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September 06, 2020 10 min read

The year is 1711 and poet Joseph Addison has just published a piece in his publication, “The Spectator.” In this essay, he mentions, for the first time, the word “dumbbell.”

And while historians don’t have a consensus on what the first modern dumbbell truly was, the best guess we have is that it comes from the similar shape to the apparatus used to ring a church bell. But since we’d run out of church bells before everyone got their bicep curls in on arm day, the bells are noiseless—or “dumb.”

Yet the history of the dumbbell stretches a lot further than that. 

The original version, called the halteres, was an ancient Greek crescent-shaped weight that was used for both weightlifting and in their long jumps. And in India, the “Nal” (or Indian club) was used for over 1000 years by soldiers wanting to increase their strength, balance, agility, and overall athleticism. 

It’s apparent that the humble dumbbell isn’t so dumb after all, sitting on thousands of years of history from all parts of the world. So it makes sense that a dumbbell workout plan can get you as shredded as you’d ever want to be. 

Why the Dumbbell?

While no one can deny the usefulness of a dumbbell in a regular workout routine, basing an entire workout plan around this tool isn’t what most people do if given the option. 

But therein lies its greatest strength.

The dumbbell is accessible, common, and a pair of dumbbells won’t break the bank too much. For home workouts when you can’t go to the gym for whatever reason, the dumbbell is one of your greatest friends.

Sure, you can do calisthenics and bodyweight exercises with a bar, but a dumbbell adds that extra little bit of resistance that you might be craving. While going the bodyweight route can definitely get you ripped, it might be more difficult to work out certain muscle groups if you don’t have some sort of weight to work with.

What about the kettlebell? While an extremely useful tool to have, especially at home, the shape of the kettlebell doesn’t lend itself as well to movements that are primarily done with a barbell. For example, exercises such as skull crushers and presses.

The dumbbell also has the unique benefit of allowing you to train unilaterally. As much as we try to keep our left/right sides of the body balanced, it’s a given that the stronger side will always make up for the weaker—however little.

In the long run, these little differences can lead to large differences in strength and size, which is why it’s important to keep on top of things before they become an issue. While training each side individually won’t allow you to lift as much volume in a session (thereby decreasing potential gains), it will allow your weaker side to catch up while still training the stronger. This can prove to be invaluable if you have serious deficiencies on a certain side of your body.

Lastly, dumbbell workouts can also help you improve on your form and range of motion. There’s no longer a bar connecting both of your hands, and so not only does each hand have to stand on its own, but your range of motion is also greatly improved.

Think of a bench press. You can only move down the weight as far as your chest will let you. With a dumbbell on either side, that bar isn’t there to stop you any longer. An increased range of motion will aid in both mobility and in your other lifts.

A man working out with dumbbells.

Making Your Workout as Effective as Possible

What may be more difficult to work around with a dumbbell-centric workout routine is that you won’t be able to use as much weight as you normally weight. Something that’s especially important if you’re strength training. 

Since investing in a full range of dumbbells will probably hurt the wallet, there are other ways to increase volume.

One strategy is simply doing more repetitions in a set or more sets in a workout. Working out to near failure is optimal if you’re looking for hypertrophy or mass gains; so simply adding more numbers to the rep/set count is a good way to go.

You can complement a higher rep/set count by also going slower with the movements. Slowing down and increasing the time your muscles go into the eccentric movement (when the muscle lengthens under a load) is beneficial when it comes to gaining muscle mass. Furthermore, you can also decrease the amount of rest you take in between exercises. Try experimenting with supersets and your muscular endurance will grow in leaps and bounds. 

Adding these aspects into your dumbbell workout will ultimately lead to better form, movement patterns, and increased range of motion. Factors that will greatly improve your general athleticism, as well as your other lifts.

But while progressive overload is the name of the game, it’s even more essential not to over-train. Being properly rested is the best sure-fire way to make sure you’re getting all the gains you can.

The Full Body Dumbbell Workout

This workout is split into 3 days. The first day will focus on chest, shoulders, and triceps, the second on legs and core, and the third on back and biceps.

