8 Best Upper Body Dumbbell Workout for Toning Your Muscles

Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Published by Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: March 11, 2024
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As a fitness professional, I’ve seen the efficiency of upper-body dumbbell workouts firsthand countless times over the years.

Through my experience with clients, I have learned that incorporating dumbbell drills into the routine often yields remarkable results, especially for arms, chest, and posture.

In this article, I’ll share the best upper-body exercises I know, the equipment you’ll need, and the benefits you can expect from adding these workouts to your fitness routine.

Quick Summary

  • Dumbbell bench press, bent-over rows, push-ups, chest flys, pull-ups, lateral raises, pullovers, and curls are some of the best exercises to target different upper-body muscle groups.
  • The upper-body dumbbell workout is suitable for all fitness levels, from beginner to advanced, and all that’s required is a set of dumbbells and a pull-up bar.
  • A study by the National Institute of Health highlights that strength training with dumbbells can increase muscle mass, improve bone density, and reduce injury risk.
  • In my view, incorporating these dumbbell exercises into your routine is a smart move for anyone aiming to enhance their upper-body strength and muscle definition.

The Best Upper Body Dumbbell Exercises

Lifting dumbbell with both hands doing side laterals

I often recommend dumbbells to my clients as the ideal tool for sculpting a strong and defined upper body.

These versatile free weights enable a variety of movements and exercises, effectively targeting muscles in the arms, shoulders, and back. The best part is, you don’t even need a gym membership or fancy equipment to get started with them.

A study by the National Institute of Health (NIH) has shown that strength training with dumbbells can increase muscle mass, improve bone density, and reduce the risk of injury [1].

Some of the best exercises include:

  • The dumbbell biceps curl — targets your biceps and gives you defined arms.
  • The bench press — works your back, shoulders, and triceps.
  • The bent-over rows — work well for strengthening your back and improving your posture.

Other exercises include dumbbell push-ups, pull-ups, chest flys, lateral raises, and pullovers.

Equipment Needed

Stack of dumbbells and a pull up bar for equipment

The equipment needed for a dumbbell workout includes a pair of dumbbells, a pull-up bar, and some other additional equipment.

Dumbbells

Dumbbells are the bread and butter of any upper-body exercise. These versatile weights come in different shapes, sizes, and weights, allowing you to tailor your workout to your specific needs and abilities.

“The barbells and dumbbells you hold in your hands and the way you use them have stories to tell.”

- Craig Cecil, Ironman Certified Coach

Pull-Up Bar

A pull-up bar is like a trusty sidekick in your workout journey. It’s optional but highly recommended. It’ll challenge and target your back and arm, taking your upper-body workout to new heights.

Optional Equipment

While dumbbells and a pull-up bar are the foundation of the workout, adding optional equipment like resistance bands for chest exercises, a bench, or a stability ball can add variety, challenge, and fun to your routine.

Top 8 Upper-Body Dumbbell Exercises

Dumbbell Flat Bench Press

Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or elite lifter, the following dumbbell workouts are a must for any upper-back workout routine.

1. Dumbbell Bench Press

I often highlight that the dumbbell bench press targets the chest, triceps, shoulders, and upper back, making it an excellent exercise for working the shoulders and improving stability.

Additionally, opting for dumbbells over a barbell provides a greater range of motion and more activation of stabilizing muscles.

Here’s how to perform it:

  1. Lie flat on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Push the weights up over your chest, keeping your arms hanging straight.
  3. Then, lower the weights back down to the starting position.

Dumbbell Bent Over Row2. Dumbbell Bent-Over Row

The dumbbell bent-over row is a fantastic exercise for targeting the muscles in your back, including your lats, traps, and rhomboids. It improves posture, builds upper back strength, and sculpts shoulders.

Here’s how to perform it:

  1. Start by holding a dumbbell in each hand while standing with your feet hip-width apart and your knees slightly bent.
  2. Next, bend forward at the waist, keeping your back straight and core engaged until your torso is parallel to the ground.
  3. Then, use your back muscles to pull the weights up to your sides, squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top.
  4. Finally, lower the weights back down to the starting position.

