Have you ever wondered why there are so many different types of gym equipment out there? I mean, there are 5+ different pieces of equipment that can do the same exercises.
Well the truth is, each piece of equipment has its own set of benefits.
Barbells generally allow you to lift the heaviest amount of weight...
Plate-loaded machines are a little safer. They also allow you to isolate certain movements within a specified range of motion...
Bands allow you to increase the resistance progressively as the band stretches...
Cable machines are very versatile and hold constant tension, no matter the angle...
...and while I like using each type of equipment when necessary, my personal favorites to use are dumbbells.
Dumbbells are a bit of a hybrid, because:
• You can lift very heavy weights with them similar to barbells (but not quite as heavy)
• You can isolate movements, like machines, but with a better range of motion
• You can train one side of the body at a time to minimize muscle imbalances
• They target more supporting muscle groups to help you stabilize
• You can use them anywhere without needing any other pieces of equipment to get in a good workout
Simply put, dumbbells are one of the most versatile pieces of equipment.
Throughout this article I’m going to unpack some of the benefits I just mentioned. I will also go over 10 super effective dumbbell exercises that you can add to your regimen when you’re ready!
But first, we need to cover some basic info...
What Are Dumbbells?
Dumbbells are a simple type of exercise equipment. They consist of a short bar big enough for a hand to grip, and a weight attached to both ends.
The bigger the weight on each end, the heavier the dumbbell gets.
Not all dumbbells are the same though. Some of them are fixed where you cannot adjust the amount of weight they hold, and some are adjustable.
If you go to a commercial gym, you most likely have only seen fixed dumbbells there. You can also find adjustable dumbbells, but you'll likely see them less often.
Adjustable dumbbells are mostly found in home gyms. This is because they save a lot of space, and are more practical for people that don't want a whole rack of dumbbells.
Regardless of if they are adjustable or fixed, you can for sure still get a great workout in!
Benefits of Using Dumbbells
I know I already listed out 5 benefits in my introduction, but let’s unpack them a bit more.
1. You Can Lift Heavy Weight With Dumbbells
Now, let me back up for a second. I’m not saying that you can just start using heavy dumbbells if you aren’t strong enough to do so.
What I am saying is that you can do many movements with heavy dumbbells IF you are strong enough to handle them. There are dumbbells out there that are as heavy as 330 pounds each, but they can also be as light as 1 pound.
So, if you want to go heavy, try switching it up and grab some dumbbells. I bet you'll like the change too.
2. You Can Isolate Individual Muscle Groups Through an Un-Fixed Range of Motion
With plate-loaded machines, they typically only allow for a fixed range of motion. Sometimes, that’s beneficial when wanting to bring an undeveloped muscle up to speed.
With dumbbells you can isolate your muscles in tons of ways, and there’s more freedom to do it than with machines. You may need 5 different machines to do 5 isolation movements, but you can do all of them with the same set of dumbbells.
Want to isolate your biceps on a machine? You must have a bicep curl machine to do it.
If you want to isolate your biceps with dumbbells ... it's only a little different from regular dumbbell curls. Just grab your dumbbells, find a seat, rest your elbow against the side of your leg, and do isolation curls.
3. Dumbbells Are Versatile And Easy to Use
You can easily train one side of the body at a time to minimize muscle imbalances.
This might not be the most widely-known problem ... but training both sides of the body at once on the same equipment can lead to muscle imbalances. This often happens without anyone knowing.
The reason is because many times we will push or pull harder with our dominant arm or leg than we will with the other.
Not that it always happens, or that training both sides is bad ... you just don’t want to only train both sides at the same time. It’s good to throw in unilateral training (one side at a time) as well, just to keep things balanced.
For instance, doing a dumbbell squat could feel totally even between both legs. There is still the possibility that your dominant leg is pulling more than its fair share of the weight.
To ensure that you don’t neglect one side, you can incorporate some dumbbell lunges or split squats. This will keep the training focused on one side at a time, keeping the risk of muscle imbalances much lower.
4. They Target Supporting Muscle Groups
This might be hard to visualize, so allow me to open your eyes a bit. Let’s compare the barbell bench press to the dumbbell bench press.
With both pieces of equipment, you are lying back on a bench with the weight held straight out above the chest. You use stabilization muscles in both movements to help you keep the weight from moving in unwanted directions.
If it were to become unstable, it would be hard to handle the weight, and you might drop it in an unsafe way.
The risk of this is higher with dumbbells, because both weights are free to move in their own direction. This means more muscle action is required to keep them stable, so you can safely lower and raise them.
