What Are Dumbbells? Introducing The Complete Body Workout

A dumbbell rackIf you’re new to the world of fitness, especially lifting weights, the question ‘What are dumbbells?’ might be the first on your lips.

Dumbbells are one of the most popular pieces of gym equipment, seen in every gym up and down the country, all over the world. In the most basic sense, a dumbbell is two equal weights (either fixed or removable) attached to a handle. Dumbbells come in lots of different weights and sizes and can be used for a really diverse range of upper, lower, and core body exercises to build and tone muscle in almost every part of the body. They’re a really convenient option for many people because they can be used practically anywhere – the gym, outdoors, or at home – and don’t need any set up, you just grab and move!

Dumbbells: A Brief History

The dumbbell was first invented over 2000 years ago in Ancient Greece. Originally called a ‘haltere’, this primitive piece of equipment was formed of a crescent-shaped stone with a handle and was used as a lifting weight as well as in an Ancient Greek version of the long jump.

Another form of dumbbell, called the ‘nal’ and shaped like a club, was also used for over a millennium in India. The nal could be seen as the halfway version between a dumbbell and a barbell, and was generally used in pairs by those wishing to increase muscle size and strength – including bodybuilders, wrestlers, and sportsmen.

During Tudor times in England and Wales (between 1485 and 1603) the word ‘dumbbell’ was created to replace church bells that had been used up to that point to train the upper body. The noise of the bell during training was a big inconvenience and so it was decided to remove the tongue of the bell (or the ‘clapper’) which silenced the bell so it became ‘dumb’. Hence, it became known as the dumbbell!

So Do They Work? A Quick Look at the Science

In essence -yes absolutely. Scientists have discovered that weight lifting (especially compound movements like deadlifts and squats) improves strength and stamina in hard to train muscle groups by triggering a hormonal response that then facilitates new muscle growth.

Photo of woman using dumbbells

Muscle growth, or ‘skeletal muscle hypertrophy’ as it’s known to science boffins, is the end part of a complex process that happens when you overload your muscles with a weight they are not used to. Heavy weights break down the myosin fibers within the muscle and so your body’s reaction is to then produce more myosin filaments to the muscle fiber, which, in turn, increases muscle mass over time.

Now, it ‘s key to understand that muscle isn’t just about aesthetics – it’s hugely important for our health and metabolism. Even if your goal isn’t to become a champion bodybuilder you will still benefit from adding lean muscle. In terms of your fat burning goals, building muscle mass increases your metabolism which helps your body burn more calories and continue to burn them long after your workout has ended. So not only will a good pair of dumbbells (or any weight resistance exercise) grow muscle, the increase in muscle mass will create all kinds of other added benefits, including accelerating fat loss.

Types of Dumbbell: More Than Just Lumps of Metal!

There are three types of dumbbell:

Adjustable dumbbells:

Adjustable black and grey metal dumbbells

When you picture a dumbbell the adjustable version is most likely what you will have in mind. These dumbbells consist of a metal bar that is usually crosshatched with a pattern to improve the grip. Weight plates are then added to each end and secured with a clip, collar or spin locks which are threaded on to each end. Modern dumbbells all have easy to use solutions for increasing weight adjustments.

Fixed weight dumbbells:

Fixed silver dumbbells on a black steel rack

These are pretty much as they sound – solid weights created in a dumbbell shape that cannot be adjusted. Typically, these may come as a set consisting of different sizes and weights. The less expensive options are usually made of cast iron with a rubber or neoprene coating to add comfort or, cheaper still, a stiff plastic shell with a concrete filling. 

Selectorised dumbbells:

Selectorized adjustable silver dumbbells on a black stand

Similar to the adjustable dumbbell but with added convenience! The adjustable plates on these dumbbells can be changed quickly and easily by resting in the dumbbell stand and then adjusting the number of plates by turning a dial or moving a selector which negates the need to add or remove the plates manually. The stand generally doubles up as storage for the additional weights when not in use.

I’ve reviewed some of the best dumbbells to buy for a home gym within all three of these categories and made some recommendations, which you’re most welcome to check out.

Exercises to Target Almost Every Part of Your Body

There are now many different techniques for using dumbbells which have been developed to target practically the whole body. Depending on who you speak to, these vary and there are many variations of techniques – which could seem overwhelming but actually offer a multitude of choice to throw in some variety to kickstart the muscle-building process and prevent your workouts from going stale over time!

Some of the most common dumbbell exercises include:

  • Bench press (flat and incline)
  • Bicep curls
  • Triceps extensions
  • Lateral raises
  • Upright rows
  • Shoulder press
  • Front raises
  • Shoulder shrugs
  • Lunges
  • Squats
  • Calf raises

Many of these exercises don’t require any additional equipment, or if they do, a chair often suffices! There are many resources online, including video walk-throughs, that show you how to perform these safely, and lots more that offer complete dumbbell workouts you can follow along to so you get the most out of your new piece of kit.

Woman stretching on a mat in the gym

Safety and Proper Use

The results you get out of your dumbbell exercises will only be as effective as the way in which you perform them. Ensuring proper use of form and technique will limit injury and prevent setting back your progress.

There are several key rules you should follow to decrease the risk of injury and ensure you get consistent and steady results over time:

  • Warm up: Make sure you do a proper warm-up to prepare your muscles for working out. The best way to warm up your body is by doing a spot of light cardio including walking or a light jog (this can be on the spot or outside) to get the blood flowing to the muscles. You are less likely to cause damage to your muscles when they are warm and have a good flow of blood pumping through them.
  • Select the right weight: Don’t go in too heavy, especially when starting out, because you’ll create muscle strain and may have to spend the next few days off barely able to walk around the house, let alone work out! When starting any new exercise, begin with a lighter weight and work up to the heavier weights as you build more strength and stamina.
  • Good form over everything: Concentrate on good form and technique and don’t rush through your exercises. Fewer repetitions performed well will get you far better results than lots of repetitions performed badly. Make sure you pay attention to your form and body position whilst working out.
  • Stretch out: As important as the warm-up is the cool down. When you work your muscles, especially with weights, you stretch the muscle fibers beyond that which they are used to. Stretching them post-exercise will help increase the blood flow to help heal tired muscles and prevent soreness and stiffness, ensuring they are ready and primed for your next workout.

Your Best Bit of Home Kit

So did I answer the question ‘What are dumbbells?’. I hope I’ve cleared that up and outlined in this post that, when it comes to working out, especially at home, a good set of dumbbells paired with the right exercises and performed safely can help you not only build muscle or increase muscular endurance, but also improve cardiovascular fitness and burn calories.

You can target pretty much any area of the body with dumbbells using a variety of techniques and exercise programs at home to give yourself all the benefits of the gym without the expense of a gym membership. With all the different varieties of dumbbells now available, there really isn’t a better piece of home gym equipment that will help you transform your body and reach your physique and fitness goals on your terms and within your budget.


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