Dumbbell training can be a valuable part of any lifter’s journey. They can help you add muscle mass, increase coordination, correct muscle imbalances, and even help you gain strength.
The steps to start strength training with dumbbells are:
Determine Your Workout Split
Determine Your Main Dumbbell Movements
Add Accessory Work To Build Muscle
Create The Exercises, Sets, Reps, & Workout Duration
In this article, we will outline how you can develop your own dumbbell training program to build strength and muscle. We will discuss what exercise you should choose, what workout split is best, and how many sets and reps you should perform.
Note: It is important to remember that the more advanced and stronger you are, the more weight you will need to lift relative to your strength. If you do not have access to a wide range of dumbbells, you will need to employ some strategies discussed below to aid in muscle growth and strength.
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Step 1: Determine Your Workout Split
Based on your commitment and training schedules, you need to first determine how many sessions a week you will be devoting to training.
Related Article: Full Body Dumbbell Workout (3 Examples)
IF YOU WORKOUT 3 DAYS OR LESS A WEEK…
If you workout less than three times a week, it is recommended that you train using a total-body workout split.
A total body split is one in which you perform both upper and lower body exercises in a single training session.
This means that most muscle groups will get trained 2-3 times per week, for roughly 3-5 sets per session. This will allow you to train most muscle groups 12-18 sets per week.
Related Article: 2 Day Workout Split for Beginners (That Actually Works)
IF YOU WORKOUT 4 DAYS A WEEK…
If you workout four times a week, it is recommended that you build your plan to follow an upper/lower split or a push/pull split.
An upper/lower split is one in which you dedicate one workout to upper body exercise and one workout to lower body exercises.
A push/pull split is one in which you focus one workout on pushing weight, typically ‘away’ from your body, and one workout where you focus on pulling weight, typically ‘toward’ your body. Following this split, you could combine upper and lower body exercises in a single workout, so long as the primary focus is either ‘pushing’ or ‘pulling’.
Both of these allow you to train muscle groups twice per week, and allow you to train 4-8 sets per session per muscle group, still staying within your 12-18 total working sets range for the week.
Related Article: How To Mix Hypertrophy and Strength Training (Ultimate Guide)
IF YOU WORKOUT 5+ DAYS A WEEK…
If you train 5+ times a week, it is recommended that you do some sort of a body part or movement-style training split.
A body part split is one in which you focus on 1-2 muscle groups per workout. For example, one workout would be focused on chest exercise, another workout would be focused on back exercises.
A movement-style training split is one in which you focus an entire workout on a specific movement pattern, most often including compound movements. For example, having a workout focused on different bench press variations (barbell bench press, incline bench press, dumbbell bench press).
This means you will train every muscle group 2-3 times per week.
You can also do upper/lower splits, with the fifth day being an additional day for whatever muscle groups you want to develop further.
The key here is to not exceed 18 total working sets per muscle group per week as this will combat recovery and not allow for optimal muscle growth for most individuals.
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Step 2: Determine Your Main Dumbbell Movements
Determining which movements will help you gain strength using only dumbbells (and bodyweight) can depend on your ability levels, current strength, and the weight of dumbbells you have available.
For example, someone who squats 400lbs and only has 30lb dumbbells will have a more challenging time developing strength using only bodyweight and 30lbs dumbbells than someone who struggles to squat 95lbs and now has 30lb dumbbells.
If you are someone who is stronger than your dumbbells allow for, you will need to rely heavily on unilateral exercises for strength (single leg/single arm), as well as slowing movements down by using tempo training and pauses, and shifting your expectations from maximal strength gain to maybe a more realistic strength maintenance and muscle gaining phase.
Be sure to browse this complete list of dumbbell bodybuilding exercises to help you choose movements that can build muscle, strength, and fitness.
Here are some examples of the main exercises you should consider adding to your dumbbell strength training program:
Related Article: Low Impact Strength Training: 15 Exercises For Beginners
For beginners or lifters who do have access to relatively heavier dumbbells, movements like dumbbell front squats and dumbbell goblet squat are great ways to build leg strength and muscle.
Adding in pauses, tempos, and other advanced training protocols can all be great ways to extend the range of your dumbbell training.
DUMBBELL SPLIT SQUATS
Dumbbell split squats are ideal for lifters who may not have access to relatively heavy loads (or beginners).
By performing unilateral exercises, you essentially double the loading placed on a leg at a time (since the other one is not helping).
This can be a great way to also correct any muscle imbalances, movement symmetries, and help you improve long-term strength when you return to lifting heavier weights.
DUMBBELL SINGLE LEG HIP RAISES
The single leg dumbbell hip thrust is a great alternative to a heavy bilateral hip thrust, and can be used to increase glute and hamstring strength in place of heavier deadlift movements.
Note, that this will also help reinforce proper glute activation, and can easily be paired with dumbbell Romanian deadlifts or unilateral leg exercises to create a potent leg strengthening combo.
Related Article: Hip Thrusts vs Squats: Which Is Better For Growing Your Glutes?
