The Best Upper Body Dumbbell Workout

best upper body dumbbell workout

Dumbbell workouts are an excellent option if you want to build a more muscular upper body. As a strength coach, I can teach you how to create the most effective dumbbell upper body workout to get you better results without wasting time.

Key Takeaways

  • Train the upper body muscles in the 5-10, 10-20, and 20-30 rep ranges throughout the week. By training them all, you can ensure you are training both slow (high rep ranges) and fast twitch (low rep ranges) muscle fibers.
  • If you want to improve the size and strength of a muscle, you should train it directly twice weekly, with each session delivering 6-12 sets per muscle group spread across 2-3 exercises per muscle group.
  • Training the entire upper body (chest, back, shoulders, triceps, biceps, traps) in the same session can work; however, it will often mean the muscles trained later in the session will get less growth (due to fatigue).
  • If you can only train your upper body twice weekly, most exercises you choose should be compound movements rather than isolation exercises.

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Upper Body Anatomy Overview

When training the upper body, you should understand how the joint works and what muscles act at the joint. Understanding upper body anatomy lets you determine how to target the muscle tissue you want to develop.

Pectorals (Chest)


The chest comprises two muscles, the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor. Both are active when performing pressing movements where the arms move from the body to out in front of the body (straight out or incline). This movement pattern is called horizontal pressing. 

The most common exercises for the chest are dumbbell flat and incline presses, chest flyes, and push-ups.

Latissimus Dorsi (Back)

latissimus dorsi back

The back consists of a large muscle called the latissimus dorsi. This muscle spans the entire backside of the body. It is responsible for pulling movements that have the arms pull from the front back into the body (horizontal pulling) and from the overhead position back into the body (vertical pulling).

With dumbbells, horizontal pulling can be trained with rows; however, vertical pulling is more difficult to isolate since you are not working against gravity when you pull a dumbbell from the overhead position back to your body. 

Dumbbell pullovers are the best alternative, but vertical pulling options are nonexistent with dumbbells only.

Trapezius (Traps)


The traps are large muscles with three different areas (upper, middle, and lower). You can train the upper traps with dumbbells by performing shrugs (elevating the shoulders towards the ears). 

Additionally, the middle traps will be trained when doing overhead pressing movements, as they work to assist the back in stabilizing the shoulder blades. 

The lower traps can be isolated by performing the “Y” exercise, where you lift your arms overhead from a lying or hinged position. However, this exercise is challenging enough that many people may not need dumbbells.

Deltoids (Shoulders)


The deltoids are the shoulders and consist of three smaller heads (areas): anterior, medial, and posterior. Each section of muscle fibers is active during pressing movements; however, you can isolate them more by raising your arms at various angles.

Some shoulder isolation exercises are the front raises (anterior), lateral raises (medial), and bent-over reverse raises (posterior fibers).



The biceps work at the elbow to flex the joint (bend). Since they only cross the elbow joint, you want to ensure that you are not moving at the shoulders while doing curls.



The triceps also work at the elbow joint but perform opposite the action of the biceps. They work to extend (straighten) the joint. When training them directly, you want to ensure you are not moving at the shoulders and just bending and straightening the elbows.

Related Article: How Often Should You Train Arms?

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Choosing Exercises For Upper Body Dumbbell Workout

Below are 21 of the best dumbbell exercises, categorized by their movement pattern, to choose from when designing an upper-body dumbbell workout program. 

While you should not be doing all 20 exercises in a single workout, you should aim to include most of these over a week into your program (more on how to design your workout program below).

Horizontal Push Exercises

Horizontal push exercises primarily train the chest and, to a lesser degree, the triceps and anterior deltoids. The most common movements are chest presses (incline and flat) and flyes.

Dumbbell Chest Press

The dumbbell chest press trains the chest, triceps, and anterior deltoid. This movement can be done with various grips, such as a neutral grip (palms facing each other), which recruits the triceps and anterior delts more, or a standard grip (palms facing away from your face), which isolates the chest.

Dumbbell Floor Press

The dumbbell floor press is a chest press done lying on the ground. By lying on the ground instead of a bench, you restrict the depth at which you lower the weights, which places more loading on the triceps. 

This exercise is an excellent way to add strength to the triceps and minimize chest loading (if you want to focus more on the triceps in the press).

Dumbbell Incline Chest Press

The dumbbell incline chest press involves lying on a bench set to either a 15, 30, or 45-degree incline. By doing this on an incline bench, you shift more of the loading of the upper chest muscle fibers.

Dumbbell Chest Press Fly

The dumbbell chest press fly is a hybrid exercise that trains the chest by combining a fly movement with the chest press. This movement is a good option if you want more isolated chest training but cannot perform the regular chest fly because it places too much strain on the shoulders. 

You start by opening up like a chest fly (isolation movements listed below), and then let the elbows bend at the bottom so that you can initiate a press in the deep ranges of motion.

