The hinge is one of your most foundational and essential movement patterns. You perform it on a daily basis whether you know it or not — bending over to pick up a child, or lift a crate, or even sinking into a respectful bow.
Training the hinge in the gym also helps you develop your hamstrings, calves, lower back, and glutes. Dumbbells are a fantastic choice if you want to make the Romanian deadlift part of your workout routine.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
- Allows for independent stimulation of your hip musculature.
- Hits your posterior chain without requiring a heavy barbell.
- The weights are closer to your midline, making it a bit easier on your back.
How to Do the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
Stand with a pair of dumbbells in your hands and your weight slightly shifted into your heels. From here, break at the hips and shoot your butt backward, allowing the dumbbells to fall down your thigh until your torso is roughly parallel to the floor.
Coach’s Tip: Keep your head in a neutral position and don’t attempt to lock your gaze on a single location as you hinge.
You don’t have to be enamored by heavy pressing to successfully add muscle to your chest. Your pecs’ other main anatomical function is humeral adduction, which is fancy phrasing for bringing your arm in toward your torso.
The flye exercise accomplishes just that, and dumbbells are the go-to piece of free weight equipment for the task.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Flye
- Works your pecs through their biomechanical motion of shoulder adduction.
- Allows you to stress your chest with light weights.
- More convenient to perform than cable flyes, which are often occupied in busy gyms.
How to Do the Dumbbell Flye
Lie on your back on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand, arms straight above you. From here, open your arms slowly, palms to the ceiling. Your arms should open until they’re roughly parallel with your torso.
Coach’s Tip: When lifting the weights back up, think about shoving your upper arm against your torso.
By putting one foot in front of the other, literally, and loading yourself up with a pair of dumbbells, you can stimulate almost every muscle in your lower body at once and train your balance to boot.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Lunge
- Hits both your quads and glutes simultaneously.
- Improves your balance.
- Weights in each hand help you maintain stability.
How to Do the Dumbbell Lunge
With a dumbbell in each hand, take a broad step outward in front of you and bend your knees to sink into a high split squat position. From here, push into the floor with your forward leg, and bring your back leg forward. Then, do the same motion with the opposing leg. Repeat.
Coach’s Tip: Don’t actively push with your back leg. Use it only to balance yourself.
Dumbbells are the tried-and-true default tool for arm growth in most gyms, and for good reason. You can work your biceps independently to even out imbalances and prioritize the strongest contraction possible.
When it comes to building the brachialis, which lies underneath your biceps proper, your first and only stop should be the dumbbell hammer curl.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Hammer Curl
- Works both your upper arm and forearm at once.
- Easy on your wrists, especially if you use a thumbless grip.
- Can be performed alternating or simultaneously depending on preference.
How to Do the Dumbbell Hammer Curl
Stand upright (or sitting on a bench) with a pair of dumbbells in your hands and your arms tucked to your sides. With control, bend your elbow and curl the weights upward, keeping your wrists in a neutral position, palms facing inward.
Coach’s Tip: You can unwrap your thumbs for a bit more forearm activation if you want to challenge your grip.
Skull crushers are great for beefing up the backside of your upper arms, but plenty of people find them uncomfortable to perform for one reason or another. The exercise can sometimes be awkward or painful on the wrist or elbow joints.
Working with dumbbells instead gives you a first-class ticket to big triceps without having to worry about your joints the whole time.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Skull Crusher
- Works the long head of your triceps.
- Friendlier for your elbows and wrists than the barbell version.
How to Do the Dumbbell Skull Crusher
Lie on your back on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand and your arms straight above your head. From here, bend at the elbow and lower the weights down toward your head, keeping your upper arms stationary. Reverse the motion and squeeze your triceps to straighten your arms.
Coach’s Tip: You can experiment with different wrist positions to find the most comfortable posture.
You can adjust the stimulus on your arms during a curl by changing your posture. If your arm drifts behind your body, it stretches your biceps to a great degree, forcing them to work harder when you curl.
You simply can’t perform this exercise with the barbell — it’s not physically possible. This makes the incline dumbbell curl an indispensable tool for arm growth.
Benefits of the Incline Dumbbell Curl
- Works your biceps from a unique anatomical position.
- Creates a strong contraction with light weights.
- Simple technique and easy to learn.
How to Do the Incline Dumbbell Curl
Set an adjustable weight bench to roughly 45 degrees or slightly higher. Lie on your back and let your arms hang straight down, a dumbbell held in each. Bend your elbows to curl the weights up high while keeping your upper arms perpendicular to the floor at all times.
Coach’s Tip: Set the bench at a high enough angle that your arm can comfortably rest behind your torso.
Heavy, barbell-based back squats are second-to-none for leg growth and maximal strength. However, they can be intimidating to say the least. Or, you simply can’t get ahold of a squat rack in a crowded gym.
In either case, the goblet squat is at your disposal. It’s a fantastic beginner’s squatting exercise, and can also torch your quads if you’re in a hurry.
Benefits of the Goblet Squat
- Fantastic teaching tool for learning the squat movement pattern.
- Works your quads and core simultaneously.
- Helps maintain a more upright torso than a barbell squat.
How to Do the Goblet Squat
Stand upright, holding a dumbbell aloft in front of your chest by the plate. The weight should not be resting against your torso. From here, find your squat stance and sit downward slowly as low as you can go. Try to maintain an upright torso and balance the dumbbell in the same place.