With the barbell bench press, you have both hands on the same bar. As a result, it's easier to stabilize and requires less activation in these stabilizing muscles.
That's why you're able to lift, on average, 20% more weight with a barbell compared to a dumbbell for the same exercise. It’s easier to lift and control one object rather than two.
I know it almost sounds like I’m advocating for barbells here, and don't get me wrong ... barbells are great. But the truth is, it’s a good thing that dumbbells activate your stabilization muscles.
5. They Train Your Muscles to Work Together and Handle Heavier Weights More Safely
You can use them anywhere without needing any other pieces of equipment to get in a good workout.
We’ve all been in this situation where we get to the gym and it’s PACKED. Everything you want to use is taken, and you need to figure out what you can do to get your workout in.
Guess what? A great option is to grab some dumbbells and get to work. There aren’t a whole lot of exercises you can't do with a dumbbell and a little creativity.
Can’t do barbell bench press? Do dumbbell bench press.
Can’t do front squats? Do dumbbell goblet squats.
No barbell available for Romanian deadlifts? Do them with dumbbells.
There will only be some things you can’t do with dumbbells, like pull ups. However, there will always be substitutions that work the same muscles that you CAN do.
If you’re wanting to build a little home gym without knowing what to get first, I recommend going with dumbbells. There’s a whole lot you can get done with this equipment alone.
Top 10 Most Effective Dumbbell Workouts
Now, when we're talking about the most effective workouts ... it’s really all subjective, and may differ depending on who you talk to. With that being said, I’m going to cover some tried and true dumbbell exercises that you can toss into your regimen right away!
Now, I’m going to split them up in a few different ways.
Some of them will target the upper body, some lower body, and some will be abdominal exercises. I’ll also mix it up between compound movements and isolation exercises.
This way, you can throw some of these exercises in for any workout you do.
1. Dumbbell Goblet Squat
This is a front squat variation that will target your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes. There are obviously other muscles involved, but those are the main focus.
How To: Start by grabbing a dumbbell, and hold it vertically against your chest with both hands. Your palms should be supporting the top weight with your fingers wrapped around the weight at the top. Make sure your elbows are pointed toward the ground.
Before you begin, make sure your feet are hip-width apart or slightly wider. Bend at your knees and hips to squat down slowly until your thighs are parallel with the ground.
Make sure your core is tight throughout, and that your knees point out rather than in during the squat.
When you reach the bottom of your squat, engage your glutes and quadriceps. Drive through your mid-foot to lift out of the squat and stand up tall.
Squeeze your glutes at the top, then repeat this for reps.
2. Dumbbell Bench Press
This is a great upper body exercise that targets mainly the pecs, deltoids, and triceps. You can target more of the upper pecs and deltoids with more incline in the bench ... or more of the lower pecs with more decline in the bench.
How To: Grab a pair of dumbbells and lie back on a flat bench. Keep your shoulders pulled down and back, your mid-back slightly arched, and your chest puffed out. Push the dumbbells up and over your chest with your arms straight.
Unlock your elbows and allow the weights to lower down slowly to the bottom of your chest. Your shoulders will have less stress on them if your elbows flare out about 45 degrees from your torso.
When the dumbbells reach either side of your lower chest, pause for a second. Next, squeeze your pecs and triceps to push the weight off your chest and back to their starting position overhead.
Squeeze your pecs for a second at the top, then repeat this for reps.
3. Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
This is one of my favorite exercises because they really work the hamstrings. This exercise is also great for the glutes.
How To: Grab a pair of dumbbells and hold them at your mid-thigh with your palms facing behind you.
Make sure to set your shoulders back and down, and keep your core tight throughout the movement. Unlock your knees and maintain this soft bend in them as you push your hips back as far as you can.
Keep your back straight and allow the dumbbells to slide down past your knees. At the same time, push your hips behind you until you can't go back any further.
The dumbbells should be around your mid-shin and you'll feel a big stretch in your hamstrings. When you get to this point, squeeze your glutes and hamstrings to stand back up.
Squeeze your glutes for a second before repeating this for reps.
4. Bent Over Dumbbell Row
This is a great way to target the lats and rhomboids in your back, as well as the elbow flexors in your arms.
How To: Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand up tall, holding them at your sides with your palms facing your body. While keeping your back straight, bend your knees and push your hips behind you.
Bring your upper body forward, getting close to parallel with the ground. Pull your shoulders down and back to prepare them to handle the weight. This is your starting position.
From here, take a dumbbell in each hand and use your back to pull the weight up to the sides of your ribs.
Focus on pulling your elbows back rather than pulling the weight up. This will help you engage your lats rather than letting your elbow flexors take over the movement.