While the sets and reps are up to you and your athletic ability with respect to the weights you have at your disposal, a good rule of thumb is anywhere from 2 to 3 sets with 8 to 12 reps. You need to be feeling the burn in your muscles and their activation, so if you’re failing to see results, try to up the volume that you’re training at. Otherwise, try substituting in some movements for others. 

Additionally, the legs and core workout will probably be the most volume you train at since they’re some of your largest muscles and muscle growth will take more work to achieve. While all of these exercises are based on the dumbbell, it wouldn’t do you any harm to include core-focused exercises such as the plank. A simple pull-up bar will also add some spice to your regime. 

Otherwise, take a rest day in between each training day and you’ll be well on your way to a sculpted physique, all thanks to the dumbbell.

Day 1: Chest, Shoulders & Triceps

  • Dumbbell bench press: An exercise that needs no introduction, the dumbbell press will always be a classic chest movement. The dumbbells will allow for a greater range of motion at the bottom of the movement, giving your chest more definition and width in the end.
  • Floor press: While the floor press may sound similar to the bench press, the decreased range of motion makes this exercise into one mostly focused on the triceps and the shoulders. While it takes a lot of the pecs out of the movement since you have to stop once your arms hit the ground, it will benefit your lockout when it comes to the traditional bench press.
  • Incline bench press: The dumbbells will add that extra bit of mobility to the incline bench press, but it will also target the upper portion of the pecs and your shoulders. While the incline is usually set anywhere from 15 to 30-degrees, the higher the incline the more of your shoulders will be engaged. If going to the extremes of angle, it might be more beneficial to just to a shoulder press or similar movement.
  • Seated shoulder press: Also known as the overhead press, this movement will work the delts (posterior, medial, and anterior), the triceps, traps, and upper chest. While there are several dumbbell shoulder exercises to put into your roster, the shoulder press is one of the best for getting shoulder boulders.
  • Lateral side raise: A perfect complementary exercise to the shoulder press, lateral side raises will work the lateral deltoid and give you the appearance of stronger and broader shoulders—something we all want. Aside from good looks, the lateral raise can also increase your shoulder mobility, and if the core is braced properly, you’ll also see benefits in the abdominal department.
  • Tricep kickback: Kickbacks are one of the most effective tricep exercises when it comes to muscle activation. The bend forward will force you to work against gravity and target the lateral head of the tricep—the most visible one. A perfect movement for toning and sculpting your arms.
  • Skullcrushers: Another great exercise for toning your triceps, they have the added benefit of engaging more of the stabilizers in your shoulders and elbows—especially when done with dumbbells. Not to mention that they’ve got a badass name.

Day 2: Legs & Core

Goblet squat: The goblet squat is an amazing full-body movement. Not only do they work the calves, glutes, quads, and the entire core, but they’ll also challenge your arm and grip strength since you’ll be holding on the dumbbell. A perfect exercise for gym-goers looking to get a 6-pack while also developing glute strength.

Suitcase squats: Another great all-round lower body movement that will primarily target your quads and hamstrings while improving your core stability and overall balance.

While the hamstrings will also be engaged, the lower hip positioning with the deadlift-like pull shifts some of the hamstring-load onto the quads.

Walking lunges: Walking lunges, especially with dumbbells, are one of the best lower body exercises you can do. They not only improve balance but also boost the functionality and flexibility in your hips, they tone the butt and improve your core stability. Your posture will also benefit due to the core workout and loosening up your hips and hamstrings—therefore helping your looks.

Dumbbell calf raise: As the name suggests, the calf raise primarily targets the calves, making them stronger and building muscle. However, this movement also helps when it comes to ankle stability and strength. This is especially important for athletes since it helps prevent injuries, helps in terms of balance, and also improves general athletic performance—especially if you’re in a sport that requires a lot of stop-start motions and sudden changes of direction.