Vertical Push Exercises

Vertical push exercises primarily target the deltoids, triceps, and upper chest muscle fibers. The most common exercises are shoulder presses, push presses, and very high-incline chest presses.

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

The dumbbell shoulder press can be done from a standing or seated position. This exercise primarily trains the shoulders but also places some loading on the triceps.

Dumbbell Arnold Press

The dumbbell Arnold press is a shoulder press that has you turn the palms towards you at the bottom of the movement. By rotating your palms, you can lower the weights deeper in front of you to increase the range of motion, which can help you place more demand on your shoulders.

Additionally, the movement starts with you moving the dumbbells outwards using your rear delts, making it a great exercise to train all three heads of the deltoids in one movement.

Dumbbell Push Press

The dumbbell push press is similar to the shoulder press; however, you can use your lower body to help drive the loads overhead to build upper body strength and power. This exercise is also ideal for increasing lower body power and athletic performance.

Related Article: The Best Back and Shoulder Workout Plan

Horizontal Pull Exercises

Horizontal pulling exercises primarily train the back. Rowing exercises are the most common ones to target the back. Changing the angle of the row (bent over at 90 degrees vs bent over at 45 degrees) will also change the area of the back you target. 

The biceps and forearms are also trained with rows. However, I would not recommend using rows as your arm-building exercise, as the biceps are not a primary mover (or at least should not be the primary muscle used to row).

Dumbbell Bent Over Row

The dumbbell bent over row is done with both dumbbells at once, and you are bent over so that your torso is parallel to the floor. Ideally, you will have your shoulders in line with your hips, as this places the back at an angle where it has the least leverage to move the load (which is what you want when looking to build muscle).

One Arm Dumbbell Row

The one-arm dumbbell row allows you to use your non-rowing arm to create a stable base to row. By rowing one arm at a time, you can also work to correct side-to-side imbalances.

Dumbbell Seal Row

The dumbbell seal row allows you to train the back without supporting your torso in the bent-over position. This movement can be helpful if you need help to keep your back flat during bent-over rows or if you want to truly isolate the back without having your hamstrings, hips, and lower back compete for loading.

Dumbbell Incline Bench Row

The dumbbell incline bench row is a chest-supported row done on a slight angle. Lying on the bench reduces strain on the lower back and hips, allowing you to focus all your efforts and force production for the row (not having to hold yourself in a bent-over position). 

This exercise is ideal if you want to train the back without worrying about form as much as you would with bent-over rows.

Vertical Pull Exercises

Vertical pulling is the only movement that is difficult to do with dumbbells, as exercises like pull-ups, chin-ups, and lat pulldowns are the most common exercises to train this movement pattern.

Dumbbells do not allow you to pull weights from the overhead position towards your body; however, you can integrate dumbbell pullovers to at least train the back fibers differently than rows.

Note: If you can do pull-ups or chin-ups or have access to a lat pulldown or assisted pull-up machine, you should include those instead.

Dumbbell Pullover

The dumbbell pullover targets the lats and the serratus muscle that connects the lats to the chest. The muscle fibers this hits differ from those trained when doing rows, as they run at a different angle. 

Isolation Exercises

Isolation exercises isolate individual muscles and minimize the utilization of any other muscle in supporting the load. Isolation exercises allow you to emphasize a muscle group that may be weak or that you want to emphasize for more growth. 

Isolation exercises are single-joint, allowing only one joint to move throughout the range of motion, which places all the muscular loading on the target muscle. 

For example, rows train your biceps; however, they could be better bicep exercises if you want bigger arms. Adding in bicep curls would be a great way to target your biceps.

Dumbbell Chest Fly

The dumbbell chest fly is an isolation chest exercise. This movement is done to place more direct stress and loading on the chest muscles and can be helpful if you struggle to grow your chest.

Dumbbell Lateral Raise

The dumbbell lateral raise targets the deltoids (primarily the lateral head of the deltoid). Adding this to your workouts can be a great way to build the shoulders without adding extra stress or loading to the joint or surrounding muscles.

Dumbbell Front Raise

The dumbbell front raise targets the anterior deltoid (front of the shoulders). While most people will train the anterior deltoids sufficiently if they include chest and shoulder pressing into their workouts, you can add in front raises if you want to add more size or shape to the front of the shoulders.

Dumbbell Reverse Fly

The dumbbell reverse fly is done by lying the chest on an incline bench or bent over at 45 degrees. The movement targets the rear deltoid (back of the shoulders).

Dumbbell Bicep Curl

The dumbbell bicep curl is an isolation movement that you can do to add extra training volume and muscle-building stimulus to the biceps. You can do these in various ways, the most popular being both palms forward, twisting curls, and hammer curls.

Dumbbell Skullcrusher

The dumbbell skull crusher is a triceps exercise that targets the long and lateral head of the triceps. This exercise is done with two dumbbells and a bench (either flat or low incline angle).

Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension

The dumbbell overhead triceps extension is a triceps isolation exercise that targets the long head of the triceps. This movement is a great way to increase the size of the triceps. These can be done with one or two dumbbells, from standing or seated upright at 90 degrees to lying on a high incline (45-70 degrees).

Dumbbell Kickbacks

Dumbbell kickbacks target the medial head of the triceps (the inner part of the triceps, closest to the torso). To do these, you must ensure the elbow is behind the shoulders while in a bent-over position. 

Additionally, it is vital to control the movement on the way down rather than lose tension (if you have access to cables, cables would be a better option; dumbbells are acceptable if not).

Dumbbell Shrug

The dumbbell shrug is an exercise that trains the upper traps. To do this, you need to take the traps through the full range of motion and be able to pause slightly at the top. If you cannot do these with control and maintain tension on the traps, then the weight is too heavy.

How To Plan The Best Upper Body Dumbbell Workout

To plan the best upper body workout using the exercises above, consider the following aspects:


Aim to perform 6-8 sets per muscle group, spread across 1-2 exercises per muscle group. Total sets per workout should not exceed 32. 

Note that this is a very high amount of sets per single session. However, since most individuals who use dumbbells are training with lighter loads (assuming they don’t have access to very heavy dumbbells), more sets are often necessary to get enough volume in. 


If you can access very heavy dumbbells, you can train in all rep ranges (5-10, 10-20, and 20-30). The key is to train with heavy enough weights that you are reaching failure by the end of the rep range you are training in.

Generally speaking, training in the 8-15 rep range is best as it exposes you to heavier loads and more reps to increase your volume.


Loading should be as heavy as possible for whatever rep range you train. So, if you plan for 15-20 reps on an exercise, choose the heaviest and most challenging weight you can while staying in that rep range. 

If you cannot access heavier loads, you should train with whatever weight you have and aim to get as many reps as possible.


Train your upper body at least twice per week. This frequency will allow you to train all upper body muscles twice weekly to encourage muscle growth. 

If you wanted to train your upper body 3-4 times a week, you could do full upper body workout splits or break the sessions down further into training splits like upper push and upper pull (twice each week) or even Arnold splits.


Progressions on a week-to-week basis can be accomplished by adding reps, sets, or increasing load (or a combination). I would focus on improving one of these every week for every exercise.


Rest periods are not the most critical factor, but you may want to adjust them if the workouts take too long. 

Most lifters should rest between 60-90 seconds when doing straight sets (not pairing things). If you pair muscle groups (super-setting), you could rest 30-60 seconds between exercises and 60-90 seconds between pairings.

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Sample Upper Body Dumbbell Workout

sample upper body dumbbell workout

The following upper body dumbbell workout plan includes two sample workouts designed for the same week.

By doing both of these workouts (2 upper sessions per week), you will ensure you are training all the larger upper body muscle groups twice per week and including enough training volume to stimulate muscle growth. 

If you struggle to grow, consider adding a third upper body workout into your regime using the Fitbod app.

Note: These workouts are not found in the Fitbod app as written below; however, you can use this sample training plan as a template to create your own workouts within the app. All exercises are in the Fitbod app, complete with how-to videos. 

Upper Body Workout 1

  • Dumbbell Chest Press: 4 sets of 10 reps, resting 30 seconds
    • Superset with Dumbbell Bent Over Row: 4 sets of 10 reps, resting 60-90 seconds
  • Dumbbell Chest Fly: 4 sets of 10 reps, resting 30 seconds
    • Superset with Dumbbell Pullover: 4 sets of 15 reps, resting 60-90 seconds 
  • Dumbbell Hammer Curl: 4 sets of 10 reps, resting 30 seconds
    • Superset with Dumbbell Skullcrusher: 4 sets of 10 reps, resting 60-90 seconds 
  • Shoulder Circuit: Perform 3 rounds using the same dumbbells. Keep going until the round is complete. Rest 2-3 minutes between rounds
  • Dumbbell Front Raise: 10 reps
  • Dumbbell Front Raise: 10 reps
  • Dumbbell Rear Fly: 10 reps
  • Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 10-20 reps

Upper Body Workout 2

  • Dumbbell Pullover: 4 sets of 15 reps, resting 30 seconds
    • Superset with Dumbbell Incline Chest Press: 4 sets of 15 reps, resting 60-90 seconds
  • One Arm Dumbbell Row: 4 sets of 15 reps per arm, resting 30 seconds
    • Superset with Dumbbell Bench Press: 4 sets of 15 reps, resting 60-90 seconds 
  • Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 4 sets of 15 reps, resting 30 seconds
    • Superset with Dumbbell Arnold Press: 4 sets of 15 reps, resting 60-90 seconds
  • Dumbbell Dumbbell Curl: 4 sets of 15 reps, resting 30 seconds
    • Superset with Dumbbell Kickbacks: 4 sets of 15 reps, resting 60-90 seconds 

About The Author

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.