Dumbbell Workout

Build and sculpt your whole body with just a pair of ‘bells!

Quarantine sucked, make no mistake. For well over a year, we as naturally social animals were locked up indoors away from other human beings. Schools and businesses of all types were closed for the duration, and things like concerts, trade shows, and expos were canceled. For many of us who love pumping that iron, what hit us hardest was having our beloved gyms shut down. Panic mode set in, and there was a mad run on buying and selling home gym equipment, with shameless price gouging being the common theme.

Yet one good thing came out of that situation. Those of us who trained at home for several months or more had to adapt and be creative to get our quality workouts in and maintain the physiques we had spent so much time building in the first place. We learned that while a big, fully equipped commercial gym may be ideal, it wasn’t an absolute necessity.

Many discovered they could get the job done just fine at home with minimal equipment, to the point where a lot of people never went back to their gyms once things reopened. Training at home was more convenient and certainly more time-efficient. Whether you already train at home now, are thinking about it, or would just love to have an option to driving to the gym for a workout, we at STS Fit are here to help.

The Dumbbell Workout: what you need

All that is required for a complete dumbbell workout to train all body parts is dumbbells and an adjustable bench. The bench should be able to be flat and incline. It would be ideal if it folds up to a vertical back to do seated overhead presses, but those can also be done standing. New adjustable benches will run you 100-200 dollars, though you can always find them used for much cheaper.

As for the dumbbells, you have a couple of options. There are adjustable dumbbells that allow you to load plates for different amounts of resistance, as in making the dumbbells 20 pounds each, 30, and so on. There are also Power Blocks, which are unlocked and locked with tabs to increase or decrease resistance. Or, if you have a little more money and space for a rack, you can simply get multiple pairs of dumbbells in as many denominations as you want or need so you never have to adjust the resistance.

The workouts

You could work the entire body in one session with dumbbells, or split the body up into any grouping you wish: upper/lower, push/pull/legs, or any combination you like.  I will give you exercises for each muscle group to perform with dumbbells, and you can choose how to fit them into your own personal preference. At the end I will provide a few sample workouts you can follow.


Flat press

Regardless of having access to barbells or any number of high-tech machines, many find that pressing with dumbbells gives them the best feeling in the pecs as well as superior results. I always did! And unlike with a bar or most machines, you can adjust your hand angle to find the best motion path that suits your unique biomechanics. That will be particularly valuable to any of you with shoulder joint issues. You can also lower dumbbells more for a better stretch and bring them together for a killer contraction.

Incline press

Flat presses will work the entire chest, while inclines allow you to focus more on the development of the upper region, which often lags behind in development. If that’s the case with your chest, do these first. Set the bench at about a 30-degree angle, as going steeper turns these into more of a shoulder press.


Flyes isolate the pecs, as long as you only keep a slight bend in your arms as if you were about to give a very large person a bear hug. If you bend the arms more as you come up with the rep, you start turning a flye into a press, something you see all the time. Usually that stems from going too heavy. You should only be using about half the weight here as on presses and really striving to make your chest and your chest alone do the work rather than the triceps and font delts.


One-arm row

This has been a classic thickness builder for the lats for the better part of a century. Most people do them with one hand and one knee on a bench for stability, but you could also brace yourself with the non-working hand on a dumbbell rack or anything sturdy at hip level. Rather than pulling straight up, aim to pull up and back toward the hip. Get a good stretch and a strong contraction on each rep. Not that most of you will have tremendous resistance at your disposal anyway, but if you find you need to heave and yank to get the weight up, lower the resistance.  

Two-arm row

The two-arm row is a great substitute for the barbell row because the resistance is at your sides instead of in front of and under you, which often loads to rounding the back and injuries of the lower back. Bend forward like a downhill skier in a slalom race and pull the ‘bells up and back. You won’t need as much weight as the one-arm version, so just focus on a good range of motion and squeeze those lats.


Honestly, the dumbbell deadlift and squat are nearly the same exercise, though you can and should bend the torso forward more for deadlifts. Pull the ‘bells off the floor and stand straight up. It will probably be the exercise you require the most resistance for.


Pullovers are done lying across a bench with your shoulder blades off the edge to permit a deeper stretch of the lats. Special care must be taken not to engage either the chest or triceps as you come up with the weight – make it all lats!


Dumbbell shrugs are the best exercise you can do for the trapezius muscle, better than a barbell or any machine facsimile of either. They permit the greatest range of motion as well as a neutral (palms facing inward toward the center line of the body) hand position, ideal for full contractions and stretches. Be sure you do use a full range of motion, going all the way up and then getting a stretch of the traps at the bottom. The ROM on shrugs is short, so higher reps are in order for best results.


Lateral raise

Lateral raises are how we really ‘cap out’ the shoulders and make them appear rounder when viewed from the front. The key to doing these properly is to make the medial/side deltoids do the work. A slight bend in the arms and total focus on contracting the medial delts is a must. Don’t go heavy on these, or I promise you will merely swing the weights up without activating that area at all.

Bent raise

I have personally tried many rear delt machines and found none of them equaled, much less surpassed the effectiveness of dumbbells. You should experiment with various hand positions to find the one that gives you the strongest feeling in your posterior deltoids. For many, it’s the ‘hammer grip’ with knuckles out and both thumbs facing inward. You can do these standing and bent over, or face down on an incline bench for pure isolation. As with the lateral raise, don’t go heavy here or you will miss out.

