Full body dumbbell workouts are a great way to build muscle and fitness in a time efficient manner, from home, while traveling, or at the gym.
When doing full body dumbbell workouts, you want to make sure to choose exercises that target all of the main muscle groups of the body. Typically, each workout will consist of 5-8 different exercises (one for each muscle) so that you deliver 3-5 total sets per muscle group.
Below, we will discuss the benefits of training with dumbbells only, the limitations, and share how to structure full body dumbbell workouts to build muscle.
If you are looking for a full body dumbbell workout program that you can do at home (with a pair of dumbbells) or at the gym, be sure to check out the Fitbod app.
Benefits of Training With Dumbbells Only
Below is a list of some of the key benefits of training with dumbbells only.
While gaining muscle, losing weight, and improving health are benefits of training with dumbbells, they are more general benefits of working out (with whatever means you have access to).
The below list is specific to training with dumbbells only.
Less Expensive Than Needing to Buy Barbell, Heavy Weights, and Machines
Training with dumbbells can be a great way to build out a home gym or small gym set up on a budget. While weights themselves can be costly, dumbbells tend to be less expensive than having to get a barbell, weight plates, clips, a squat rack, or machines.
While those other pieces of equipment do offer other benefits that dumbbells cannot, a pair of dumbbells can take you a long way and get you going if cost is something that you are concerned about.
Great for Home Gyms
Outside of the fact that dumbbells are cost efficient, they are also great space savers and take up less space in a home gym or garage.
A few pairs of dumbbells can be stacked in a corner or under a bed, and can keep your home free of additional gym equipment clutter.
Offer A Ton of Variation for Movements
Dumbbells offer you the ability to include new, challenging, and fun exercises in your workouts without needing to get a ton of new specialized equipment.
By changing angles, grips, or stance, you could unlock a whole new exercise and training stimulus, with the same pair of dumbbells over and over again.
Help You Improve Muscular Coordination
Training with dumbbells requires you to have muscle coordination as you need to control both dumbbells independently.
Unlike a barbell or a machine, the need to stabilize and coordinate movements on a unilateral basis can improve muscle coordination, help you build muscle, and even enhance your other non dumbbell lifts.
Address Muscle Asymmetries
When training with a barbell or machines, you may be able to get away with having one arm or leg be stronger than the other. When you have muscle imbalances and asymmetries you are more susceptible to injury.
Training with dumbbells will allow you to find any unilateral muscle imbalances and address them at the same time you are training other qualities.
How Often Should You Do a Full-Body Dumbbell Workout?
When looking to build muscle and fitness, you should aim to do a full-body dumbbell workout program 3-4 times per week, however adding in 1-2 additional workouts can also help optimize results.
When training full body every workout, you do want to be aware of providing muscles with enough rest between sessions to not beat yourself up.
A 3-4 day full-body dumbbell workout plan allows you to have a rest day between most sessions, so that you can train hard and build muscle.
If you find you want to train more than 3 days a week, and full body workouts leave you always sore, you could also choose other workout splits that may be better for those who train 3+ days a week, such as the push/pull or upper/lower split.
Need help programming a multi-day dumbbell only workout program? Check out Fitbod, which is jam-packed with dumbbell exercises for the entire body, and let Fitbod assist you in designing a program that will work for you, your goals, and your training schedule.
What Results Can You Expect From Doing Full-Body Dumbbell Workouts?
If you train full body dumbbell workouts multiple times a week, you can expect to gain strength in the movement you are doing in your workouts, as well as increase muscle in the areas you are training.
Full body dumbbell workout programs are not inherently anymore effective at building muscle when compared with other types of training programs, as the key indicator of growth is training volume and intensity.
- If you are someone looking to gain max strength, you may find it more challenging to do so using only dumbbells as compared to someone who also trains with a barbell.
- If you are someone looking to increase overall fitness and build muscle, you should be able to improve your fitness and strength with dumbbells just like you would using other pieces of equipment.
- If you are working out with dumbbells to progress your bodyweight workouts, you will find you will get stronger as dumbbells will be a great way to progressively overload your standard bodyweight exercises.
How To Structure a Full-Body Dumbbell Workout
Below are a few key factors to consider when structuring a full-body dumbbell workout program.
Intensity – How Hard Should You Train with Dumbbells?
When structuring your full-body dumbbell workouts, the intensity at which you train at can vary based on the selection of dumbbells you have access to (loading).
If you have access to a wide variety of loads you could train some movements heavier and work strength in the 5-10 rep range and still leave a few reps in the tank as training to complete failure is not necessary for strength development.
If you have access to loads that do not challenge your top end strength (a weight you cannot do more than 10 reps with), then you may need to train closer to failure, and do however many reps it takes to get you to a point where you only have 1-2 good reps left in you at the end of every set.
