Best Upper Body Dumbbell Workout – Fitness Volt – Fitness Volt

Written by Patrick Dale, PT, ex-Marine
Last Updated onAugust 29, 2022
Upper Body Dumbbell Workout
Strength and bodybuilding can often seem to be complicated subjects. For example, trying to find a definitive answer to the question “how should I train” can leave you feeling like you are looking for a needle haystack.
That’s because fitness experts LOVE to contradict one another, promoting one “secret” method while dismissing everything else.
Looking for answers in scientific studies probably won’t help much, either, as many are contradictory. For example, one study may say you need to do twenty sets a week for muscle growth, while others may report that eight sets are all you need.
Why all this confusion?
The answer is simple – pretty much everything works!
High reps with light weights, low reps with heavy weights, training to failure, training short of failure, split routines, full-body routines, freeweights, calisthenics…all of these training methods can produce gains in muscle mass and strength, providing you do it consistently and with sufficient intensity.
In most cases, the “best” training solution is the one that you can stick with. Not for a week or a month but for the many years it takes to make significant progress.
So, for this article, we’re going to give you an upper-body dumbbell workout you can do at home or at the gym. You’ll need an adjustable bench too, but that’s it. This is a very excuse-free workout!
A lot of people are quick to dismiss dumbbell-only training, believing that it is in some way inferior to using barbells. While it’s true that a barbell may mean you can lift heavier weights, dumbbells offer many benefits and can be just as effective.
Dumbbells In GymDumbbells In Gym
Their advantages include:
Getting stuck under a heavy barbell during bench presses can cause serious injury. If you cannot complete your rep, you could end up with the barbell crushing your chest or neck. This is much less likely with dumbbells.
If you are unable to complete a rep, simply lower your weights to the floor. You can’t do that with a barbell, and a failed rep of barbell bench presses can cause serious injury.
With no bar to hit your chest or shoulders during rows and presses, you can move your joints through a more extensive range of motion. This is good for joint mobility, flexibility, and muscle growth.
Most people have one arm or leg that is stronger than the other. This is very normal. But, if that imbalance becomes too great, it can lead to postural abnormalities, lop-sided muscle development, and athletic performance issues. Training with dumbbells can highlight any imbalances and provide you with the means to fix them.
Most barbell and machine exercises are bilateral, i.e., they use two limbs. You can do most dumbbell exercises unilaterally, meaning using just one arm.
For example, you can do single-arm bench presses, overhead presses, and bent-over rows. Unilateral exercises allow you to focus more on the muscle you are training and can help strengthen your mind-muscle connection.
Because you’ll need to work harder to stabilize dumbbells compared to a barbell, you’ll probably find that you won’t be able to lift as much weight. While that may seem like a disadvantage, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it may be a good thing because less weight means less joint stress.
Less joint stress means fewer missed workouts because of injury, easier recovery, and you can train with more volume and frequency, producing better results.
Lifting two weights instead of one will challenge your nervous system more than using a barbell or resistance machine. This will develop your balance and coordination. These fitness attributes are crucial in sports and can also help make everyday activities easier.
There are hundreds of different dumbbell exercises, and most of them can be performed using two hands, one hand, or even using an alternating arm action. However, some exercises are only possible with dumbbells – there is no barbell equivalent. Even if they are your only form of training, using dumbbells should never be boring!
So, if dumbbells (also spelled dumb-bells) are so good, why do they have the word dumb in their name?
Dumbbells are so-called because they were initially developed so that 18th-century English church bell ringers could practice their skills in silence and avoid disturbing the people nearby. They were literally “dumb bells,” with dumb being an old-fashion word for silent.
Different DumbbellsDifferent Dumbbells
First, for pressing exercises, it can be difficult to get heavy dumbbells into the correct starting position. Also, barbells are usually easier to use for exercises like squats and deadlifts.
That said, if you only have access to dumbbells, don’t worry too much about what you can’t do, and focus more on what you can. Ultimately, any exercise is better than no exercise, and you can still work all your major muscles using dumbbells.
A lot of exercisers make the mistake of training without direction. They select exercises at random, work hard, and then wonder why they aren’t making progress.
While hard work is essential for building strength and muscle, you must also train smart. That means following a logical program that trains all your muscle groups equally and with an appropriate level of volume and intensity.
All the hard work in the world won’t do much for you if it is misdirected.
So, here is a structured, balanced dumbbell upper body workout for you to try. Do it twice a week on non-constitutive days, e.g., Monday and Thursday, to allow plenty of time for rest and recovery.
But, before you begin, remember that a good workout starts with a proper warm-up, and dumbbell training is no different. Prepare your body and mind for training by doing a few minutes of light cardio, such as jumping rope.
Then, when you feel warm and slightly out of breath, do some dynamic stretches and joint mobility exercises for the body parts you’re about to train. Finally, feel free to do 1-2 sets of the first pushing and pulling movements to complete your warm-up.
All done? Then let’s get to work!
There are two ways to do any exercise – the right way and the wrong way. The right way provides plenty of muscle-building tension while minimizing stress on your joints and connective tissue. The wrong way is usually less effective and more likely to cause injury. So, with that in mind, always prioritize proper technique above weight or reps. Perfect your form, then gradually increase the load as you get stronger.
Follow these instructions to get the most from all the exercises in your dumbbell upper body workout.
