Unique Single Dumbbell Workouts to Build Your Strength and Work Capacity

Only one dumbbell doesn't mean only one way to make big gains.

Training at home with limited equipment can get boring fast. Precisely because of this boredom, you might develop a lack of motivation to train. Fortunately, single dumbbell workouts can provide just the right amount of challenge and variety that you need to spice up your routine.

At first glance, it’s easy to look at single dumbbell workouts as a training disadvantage. Maybe you’re lacking the array of equipment you’re used to, and you’re certainly limited in weight selection with just one implement. But single dumbbell workouts have a lot to offer lifters of all levels.

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For one thing, working out with just one dumbbell is excellent for increasing your work capacity — that is, your ability to work out harder for longer periods. Even strength-focused single dumbbell workouts will help improve your work capacity. This article will take you through some of CrossFit Trainer Daniel Lynne’s favorite single dumbbell workouts for various goals, plus the benefits of single dumbbell workouts, how to program them, and how to warm up to maximize your success.

Best Single Dumbbell Workouts

Single Dumbbell Workout for Strength

You don’t have to perform many lifts to get strong. This workout only is made up of three pretty straightforward moves — the dumbbell deadlift, the hang power clean, and any overhead press of your choice. Where it indicates shoulder to overhead, you can perform a push press or a strict press — whichever move works best for your body.

The Workout

You’ll perform 10 total rounds for this workout — five rounds per side. Make sure you’re not rushing your deadlifts and using sloppy form. The first round or two (or even three) may feel like a breeze with the deadlifts. But if you let your form slip, you risk hurting your lower back. Keep your pace steady and your form on point. Because of the demanding workload, you’ll want to perform this workout once or twice a week.

  • Dumbbell Deadlift: 10 x 15
  • Dumbbell Hang Power Clean: 10 x 12
  • Shoulder to Overhead: 10 x 9

Single Dumbbell Workout for Conditioning

This workout only consists of two moves — the single-arm dumbbell thruster and the burpee. But since a thruster is both a squat and an overhead press all packed into one, you’ll get more than your money’s worth here. This workout will boost your conditioning and work capacity by forcing you to focus on your breath. This one is a mental workout as much as a physical one — you’ll have to believe in yourself to get through it.

The Workout

If you’re not used to conditioning workouts, don’t do this workout more than once per week. You might consider upping it to twice a week if you’re feeling confident in both your conditioning and recovery practices. But be sure not to overdo it. Note that you can choose how to split up your thrusters in this workout. You might do 15 per side before switching or try to complete all 50 on one side before you switch. It’s up to you — don’t forget to do burpees every minute. Record your time to compare against future efforts.

For time:

  • Single-Arm Dumbbell Thruster: 1 x 50 each side

Note: Set a timer and be sure to do three to five burpees every minute on the minute. 

Upper Body Single Dumbbell Workout

This workout consists only of a single exercise, and it will tax your upper body like little else. After all, it’s known as the devil’s press for a reason. Start the devil’s press by lowering the dumbbell from a standing position. Next, drop yourself into the bottom of a burpee, making sure your chest hits the ground. Then stand back up. Bring the dumbbell with you to secure it in an overhead position as you stand. You can either snatch it overhead or clean & jerk it. Once the dumbbell is overhead, you’ve completed one rep.

The Workout

This is a single-move, single-dumbbell workout — but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Your upper body will likely be very taxed within a minute, so make sure to prioritize form. Yes, you want to perform as many reps as possible, but don’t go so fast as to compromise your movement integrity. Alternate sides to make sure that your reps stay even with each rep. 

Full-Body Single Dumbbell Workout

This workout is a modified version of the Cindy WOD (workout of the day). It consists of burpees (or strict pull-ups, if you have access to a pull-up bar), hand-release push-ups, and dumbbell goblet squats. You’ll get a full-body workout with just one dumbbell. This training session will help you build strength and boost your work capacity simultaneously.

The Workout

Consider this a benchmark workout. Perform it with strict form and to the best of your ability when you want to check in on your progress — or give yourself a full-body challenge. Write down how many rounds you complete in a 14-minute time frame. When you next perform it — maybe next week, or maybe at the end of your current cycle — compare your numbers to see your progress.

Perform as many rounds as possible in 14 minutes:

  • Burpee OR Strict Pull-Up: 1 x 5
  • Hand-Release Push-Up: 1 x 10
  • Dumbbell Goblet Squat: 1 x 15

AMRAP Single Dumbbell Workout

While many single dumbbell workouts have AMRAP schemes, this one contains a lot of movement diversity. You’ll be using four different moves to give yourself a full-body strengthening workout. The work capacity bit comes in because you’ll be performing multiple rounds where you’re trying to complete as many rounds as possible. In other words, you’ll work full force, rest, work full force, rest, and repeat.

The Workout

At first glance, it doesn’t look like you’ll be performing a whole lot of reps with this workout. But since you’ll be performing four or five two-minute AMRAP rounds, you’ve got your work cut out for you. You can repeat this workout once or twice, possibly even three times, per week. Do this when you want a low-impact but high-intensity, full-body work capacity booster.

Complete as many rounds as possible in two minutes. Rest for one minute and then do another two-minute AMRAP. Repeat this sequence two to three more times for four to five total AMRAPS.

  • Dumbbell Goblet Lunge: 2 each side
  • Dumbbell Bent-Over Row: 3 each side
  • Dumbbell Snatch: 4 each side
  • Dumbbell Shoulder to Overhead: 5 each side

Single Dumbbell Core Workout

When you’re ready to focus on your core, all you need is one dumbbell. This workout will focus on high-quality, core-building movements that will help you strengthen your core in multiple directions. The stronger and more stable your core is, the more effective your barbell lifts can become.