Weighted crunch: Crunches are a good way to start the path towards achieving Greek-statue abs; primarily targeting the upper abdominals. However, they can get too easy fairly quickly. By holding a dumbbell close to your chest and doing crunches, you can start training again at lower reps in order to get more results. Not only will your abs be more defined, but they’ll also get stronger.

Renegade row: An extremely effective exercise, this movement is a full-body workout in itself. Not only do you get the benefits of planking, such as stabilization and core strength development, but the movement also engages your upper body to a high degree.

Along with the core, renegade rows will also hit the chest, triceps, shoulders, and even lats. Your core will be hammered since they force you to engage your anterior core muscles against the extension over an extended period of time, building endurance. Building off of that, they’ll also train anti-rotational ability which is helpful for athletes who need that rotational strength, such as baseball players.

A man working out with dumbbells in a gym.

Day 3: Back & Biceps

  • Bent over row: The bent over row engages a number of muscle groups. It primarily works the lats and the rhomboids, but it’s also dependent on where you pull the weight to. If you pull the dumbbell closer to your chest, you should feel more activation in your upper-back muscles. If you pull down closer to your waist, more of your mid to lower back will be used. Spicing this movement up and making it a one-arm dumbbell row will further add to its benefits. Not only will your back be worked, but so will your shoulders, biceps, hips, and your core stability will also be developed.
  • Tripod dumbbell row: The tripod dumbbell row is a variation of the one-arm dumbbell row which is specifically good for unilaterally targeting the muscles of the back—leading to a more balanced strength and symmetrical back. This variation also requires more stability compared to other, more supported, row variations.
  • Dumbbell pullover: A popular bodybuilding sample done by Schwarzenegger himself, the pullover can increase both the chest and the back’s strength and size. Furthermore, by challenging the stability in your upper back especially, the glutes and core will have to work overtime to keep you aligned.
  • By placing a stretch on the lats and the triceps, your shoulder mobility will also greatly benefit from adding the dumbbell pullover into your training routine.
  • Reverse grip dumbbell row: A simple change in the grip you use can have profound effects when it comes to crafting the back of your dreams, along with that much-sought v-taper to your torso. A reverse grip with the row would have your palms facing away from you. This kind of grip places a greater emphasis on your lats, towards the mid-back portion of your body, and also the lower section of your traps. Additionally, your rhomboids and biceps will also be better recruited with the reverse grip dumbbell row.
  • Bicep curl: There’s a reason “curls for the girls” is a commonly stated adage in the gym. The bicep curl is simple, sweet, and has beautiful results. It targets one of your greatest vanity muscles and helps to fill out your shirt sleeves. Everyone loves big, strong arms. And they’re easy as well, requiring you to bend your elbow in a natural way that seems almost second nature. Along with the most obvious benefits, bicep curls also involve a lot of stabilization in both your shoulders and in your core—depending on whether you do them unilaterally or not. Your grip strength and forearm muscles will also thank you.
  • Dumbbell hammer curl: But if you want to give that extra bit of attention to your wrists and forearms, the hammer curl is a fantastic exercise as well. With an increased grip and forearm strength, your other lifts such as cleans and rows will also reap the benefits. But more than just working the forearms and biceps, hammer curls are also some of the best movements to do when looking to develop the brachialis and brachioradialis muscles. The former lies just under your bicep, while the latter runs down your forearm. If you want a truly impressive gun show, then developing the brachialis should be at the forefront of your training. 

A Diet for Your Dumbbell Exercises

 When it comes to fitness, a proper diet is much more important than the proper workout program. While it depends as well on the base you're working from and the goals you expect to achieve, what you put in your body will make or break the physique you want.

So, while one-size-fits-all diet advice is nigh impossible, we’re going to give it our best shot.

Eat whole, clean foods. Make sure you’re getting a good ratio of high-quality proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbs. You want to bulk up? Eat more. Lose weight? Eat less. Never eat garbage food (unless it’s a cheat day). This is essential to not only build muscle but to also build lean muscle. In the end, every day comes down to calories in, calories out. 

A holistic approach to fitness is the best approach to not only fitness but life as well.