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Get a full body workout in with just one piece of equipment

When the pandemic hit, people were scrambling to purchase a set of dumbbells. Why? Because they are a versatile piece of equipment that can be used at home to build total body strength. 

For most of us, dumbbells call to mind the bicep curl, which is, of course, the king of upper body isolation exercises. But they can be used for oh, so much more! Using the best dumbbells, you can hit each muscle group (and incorporate them easily into cardio workouts, too). 

We collaborated with Amanda Capritto, a certified personal trainer and staff writer for Garage Gym Reviews, to offer up the best dumbbell exercises for you to incorporate into your routine. 

Best Dumbbell Workouts for Every Muscle Group 

Best Dumbbell Chest Exercises

Best Dumbbell Back Exercises

Best Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

Best Dumbbell Bicep Exercises

Best Dumbbell Tricep Exercises

Best Dumbbell Leg Exercises

Best Dumbbell Core Exercises

Best Dumbbell Chest Exercises

If you have a barbell, a bench, and weight plates, you have all you need to bench press. But aside from bench press, there aren’t many exercises you can do to activate the chest muscles in different ways. Enter: A pair of dumbbells, which increases the variety of movements you can do to develop your pecs. 

Floor Press

Dumbbell floor press is just like dumbbell bench press, except you lie on your back on the floor instead of on a bench. This limits your range of motion somewhat (since you can’t lower your arms beyond ground level), but this can allow you to target a certain portion of the lift—like the typical sticking point during bench press.  

Benefits of Floor Presses

While I generally recommend purchasing a bench for your home gym, I love floor presses for the simple fact that they bring all the benefits of bench press without requiring a purchase. Adding floor presses to your dumbbell workout routine will increase strength in your chest, triceps, deltoids. 

How to Do Floor Presses

  1. Start by lying on the floor with one dumbbell in each hand
  2. Hold the dumbbells directly over your chest with your elbows resting on the floor at 45 degrees
  3. Push the dumbbells up over your chest until they meet in the center and then slowly return to your starting position.

Dumbbell Flys

This isolated chest exercise focuses on squeezing the upper pecs. 

Benefits of Dumbbell Flys

Most people use this move for aesthetics, since it’s one of the only exercises that can isolate the upper and lateral pec muscles. However, the dumbbell fly also increases overall upper body strength and teaches you how to move your scapula (shoulder blades) in a healthy pattern.  

How to Do Dumbbell Flys:

  1. Start lying on your back with your upper back on the edge of a bench.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms extended over your chest
  3. Slowly lower your arms out to the side, being careful not to let the dumbbells go past your shoulders. 
  4. Return to the starting position and repeat. 

Upward Chest Fly

Like the dumbbell fly, the standing upward chest fly also involves training the pecs while your elbows remain nearly extended. 

Benefits of Standing Upward Chest Flys

Upward chest flys contribute to well-developed pec muscles. They also strengthen your anterior deltoids (front of your shoulders).

How to Do Standing Upward Chest Flys

  1. Seated on a bench, hold dumbbells by your side with your palms facing forward (underhand grip).
  2. Keeping your core engaged, bring the dumbbells up on a diagonal to meet in front of your chest.
  3. Slowly lower back to the starting position and repeat. 

Best Dumbbell Back Exercises 

Add size and strength to your back with these movements using just dumbbells. 

Dumbbell Bent Over Rows

Dumbbell rows are a staple in any strength or bodybuilding routine. 

Benefits of Dumbbell Bent Over Rows

This is one of the best muscle-building exercises for your back. It targets your entire back, from your traps to your lumbar muscles, thanks to the hip-hinge position. It’s an extremely functional exercise—one you mimic doing everyday activities such as picking up a heavy box from the ground.  

How to Do Dumbbell Bent Over Row

  1. In standing, hold one dumbbell in each hand by your side.
  2. Start by bringing yourself into a hinge position, to do this bend at the waist to 45 degrees, keeping the core tight, back flat and knees slightly bent.
  3. Bring the dumbbells up towards your ribcage, squeezing behind the shoulder blades. 
  4. Return to the starting position and repeat. 

Seated Dumbbell Reverse Flys

This resistance exercise works your posterior shoulders (back of the shoulders) and upper back. 

Benefits of Seated Dumbbell Reverse Flys

In addition to sculpting your back muscles, seated reverse flys reinforce healthy scapular movement (movement of the shoulder blades) through repeated contracting and releasing. Doing the movement seated eliminates pressure on the lower back and hamstrings. 

