WHY I LOVE DUMBBELLS…
Selecting my favorite dumbbell exercises is like being asking me to pick my favorite kid!
(Which if you’ve seen how cute my twin boys are, you know is IMPOSSIBLE.)
BUT I had to choose…and choose I did. And not only will I tell you WHICH dumbbell moves I believe are best, I’ll tell you exactly WHY!
I love training with a pair of dumbbells for two reasons:
- They don’t take up a lot of space, making them ideal for your home workout.
- They allow you to train very athletically.
With their three dimensional freedom, dumbbells allow you to workout in all planes of motion and require a great deal of core strength and stability to use them properly. We aren’t afforded that three dimensional ability with a bar, and many people just don’t have a bar at home!
These 8 dumbbell exercises were chosen because of their ability to give you maximum bang for your buck. This is based on their ability to work multiple major muscle groups in one dumbbell-only workout. The more muscles you can train in one dumbbell training session, the quicker your dumbbell workouts will be and the more impact you can have on your body in a shorter period of time.
So let’s look at each of these 8 dumbbell exercises one by one and point out the benefits of each. If you like, you can combine them into one full-body dumbbell workout.
8 BEST DUMBBELL EXERCISES
There are folks that think you can’t train some muscle groups effectively with dumbbells because you aren’t able to load up enough weight.
That’s definitely not the case!
Dumbbell only workouts can be incredibly challenging.
I’m choosing lifts that you can load with heavier weight so you are sure to be pushing yourself to your limits!
You can’t continue to lift light weight and think that you are going to get a good enough workout program to build mass and strength. Even if you are training at home, aim to use as heavy weights as you can lift if you’re looking to build lean muscle tissue.
In this list of 8, you’ll see that every single one of these can be loaded heavy and some dumbbell workouts can also be done in a lower weight higher reps fashion to make them more metabolic if that’s your goal. Feel free to combine these 8 exercises into a complete full-body workout.
1.) DUMBBELL CURL AND PRESS
This is a compound exercise and most of the exercises I chose will be compound exercises. This is because we want to get the most bang for our buck, get the muscles working quickly and get our workout done.
The Dumbbell Curl and Press gives us a classic biceps lift and a shoulder movement all in one.
We’ve got both a pull (biceps curls) and a push (overhead press), and we are able to blend these two movements together because of how the biceps function.
In order for the arm muscles to fully contract, we’ve got to include some sort of elevation or flexion of the shoulder joint. We get that in the bicep curl portion and we continue it with the flexed position of the shoulder joint in the shoulder press portion of this movement.
In the Dumbbell Curl and Press we have antagonistic muscles that normally don’t like to work together that are actually teaming up to create a really beneficial exercise.
Exercise Notes: Starting position for this classic curl is standing in upright position with feet shoulderwidth apart with a pair of dumbbells. Taking a dumbbell in each hand, curl the weights to shoulder height with palms facing toward you. Then use your shoulder muscles to press the dumbbells overhead in a straight line. Slowly lower the weight back to the bicep curl position. and then lower the weight out of bicep curl position to return to the start.
BENEFITS OF THE DUMBBELL CURL AND PRESS
- Works both biceps and shoulder muscles
- Blends a pull and a push because of the function of the biceps muscle fibres
- Antagonistic muscles are cooperating to make this movement more effective
2.) CRUSH GRIP GOBLET SQUAT
We already know that goblet squats are a great classic lift to train our lower body including glutes, as well as leg muscles like quads and hamstrings.
Some people have a tough time figuring out how low they should squat and how wide their feet should be. The great thing about the goblet squat is that your body usually falls right into the position that’s most comfortable and biomechanically correct for you.
With the addition of the crush grip portion we’re actually getting a chance to incorporate some upper body activity into what would normally be a passive exercise for upper body, not to mention grip strength.
If you grab a dumbbell in the normal goblet squat hand position which is just holding the underside of one end of the dumbbell, you’re not really doing anything actively to hold that it other than supporting it with your hands. But with the crush grip, you’re squeezing the dumbbell between your hands with a constant tension, making it an excellent dumbbell exercise for building strength in the chest, delts, traps, core muscles and grip strength!
Everything now is working, with muscles under tension from top to bottom.
This makes for a superior version of a goblet squat, which was already a great compound lift to begin with! Be sure to include this move in your dumbbell leg workout.
Exercise Notes: Starting position is standing in upright position with feet shouderwidth apart and use a crush grip to hold a single dumbbell with both hands at chest height. With a slight bend in the knees, engage your abdominal muscles and come into a squat, keeping your arm muscles pressing firmly into the dumbbell at all times. Then stand tall to return to starting position and repeat. Keep feet flat on the ground throughout the exercise. Be sure to observe proper form to avoid risk of injury.