Upright row

This exercise doesn’t get the credit it deserves. When performed properly, it delivers nearly as much stimulation to the side delts as lateral raises. Hold the dumbbells hanging down past your waist, then pull them ‘up and over’ your shoulders in an arc motion. You won’t get them that high, but this is how to best achieve the correct form.

Overhead press

This is the best basic mass builder for the shoulders. Although the barbell version has been widely used by millions to beef up the delts, many like myself have experienced even better results with dumbbells. Doing them seated will let you go heavier, though the standing version will give you some serious core work, for those of you seeking it. Be sure not to lean too far back on seated dumbbell presses or else it become a steep incline press.


Alternate curl

The standing alternate dumbbell curl is right up there in terms of effectiveness with barbell curls, in my opinion. Since straight bar curls actually give many trainers wrist pain, dumbbells are often a better option as they allow you to position your hands and wrists to take stress off them. You can choose to either supinate the hands as you curl, going from palms in toward the body to palms facing the sky, or just keep them palms-up the whole time.

Incline curl

This is the only exercise in which you can get a full stretch of the biceps in the bottom position, as the range of motion for the biceps muscle is such that even the bottom position of any type of standing curl does not allow it. You won’t need a ton of weight, and be sure you lower the dumbbells slowly and never, ever rebound or bounce out of the bottom of the rep.

Hammer curl

Dumbbell curls with a hammer grip, thumbs to the sky, are the most effective way to work the brachialis muscle between the biceps and triceps on the outside of our upper arms. You can curl straight up toward your shoulder or across the body to the opposite shoulder.

Concentration curl

Finally, there is the good old concentration curl, which can be done seated on just about anything, or even standing and bent over with arm hanging like Arnold used to do back in the Pumping Iron era. Seated seems to work best for most people, as you can use the thigh of the non-working arm to brace the working arm as with a preacher curl.


Lying extension/skull crushers

You won’t ‘crush your skull’ here as the dumbbells will be on either side of it, but you will have to work much harder to keep the weights balanced and in the proper motion track. Don’t be alarmed if the combined weight of the dumbbells doesn’t equal what you use with a bar. You might even find your tri’s more sore than they’ve been in a very long time after trying these.

Overhead extension, one or two hands

Overhead extensions of any type for the triceps give you a better stretch and do a better job at activating the long head of the muscle. You can do these standing or seated, with one hand or two. Most people prefer the one-arm version as it offers better control of the motion.


Kickbacks get a bad rap as being non-productive, but it’s unwarranted. Any extension movement for the triceps will give you results. The key with kickbacks is to bend your torso forward at the waist and raise your elbow higher than your shoulder joint. In this way, the triceps is placed under tension. Many people point their elbow downward and swing the ‘bell back and forth, which does nothing at all for the tri’s.


Dumbbell squat

If your legs are strong, you will need some heavy dumbbells for these. You have a few options here. You can hold them hanging down as in the dumbbell deadlift, or you can hold one ‘bell cradled in your arms, aka the ‘goblet squat.’ Finally, you may choose to clean the dumbbells to your shoulders and hold them on your collarbones to mimic more of a front squat.

Walking lunge

Walking lunges will actually work your entire lower body, but especially the quads. Take big steps and keep your toes facing forward as you push off with the whole foot.


Romanian deadlifts

Again, I feel this is the best way for most people to perform a stiff-leg or Romanian deadlift. With a barbell, the resistance is in front of you and tends to pull you forward, causing rounded backs and lower back injuries. With dumbbells, it’s at your sides and thus safer. Lower nice and slow and get a good stretch on every rep. Don’t go all the way up, as you wish to keep tension on your hamstrings.

Leg curls

Full disclosure: you will need a partner for these unless you have very long arms and are unusually flexible. Laying face down on a flat bench, you hold a dumbbell between your feet and curl up. A decline bench will actually allow for more range of motion.


Calf raises on a step

Many of you figured this one out on your own in quarantine. Hold a dumbbell hanging at your side while having the ball of your foot on a step and holding on to a railing/banister to keep yourself balanced. I like to do as many reps as possible with one calf, then switch off, and go back and forth until I can’t get more than a rep or two with either calf.

And there you have it. A pair of dumbbells really is all you need for a complete workout right in your own home!

Whole body dumbbell routine

Flat press                                    4 x 10-12

Incline press                                3 x 10-12

Lateral raise                                3 x 12

Rear lateral                                  3 x 12-15

Overhead press                           4 x 10-12

Dumbbell row                               4 x 10-12

Dumbbell shrug                           3 x 12-15

Alternate dumbbell curl                3 x 12 each arm

Skull crusher                                3 x 12

Dumbbell squat                            4 x 12-15

Romanian deadlift                        3 x 15

Calf raise                                     3 x 15-20 each leg

Upper body dumbbell workout

Flat press                                    4 x 10-12

Incline press                                4 x 10-12

Flye                                             3 x 12

Lateral raise                                3 x 12

Rear lateral                                  3 x 12-15

Overhead press                           4 x 10-12

Dumbbell row                               4 x 10-12

Dumbbell shrug                           3 x 12-15

Alternate dumbbell curl                3 x 12 each arm

Concentration curl                        3 x 12 each arm

Skull crusher                                3 x 12

Overhead extension                     3 x 12

Lower body dumbbell workout

Dumbbell squat                            5 x 12-15

Walking lunge                              4 x 20 steps each leg        

Romanian deadlift                        4x 15

Calf raise                                     4 x 15-20 each leg

Devin Dalton
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