How to Do Seated Dumbbell Reverse Flys:

  1. Sitting on the edge of a chair or bench, hinge forward at the hips until your body is at 45 degrees.
  2. Hold dumbbells by your side with palms facing each other.
  3. Bring your arms up to the side, palms down, like you are flapping your wings, squeezing behind the shoulder blades as you lift. 
  4. Return arms to starting position and repeat. 

Dumbbell Renegade Rows

This is a more advanced dumbbell exercise and is actually a full-body movement, although the emphasis is on the upper back. 

Benefits of Dumbbell Renegade Rows

A challenging exercise, renegade rows dually target the upper back and the core. Core engagement and stability are key. Your legs and glutes will also engage, making this a full-body strengthening exercise. 

How to Do Dumbbell Renegade Rows :

  1. With dumbbells on the floor, prop yourself up into a plank position, hands on the dumbbells. 
  2. Make sure your wrists are stacked directly under your shoulders. 
  3. Holding a plank bring one arm up into a row, using the muscles of the core and back to maintain stability. 
  4. Return the dumbbell to the floor and repeat on the other side. 

Best Dumbbell Bicep Exercises 

Some people think bicep exercises serve purely aesthetic purposes, but training your biceps is actually very functional. No matter how strong your back or chest is, having no biceps strength kind of negates those benefits. 

Dumbbell Bicep Curls

I believe this classic movement belongs in any workout routine, whether you’re a bodybuilder or a CrossFitter or something else entirely. Laugh all you want, functional fitness purists—I won’t budge on this one.  

Benefits of Dumbbell Bicep Curls

Curls help you build bigger biceps, yes, but they also strengthen the muscles needed to stabilize your wrist and elbow joints, as well as increase grip strength. 

How to Do Dumbbell Bicep Curls: 

  1. In standing, hold dumbbells in front of your body with palms facing away from you.
  2. Keeping your core tight with a slight bend in the knees, bend at the elbow to bring the dumbbells up towards your shoulders. 
  3. Return to the starting position and repeat without changing your body position.

Hammer Curls

This variation of the dumbbell curl involves holding the dumbbells a bit differently. Instead of positioning the dumbbell parallel to the ground and lifting both heads of the dumbbell toward your body, you’ll position the dumbbell perpendicular to the ground and lift the dumbbell toward you so that it is almost vertical at the top end of the lift.  

Benefits of Hammer Curls:

Hammer curls target your biceps and forearms just like regular dumbbell curls, but because of the angle of the lift, your forearms and wrists get more recruitment. 

How to Do Hammer Curls: 

  1. In standing, hold a dumbbell in each hand by your side with palms facing your body. 
  2. Bring your hands up towards your shoulders, bending at the elbows. 
  3. Return to the starting position and repeat. 

Best Dumbbell Tricep Exercises

Hate to break it to you, but it can’t be all biceps, all the time. You have to train your triceps, too! 

Lying Skullcrushers

Also called a lying triceps extension, the skullcrusher isn’t as scary as the name implies. (Unless you use poor technique, in which case your face may be at risk…)

Benefits of Lying Skullcrushers

This is a push exercise that isolates your triceps, which translates to any other pushing exercises, as well as tons of everyday activities. Also, when done correctly, skullcrushers help stabilize the elbow by strengthening the muscles that surround the joint.  

How to Do Lying Skullcrushers:

  1. Lying on the floor, hold one dumbbell with both hands, palms on each side. 
  2. Start with the dumbbell directly over your face and slowly bend at the elbows lowering it above your head. 
  3. Extend the dumbbell back up towards the ceiling and repeat. 

Standing Tricep Extensions

Simple but tough, this dumbbell exercise targets the backs of your upper arms. 

Benefits of Standing Tricep Extensions: 

In addition to strengthening and building muscle in your upper arms, standing triceps extensions are great for practicing core engagement: With your arm overhead, make sure to keep your pelvis tucked to prevent your lower back from hyperextending. This exercise also helps with flexibility in your lats (the large muscles along your back that run from your rib cage to your hips).

How to Do Standing Tricep Extensions:

  1. In standing, hold the dumbbells by your side with your palms facing your body. Hinge forward, keeping your elbows close to your hips. 
  2. Extend your arms straight behind you squeezing through the triceps at the end of the movement. 
  3. Bend the arms, bringing the dumbbells back towards your shoulders and repeat for reps. 

Best Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises 

Boulder shoulders coming right up with these dumbbell delt exercises. 

Seated Shoulder Press

This variation of the dumbbell overhead press isolates your deltoids even more by limiting movement from your core and lower body. 

Benefits of Seated Shoulder Press

The primary benefit of the seated shoulder press versus its standing counterpart is that sitting down for the pressing motion reduces the possibility of compensation in the core. That is, you get all of the benefits of standing presses—shoulder strength and development—with a lower probability of hyperextending your back and tricking yourself into thinking you can move more weight than you really should.   