The Workout

Depending on your training needs and recovery quality, you can perform this workout between two and four times per week. Some people might find that they require a lot of loaded, core-specific training to accomplish their goals. For others, working your core too much can leave you too sore from dedicating all the energy you need to your heavy barbell lifts. Find a balance that works for you and get started.

Complete this entire circuit and then rest for 90 seconds — complete four to five total rounds. 

Arm-Focused Single Dumbbell Workout

While many single-dumbbell exercises use one side at a time, this biceps-heavy, arm-focused workout will have you holding one dumbbell with both hands. You’ll need the extra support, though — throughout the workout, try not to let your arms dip below parallel with the ground.

To perform a perpendicular curl, your starting position will be holding the dumbbell at chest height or slightly below, with your arms bent at 90 degrees. With control, curl the weight up to the front rack position. After you press the dumbbell overhead, bring it back to the front rack and then back to 90 degrees — continue your reps from there. It’s sure to leave your biceps burning, while your triceps and shoulders kicking in for the overhead portion.

The Workout

You’ll use a descending rep pattern here. First, you’ll perform 10 reps of each movement; then nine reps; then eight; on and on down to one rep per movement. If possible, try not to lower your arms below 90 degrees throughout the workout. Perform this workout once or twice per week.

For time:

  • Single-Dumbbell Double-Handed Perpendicular Curl: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
  • Single-Dumbbell Double-Handed Overhead Press: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Benefits of Single Dumbbell Workouts

Working out with just one dumbbell might be precisely what you need to reinvigorate your training. Whether it’s an intentional switch or something you’re doing because you don’t have access to other equipment, your lifting game can dramatically improve with just one dumbbell.

Build Work Capacity

Working out with just one dumbbell can help increase your work capacity — that is, your body’s ability to work harder over a more extended period. That’s going to come in handy next time you’re doing hypertrophy training with heavy barbells. The more efficiently your body can handle intense loads, the more heavy reps and sets you can handle.

A person performs overhead tricep extensions in the gym.
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Work capacity isn’t just about running long distances or lifting heavy weights. Well-conditioned athletes with high work capacities are both strong and have solid cardiovascular endurance. The higher your work capacity, the better a lifter you’ll be able to be.

Think about it this way: if a set of five heavy squats leaves you completely gassed, it limits the volume and intensity of your training. But if you work to improve your work capacity, your body will be able to handle more volume and load. And the more you can handle, the stronger your lifts can become.

Fight Imbalances

By working with a single dumbbell, you’ll be fighting any imbalances that you may develop while working with a barbell. Training unilaterally enables you to combat muscular and strength asymmetries. Since you’ll be working one side at a time, your body won’t be able to compensate for any weaknesses on one side. Instead, your less developed side will just have to get stronger.

This can help translate into much stronger compound lifts. The less imbalances you have, the more efficient your movements. And when your movements are more efficient, you can ultimately lift more weight and build more muscle.

Increase Mental Toughness

Although it might seem counterintuitive, sometimes it’s harder to get motivated to work out with a single piece of equipment. With an entire gym at your disposal, there’s more variety and more distractions. But with only one dumbbell for an entire workout, you’re pretty much forced to pay attention to each move on its own. And you have to drum up a lot of motivation to get going.

Because of this, working out with just one dumbbell can work wonders for your mental toughness. You need a surprising amount of grit to power through difficult, breath-taking, unilateral movements. And you can develop as much grit as you need while moving through these workouts.

How to Program Single Dumbbell Workouts

If you only have one dumbbell to assist you in your workouts for the foreseeable future, you can program single dumbbell workouts similarly to any other workouts. Figure out a training split that works best for you depending on your experience and goals. But since the workouts here are all focused on increasing your work capacity and conditioning, make sure you separate them with enough recovery.

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Remember that unless you have multiple dumbbells to choose from, you won’t be able to increase the intensity by going up in weight. In that case, you’ll have to progressively overload your training by manipulating factors like time under tension and rest times. This might mean adding one and a half reps or tempo training to your workout scheme. Or — this works particularly well with several of the workouts above — write down your numbers over time when performing AMRAP workouts so you can rate your progress against a benchmark.

When dumbbells aren’t your only training implement and you want to use these workouts to supplement your barbell-oriented routine, it’s a slightly different story. Maybe you’ll want to use these short single dumbbell workouts as finishers to one day of training per week. Or, you can program the conditioning-oriented workouts for your active recovery days.

How to Warm Up for Single Dumbbell Workouts

Just because you’re working out with only one dumbbell doesn’t mean you don’t have to do a thorough warm-up. Your body may be underprepared to work unilaterally. This makes it all the more important to activate your muscles and mobilize your joints before you begin lifting.

Sample Warm Up for Single Dumbbell Workouts

  • Cat Cow: 3 x 30 seconds
  • Inchworm to Hip Opener: 3 x 8 per side
  • Scapular Pushup: 3 x 10
  • Lateral Lunge: 3 x 10 per side
  • Bear Crawl: 3 x 30 seconds
  • Pushup with T-Spine Rotation: 3 x 6 per side

Get Lifting

If you’re looking to increase your work capacity, single dumbbell workouts are a great way to go. You’ll challenge yourself to move quickly and efficiently while staying focused on the task at hand. Ironing out strength and muscle imbalances will be a natural part of your workout. From all that, you’ll be able to come back to barbells and make each lift that much stronger.

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