11 Best Dumbbell Exercises (Workout Routine to Build Muscle)

Christiana Mikesch, CPT
Published by Christiana Mikesch, CPT | Senior Coach
Last updated: January 27, 2024
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In my decade-long experience as a fitness coach, many people have asked me if dumbbells are enough to build a great physique.

I always tell them that with the right technique and dedication, nothing is impossible.

So, I've consulted a physical therapist and combined what I know from my experience with additional research to give you a list of the best dumbbell exercises.

Let's dive in.

Quick Summary

  • The dumbbell bench press, bicep curl, bent-over row, dumbbell lunge, and goblet squat are among the best dumbbell exercises for both lower and upper body physique.
  • Besides the ability to help you build muscle mass, dumbbells offer versatility, an increased range of motion, and more muscle activation.
  • Working out with dumbbells allows people who experience pain lifting in certain positions and those with mobility issues to train in more comfortable positions.

Best Dumbbell Exercises

A woman performing dumbbell exercises

We have put together a group of some of the best dumbbell exercises to add to a regular workout.

We’ve also gone into detail on which muscle the workout moves and how to execute it flawlessly.

It may take a while before you start seeing tangible results, which can affect your motivation. That's why I advise my clients to But it may take a while before you start seeing tangible results, which can affect your motivation. That's why I advise my clients to add a protein powder into the mix.

Without further ado, let's get into it.

1. Dumbbell Bench Press

It is one of the best dumbbell workouts that mainly works on the pectoral muscles (chest area). But additionally, a well-done bench press will also work on the shoulder and tricep muscles.

Using dumbbells for the bench press over the barbell offers a greater stretch at the bottom of the lift and allows you to build stronger and more appealing pecs.

“Squeeze your pecs together at the top of the lift to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible.”

- Ollie Frost, Physical Therapist

How to do it:

  • Lie facing up on a bench and holding a dumbbell in each hand.
  • Hold the dumbbells with the palm facing upwards and arms bent on each side of your shoulders.
  • Now hinge at your elbows and extend your arms straight above your chest to push the weights up. Make sure the dumbbells don't touch each other.
  • Once you’ve reached the top, bend your elbows to bring the weights down at shoulder level slowly.
  • 8-12 repetitions each set.

2. Dumbbell Bicep Curl

Doing bicep curls using dumbbell

Bicep curl while using dumbbells is a bodybuilding classic for building bigger biceps.

It also strengthens muscles around the wrists and elbow joints. To perform this exercise effectively, keep your back straight, core muscles engaged, and upper body in control. The trick is using weights you’re comfortable with.

How to do it:

  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart while holding a dumbbell in each hand, arms straight down, and knees slightly bent. Ensure your elbows are close to your torso and your palms are facing forward.
  • With the upper arms immobile, curl the weights upwards to shoulder level.
  • Once you’ve reached the top, return to your starting position and try to squeeze the triceps to deactivate the biceps.
  • 8-10 repetitions each set.

3. Bent-over Row

This one is a bit advanced for beginners as it can be dangerous when done incorrectly.

That aside, the bent-over row workout is one of the best muscle-building exercises for your back. It targets the back from the traps to the lumbar muscles and shoulder blades. 

It's also a functional exercise where you mimic picking a heavy box from the ground.

How to do bent-over rows:

  • Bend at the hip while holding dumbbells in each hand with palms facing the body.
  • Your legs and arms should be shoulder-width apart, and your knees slightly bent.
  • With your core engaged and back flat, lift the dumbbells by bringing them up your ribcage while squeezing the shoulder blades. Make sure your legs don’t move.
  • Slowly lower the weights and return to your starting position.
  • Repeat about 8 times without changing your posture.

4. Dumbbell Lunge

Holding dumbbell and doing lunges

The lunge exercise is a classic full-body dumbbell workout that mainly targets the leg muscles, including the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.

The dumbbell lunge also stretches the hip flexors, which improves flexibility and counters the shortening and tightening that occurs when you sit for long periods [1].

How to do the dumbbell lunge:

  • Stand upright with feet hip-width apart while holding a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing your body. You might want to select a pair according to your fitness level, especially if you’re a beginner.
  • Take a leap forward with your right leg to land on your heel and with your knees bent till your thighs are parallel to the ground.
  • Once you’ve reached a lower position, push off the front leg while engaging your glutes and leap back to return to a standing position.
  • Do the same with your left leg and repeat for a full rep of about 12 repetitions.