How to Do Seated Shoulder Press:

  1. Sitting on the edge of a bench, box, or chair, hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder level with your palms facing forward. 
  2. Holding your arms out to the side at 90 degrees slowly push up overhead until the arms are straight. 
  3. Bring back down to shoulder level and repeat. 

Seated Arnold Press

This take on the overhead press will definitely ignite the burn. I mean, come on, Schwarzenneger himself invented this one. 

Benefits of Seated Arnold Press

The Arnold Press hits all three sections of your deltoids, making it the ultimate shoulder exercise. We like doing them seated specifically because it prevents you from using any power from your lower body, intentionally or not. This means your upper body is doing all of the work, so you’re getting more out of the exercise. 

How to Do Seated Arnold Press:

  1. Sitting on the edge of a sofa or chair, hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms towards your face. 
  2. As you press up overhead rotate your hands so your palms face away from you at the top.
  3. Return to the starting position and repeat. 

Lateral Delt Raises

Lateral raises are key to the massive, round delts you see on bodybuilders. But it’s more than just a physique exercise if performed correctly. 

Benefits of Lateral Delt Raises

Lateral delt raises can help you build boulder shoulders, for sure, but more importantly, they strengthen the muscles that protect your shoulder joint; reinforce core engagement; and emphasize elbow stability. 

How to Do Lateral Delt Raises: 

  1. In standing, hold dumbbells by your side, palms facing your body.
  2. Keeping your core tight with knees slightly bent, lift the dumbbells up to the side until you reach shoulder height. Maintain the angle of your elbow throughout the lift. 
  3. Return to the starting position and repeat. 

Best Dumbbell Leg Exercises

As you can see, there are plenty of dumbbell exercises for your upper body. But you can get a good lower-body workout with just dumbbells, too. 

Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts

You probably won’t find another dumbbell exercise that targets the hamstrings more than RDLs (if you do, let us know—we want in).

Benefits of Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts

Romanian deadlifts isolate the hip hinge, resulting in intense activation of the hamstring muscles and glutes.This helps form developed legs, as well as increase strength for power-based exercises like cleans and box jumps.   

How to Do Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts:

  1. In a hinge position, arms straight towards the floor hold a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing your shins.
  2. Keeping a slight bend in the knees with your core engaged bring yourself to standing squeezing through the glutes.
  3. Hinge forward to return to the starting position and repeat. 

Dumbbell Front Squats

Every fitness routine should have some variation of a squat. Dumbbell front squats are a good option for weighted squats when you don’t have access to a barbell and weight plates. 

Benefits of Dumbbell Front Squats

The benefits of any type of squat are many, ranging from hip and ankle mobility to lower body strength and core stability. Front squats in particular require more engagement from the core and upper back.

How to Do Dumbbell Front Squat:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width or hip-width apart, feet slightly turned out. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, resting one head of the dumbbell on your shoulder. Point your elbows out in front of you. (Another variation is the goblet squat, where you hold just one dumbbell with both hands in front of your chest.)
  2. Sink your hips back into a squat as if you are going to sit in a chair. Make sure to keep your back straight during the entire descent. 
  3. Keeping your weight in your heels return to standing, squeezing the muscles of the glutes as you stand. 

Dumbbell Walking Lunges

No lower-body workout routine is complete without a single-leg exercise—or a few. This move is actually one of Amanda’s favorites, and most of our team thinks she’s crazy (because ouch), but we can’t deny a penchant for the burn.  

Benefits of Dumbbell Walking Lunges

Life happens one leg at a time. Walking lunges train your lower body in patterns it’s likely to see in real life. Plus, the applications are endless. You can use heavy dumbbells to build strength, or you can toss high-volume sets of walking lunges into HIIT workouts for conditioning. 

How to Do Dumbbell Walking Lunges:

  1. In standing, hold a dumbbell in each hand by your side.
  2. Taking a big step forward bring yourself down into a lunge, lowering the back knee towards the floor. 
  3. Shift your weight into your front foot and step forward with the other leg to continue lunging across the room. 

Best Dumbbell Core Exercises

Ditch the sit-ups and grab a dumbbell or two to improve your core strength. 

Dumbbell Russian Twists

This single-dumbbell exercise trains your obliques, the abdominal muscles that run along the sides of your torso (the ones responsible for the chiseled “V” shape you see on magazine covers).  

Benefits of Russian Twists 

This exercise targets your oblique muscles, which most core exercises don’t do. However, it still recruits your other abdominal muscles as well as your hip flexors to promote overall strength and stability in your core. 

