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This is why you need dumbbells in your next workout (and every one after that)

These dumbbell exercises are simple to add to your home workout

CJ Hammond
Image used with permission by copyright holder

“I prefer dumbbells to barbells any day of the week,” said CJ Hammond, a former personal trainer, writer, and fitness consultant in Los Angeles. If you haven’t been in a gym in a bit, what he said seems like sacrilege. Where are the bench presses of yore? Where’s a young Arnie Schwarzenegger barefooted at the squat rack, as seen in Pumping Iron? The reality of today’s trainers, Hammond said, is that for most cases and most people, dumbbells are more effective and versatile than any home workout machine you can buy.

“There’s a time and a place for [barbells],” Hammond explained, “but for the most part, training is transitioning to functional.”

So what exactly is “functional,” and how do dumbbells develop it better? First, there’s their versatility: They can literally work any muscle in your body, from the traps to the calves. Then there’s their ability to isolate through unilateral exercises (i.e., a single arm or leg), which engages your core as it struggles to stop rotation and rebalances muscle asymmetry, the latter of which is easily hidden when you’re lifting the long bar.

Finally, there’s their real-world application when it comes to sports or just life. After all, you don’t throw with two hands or carry your child perfectly balanced. “I can go on and on,” Hammond said. “I use dumbbells more times than not.”

Hammond compiled his favorite dumbbell exercises and crafted the sets and reps you can use in your existing workouts. Simply cut and paste these dumbbell workouts into your next session to start reaping all the rewards that these tools provide.

Lunge with dumbbells
Red Bull

Reverse dumbbell lunge

With a dumbbell in each hand, you’ll alternate reaching one foot behind to lunge until the knee lightly touches the ground. Return to the starting position and then throw the opposite leg back.

Targeted muscles: Glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and a host of tiny stabilizing muscles

Reps: 16 (8 on one leg, 8 on the other)

Sets: 3

Rest: 60 seconds between sets

Dumbbell single leg, straight leg Romanian deadlift
Red Bull

Dumbbell single leg, straight leg Romanian deadlift

This compound movement involves some balance as well as a tight core. Holding dumbbells in each hand, hinge at the hips as one leg extends backward. The base leg should be straight but not locked at the knee. Use your core to prevent twisting. Return and repeat.

Targeted muscles: Glutes, hamstrings, and core

Reps: 10

Sets: 3 sets on each leg for 6 sets

Rest: 60 seconds between sets

Dumbbell step-ups
Red Bull

Dumbbell step-ups

Holding a dumbbell in each hand, you’ll step up on a box or bench. Return lightly, then for the next rep, lead with the other leg.

Targeted muscles: Glutes, hamstrings, quads, and a host of tiny stabilizer muscles

Reps: 10

Sets:3 sets on each leg for 6 sets

Rest: 60 seconds between sets

Side lunge
Red Bull

Dumbbell side lunge

Holding a dumbbell in each hand, step out with one leg from shoulder width to wider than double width, sinking weight as you bend the thigh parallel to the ground. Press up through your heel and step back to the starting position. Stay on that side for the total reps, then switch legs for the next step, alternating sets until completion.

Targeted muscles: In addition to the standard hamstrings, glutes, and quads, you’ll also target the often-overlooked adductor muscles

Reps: 12

Sets: 3 sets on each leg for 6 sets

Rest: 90 seconds

Dumbbell bench press
Red Bull

Dumbbell bench press

With a dumbbell in each hand and lying on a bench or on the ground (note that if you’re on the ground, your range of motion will be limited), push the dumbbells straight up to reach the starting position. Lower until your upper arms are parallel to the ground. Press up to the starting position.

Targeted muscles: Pecs, triceps, and a host of tiny stabilizer muscles

Reps: 8

Sets: 3

Rest: 60 seconds

Seated dumbbell military press
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Seated dumbbell military press

Take a set on a bench with two dumbbells and the back of the bench raised vertically. Balance the dumbbells on the tops of your knees, then kick them up in the air to the point where your upper arms are parallel to the ground. Press up to the starting position. Lower to where your upper arms are parallel to the ground, then press up until just before your elbows lock. Repeat.

Targeted muscles: Deltoids, and to a lesser extent, triceps and traps

Reps: 8

Sets: 3

Rest: 60 seconds between sets

Bent-over single-arm row
Red Bull

Bent-over single-arm row

With a knee and straight arm braced on a bench, bend at the waist and keep your chest parallel to the ground without twisting. Grab the dumbbell and pull it into your chest, concentrating on contracting your lat. Return down and repeat.

Targeted muscles: Lats, and to a lesser extent, biceps

Reps: 12

Sets: 3 sets on each side for 6 sets

Rest: 90 seconds

Hammer curls
Red Bull

Hammer curls

A variation on the classic curl, with a dumbbell in each hand, curl up either alternating or concurrently with your thumbs pointed toward the ceiling. Repeat.

Targeted muscles: Biceps, as well as forearms

Reps: 6 on each side

Sets: 3

Rest: 90 seconds

Renegade row
Red Bull

Renegade row

In the pushup position and balancing on your dumbbells, pull one into a row while stopping your core from twisting up. Return the dumbbell to the ground and then switch.

Targeted muscles: In addition to the lats and biceps, you’re also balancing with your core, including abs, lower back, and hip flexors

Reps: 12 (6 on each side)

Sets: 3

Rest: 60 seconds

Man doing incline hammer curls.
blackday / Adobe Stock

What size dumbbells should you use when starting out with dumbbell exercises?

Choosing the right size dumbbells when starting out with dumbbell workouts is crucial for preventing injury and ensuring an effective workout. Here’s a guide to help you pick the perfect pair.

Consider your fitness level

  • Beginner: If you’re new to strength training, start with lighter weights (2 to 5 pounds for each hand) to focus on proper form and technique. Aim for 12 to 15 repetitions per set with good form before increasing weight.
  • Intermediate: Once you can comfortably lift the lighter weights for 12 to 15 reps, move on to moderate weights (7 to 12 pounds each hand). Aim for 8 to 12 repetitions per set.
  • Advanced: Experienced lifters can use heavier weights (15+ pounds each hand) for 5 to 8 repetitions per set.

Consider the exercises you’re doing

Different exercises engage different muscle groups with varying strength capacities, such as those above. Research the specific weight recommendations for the exercises you plan to do.

Consider your goals

Are you aiming to build muscle, tone the muscles, or endurance? Lighter weights with more repetitions are better for toning and endurance, while heavier weights with fewer reps are better for building muscle.

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Jon Gugala
Features Writer
Jon Gugala is a freelance writer and photographer based in Nashville, Tenn. A former gear editor for Outside Magazine, his…
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