The Complete Upper-Body Dumbbell Workout
No gym? No sweat! With just a bench and some dumbbells you can combine these 7 moves for a fierce upper-body workout that can be done just about anywhere!
By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS, Contributing Director of Strength and Conditioning
With all the training tools at your disposal, none are as easy to use or as convenient as dumbbells. You can assemble a home gym set-up with just a couple of adjustable dumbbells and an adjustable bench, and get a perfectly good workout without fighting the crowds at the gym — or plunking down several hundred dollars for a membership. Dumbbells have some unique traits that other kinds of weight-training equipment don’t offer, so compiling an all-dumbbell workout is not only a great challenge for beginning lifters but also a solid go-to change of pace for more advanced trainees.
This month we show you how to do a complete upper-body workout with nothing more than a pair of dumbbells and an adjustable bench. When choosing exercises for larger muscle groups such as chest, back and shoulders, it’s important to select multijoint or compound moves. These engage more than a single pair of joints and thus recruit more muscle tissue. You can also move more weight than with single-joint movements, which is necessary if your goal is to build big muscles.
The Dumbbell Advantage
1) Balance required. Using dumbbells automatically forces every target muscle as well as every synergistic or assistance muscle that surrounds it to engage. With more muscles being called upon to perform each exercise, you actually work harder even though you may sacrifice the amount of weight you can lift. Be sure to complete a thorough, progressive warm-up to ready yourself for the working sets and reduce your risk of injury.
2) Perfect symmetry. With both arms forced to work independently, you’ll immediately detect imbalances between the two. Be prepared to train your weaknesses, which will help you maintain good overall symmetry.
3) Longer range of motion. When lifting a barbell, it simply goes up, the same as with most machines that are locked in a predetermined pathway. But with dumbbells, you can move in more than a single plane, which often means you can use a longer range of motion for better overall muscular development.
Upper-Body Dumbbell Workout
One-Arm Dumbbell Row (Lower lats) 4 Sets x 6, 6, 10, 10 Reps
Flat-Bench Dumbbell Press (Pecs) 4 Sets x 6, 6, 10, 10 Reps
Seated Overhead Dumbbell Press (All three delt heads) 4 Sets x 8, 8, 12, 12 Reps
Dumbbell Shrug (Upper traps) 3 Sets x 8, 8, 8 Reps
Seated One-Arm Overhead Dumbbell Extension (Triceps long head) 2 Sets x 10, 10 Reps
Alternating Dumbbell Curl (Both biceps heads) 2 Sets x 10, 10 Reps
Dumbbell Wrist Curl (Brachioradialis) 2 Sets x 12, 12 Reps
* Doesn’t include warm-up sets; do as many as you need but never take warm-up sets to muscle failure.
* Select a weight that causes you to fail in the designated rep range.
One-Arm Dumbbell Row
Training one arm at a time with this move proves unparalleled for growth. Because you can use a little body english, you can actually recruit more muscle fibers and generate more force than when using both arms simultaneously in the barbell bent-over version.
Do it Right: Lean forward at the waist, and place one knee and the same-side hand on a flat bench. Keep your other foot on the floor beside the bench and grasp a dumbbell in the same-side hand, allowing the weight to hang straight down with your arm fully extended. Pull the weight toward your hip, keeping your elbow in close. Pull your elbow as far back as you can, squeezing your shoulder blades together for a full contraction, then lower the dumbbell along the same path. Repeat for reps, then switch arms.
Power Pointer: A common mistake is to bring the dumbbell straight up to the shoulder. However, the best line of pull is up and back toward your hip. That provides a greater range of motion and time under tension for the stubborn lower lats.
Flat-Bench Dumbbell Press
This multijoint chest exercise is a proven mass-builder. Although you’ll quickly discover if one side of your pecs is stronger than the other, you get a longer range of motion over the barbell version because you can press both up and in rather than just up.
Do it Right: Lie faceup on the bench with your feet flat on the floor. Grasp a dumbbell in each hand just outside your shoulders. Powerfully press the weights up and together, stopping when they’re an inch or so away from touching. Slowly return to the start.
Power Pointer: Don’t let the dumbbells touch at the top, because you’ll release tension on the pecs and start getting into the habit of resting briefly at the top of each rep. Leave a few inches between the weights so your pecs don’t get a chance to relax.