Named after bodybuilding legend himself Arnold Schwarzenegger, this specific movement is tailored perfectly for blasting your entire shoulder. Moreover, the Arnold press is a pressing variation you flat-out can’t perform with a barbell.
Benefits of the Arnold Press
- Works all three heads of your deltoid to some degree.
- Stimulates smaller muscles like your serratus anterior.
- Teaches you to control your shoulder through multiple planes of movement.
How to Do the Arnold Press
Sit upright in a seat or bench with a pair of dumbbells in each hand. Your arms should be bent with the weights held in front of your face, palms facing you. From here, rotate your arms outward and up, pressing your arms overhead. Reverse the motion, rotating your arms back into the starting position to complete the rep.
Coach’s Tip: Remember to rotate your arms and press the weights simultaneously instead of doing each motion separately.
Luckily, you can utilize dumbbells to build up your lats and forge an ironclad set of abs at the same time with the renegade row.
Benefits of the Renegade Row
- Teaches you to contract your core while you pull a weight.
- Works your abs isometrically and your back dynamically.
- Requires only a pair of dumbbells to perform.
How to Do the Renegade Row
Assume a standard push-up position, but instead of your palms pressed against the floor, they should be gripping a pair of dumbbells that are resting on the floor. Then, alternate your arms as you row one dumbbell up to your trunk while keeping the other arm straight.
Coach’s Tip: Avoid twisting your torso or sagging your hips as you row.
For healthy, functional, and aesthetic shoulders, you need to train all three of the deltoid’s heads. To hit the middle, or lateral, aspect of your shoulder, you have to perform the lateral raise. It’s the only practical way.
What piece of equipment is ideally suited for the lateral raise? A pair of dumbbells.
Benefits of the Lateral Raise
- One of the only ways to stimulate your side delts.
- Easy to learn the technique.
How to Do the Lateral Raise
Stand upright with a pair of dumbbells in each hand down at your sides. From here, slowly raise your arms outward and upward until they’re roughly parallel with the floor, palms pointing down.
Coach’s Tip: Raise the weights out and slightly forward for optimal deltoid contraction.
There are lots of small muscles between your elbow and wrist, and they need love too. Training your forearms takes a delicate touch since the movements you perform are equally delicate — a low amount of weight can go quite far here.
To train your forearms properly, turn to the dumbbell rack.
Benefits of the Wrist Curl
- Targets the small muscles of your forearms.
- Strengthens your wrists and your grip.
- Easy to get a good workout in with very light weights.
How to Do the Wrist Curl
Sit on a bench with a pair of light dumbbells in each hand hanging down at your sides. Then, flex your wrists hard to curl the dumbbells up a bit.
Coach’s Tip: You can rest your forearms on your thighs or find another posture that allows you to comfortably flex your wrists against the resistance of the dumbbell.
Benefits of Dumbbell Training
They aren’t the be-all, end-all of exercise equipment, but working with dumbbells provides more than a few unique benefits that you should be mindful of.
Corrects Muscle Imbalances
By their very nature, dumbbells allow you to work each of your arms or legs independently — as well as the corresponding muscles that move those joints.
This allows you to identify, attack, and remedy any imbalances or side-to-side weaknesses you may have. While a barbell or fixed-path machine can sometimes mask these issues (since you’re moving a single piece of resistance with both your arms, for example), dumbbells will quickly show you where your weak spots are so you can take the right actions against them.
Targets Weak Points
As the dumbbell is a single-side implement, you can think of it as more of a scalpel than a hammer. Barbell exercises are wonderful for stimulating a lot of muscles quickly and with high loads.
However, barbells can’t hold a candle to the precise stimulation and resistance offered by a dumbbell. You’d find it difficult, for instance, to properly target your side delts with another type of free weight.
When working with dumbbells, your limbs have more freedom and less restriction than if you used another implement. This can be particularly helpful when performing exercises such as the bench press, where your individual anatomy strongly impacts your form.
No one is perfectly symmetrical side-to-side; dumbbells allow your body to move as it was designed to, rather than having to adhere to a rigid or cumbersome path.
Teaches Motor Control
Single-arm (or leg) exercises do a lot more for your body than just stimulating the muscle or muscles in question.
When you load one limb at a time, your body still has to stabilize and control the transfer of force between the weight itself and the surface you’re in contact with. In practical terms, this means that a single-arm press will tax your core as it attempts to stabilize your spine, providing some “bonus” ab training.
This principle holds true for any movement you opt to perform with, or on, one limb.
Builds Plenty of Strength
If your priority is maximal strength above all else and at any cost, you should probably spend a lot of time with the barbell — especially if you’re aspiring toward a strength sport like powerlifting.
Barring that, you shouldn’t forsake dumbbells in your pursuit of getting stronger in general. They’ll work just fine for strength, even if you aren’t lifting comparably heavy weights as you would in a similar barbell-based movement. (1)
Use Dumbbells to Lift Well
That said, the devil is in the details when it comes to maximizing your fitness potential. Dumbbells shouldn’t make up your entire routine (though they certainly can) at all times, but they’re versatile, customizable, and easy to use.
- Heinecke, M. L., Mauldin, M. L., Hunter, M. L., Mann, J. B., & Mayhew, J. L. (2021). Relationship of Barbell and Dumbbell Repetitions With One Repetition Maximum Bench Press in College Football Players. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 35(Suppl 1), S66–S71.
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