Research has shown that when using load loads (such as when you have access only to lighter dumbbells), training to muscle failure promotes greater muscle growth than stopping short of failure.
Exercise Selection – What Dumbbell Exercises Should You Choose?
Exercise selection while structuring your full-body dumbbell workouts should include 5-8 different movements, one for each muscle group. You may have 1-2 of those exercises training the same muscle group to give some extra attention for that workout.
Generally speaking, you will want to include an exercise for each of the movement groups below:
- Knee Dominant: Knee dominant exercises include any form of squats, lunges, step ups, or any other exercise that targets the quadriceps through knee flexion focused exercises.
- Hip Dominant: Hip dominant exercises include any form of hip flexion movements that target the hamstrings and glutes, such as deadlifts,RDLs, single leg RDLs, hip thrusts, and walking single leg RDLs.
- Upper Body Push: This is a broad category that covers the chest, shoulders, and triceps muscle groups. Any form of pressing, whether bench press, overhead press, or floor pressing can be included.
- Upper Body Pull: This is a broad category that covers the back and biceps muscle groups. With dumbbell only workouts, back exercises are typically any form of rows. You can also include pull ups or chin ups. For biceps, any form of curls.
- Core: Adding a core exercise with dumbbells can be any form of weighted movement like weighted sit ups or Russian twists. You can also include bodyweight or resistance band ab exercises.
Progressing – How Should You Progress, and How Often?
Progressing full-body dumbbell workouts can be done every week for as long as you can continue to progress. This is typically every 4-6 weeks, however you may be able to run a program longer before switching out movements.
If you have access to a wide range of dumbbell weights, and can lift heavy enough loads (ones you cannot get for more than 10 reps), you can challenge strength levels by lifting within the 5-10 rep range of some movements (choose 2-3 exercises per day to train heavy).
Progressing these can be as simple as doing one more rep than the week before, or using heavier dumbbells and getting the same number of reps as the week prior.
For other exercises where you either are not lifting for strength or do not have access to heavy enough loads, you will want to progress by trying to perform more reps, as this will push you closer to fatigue.
Volume – How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do?
An easy way to determine your overall training volume per muscle group is to add up the total number of hard training to failure (or strength sets) you do throughout the week.
Larger muscle groups would get at least 10-12 total work sets to build some muscle and/or maintain your current levels.
If you wanted to up this to 14-20 total work sets per week, you could find yourself building more muscle.
If you are training more than 4 days a week, you may even up this to 20-25 total sets if you are still able to recover properly.
Smaller muscle groups could be trained 8-12 total sets for basic muscle growth and maintenance, or you could train them 12-20 total sets if you wanted to place a lot of emphasis on them for more muscle growth.
Also important to note rep ranges can vary based on your weights.
If you have access to loads that are heavy (ones that you cannot get more than 10 reps with), then you can train the 5-10 rep range hard on some days.
Otherwise, your rep ranges should really depend on your training to be close to failure, as that is the key when working with light weights or limited weight selections. This may mean you train in the 10-20 rep range, and other times in the 20-30 rep range.
Full-Body Dumbbell Workout: 3 Examples
Below are three different full-body dumbbell workouts that you can do to train all the major muscle groups of the body in one session. These workouts can complement each other and could be run as a complete 3-day full-body dumbbell workout program.
Note For Fitbod Users
- All of the below exercises can be found in the Fitbod app, making it even easier to learn proper form (videos), track your progress, and adjust your week to week workouts to achieve optimal results.
- However, these workouts may not appear in the app exactly how it is written below. The workouts below are examples of how you could structure your full-body dumbbell workouts. With these example workouts, and the recommendations discussed above you should be able to design a full-body dumbbell workout program that fits your goals.
Full Body Dumbell Workout # 1
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift: 5 sets of 8-10 reps, with 60 seconds rest between sets, working on low and slow reps.
- Dumbbell Squat: 5 sets of 8-10 reps, with 60 seconds rest between sets. Make sure you stay upright and let the knees move forward over your toes while keeping your heels down on the ground. The lower the squat, the better.
- Arnold Dumbbell Press: 5 sets of 8-10 reps, with 60 seconds rest between sets. This is for the shoulders and rear delts, so make sure you take your time and feel the muscles working.
- Dumbbell Bent Over Row: 5 sets of 8-10 reps, with 60 seconds rest between sets.Keep the back flat, chest up, and hips back the whole time.
- Dumbbell Skullcrusher: 5 sets of 8-10 reps, with 60 seconds rest between sets. Focus on bending the elbows, and keeping them pointed up and back towards your forehead as you lower the weights.