5. One Arm Raise

The lateral raise is a great movement that targets the shoulder muscles. Performing this workout helps you grow stronger and broader shoulders.

The workout works well when done together with other upper body strength training routines and compound exercises such as the dumbbell press, pull-ups, and push-ups.

How to do lateral raise exercises:

  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing inwards while seated or standing with feet hip-width apart.
  • Keep your back straight and your cores engaged.
  • With your elbows slightly bent, slowly lift the dumbbells out to your sides until your arms are parallel to the floor.
  • Slowly lower the dumbbells to your starting position and repeat for about 10-12 repetitions.

6. Dumbbell Calf Raise

An illustration of a woman holding dumbbell and doing calf raises

The calf raise targets the calf muscles that run down the lower leg, which are instrumental for walking, running, and jumping.

The benefits of training these integral muscles include better balance and stability and a reduced risk of foot and ankle injury.

How to do calf raises:

  • Stand upright with feet shoulder-width apart while holding a pair of dumbells on both arms with palms facing your body.
  • Now, lift your heels to stand on your toes and pause for a second.
  • Lower your heels to the ground to your starting position.
  • Repeat for about 12-15 times each set.

Related: Best Calf Exercises for Mass & Strength

7. Tricep Kickback

The tricep kickback is an excellent workout that works the tricep muscles, an often-forgotten muscle located at the back of the upper arms.

Working this muscle helps build upper body strength since the tricep is responsible for shoulder, elbow, and forearm movements. Hence, it forms an essential part of a robust training routine.

How to do the tricep kickback:

  • Assume a similar position to the bent-over row exercise; hinge at the hip with a dumbbell in each hand, back straight, and knees bent slightly.
  • Hold the dumbbells with arms facing inwards with a 90-degree angle at the elbow to align the elbows with your back.
  • Now, engage your core and hinge at the elbow to straighten your arm and lift the dumbbell up. Only your elbow and lower arm should move.
  • Return slowly to your initial position and repeat about 10-15 times each of the 2-3 sets.

8. Dumbbell Russian Twist

Gym partners holding dumbbells

The Russian Twist mainly works the obliques, the muscles running by the side of your torso. It also trains the abdominal muscles and the hip flexors for overall strength and stability of your core.

A disclaimer before we get into the workout: it's crucial to perform this exercise slowly and carefully, as it can be dangerous to rotate your trunk with a load.

Here's how to do the Dumbbell Russian twist safely:

  • Start by sitting down on the floor with a slight bend in the knees. Your heels should be on the floor and your toes off the ground.
  • Hold one dumbbell using both hands in front of your chest and take a leaning position to form a right angle between your torso and thigh.
  • Now twist your waist from left to right while bringing the dumbbell towards the floor on each side.
  • Keep your core engaged and perform the movement slowly for 15-20 repetitions each of the 3-5 sets.

9. Goblet Squat

I always recommend the Goblet squat to my new clients as it's one of the best dumbbell workouts that are super-effective and easy to perform.

The exercise mainly targets the lower region (quads, calves, and glutes), although it still works the entire body.

Its benefits range from lower body strength to core stability and, most importantly, hip and ankle mobility.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Hold one dumbbell in front of your chest and stand with your feet a bit wider than shoulder-width apart. Your feet should be facing outwards.
  • Now, engage your core and bend your knees to go to a lower position as if you’re about to sit on a chair. Ensure your back is straight as you descend.
  • Once your thighs are parallel to the floor, pause a second and drive through your heels to return to your starting position.
  • Repeat about 10-15 times to complete a set.

10. Dumbbell Front Squat

Holding two dumbbells and doing front squats

The front squat workout is an effective full-body workout that mainly targets the glutes, calves, and quads [2]. It's a better alternative than the barbell squat since it doesn’t pressure your spine.

The front squat is also a functional workout as it mimics the movement of picking up a box.

Here’s how to do the dumbbell front squat:

  • Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart and toes facing slightly outwards.
  • Hold a dumbbell on each hand and raise them at shoulder height.
  • Now, bend your knees to descend and move to a squat position while keeping your back straight.
  • Once you’ve reached a low point, ideally when your thighs are parallel to the floor, pause and drive through your heels to return to your starting position.
  • Repeat about 10-15 times to complete a set.

11. Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian split squat is a variation of the single-leg dumbbell squat with the back leg on an elevation.

This leg workout focuses more on the quads than any other exercise and demands a lot of coordination and balance.

Needless to say, it's a great dumbbell quad exercise for lower body strength.

Here’s how to do it:

  • With a pair of dumbbells on both arms, stand one step in front of an elevation (bench or chair).
  • Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and place your back foot on top of the chair or bench.
  • Now bend the front knee to descend until the back knee reaches the ground.
  • Once you’ve reached the lower position, straighten your knee to return to your starting position.
  • Repeat about 12 times before swapping to your other foot.

Related: Dumbbell Crossfit Workout

Benefits of This Type of Training

Performing dumbbell workouts

Aside from the ability to build muscle mass, strength, and endurance, dumbbell training has an added advantage over other training methods. Below are some of these advantages.

1. Versatility

The ability to use dumbbells for almost any exercise and any strength level is perhaps the biggest perk that comes with dumbbell exercises.

2. Increased Range of Motion

Dumbbells are not attached to a machine. This means they do not restrict movement patterns and allow you to extend the range of motion.

This is not only good in terms of strength and muscle gains, but the natural movement patterns also keep your joints healthy and more stable. 

3. Different Planes of Motion

Dumbbells allow you to move your arms out to the side and up and down as well, which is not possible with a barbell.

"Working with a fixed bar, you can only move the weight up or down; you can't rotate or turn sideways. With dumbbells, you change the orientation of your arms and bring them out to the side as you're lowering and raising."

- Cameron Yuen, Physical Therapist

The ability to move in a different plane of motion allows you to work the same muscles differently and employ other muscle fibers.

It also allows those who have mobility issues or those who experience pain lifting in certain positions to move in a position they’re more comfortable with.

4. More Stabilization and Muscle Activation

Getting a dumbbell from rack

A study compared chest, tricep, and bicep muscle activity when performing bench presses using a barbell, a smith machine versus a dumbbell.

It found that the dumbbell exercises had higher bicep activity than the rest and had similar chest and tricep activity with barbell bench presses [3].

Part of the reason why is that dumbbells activate more muscle fibers when performing; perhaps that’s why it's hard to see a good bencher with spaghetti arms.

FAQs

Can You Build Muscle With Dumbbells Only?

Yes, you can build muscle with dumbbells only. So long as you keep increasing the weight over time, you can bulk up muscle and build body strength.

How Often Should You Increase Dumbbell Weight?

You should increase your dumbbell weight every 4 weeks or, generally, whenever you feel comfortable. A good rule is to up the weights if you can perform all reps and sets properly.

How Many Reps a Day Should I Do With Dumbbells?

How many reps to do a day when using dumbbells depends on your goal. I’d say 4-6 repetitions with heavy weights are recommended for increased muscle size, 8-12 repetitions are ideal for muscular strength, while 10-15 reps are good for endurance.

How Long Does It Take To See Results From Dumbbells?

It might take about 3-4 weeks of dumbbell training before you start seeing results. But this may depend on factors such as genetic qualities, workout quality, and muscle fiber makeup.


References:

  1. https://workoutlabs.com/exercise-guide/dumbbell-lunges/
  2. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Fulltext/2011/10000/Exercise_Technique__Dumbbell_Squat,_Dumbbell_Split.10.aspx
  3. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49746305_A_comparison_of_muscle_activity_and_1-RM_strength_of_three_chest-press_exercises_with_different_stability_requirements
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About The Author

Christiana Mikesch, CPT
Senior Coach
Christiana Mikesch, CPT is a personal trainer and author with contributions to publications like the Chicago Tribune and Yahoo. She emphasizes a holistic approach to weight loss, combining an energy-fueling diet, goal-oriented workouts, and daily habits. Her approach avoids short-term goals and fosters a lifelong commitment to health and well-being.
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Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer
Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Holistic Nutrition from Clayton College of Natural Health and is the owner of Taylor Made Fitness. Her philosophy centers on cutting through the hype and misinformation surrounding dietary supplements, focusing instead on practical, science-backed strategies for health and weight loss.
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Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
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