Target muscle: Pectoralis major
Dumbbell paused bench presses make a little weight go a long way. This can be useful if you find it hard to get heavy dumbbells into position for bench presses or only have light or moderate-weight dumbbells to train with. The mid-rep pauses increase time under tension, making each rep harder by reducing the stretch-shortening reflex.
How to do it:
Target muscles: Latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids
Pendlay rows, invented by US weightlifting and powerlifting coach Glen Pendlay, are usually done with a barbell but work equally well with dumbbells.
With this exercise, each rep starts with your weight(s) resting on the floor. Beginning from a dead stop means you cannot use momentum to lift the weight, making each rep a little more challenging.
How to do it:
Target muscle: Pectoralis major
This exercise combines two moves in one to hit your chest from multiple angles. Using an incline bench emphasizes your upper pecs. Don’t go too heavy with this exercise. Instead, focus more on squeezing your muscles to generate maximum muscle-building tension.
How to do it:
Target muscles: Latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids
Chest-supported dumbbell rows work your upper back while saving your lumbar spine from stress and strain. This gives you the freedom to focus on pushing your lats, traps, and rhomboids to their limit in complete safety.
How to do it:
Target muscle: Pectoralis major
This push-up drop set is designed to fully fatigue your chest. You’re only going to do it once, so make sure you push yourself to failure before moving to the next easier variation. By the last drop set, your pecs should be exhausted.
How to do it:
Target muscles: Latissimus dorsi, pectoalis major  
Pullovers are a part chest and part lat exercise, so they make a great finisher to the chest and back part of your workout. You’ll be doing this exercise as a triple drop set, so line up three dumbbells, one heavy, one medium, and one light, in readiness.
How to do it:
Target muscles: Deltoids
Like your first exercise, paused dumbbell bench presses, this exercise is designed to make light to moderate weights feel much heavier. The alternating arm action will keep your muscles under constant tension and make every rep feel much more demanding than usual.
How to do it:
Target muscles: Deltoids
Your final shoulder exercise is designed to completely exhaust your medial deltoids. You’ll be doing a drop set, so line up three pairs of dumbbells before you start – heavy, medium, and light. Drop sets are a very effective if intense hypertrophy training method.
How to do it:
Target muscles: Biceps
You’ve already worked your biceps pretty hard, albeit indirectly, during all your back exercises. That said, for localized growth, it’s also worth doing some isolation training for your arms to maximize hypertrophy.
According to the American Council on Exercise, or ACE for short, concentration curls are the best move for building bigger biceps (1), hence their inclusion in this workout.
How to do it:
Related: Concentration Curl Guide
Target muscles: Triceps
In the same way that all pulling exercises indirectly train your biceps, the same is true for pushing exercises and your triceps. This final exercise is designed to finish off your triceps to trigger greater hypertrophy. Dumbbell skull crushers are one of the best dumbbell triceps exercises you can do.
How to do it:
Read also: Bodyweight Skull Crushers Guide
The main difference between cutting and bulking is your diet rather than the workout you are following. For example, if you eat 300-500 calories above your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure), you should bulk up and build muscle.
In contrast, if you reduce your calorie expenditure to 300-500 calories BELOW your TDEE, you should burn fat and get leaner.
So, adjust your diet according to your body composition goal. Eat more to build muscle and less to lose fat. Train hard to stimulate muscle growth or preserve your existing muscle mass during your cutting diet.
Providing you use similar exercises, you are free to make changes to the programs. However, don’t increase training volume or use different rep ranges. Also, try and use similar exercises if you choose to make alterations.
For example, replacing dumbbell with barbell bench presses is fine, but doing dumbbell curls instead of chest-supported rows is not. Always remain faithful to the spirit of the workout.
We don’t know how strong you are, so it’s impossible to prescribe precise weights for you to lift. So, choose loads that take you close to failure within the specified rep range.
For example, if the program calls for 8-10 reps but you can do 15, your weight is too light. Conversely, if you can only do seven reps, it’s too heavy. Adjust your weights to keep you within the range mentioned in the plan.
One of the most important triggers for hypertrophy is training close to failure. In theory, it doesn’t matter if that failure occurs after six or 26 reps. Lower reps are more time-efficient, but if you only have light dumbbells, you’ll have to work with what you’ve got and do more reps to fatigue your muscles. Simply rep out to failure, even if that takes more reps than specified by the program.
Sure do! Use any of these workouts to balance your upper body training. Work your legs twice a week for the best muscle-building results!
Don’t see only having dumbbells and a bench to train with as a disadvantage. Instead, these low-tech training tools allow you to work every major muscle group in the comfort and safety of your own home.
Having dumbbells and a bench at home also mean you can work out anytime you like – your private gym is never shut!
Providing you train hard, eat right, and get plenty of rest and sleep, this upper body dumbbell workout will help you get stronger and more muscular.
1- American Council on Exercise (ACE): ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises
Patrick Dale is an ex-British Royal Marine, gym owner, and fitness qualifications tutor and assessor. In addition, Patrick is a freelance writer who has authored three fitness and exercise books, dozens of e-books, thousands of articles, and several fitness videos. He’s not just an armchair fitness expert; Patrick practices what he preaches! He has competed at a high level in numerous sports, including rugby, triathlon, rock climbing, trampolining, powerlifting, and, most recently, stand up paddleboarding. When not lecturing, training, researching, or writing, Patrick is busy enjoying the sunny climate of Cyprus, where he has lived for the last 20-years.
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