DUMBBELL ROMANIAN DEADLIFTS
The dumbbell Romanian deadlift (also can do this with a single leg or staggered stance RDL) is a hamstring dominant exercise that can be used in place of heavier deadlifts.
While this will not replace heavy pulling in stronger individuals, it can suffice for muscle hypertrophy work, especially if weights are heavier and advanced training protocols like tempos and pauses are used.
DUMBBELL UNILATERAL LOWER BODY EXERCISES
Other unilateral dumbbell lower body exercises like reverse lunges and dumbbell death marches are great exercises to incorporate for strength and muscle hypertrophy.
This will further enhance your muscle growth and help correct any muscle imbalance you may have.
DUMBBELL FLOOR PRESS
The dumbbell floor press is a good exercise to increase chest, triceps, and upper body pressing strength when you do not have a bench OR if you are looking to add extra emphasis to the triceps.
This is also a good exercise to take pressure off the shoulders if you have shoulder issues when pressing.
DUMBBELL OVERHEAD PRESS
The dumbbell overhead press is a great way to add shoulder strength and size. This can be done using a variety of tempos, ranges, and pauses to isolate the shoulders and build muscle.
Related Article: 9 Best Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises (With Program)
DUMBBELL BENCH PRESS
The dumbbell bench press is a classic strength exercise for the chest and triceps. You can vary the grip and hand angles to place more emphasis on the chest/triceps as needed.
DUMBBELL BENT OVER ROWS
Dumbbells bent over rows are an excellent way to increase back strength (lower and upper).
This exercise is often done incorrectly though, so be sure to review the video link above so that you properly perform the bent over row technique to increase back strength and minimize injury.
Don’t forget to also include bodyweight movements, like push ups, handstand push ups, chin ups, pull up, and pistol squats. All of these are great upper body strength movements.
You can always add weight to pull ups, chin ups, and pistol squats by holding a dumbbell between the leg/in the front rack of the pistol squat. Adding deficits to ph ups and handstand push ups are also great ways to increase upper body strength with bodyweight movements.
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Step 3: Add Accessory Work to Build Muscle
You can fill in the rest of your training program by adding in accessory work, which can help to increase muscle hypertrophy, correct asymmetries, and help you round out your program.
SINGLE JOINT MOVEMENTS
Single joint exercises are great movement for accessory segments.
Unlike compound exercises, they allow you to really focus on developing a particular muscle group often in a highly detailed manner.
Compound lifting is key for overall muscle growth, however adding in movements like shoulder raises, biceps curls, triceps skull crushers, and hamstring curls can all lead to increased strength and muscle growth too.
Adding additional unilateral exercises can help to increase muscle development, aid in balance and coordination for bilateral movements, and help to correct movement patterning issues and muscle imbalance.
Adding them into accessory blocks is also a great way to finish a muscle off for that day and stimulate growth.
Step 4: Create The Exercises, Sets, Reps, & Workout Duration
While a perfect dumbbell workout program can come in many shapes and sizes, developing one based on these guidelines can give you a head start. Aim to adhere to these guidelines and get training!
HOW MANY EXERCISES PER WORKOUT?
For most individuals, stick to 4-6 exercises per workout (not including warm up exercises).
This will allow you to stay focused on what you need to be doing and get quality work sets. The key is to do enough to stimulate growth, but not be excessive where your sets and reps just become sloppy and counterproductive.
HOW MANY SETS AND REPS FOR STRENGTH?
If you are looking for more strength goals, and have access to relatively heavier loads, try performing 4-6 sets of 5-10 reps on bigger compound lifts.
I do not recommend training less than 8 reps for single joint movements like curls, skull crushers, etc.
HOW MANY SETS AND REPS FOR MUSCLE BUILDING?
For muscle growth (or accessory training for strength), try performing 3-5 sets of 8-20 reps with an emphasis on local muscle fatigue (rather than just performing a movement).
The key to muscle growth is feeling the target muscle working.
SHOULD YOU TRAIN TO FAILURE?
For most strength sets, no. Train to a point where you have 1-2 reps in the tank that are high quality. You want to stop before your form breaks down.
For muscle growth, you can train closer to all out failure, just be sure to not lose focus on feeling the muscle. If you start to push to failure and fail to connect your brain to your muscle working, stop.
HOW LONG SHOULD YOU DO THIS PROGRAM?
I recommend making changes to a program around the 4-6 week period. This can be simple changes too, like exercise swaps, adding a set each week, or changing up tempos and pauses.
Hopefully this ultimate dumbbell strength training guide helps you develop a program that will get you headed in the right direction. Dumbbells are a great tool for strength, however just remember as you progres you will need to lift heavier weights, so look to also diversify your training with a barbell as well.
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.
Mike has published over 500+ articles on premiere online media outlets like BarBend, BreakingMuscle, Men’s Health, and FitBob, covering his expertise of strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, fitness, and sports nutrition. In Mike’s spare time, he enjoys the outdoors, traveling the world, coaching, whiskey and craft beer, and spending time with his family and friends.