How to Do Russian Twists:

  1. Sit on the ground with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  2. Hold one dumbbell in both hands in front of your body and lean back until you feet your core working to keep you from falling backwards.
  3. Twist your body to one side, bringing the dumbbell towards the floor.
  4. Return to center and repeat on the other side. 

Dumbbell Crunches

Like bicep curls, lots of people think crunches aren’t a functional exercise. We beg to differ: Is there anything more functional than sitting up in bed when you wake up? 

Benefits of Dumbbell Crunches

Crunches specifically train your rectus abdominis, which is the group of muscles responsible for the six-pack so many people desire. The movement pattern is the epitome of spinal flexion, an important skill to maintain for everyday activities. 

How to Do Dumbbell Crunches:

  1. Lying on your back, hold a dumbbell in both hands straight over your chest.
  2. Bring your legs to 90 degrees with your feet flexed, heels towards the ceiling.
  3. Using your abs (not your neck), lift your shoulders off the floor reaching the dumbbell towards your feet.
  4. Lower your head back to the floor and repeat. 

Dumbbell Woodchoppers

We absolutely love woodchoppers for their functional value. They’re also fun and make you feel like a badass warrior while doing them!

Benefits of Woodchoppers

Few exercises train rotational movement patterns like woodchoppers. This exercise teaches you how to move your body through an extended range of motion without compromising the stability of your spine. It also strengthens your arms, shoulders, core, and upper back. 

How to Do Dumbbell Woodchoppers: 

  1. Stand with your feet hip width apart holding a dumbbell in both hands in front of your body. 
  2. Rotate to one side, bending the knee to bring the dumbbell to the outside of your leg. 
  3. Keeping the core tight, bring the dumbbell across your body above your opposite shoulder, straightening the legs as you do this. 
  4. Repeat on the same side and then switch sides. 

Coop’s Take On Dumbbells 

If you have the room and the budget, a full set of dumbbells in various weights is a great addition to a home gym. Look for dumbbells made of steel that are encased in rubber, as they are less likely to break or damage something if dropped on the floor. I like the Rogue Rubber Hex Dumbbells the best, as they are durable and available in weights of 2.5 to 125 lbs. For more options, check out my complete list of best dumbbells if the Rogue ones are unavailable or out of your budget. 

If you are short on space, you can always go for a pair of adjustable dumbbells. Although adjustable dumbbells can feel somewhat clunky at first, they save a ton of space, as just one dumbbell can be modified to accommodate weights up to 90 pounds. You can always opt for old school loadable dumbbells, too, if you don’t mind the process of loading and unloading them. We love the Powerblock Elite Series and NUOBELLs if you want something fancy, or the Rogue Fitness DB-15 Loadable Dumbbells for a semi-spinlock style. 

If you are just starting out, grabbing a set of 15- to 30-pound dumbbells will give you the most versatility when it comes to strengthening different areas of the body. Budget-friendly options like the CAP Cast Iron Hex Dumbbells are a solid choice, and will last you for years. 

Bottom line, if you are looking for a good workout at home, dumbbells are an essential part of any home gym. Depending on your goals and budget, they are versatile enough to give you a full body workout without the need for any other equipment. They take up minimal space, can be used for almost any area of the body, and will help you build strength with functional movements. 

FAQs About Dumbbell Exercises

What are the most effective dumbbell exercises?

Dumbbell exercises are only as effective as how well you perform them. Using an appropriate weight, proper form, and working until failure will help you build strength, increase range of motion, and prevent injuries. 

If you only have light dumbbells, doing upper body and core exercises will be most effective as you are working smaller muscles of the body. If you have heavier dumbbells on hand, lower body and full-body exercises will give you the most bang for your buck as they work multiple different muscle groups at the same time. 

Can you build muscle with only dumbbells? 

Yes! With the right exercises you can build muscle using dumbbells alone. The key is to do enough repetitions and use dumbbells that are heavy enough to push your body to its limits. Dumbbells can be used for almost all muscle groups, and are a great way to build strength evenly on both sides of the body.

Although fancy gym equipment is great, if you can master the fundamentals with dumbbells you can reap the benefits of strength training at home with only one piece of equipment. 

What dumbbells are best for home workouts? 

If you don’t have much storage area, adjustable dumbbells give you a wide range of weights to work with, without taking up a ton of space. They are great for beginners and novice athletes alike, and allow you to progress up to heavier weights as you get stronger. 

If you have the room and want the ability to drop the dumbbells on the ground, rubber-encased hex dumbbells are a reliable choice and will last you for years. You may need multiple sets of dumbbells to accommodate different muscle groups or continue to challenge your body as you get stronger.

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