Looking to up your strength routine? It might be time to invest in a set of dumbbells (or use the ones at the gym). Body-weight exercises like push-ups and squats are a good start, but if you want to take your fitness to the next level, adding weights like dumbbells to these moves may help you hit your fitness goals faster.
If you’re new to weights, don’t worry. We’ve asked top trainers for advice on how beginners can use dumbbells safely and effectively for a full-body workout. Get ready to get stronger.
Meet the Expert
How to Choose the Right Dumbbell Weight
One of the most intimidating obstacles in the way of getting started with dumbbell workouts? You might not know which weights to use.
First things first—make sure you are familiar with the workout movements and can do them with proper form, even if that means forgoing weights at first, suggests Jillian Lorenz, a NASM-certified personal trainer and co-founder and co-CEO of The Barre Code. “If you've never used weights or are completely new, start with no weights to perfect form before adding dumbbells," she says. “You can still get a burn with no weights.”
Once you are comfortable with the movement, you can start with light dumbbells—think 3, 5, 8, or 10 pounds. These may be enough for you to start to make an impact. If these feel too light, you can always go heavier for your next workout or as you get more comfortable.
Still not sure which weight is too light and too heavy? Think of it this way, says Andrew Laux, a strength and conditioning coach and a NASM-certified personal trainer with Fyt. “Finding the perfect weight for a specific exercise means that you can complete the exercise for the instructed reps and sets while completing the full range of motion,” he says. “If you feel like you're fatiguing too quickly, or your range of motion is getting short, the weight is too heavy.”
Dumbbell Proper Form
When you’re working with dumbbells, proper form is the most important factor in keeping you injury-free. Make sure you get the technique down and are comfortable with the movements before you start adding a lot of weight, Laux recommends. “When I work with athletes or clients for the first time, the weight is irrelevant and the technique is everything,” he says.
If you’re new to exercise, you may want to work with a certified personal trainer or a strength and conditioning coach who can watch you go through each move and confirm you are completing it with proper form. They can also help let you know when you are ready to move up to a heavier weight.
If you don’t have access to a trainer, you can always watch videos online or ask a trusted friend to spot your form.
Upper-Body Dumbbell Exercises
You can start to add dumbbells to exercises that work the upper-body muscles, including the shoulders, arms, and chest. If you’re new to these moves, start by using just body weight (no dumbbells) to perfect your form, Lorenz suggests. Then gradually add dumbbells in 1–2 lb. increments each week, as you get stronger.
Perform these exercises together to get a full upper-body workout. You can start with just 5–10 reps of each, then rest. Perform up to 3 sets of reps.
- Biceps curls
- Military press
- Triceps extensions
- Chest flys
- Lateral raises
Leg/Lower-Body Dumbbell Exercises
Dumbbells can also be used for lower-body exercises to strengthen muscles like hamstrings, calves, quads, glutes, and hips. As with the upper-body moves, start by using just body weight (no dumbbells) to perfect your form, Lorenz suggests. Then gradually add dumbbells in 1-2 lb. increments each week as you get stronger.
Perform these exercises together to get a full lower-body workout. You can start with just 5–10 reps of each, then rest. Perform up to 3 sets of reps.
Core Moves with Dumbbells
You can also use dumbbells for core exercises. Some examples of abdominal exercises you can incorporate dumbbells into include:
- Russian twists
- Side plank raises
Take note that core moves with dumbbells can be challenging, so use a light weight, for example, one that's 1, 2, or 3 pounds to start.
How Often Should You Work Out With Dumbbells?
When starting out, gradually incorporate full-body dumbbell workouts into your weekly routine. “I like to start my beginner athletes and clients off with a strength routine of two to three times a week,” Laux says. You can work out with dumbbells Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and rest on the other days. You can also throw in some cardio for even more movement.
Laux also recommends doing full-body workouts vs. trying to isolate muscle groups on different days. To complete a full-body routine, you can combine the upper body, lower body, and core exercises listed above, or mix and match the movements. That way, you’ll be building up functional strength instead of isolated strength. This can help you in your day-to-day movements and may make you feel stronger overall.