BENEFITS OF THE CRUSH GRIP GOBLET SQUAT
- Excellent exercise for glutes, quads and hamstrings
- The position of the goblet squat leads the body into the position that’s most biomechanically correct for each person
- With the addition of the crush grip, gets activation of the chest, delts, traps, core muscles and grip strength
3.) DUMBBELL PULLOVER
Some people refer to it as the ‘upper body squat’ because it’s one of the most powerful compound exercises for building strength in the upper body! There are actually two different ways to perform this upper body exercise that can emphasize back or upper chest muscles depending on which variation you choose.
If you take the dumbbell and you try to pull your hands up against each other as you pull over your chest to mid chest level, it’s going to preferentially hit your upper chest muscles.
If you let your elbow joints flare out a little bit and you drive with your elbows instead of leading with your hands, then you start to get a lot more lat activation.
It doesn’t really matter which one you choose. Mix them up back and forth between sets to work both areas. Why not! This is one of the best dumbbell workouts you can do for your upper body and certainly one that I would include in my 8 best.
Exercise Notes: Starting position is lying perpendicular on a flat bench with feet flat on the floor, and gripping a dumbbell in both hands, raise the weight back and up over your head. Then with arms straight begin raising the weight up and over toward your chest. Lower the weight back to return to start and repeat.
BENEFITS OF THE DUMBBELL PULLOVER
- Sometimes referred to as the ‘upper body squat’
- If you pull your hands up against each other as you’re pulling over your chest, you’ll get more upper chest activation
- If you flare your elbow joints and drive from the elbows instead of leading with the hands, you’ll get more lat activation
4.) FARMER’S CARRY
The Farmer’s Carry is an exercise with multiple benefits that a lot of people still haven’t caught onto!
Just load up that weight as heavy as you can and WALK. If you don’t have a lot of space for this farmers walk, then walk back and forth in whatever space you have.
While the Farmer’s Carry does work your grip and form, these are definitely not the only benefits!
The fact of the matter is, trying to hold onto these dumbbells becomes infinitely more challenging when you add movement with your lower body. When you’re moving, your core has to work to stabilize from right to left. If you just stand still and hold dumbbells, it will be much easier than it is when you have that weight shift going on.
It’s also a very demanding upper and mid back exercise because you’ll find that since you’re holding them for a long period of time, you’ll have to learn how to hold with the bigger muscles in your upper back.
You can see here as I walk away that my upper back, mid back and even my triceps and upper arm are kicking in to try to hold these dumbbells up!
And of course by having the locomotion component when we’re walking, our lower body gets involved too.
This is one of the best exercises to build lean muscle tissue in your entire body, literally from your fingertips all the way down to your feet!
Exercise Notes: Starting position is holding a dumbbell in each hand, keep the entire core tight and walk in whatever space you have, maintaining strength and stability throughout the body.
BENEFITS OF THE FARMER’S CARRY
- True fingertips to toes exercise
- Works grip strength and posture
- Challenges core stabilization
- Hits upper back and mid back even more the longer you carry
- Works traps and triceps muscles
- Incorporates lower body with locomotion
5.) DUMBBELL THRUSTER
Speaking of those fingertips to toes movements, the Dumbbell Thruster is one of the best.
But it’s a killer because you’re literally working everything in your body at the same time!
You start down in a Squat position and thrust your body upward allowing that that momentum to continue. But the momentum is only going to get you so far.
The only way you’re going to get those dumbbells up and over your head is if you press them, and you’re going to need to apply some force to do so.
For a classic builder, load the weight as heavy as you can, because for the front squat portion your leg muscles are likely to be able to handle whatever weight you’re using. It’s a matter of how much weight you’re going to be able to press up and over your head that will be the limiting factor of this exercise.
This can become a great metabolic exercise as well, if you go with a light dumbbell and go for higher reps.
Exercise Notes: Start position is standing with feet shoulder width apart, dumbbells held in each hand at shoulder level. Squat down and then explosively stand back up while pushing the dumbbells straight overhead. Lower the dumbbells to return to start position and repeat. Be sure to use proper form throughout the exercise. Be sure to use proper form to avoid risk of injury.
BENEFITS OF THE DUMBBELL THRUSTER
- Works literally the entire body
- Can be used a classic builder by loading heavy
- Also a great metabolic exercise if you go lighter and higher reps
6.) 1 ARM DUMBBELL INCLINE BENCH PRESS
At ATHLEAN-X, I always say we like to put the core at the core of everything we do, and this exercise is a perfect example of it.
The regular incline dumbbell bench press is a great exercise on its own for the chest muscle fibres.
However, in making one small tweak – doing one arm at a time – we’ve made the exercise that much more demanding on our core!
You can see that as I lower the dumbbell, all that weight wants to pull me to one side. The only thing I have to stabilize and prevent me from rolling off the bench in the direction of the heavy dumbbell is my abdominal muscles and obliques.