Then, slowly lower the weight back to its starting position. Repeat this for reps.
5. Dumbbell Weighted Crunch
This is a great way to overload your abs with some weight rather than only using your body weight.
How To: Start on your back with your feet up in the air, holding one dumbbell over your chest with both hands. Keeping your arms straight throughout the movement, engage your abdominals to crunch upwards. As you are crunching, bring the dumbbell as close to your feet as you can.
Brace your core at the top of the movement before slowly returning back to the ground. Repeat this for reps.
6. Dumbbell Split Squat
This one targets the quadriceps, and it will burn quite a bit if you do enough reps.
It’s the same movement as a lunge, but with a slight difference. In the lunge, you alternate legs and typically walk as you go. In the split squat, your feet remain in contact with the ground the entire time. You'll complete a full set on one leg before switching to the other.
How To: Start by standing in a split stance as if you’re about to do a lunge, with a dumbbell in each hand. One foot should be out in front while the other is back behind you.
Make sure your feet are hip-width apart as opposed to being in line with each other. Otherwise, you could throw yourself off balance and risk a potential injury.
Keep your back straight, bend at your knees, and descend into a lunge. Sink into your hips until your back knee is about to touch the ground.
From here, engage your quadricep and drive through your front heel to stand back up.
Squeeze your quadriceps and glutes for a second, and then repeat for reps. Switch sides completing the same number of reps and sets on both legs.
7. Farmer’s Carry
This one involves a lot of muscles in the body, but the major focus will be on the traps, forearms, and legs.
Grab a heavy set of dumbbells that will be a challenge to hold onto for a long time. You'll be walking a set distance with them.
Pull your shoulders back as you hold these heavy weights. From here, walk the set distance before you let go of the dumbbells.
For an added challenge, hold your shoulders up in a shrug position throughout the entire set. If you hold it long enough, you'll start to really feel the burn!
8. Dumbbell Chest Fly
This is a classic isolation exercise for your pecs. Chest flys also engage your biceps to keep a fixed elbow position too. You can also target your upper or lower chest by adjusting the incline/decline angle of the bench.
How To: Start by lying back on a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Hold the dumbbells out over the chest with palms facing each other. Your shoulders should be pulled down and back, mid-back arched, and chest puffed out.
Keep a slight bend in your elbows as you allow your arms to slowly spread to either side of your body. This should feel like you're opening up your arms to give a big hug.
When you reach the end of the motion and feel a slight stretch in your chest ... squeeze your pecs to pull your arms back to the starting position.
Squeeze your pecs again at the top, and repeat for reps.
9. Dumbbell Lateral Raises
This is a great mid-shoulder isolation exercise, and is pretty straight-forward.
How To: Grab a set of dumbbells and hold them at your sides with your palms facing each other. Pull your shoulders down and back while allowing a slight bend in your knees.
Without rocking your body for momentum, engage your deltoids to raise your arms out to the sides. Once you arms are parallel with the ground, squeeze for a second.
From here, slowly release your arms back to each side of your body. Repeat this for reps.
10. Dumbbell Russian Oblique Twists
This is a great way to train the obliques, and the level of difficulty is relatively low as well.
How To: Start by sitting on the ground with your knees bent and feet slightly off the ground. Next, grab a single dumbbell to hold at your chest with both hands.
From here, just rotate your body from side to side, keeping your chest and head in-line with the dumbbell.
Repeat this until you've completed a set number of rotations to each side. If you'd like to make this easier ... you can plant your feet on the ground.
On the other hand, if you're looking for a challenge ... try holding the dumbbell out in front of your chest.
Do the Work
Dumbbells are a phenomenal piece of equipment, and you can never go wrong with them. They are versatile, come in pretty much any weight you’ll ever need, and they’re portable!
These exercises for them are all great, and if implemented properly, can help your earn great results. Depending on what results you’re looking for, though, there may be other variables to consider as well.
If you are wanting to lose body fat or build muscle, nutrition and sleep MUST also be in good standing. Without proper nutrition and sleep you just cannot see optimal results.
You also won't feel great ... and nobody wants that.
I know what you’re thinking .... Eating right and getting plenty of sleep daily both sound easy in theory ... but in practice, that’s not always the case.
I get that.
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 Saeterbakken AH, van den Tillaar R, Fimland MS. A comparison of muscle activity and 1-RM strength of three chest-press exercises with different stability requirements. J Sports Sci. 2011 Mar;29(5):533-8. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2010.543916. PMID: 21225489.ABOUT THE AUTHOR