Full body Dumbell Workout #2
- Dumbbell Sumo Squat: 4 sets of 15-20 reps, with 60 seconds rest between sets, working on low and slow reps. Squeeze the glutes at the top of every set.
- Dumbbell Floor Press: 4 sets of 15-20 reps, with 60 seconds rest between sets. You should feel the triceps a lot on these.
- Dumbbell Row (1 arm): 4 sets of 15-20 reps per arm, with 60 seconds rest between sets. Make sure you keep your chest up and do not let the elbows flare out.
- Dumbbell Bicep Curl: 4 sets of 12-15 reps per arm, with 60 seconds rest between sets. Make sure you straighten the elbows at the bottom of every rep, and not swing the weights to lift them.
- Dumbbell Kickbacks:4 sets of 15-20 reps, make sure to pause at the top and flex the triceps hard every rep.
Full Body Dumbell Workout #3
- Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat: 3 sets of 20-30 reps, with 60 seconds of rest between. Make the quads and glutes burn.
- Dumbbell Glute Bridge: 3 sets of 20-30 reps, with 60 seconds of rest between. Flex the glutes at the top of every rep.
- Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 20-30 reps, with 60 seconds of rest between. All the way down, all the way up.
- Elbows Out Dumbbell Bent Over Row: 3 sets of 20-30 reps, with 60 seconds rest between sets. Keep the back flat, and have the elbows flared out so that you feel more of the upper back and rear delts
- Dumbbell Bicep Curl (add a twist): 3 sets of 20-30 reps, with 60 seconds of rest between. If you want, you can add a twist to add variety to your bicep curl training.
Are There Drawbacks to Training With Dumbbells Only?
There are potential drawbacks to training with dumbbells only, with the main ones being discussed below.
Stronger Lifters Will Find It Difficult to Progress Strength
Stronger lifers may find that training with dumbbells can impede their ability to push the muscle with heavier loads, often in rep ranges below 10 reps.
This may not always be the case, but when training with heavy loads in the 2-5 rep range, getting heavier dumbbells can be challenging.
Assuming you are able to get heavy dumbbells, getting them in the proper position may also be challenging, especially for squats and chest/shoulder pressing (for example if you can squat 315lbs on a barbell, it may be hard to handle two, 150lbs dumbbells).
If you are looking to get strong, and have access to heavy dumbbells, you could also try integrating more unilateral exercise like dumbbell Bulgarian split squats instead of barbell squats, as unilateral training can be just as effective at building strength when trained properly.
Can Be Challenging to Truly Isolate a Muscle Group
Less skilled lifters may find it difficult to isolate a muscle group properly when only training with dumbbells.
Because dumbbells require more body awareness, coordination, and balance than a barbell or machines, some lifters may find they are unable to isolate smaller muscle groups as well.
Demands for Muscle Coordination Can Limit Ability to Train Intense
The greater demands for movement coordination, which can be seen as a benefit as well, can also be a limitation for people who want to train a muscle to failure, and isolate it to induce serious muscle growth.
Machines are often great for this type of training, as they allow you to train hard, not have to worry so much about coordination of movement, and instead focus all your effort on attacking the muscle itself.
If you find yourself having form breakdowns with dumbbells, or other muscle groups are limiting your ability to train the intended target muscle to failure, you may want to try a machine variation to better train the muscle at that time.
Can Be Unsafe to Use Alone When Training Heavy
For stronger lifters, using heavier loads to build muscle and strength is necessary. It can be challenging (as we previously discussed) to find heavier loads and get them into position properly.
Sometimes, lifting heavy dumbbells, without a spotter or training partner to help you get the dumbbells in position (such as helping you lay back with heavy dumbbells during a dumbbell bench press) can increase injury risks.
As you train heavy, and get tired, you may find that all it takes is one slip up or bad rep to create injury to a joint or muscle due to the highetened need for joint stability when training with dumbbells.
This is why it is not recommended to train a dumbbell exercise with a load that you cannot do at least 5 reps with.
Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try 3 free workouts on Fitbod.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you get a full body workout with just dumbbells?
Yes, you can get a great full body workout with just dumbbells, just like you can if you only used machines or barbells. Getting a full body workout is about training the major muscles of the body in one workout, not what piece of equipment you are using (which will dictate the exercise you choose for a given muscle).
Can you build muscle mass with just dumbbells?
Yes, you can build muscle mass with a dumbbell. Training muscle mass is not determined by what piece of equipment you choose (dumbbell, barbell, machines) but rather the overall stress to the body.
When training with dumbbells, you want to apply the same principles as if you are training with any other piece of equipment: progressive overload, using proper form and technique, and training consistently for long periods of time.
About The Author
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.