3. Dumbbell Pull-Up

Dumbbell Pull-Up

I often incorporate the dumbbell pull-up into my clients' routines, as it's a strength-training exercise that effectively targets the upper body, especially the back and arms.

This exercise, involving pulling a weight towards the chest using the arms, is excellent for targeting the upper arm muscles.

According to a study in the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI), regularly performing dumbbell pull-ups can help improve your upper-body strength, increase muscle mass, and enhance overall fitness [2].

Here’s how to perform it:

  1. Stand feet flat in front of a sturdy, elevated surface, such as a pull-up bar or the edge of a bench.
  2. Hold the bar with your palms facing away from you.
  3. Pull your chest towards the bar, keeping your elbows close to your body.
  4. Pause briefly at the top of the movement, then slowly move yourself to the starting position.

push up dumbbell4. Push-Up

A dumbbell push-up is a modified version of the traditional push-up that uses dumbbells for added resistance.

It improves strength and definition, enhances stability, and increases activation of the muscles in the chest and triceps.

Here’s how to perform it:

  1. Begin in a plank position with hands on dumbbells slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Lower your body towards the ground while keeping your core tight and your body straight.
  3. Push back up to the starting position.
  4. Repeat for desired reps, ensuring proper form throughout the exercise.

5. Dumbbell Chest Fly

dummbell chest fly

I find the dumbbell chest fly to be highly effective for focusing on the chest muscles, enhancing upper arm strength, and improving posture.

This exercise not only increases chest size and strength but also improves muscle symmetry and contributes to better posture.

Here’s how to perform it:

  1. Start by lying down on a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Keep your arms extended to the sides with a slight bend.
  3. Slowly bring the dumbbells together above your chest, keeping your arms straight.
  4. Pause at the top, then slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat steps one through four for the desired number of repetitions, usually 8–12.

Dumbbell Lateral Raises6. Dumbbell Lateral Raise

The dumbbell lateral raise is an isolation exercise that targets the deltoid muscles of the shoulder, specifically the lateral (side) head.

This exercise helps to develop shoulder strength and stability and adds definition to the shoulder area.

Here’s how to perform it:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides with your palms facing in.
  2. Keeping your core tight and your arms straight, slowly lift the dumbbells to your sides until they are level with your shoulders.
  3. Pause briefly, then lower the weights back to the starting position.
  4. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Keep your movements slow and controlled to effectively target the shoulder muscles and reduce the risk of injury.

This exercise can be performed with lighter weights for higher reps to increase endurance or with heavier weights for fewer reps to build strength.

7. Dumbbell Pullover

dumbbell-pullover

I often incorporate the dumbbell pullover in my clients' routines because it effectively targets the upper chest, lats, and triceps, enhancing posture and muscle growth.

It's great for engaging the core and improving shoulder flexibility, adding variety and challenge to workouts.

Here’s how to perform it:

  1. Lie flat on a bench with your head hanging off the end.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in both hands above your chest with your arms extended straight.
  3. Lower the dumbbell behind your head while keeping your arms straight.
  4. Return to the starting position by lifting the dumbbell back to the starting position above your chest.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

Also Read: How To Do Dumbbell Pullover

dumbbell-bicep-curl8. Dumbbell Curl

The Dumbbell Curl, a staple in strength training, targets your biceps for bigger, stronger arms.

It boosts bicep size, grip strength, and muscle endurance.

Adding it to your dumbbell routine carves out well-defined arms and ramps up arm strength.

Here’s how to perform them:

  1. Holding a dumbbell in each hand with the palms facing forward, stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Keep your upper arms still, and slowly curl the dumbbells towards your shoulders while keeping your elbows close to your sides.
  3. At the movement's peak, pause, then gradually return the weights to the starting position.
  4. Repeat as many times as necessary.

