Ever walked by a neatly stacked row of dumbbells at the gym and wondered exactly what they are for? Or maybe you’ve even given the biceps curl a go but are unsure what to do next. Understanding how to properly use dumbbells will not only add a resistance element to your workouts but will also help you master proper form. With this in mind, we asked the experts how to get the best use out of dumbbells.
Meet the Expert
- Sarah Louise Rector is an internationally recognized fitness expert and CAFS-certified trainer based in Los Angeles.
- Matt Tralli is a personal trainer and fitness instructor at Dogpound Los Angeles.
- Briana Bain is a Virginia-based physical therapist and Byrdie beauty and wellness review board member.
What Is a Dumbbell?
In simple terms, a dumbbell is a versatile piece of fitness equipment that enhances the weight-training focus of your workout.
“It ultimately intensifies the workout by increasing resistance, and, given that they are available in weights ranging from one pound to 100 pounds plus, it’s important to find that right intensity, especially if you’re new to using dumbbells,” explains fitness expert and CAFS certified trainer Sarah Louise Rector. “They are also designed to distribute the weight on either end, with space in between to grip for easy control.”
While most dumbbells are a fixed weight, for example, a "10-pounder," others unscrew at either end to allow for weight plates to be added or removed for greater or reduced resistance.
One of the main benefits of dumbbells is the ease of varying weights during workouts, while firing up the core. “Dumbbells are ‘free weights,’ which means that unlike a machine, you must maintain stability when using them throughout the exercise,” explains Matt Tralli, a fitness instructor at Dogpound Los Angeles. This explains the requirement of core engagement to protect the body from injury and to guide the fluidity of the movement.
How Do They Differ From Other Weights?
Dumbbells can quite easily be mistaken for a kettlebell—a weight shaped like a bell (hence the name), although the dumbbell is arguably easier to lift and grip. “This is due to the weight distribution compared with a kettlebell, directly beneath the handle, which is also thicker than that of a dumbbell and so increases the amount of grip strength required to lift it,” explains Tralli.
Another piece of popular weight equipment is the barbell, a long bar with weighted plates attached equally at each end, usually reserved for lifting heavier loads. “However, barbells allow only for straight forward and up and down movements, as opposed to dumbbells, which offer a more flexible range of motion,” outlines Rector. “They also have a variety of functions, including working the arms, shoulders, and the upper body to build strength, tone, and, with long-term use, create definition of the muscles."
Why are Dumbbells Beneficial to a Workout?
If you want to shake up your workout routine, dumbbells may be the answer. “I’m a strong believer in starting with a lower weight to boost mobility and flexibility, before upping the intensity to challenge the muscles with more explosive moves, for a fiery workout,” says Rector.
Aside from their versatility, many studies have highlighted the effects of strength training in slowing the rate of bone loss. We naturally lose muscle as we age, a phenomena known as sarcopenia, meaning that from around the age of 30 and over, muscle mass starts to naturally decline. An effective way to combat this is to lift heavier weights. “Dumbbells can quickly enhance a workout by going heavier for a harder exercise, which can lead to an increase in strength over time,” says Tralli.
If that wasn’t enough, according to Rector, strengthening your muscles will also help reduce the risk of osteoporosis. This is especially important for post-menopausal women, who are more susceptible to bone resorption, given a reduction in estrogen. "It is important to begin strength training before menopause and its associated effects set in to delay the process of osteoporosis," physical therapist and Byrdie beauty and wellness review board member Briana Bain says.
If dumbbells still seem daunting to you, it’s best to speak with a trainer before lifting. “Always get professional guidance when first starting out, especially if you're not familiar with dumbbells,” cautions Tralli. “This will reduce the risk of injury and help you get a more successful outcome from the workout.”
Should Anyone Avoid Dumbbells?
With a diverse weight range available, dumbbells are a safe piece of exercise equipment for most individuals. “They really are appropriate for just about everyone, as long as you always make sure the correct size of weight is used to accommodate your level and experience,” shares Rector. “If you are recovering from an injury or surgery, always be sure to check with a professional. But often the use of weight is added in gradually in a professional workout plan.”
It’s also safe, in many cases, for most pregnant women to incorporate dumbbells into their workout. “You might notice that being more cautious and not diving straight in with your usual size of dumbbell is a more appropriate way to work out, and the body may be more fatigued as a result of being pregnant. So opt for a lighter size and a shorter workout,” Rector suggests.
Another key consideration is understanding how to hold various forms while using dumbbells. Tralli says: “If you have never used dumbbells before, then I would consult with a trainer who can teach you how to properly maintain good form and stability when performing an exercise to limit the risk of injury.”
Dumbbell Exercises for Your Next Workout
Want to give dumbbells a try? See the trainers’ favorite go-to exercises below.
For strength, aim for three sets of 8–12 repetitions, and for toning and conditioning, try three sets of 15–20 repetitions.
Overhead Arm Press
Works the upper body including the chest, shoulders, and arms
Standing or kneeling, engage your abdominal muscles and drive the weights up, using your center to stabilize. Press the weight(s) (single weighted arm or both arms at the same time) over the head as arms go straight into the air, and then with control, bring the dumbbells back down to the chest.
Weighted Donkey Kicks
Targets the core, glutes, hamstrings, and generally the whole thigh area
This mat-based exercise starts on all fours. Place a light dumbbell to the back of one knee and squeeze the heel of that foot in toward the glutes to stabilize the dumbbell. Keeping the hips parallel (without any turnout), drive the knee down to the mat and then straight back up. Keep the exercise slow and controlled so you can activate the smaller muscles.
Targets your obliques and waistline, and the weight of the dumbbell ensures muscle activation in the arms
Stand with feet hip-width apart, dumbbells down by the side of the body. Keeping the body upright and arms straight, tilt gently to one side, guiding the weight down the leg, then bring yourself back up and repeat on the other side.
Works the upper body and core
The renegade row requires you to use your upper body to row the dumbbell upward. On your knees or in plank, reach one of them at a time up higher than your elbow, surpassing the torso, and squeeze the back of the shoulder, before slowly returning the dumbbell back to the ground.
Targets the lower and upper body
For thrusters, which are a squat and press motion, hold two equally weighted dumbbells at your shoulders, squat down to fire up the muscles in your lower body, and then explode up out of the squat, using your upper body to drive the weight overhead before repeating.
Targets mainly the triceps
Hinge forward at the hips while keeping a straight back. Bend your arms at a 90-degree angle and push the weight up and back (keeping your elbows in tight) until your arm is straight, and then send back to the starting position.
Hong AR, Kim SW. Effects of resistance exercise on bone health. Endocrinol Metab (Seoul). 2018;33(4):435-444.
Garnero P, Sornay-Rendu E, Chapuy MC, Delmas PD. Increased bone turnover in late postmenopausal women is a major determinant of osteoporosis. J Bone Miner Res. 1996;11(3):337-349.