The 11 Best Dumbbell Exercises
The top ways to lift a set of bells for building tons of lean muscle, strength and power.
Imagine this: You’ve just moved and are in the market for a new gym. You’re on the tour, trying desperately to ignore the sales push from whichever personal trainer has been tapped to take you around. What would you need to see in order to know that this was the gym for you? Maybe a dedicated free-weights room? More than one cable station so you wouldn’t have to wait too long during the busy hours? A wide variety of cardio equipment, sure. A few sexy, sweaty gym-goers, even better. But we’re willing to bet that if this imaginary gym lacked a full rack of dumbbells, from 5 to 100-plus pounds in 5-pound increments, well, you’d tell the pushy salesperson goodbye.
That’s because no single piece of training equipment surpasses the traditional dumbbell in overall effectiveness and utility. Disagree? Think about it: The barbell is phenomenal, but it doesn’t allow for much variety of unilateral movements. Kettlebells are great, too, but their unbalanced weight distribution, while beneficial in many cases, limits exercise choices. Machines and cables? They’re solid, but stabilizer muscles don’t always get worked sufficiently when training with them. Nope, you just can’t beat a set of dumbbells.
But that’s not to say that you should be doing every exercise in your workout with dumbbells. Like we said, other implements have benefits, too. So a better plan is to maximize dumbbells’ benefits by making sure that you’re using them to do the best possible exercise. We enlisted expert trainer Mike Hanley, CSCS, president of Hanley Strength Systems (HanleyStrength.com), to offer up his absolute favorite dumbbell exercises, one for each major bodypart. Hanley, a competitive natural bodybuilder, powerlifter and Olympic lifter, came up with a list of super-effective moves that will tax your body and elicit undeniable results.
Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press
Hanley Says: “Holding a dumbbell at the top of the press gives the shoulder stabilizers a great workout, and while doing this, you’re also working the core musculature since you must stabilize a weight on one side while performing a rep on the other.”
Start: Lie faceup on a flat bench holding a pair of dumbbells. Begin in the up position of a press: arms extended toward the ceiling, dumbbells over your chest.
Action: Slowly bend your elbow to lower one dumbbell until it’s just outside your chest while keeping the other dumbbell in the up position. Press the dumbbell back up to the arms-extended position without locking out your elbow, then repeat with the opposite arm. Alternate back and forth between arms until all reps are complete.
Two-Point One-Arm Dumbbell Row
Hanley Says: “Unilateral movements are great because you have two sets to do instead of one, which requires more work, thus burning more calories per workout. The other nice thing about this exercise is it forces you to stabilize your torso using your core muscles.”
Start: Holding a dumbbell in one hand, assume a “two-point” stance, in which your feet are shoulder-width apart and staggered one in front of the other. Your nonworking hand can either be resting on your thigh to add stability or in the air unsupported. (A traditional one-arm dumbbell row uses a three-point stance in which the nonworking hand rests on a bench or other stable surface.) Begin bent over with your torso as close to parallel with the floor as possible, head facing down and your working arm hanging straight toward the floor.
Action: Maintaining the natural arch in your back, pull the dumbbell straight up to your side. At the top of the movement, squeeze the contraction hard without letting your shoulder open up and your torso rotate. Slowly lower the dumbbell back to the start position, repeat for reps, then switch arms.
Dumbbell Push Press
Hanley Says: “The great thing about adding a push press to your shoulder routine is that using your hips and legs to start the movement allows you to use more weight than you would doing a traditional shoulder press.”
Start: Stand in a shoulder-width stance holding a relatively heavy pair of dumbbells at your sides. Clean the dumbbells up to shoulder level and begin the set there with your hands facing forward.
Action: Initiate the rep with a very shallow dip at the knees and upward press with your legs to get the dumbbells moving up toward the ceiling. Simultaneously, use your shoulders to press the weights overhead until your elbows are extended but not locked out. Slowly lower the dumbbells to the start position and repeat for reps.
Incline Dumbbell Curl With Offset Grip
Hanley Says: “The offset grip places greater stress on the biceps because it forces you to work harder to keep your fists even, squeezing at the top for the optimal peak contraction. The angle of the incline also places greater stress on the biceps, putting them in a full stretch at the bottom of the movement.”
Start: Lie back on an incline bench holding a pair of dumbbells hanging straight toward the floor. However, instead of gripping each dumbbell in the middle of its handle, hold the outside of the handle, right up against the weight plate.
Action: Keeping your palm facing forward (not turned in toward you like a hammer curl) and your elbow in a fixed position at your side, curl one dumbbell up as high as possible, resisting the urge to let your pinkies drop. At the top of the rep, turn your palm out and squeeze the contraction. Slowly lower the dumbbell back to the start position, then repeat with the other arm. Alternate arms every rep.
Hanley Says: “This exercise is perfect because it makes each arm work individually, which allows for greater work capacity from each triceps to produce better results.”