Muscles Worked

Muscular person in tight shirt holding dumbbells, showing upper body strength and muscles

The best upper-body workout targets the shoulder, arm, chest, and back muscles.

Here’s a more detailed explanation of how they target these muscles:

  • Shoulders: Dumbbell overhead presses, lateral raises, and front raises effectively target the shoulder blades, the rotator cuff muscles, posterior deltoids, and rear deltoids. These exercises build strength and stability in the shoulders and improve posture.
  • Arms: Dumbbell arm exercises like curls, overhead triceps extensions, and tricep kickbacks tone the biceps and triceps. These movements increase the size and strength of the arm muscles.
  • Chest: The pectoral muscles span the front of the upper body. Dumbbell chest fly, dumbbell push-ups, and dumbbell bench press alternatives target chest muscles and build strength.
  • Back: Latissimus dorsi and rhomboids support the upper back and maintain good posture. The dumbbell bent-over row, pullover, and fly work these muscles, build strength, and improve posture.

Who Should Do These Exercises?

People of all fitness levels and ages looking to build strength, increase mobility, and tone their arms, shoulders, chest, and back muscles should do these exercises.

 “Fortunately, there is a solution, and it’s not performing multiple sets of whatever cable Kegel exercise is being pushed as ‘The Answer.’ Just a little hard, smart, basic work.”

- Jim Wendler, Creator of the 5/3/1 Training Program

Dumbbell workouts adapt to various fitness goals and abilities, making them an excellent option for muscle building, strength increase, or overall health maintenance.

Dumbbell Workouts with Other Training Modalities

Combining dumbbell workouts with other training forms like cardio, HIIT, or yoga creates a holistic fitness approach, enhancing strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance.

  • Start with a warm-up, like light cardio or yoga, to prepare the body.
  • Incorporate dumbbell exercises for strength training, focusing on major muscle groups.
  • Alternate these with HIIT sessions for cardiovascular health and fat burning.
  • Yoga can be used for a cool-down, improving flexibility and mindfulness.
  • Schedule workouts to allow muscle recovery, alternating between high-intensity dumbbell and HIIT days with yoga or light cardio days.

This balanced routine promotes overall fitness, prevents injury, and maintains motivation.

FAQs

How Do I Build My Upper Body With Dumbbells?

To build your upper body with dumbbells, perform bicep curls, dumbbells overhead press, bent over row, pullover, and dumbbell fly. Aim for three sets of 8–12 reps per exercise, using proper form and progressive resistance. Incorporate variety, stay consistent, and eat a balanced diet to support muscle growth.

Can You Do A Full Upper-Body Workout With Dumbbells?

Yes, you can do a full upper-body workout with dumbbells. Dumbbell curl, bench press, push-ups, overhead triceps extension, and dumbbell fly are just a few examples of practical exercises. Mix and match exercises to target entire upper body muscles and add variety to your routine.

How Many Times Should I Do Upper-Body Dumbbell Workout Per Week?

You should do an upper-body dumbbell workout 2–5 times a week with rest in between to allow for muscle recovery. If you are new to strength training, start with two sessions per week and gradually increase as your strength and endurance improve.

Can I Build Muscle With Only Dumbbells?

Yes, you can build muscle with only dumbbells. Strength training with dumbbells can increase muscle size and strength by promoting muscle hypertrophy through resistance exercises.


References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6279907/
  2. https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3417/12/3/1593
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About The Author

Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC is an ex-National Soccer player turned MMA and Kickboxing champion, with ACE CPT and PN1-NC certifications. His advice is rooted in education and experience, ensuring that readers receive scientific and battle-tested insights. His mission is to empower his clients and readers to realize their potential and become the best versions of themselves.
Learn more about our editorial policy
James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
James Cunningham, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Sport & Exercise Science from University of Hertfordshire. He's a Health & Performance Coach from London that brings a unique blend of academic knowledge of health supplements and practical exercise experience to the table for his readers.
Learn more about our editorial policy
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.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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