Whether you work out at home with limited kit, spend your time travelling for work and relying on under-equipped hotel gyms, or you just want to try something new, there are still ways you can get in a highly effective, strength and muscle building workout. You just need some dumbbells.
Although you may think a couple of dumbbells aren’t going to cut it in the same way that access to a well-equipped gym will, you’d actually be wrong. Dumbbells provide an array of brilliant ways to build muscle and strength across your entire body thanks to a variety of targeted and very effective moves that can be done anywhere.
So if you’re looking for an effective upper body workout with dumbbells, read on.
If you have access to a gym then great, you should have an array of dumbbells to choose from and an adjustable bench. If you’re performing this workout at home you’ll need to grab yourself a pair of dumbbells (of the adjustable variety preferably so you can increase and decrease the weight accordingly) and a weight bench. If you’re struggling to find a set of dumbbells or a weight bench that’s right for you, you can check out my articles on the best dumbbells to buy, or on home gym weight benches for some ideas. If you’re not set on the idea of investing in a bench at this time then no problem, I’ll recommend some alternatives as we go through the workout that you should have to hand in your home.
As with all strength training, it’s always best to warm your body up before you start to shift heavy object around. Start by doing a light jog or march on the spot for five minutes, followed by:
- Shoulder rolls – two sets of 10 reps
- Knee lifts – try for 30 reps in 30 seconds if you can
- Knee bends – aim for 10 reps
This will help to get the blood flowing around your body and warm up your muscles for the work to come.
1. The Standing Overhead Dumbbell Press
Where it targets: The deltoids (shoulders) trapezius (upper back) pectorals (chest) and triceps (arms). As you’re standing up for this move you’ll also require balance which will utilise muscles in your core and lower back as well!
How to perform it: Start by holding a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height and with an overhand grip with your hands facing either outwards or facing inwards. Make sure you are standing upright and keep your back straight. Raise the dumbbells upwards above the head in a controlled movement, pause at the top for a second and then return the weights back to the start position. Aim for three rounds of between 10-12 reps.
Variation: For a slight variation of this move, try alternating your arms, pressing one up and then the other instead of both at the same time.
Where it targets: The latissimus dorsi (lats in your upper back). You will also indirectly work the entire rest of your back, shoulders and arms including the biceps, triceps, trapezius, and rhomboids.
How to perform it: If you have a bench then you’ll need it for this one. If not then try and find a high platform such as a chair that you can lean on. Once you have that, place a dumbbell to one side of it, put your left leg on the bench or platform and hold the side of it with your left hand. Reach down to pick up the dumbbell in your right hand with palm facing in towards you and hold it with your arm extended and keeping your back straight.
Next, bring the weight up to your chest by lifting it with your back and shoulder muscles rather than your arms. At the top of the move, squeeze your shoulder and back muscles for a second before slowly lowering the dumbbell back down to the start position. Repeat for around 8-12 reps before switching sides. Aim for three rounds of between 8-12 reps on both sides.
Where it targets: Pectoralis major (chest) anterior and lateral deltoids (shoulders) and triceps (arms)
How to perform it: You’ll need your bench again for this one, but if you don’t have one then a low table or stool might suffice so long as you can support yourself and keep your back straight throughout the exercise. Lie on the bench with a dumbbell in each hand using an overhand grip at shoulder width apart and just above your shoulders with your palms facing forward, your upper arms should be parallel to the ground.
Now push the weights upwards towards the ceiling by straightening your arms. As you push upwards, try to move your arms in an arc in order to bring the dumbbells together at the top of the movement as they meet over your chest. Hold and squeeze the chest muscles for a second before slowly lowering your arms back down just past the start position so they are a little lower than parallel to the floor which should give you a nice stretch in the chest and shoulders. Repeat for three rounds of around 8-12 reps.
Where it targets: Bicep muscles at the front of the upper arm, as well as the brachialis and brachioradialis (lower arm).
How to perform it: Grab a dumbbell in both hands with an underhand grip with your arms kept at shoulder-width apart. Raise both arms upwards by bending at your elbows and using your biceps to bring the weights up through an arc until they reach your upper chest – your forearms should now be in a vertical position. Squeeze the biceps at the top for about a second before slowly lowering the weights back to the start position and repeat for around 8-12 reps. Repeat for three rounds in total.
Variation: Try alternating your arms bringing one arm up and keeping the other lowered and then repeating on the opposite side instead of both at the same time.
Where it targets: All three heads of the triceps, in particular the long head.
How to perform it: Sit on your weight bench or a stool or chair. With your back straight back and feet shoulder width apart and planted firmly on the ground, take a dumbbell in one hand and position directly behind your head. Bend at the elbow and point the elbow directly towards the ceiling, it may help to rest your free arm on your knee. Lift the dumbbell upwards by extending through the elbow until your arms is straight with the dumbbell directly above you. Squeeze your tricep at the top of the movement for about a second before slowly returning to the start position. Aim to complete three rounds of between 10-12 reps on both sides.
Where it targets: The trapezius and rhomboids located in the upper back
How to perform it: Grab both dumbbells and get yourself into a standing position with legs shoulder width apart and bending slightly at the knees. With your arms hanging by your sides and your palms facing inwards, bring your shoulders up slowly and as high as you can (avoid rolling them) towards your ears. The slower you perform this exercise the more you will feel the resistance of your muscles. Lower your shoulders back down to the start position. Aim to complete three rounds of between 8-10 reps.
Don’t Forget To Stretch Out
As with all strength workouts, it’s really important to cool down and stretch out your muscles afterwards to prevent injury and leave them primed and ready for your next workout. This should take you around five minutes tagged on to the end of your session.
And You’re Done!
This ultimate upper body workout will really work your upper torso and arms. Aim to perform this routine one to two times a week and, as you progress and your strength increases, either increase the weight of the dumbbells or the amount of repetitions. The great thing about training with dumbbells in this way is not only the convenience, but also the added benefit you bring to your body in terms of increasing the use of your stabiliser muscles, forcing your body to perform equally and fixing any strength imbalances.
If you try this workout let me know how you get on. Perhaps you already have an upper body dumbbell workout you use – if so how does it compare to this one? As always, add below any of your questions or comments and let me know your thoughts.