Start: Lie on a flat bench holding a pair of dumbbells. Begin with your arms extended toward the ceiling, the dumbbells over your face and your palms facing each other.
Action: Keeping your elbows in tight and your upper arms stationary, lower the dumbbells toward the sides of your forehead. When your hands reach your head, contract your triceps to extend your elbows and return the dumbbells to the start position. Repeat for reps. To make this exercise more challenging, instead of lowering the weights down toward your head, lower them behind your head so that your upper arms are roughly 45 degrees with the floor, then press the weights straight up from there, maintaining the same upper-arm angle.
Dumbbell High Pull
Hanley Says: “The high pull is much like the push press in that it allows you to use more weight since you’re starting the exercise with a thrust of the hips.”
Start: Stand holding a relatively heavy pair of dumbbells in front of your thighs with your arms hanging straight toward the floor.
Action: Think of it as an explosive upright row. Dip down slightly at the knees and immediately explode up to initiate the movement. Bend your elbows to pull the dumbbells up as high as possible, to the point where at the top of the rep you shrug your shoulders to maximize your range of motion. Each rep should be performed as one explosive, continuous motion. Let the dumbbells fall back down to the start position — you won’t be able to pause with the weights at the top — and repeat for reps.
Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat
Hanley Says: “With this exercise, you have to balance your body on one leg throughout the entire movement, which requires core strength. It also gives the hip flexors of your back leg a terrific stretch, killing two birds with one stone.”
Start: Holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides, place one foot on a stable box or bench behind you with that knee bent and the other foot flat on the floor in front of you. The front foot should be far enough forward so that when you lower down, your knee doesn’t extend over your toe.
Action: Bend your front knee to lower yourself straight down toward the floor. When your front quad reaches parallel, press up through the heel to the start position. Complete all reps, then switch legs and repeat.
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift With Contra Load
Hanley Says: “Holding a dumbbell in the opposite-side hand to the working leg puts added stress on your core. So not only will you be hammering your hamstrings one at a time, but you’ll also be creating rock-solid abs at the same time.”
Start: Stand holding a dumbbell in your right hand with your feet together and flat on the floor.
Action: Keeping your left leg planted with a slight bend in that knee, lower the dumbbell straight down toward the floor while bending at the waist and lifting your right leg straight back behind you. Keep your back flat throughout the movement and lower the dumbbell to about midshin level, then contract your hamstring to return to the standing position. Repeat for reps, then switch the dumbbell to your left hand and complete reps with your right leg planted.
Dumbbell Single-Leg Standing Calf Raise
Hanley Says: “This exercise allows each calf muscle to work solely on its own, which will have a much greater effect on each calf.”
Start: Place a block, step or other slightly raised surface near a stable structure that you can hold on to. Hold a dumbbell in one hand, grab the structure with the other hand for balance, and step up with the working leg onto the structure so that the ball of your foot is on the block and your heel is suspended in the air. The nonworking foot should either be wrapped around the working ankle or suspended in the air. (This exercise also can be performed on a stair, provided the handrail is stable enough to support some of your bodyweight.)
Action: Lower the heel of your working leg down toward the floor to feel a stretch in the calf muscle, then extend your ankle to press straight up so that your heel rises above the block as high as possible. Squeeze the contraction at the top, then lower back down. Repeat for reps with that leg, then switch legs (holding the dumbbell in the other hand) and rep out.
Dumbbell One-Arm Snatch
Hanley Says: “Snatches require everything from explosive power from your hips and posterior chain muscles to stability from your shoulders and core. Add this move to your arsenal of exercises and watch your other movements get stronger.”
Start: Stand holding a relatively light dumbbell in one hand with your feet in a comfortable, athletic stance — somewhere around shoulder width. Begin with the dumbbell hanging down toward the floor in front of you.
Action: Keeping the arch in your lower back, dip down slightly at the knees, then immediately and explosively extend your knees and hips while pulling the dumbbell overhead. Your arm should remain extended throughout as you pull the dumbbell up in a traditional “snatch” motion. Let the dumbbell fall back to the start position, gather yourself, then repeat. Do all reps for one arm before switching to the other.
Dumbbell Renegade Row
Hanley Says: “This exercise is a great core exercise because it requires you to brace and stabilize your torso while using your lat muscles to perform a row. It’s an all-around terrific movement for many muscles involved and will create a strong and safe back.”
Start: Begin in a push-up position with your hands holding a pair of dumbbells resting shoulder-width apart on the floor, palms facing each other. Hexagon- or square-shaped dumbbells will minimize the chance of rolling, thus promoting safety; round dumbbells can be used by advanced trainees.
Action: Pull one dumbbell up in a rowing motion to your side while keeping the other dumbbell on the floor. Keep your core engaged by not letting your torso rotate as you perform the rep. Lower the dumbbell back to the floor, then repeat with the other arm. Alternate back and forth between arms until all reps are complete.