I have to contract everything together to keep my low back flat on the bench and then initiate the momentum that I need to push that dumbbell back up in the opposite direction.
You see, we have to overcome both the force of gravity and the mechanical disadvantage that our core is put in as we lift and lower that dumbbell. That makes this a great dumbbell chest exercise to work on the weaknesses we have in our core.
Exercise Notes: Starting position is sitting on an incline bench at approximately a 45 degree angle in incline bench press position. Perform a one arm bench press with a dumbbell in one hand. Use your core strength to keep the weight from pulling you to one side. Pay attention to proper form as you do this exercise to avoid injury.
BENEFITS OF THE 1 ARM DUMBBELL INCLINE BENCH PRESS
- Works the upper pectoral muscles
- Working one arm at a time strengthens abdominals and obliques
- Overcomes core weakness and stabilization issues
7.) DUMBBELL SWING
Put simply, the Dumbbell Swing is one of the most metabolically demanding exercises there is.
We’re basically mimicking a kettlebell swing by grabbing the bottom side of one end of the dumbbell with both of our hands.
As with the kettlebell swing, this is a great exercise for glute and hip extension. These are some of the weakest areas of our body.
If you choose a lighter weight, you can do this for lots of reps for more of a metabolic exercise.
If you choose to load it heavier, it becomes a great way to develop strength in your posterior chain and you’ll be huffing and puffing after just a few reps.
Exercise Notes: Starting position is in standing position with feet wider than hip width apart. Perform a swing using the dumbbell in place of a kettle bell, ensuring a good hip hinge with each rep.
BENEFITS OF THE DUMBBELL SWING
- Works glutes and hip extension, some of our weakest areas
- Excellent metabolic exercise
- When loaded heavier helps develop strength in posterior chain
8.) DUMBBELL TRIPOD ROW
This may look pretty similar to a dumbbell one arm row, but it’s not the same thing! In the Dumbbell Tripod Row we’ve changed our base of support, and by doing so, we are challenging our core.
With a regular dumbbell one arm row, we have one arm and one knee on the bench and the dumbbell is held fairly close to our center of gravity.
When we perform the Dumbbell Tripod Row we’ve got a wider base of support and the dumbbell is held out to the side farther away from our center of gravity.
You’ll feel from the very first rep that it’s a challenge to hold your body still and straight as you move the dumbbell.
This variation is also more athletically inclined here because both feet are on the ground with your knees bent and your butt out.
Exercise Notes: Starting position is in standing position with feet shoulderwidth apart leaning over and supporting your hand on the seat of an incline bench, counter or other surface. Hold a single dumbbell in one hand and perform a bentover row with just that arm.
BENEFITS OF THE DUMBBELL TRIPOD ROW
- Works upper back muscle fibres
- Challenges the core because the dumbbell is held away from your center of gravity
- Puts us in a natural athletic stance
So there you have it, my 8 favorite dumbbell exercises, each with a justification of why it’s on this list. Dumbbells give you the ability to train athletically because unlike a bar, they require you to work and stabilize in three dimensions. I’ve chosen exercises that take advantage of this freedom of movement to help us work more than one muscle group simultaneously.
If you like, you can combine these lifts into one dumbbell-only routine or use them as part of a complete dumbbell exercise program. Adjustable dumbbells are a great investment, but even if you have just a couple of pairs of dumbbells at home, you can perform a dumbbell-focused routine that will help build serious muscle.
If you’re looking for a complete workout program that helps you take advantage of your workout time and the equipment you’ve got available to you, check out our ATHLEAN-X programs. Train at home with just a few dumbbells and a pullup bar, or utilize the full variety of equipment at your local gym. Whichever you choose, let me be your coach!
- A pair of dumbbells is the best workout equipment available because they allow you to train athletically and they don’t take up much space, making them ideal for home training.
- The benefits of training with dumbbells are that they require you to work in three planes of motion, giving you additional benefits and challenge over barbells.
- I’ve chosen my 8 favorite dumbbell exercises based on their ability to help you train more than one muscle group simultaneously and get more bang for your buck.
- If you include all of these exercises into your training routines, you’ll work every muscle in your body and challenge your core and stability.
Jeff Cavaliere M.S.P.T, CSCS
Jeff Cavaliere is a Physical Therapist, Strength Coach and creator of the ATHLEAN-X Training Programs and ATHLEAN-Rx Supplements. He has a Masters in Physical Therapy (MSPT) and has worked as Head Physical Therapist for the New York Mets, as well as training many elite professional athletes in Major League Baseball, NFL, MMA and professional wrestling. His programs produce “next level” achievements in muscle size, strength and performance for professional athletes and anyone looking to build a muscular athletic physique.