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Dumbbell Exercise Routines for Strength and Muscle Building

Updated on April 1, 2015

The dumbell is a flexible piece of workout equipment, able to condition a fighter for an MMA match, build muscle for a bodybuilding contest, or keep the average person strong and healthy.

In fact, you can use them in so many ways, the question is where do you start with dumbbells to achieve your goals?

Fortunately, most fitness goals, whether related to sports or general health, have some crossover in terms of training. In other words, if your goal is to have an Abercrombie & Fitch model’s body, it can be achieved by practicing the same routine that MMA fighter might use. Ditto for the relationship between a workout made for football and one made for a bodybuilder.

In fact, dumbbell exercises are so versatile it is possible to create a flowing non-stop workout routine to develop strength, muscular endurance and stamina; just the right recipe for the military, police or firefighters.

The dumbell Renegade Row
The dumbell Renegade Row | Source

Dumbbell Workout Examples

With so much information available about how many sets and reps are optimal for building muscle or strength, it is impossible to address this topic in its entirety here. For purposes of simplicity, the examples below are shown with the widely accepted 3-5 reps for strength, 8-10 for building muscle and 12+ for muscular endurance.

Strength: It is possible to build strength with dumbbells alone, but if this is the main goal, barbells will have to be used eventually.

Do the following exercises in order, resting ~90 seconds between sets and completing all sets before moving on to the next exercise.

In general, beginners can try for 2 sets, and more experienced lifters for 3 or more. Remember to go heavy, but not so heavy that it creates bad form.

  • Dumbell Clean and Press: x3-5 repetitions. Use two dumbbells, clean them from the floor and to the shoulders, catching them in a full squat. Squat to standing and press. Not a jerk or a push press. Lower to floor and repeat.
  • Renegade Row: x 5-7 repetitions each side. This is a good lat exercise, but an even better core strengthening exercise.
  • Floor Press: x3-5 reps. Using two dumbbells, lay on the floor and perform the floor press. This is just a dumbbell bench press without the bench. Doing these on the bench is fine too.
  • Push Press: x3-5. Clean two dumbbells to the shoulders, then with a slight dip (a partial squat) in the knees, drive them overhead. Repeat this without pausing between reps to utilize the built up elastic energy.
  • Stiff Legged Deadlift: x6-8 Holding two dumbbells, tighten the stomach, hamstrings and lower back as you slowly lower the weights to touch the floor in front of your toes. Do not round the back and keep everything tight as you use the hamstrings to pull yourself back up to standing. For greater range of motion, stand on a step or thick board.

Notice how this sample strength routine uses large compound movements and has power movements (the clean and push press) in it as well. This combination can be adjusted, as long as the exercises encourage using multiple muscle groups under high tension.

Single leg, stiff-leg deadlift.
Single leg, stiff-leg deadlift. | Source
Dumbbell upright row
Dumbbell upright row | Source

Building Muscle

Strength can be built in the 3-5 repetition range and lower, but a higher repetition count is optimal for building muscle. Not too high, though. Organizations like ACE and the NSCA recommend the 10 rep range. Of course, that is not the whole story to packing on mass; effort and nutrition play a huge role as well. In any case, this sample routine for muscle-building with dumbbells shows one way of doing it:

6 exercises x 8-10 repetitons of each; no rest between exercises; 2 minutes between rounds.

  • Push Press: Stand with two dumbbells at the shoulders, drop down to a full squat and drive back up, pressing the dumbbells overhead as you do.
  • 1 Leg Deadlift: This is a stiff-leg deadlift. Hold two dumbbells at your sides, lean forward with a straight back, allowing the non-working leg to rise to parallel behind you. The dumbbells touch the floor and you stand back up. See the pictures for clarification
  • Upright Rows: With both dumbbells, bring the weights up under the chin, elbows flared to the side. See the pictures for clarification.
  • Bent Over Rows: Using both dumbells, perform bent over rows. The back should be arched, not rounded, and almost parallel to the floor.
  • Floor Press: The floor press is the bench press from the floor.
  • Pullovers: The pullover is the pullover from the floor. Keep the arms extended when lowering and raising the weight.

This routine can be broken up to allow an increase in weight, or for additional rest time. The easiest way to do this is to use supersets such as:

  • Push Press + 1Leg Deadlift
  • Upright Rows + Bent Over Rows
  • Pullovers + Floor Press

The Windmill with a dumbbell
The Windmill with a dumbbell | Source

Muscular Endurance/Anaerobic Capacity

Conditioning workouts for muscular endurance and increased anaerobic capacity can easily be done by decreasing the weight, increasing the repetitions and decreasing the rest time. it also helps to use exercises conducive to faster movements, such as the swing and the snatch.

Here is an example routine:

6 Exercises x 12+ reps x __? rounds (beginners 2-3, intermediate 3-4, Advanced 4 at max intensity.) No rest between exercises, 30 seconds between rounds.

  • 1 Arm Snatch + Windmills + Lunges + Swings + Push Press + Alternating Dumbbell Rows

Use a fast pace, but do not sacrifice form, and keep moving during each round. This type of workout is common practice for MMA athletes, but lends itself well to any activity where prolonged high energy output is necessary. Also, if you are just looking to torch fat and build some lean muscle all over, this is the workout for you.

Whether your goal is to build muscle, get strong and stay healthy or to have a body like a fitness model, a simple pair of dumbbells is the perfect exercise equipment to help you get there. Start training today!


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    • MosLadder profile image

      Chris Montgomery 6 years ago from Irvine, CA

      Thanks for commenting revortay1. I appreciate the share! I often switch around the equipment I use to workout with, but I always return to good old-fashioned dumbbells. Cheers!

    • revortay1 profile image

      revortay1 6 years ago from PA

      Great hub here! I shared it with my followers :] I love incorporating dumbbells into my lifting routines to help my stabilizing muscles

    • MosLadder profile image

      Chris Montgomery 6 years ago from Irvine, CA

      True Mathira, thanks for commenting!

    • mathira profile image

      mathira 6 years ago from chennai

      Exercise can work wonders to your body if you do it right and regularly.Good hub.

    • MosLadder profile image

      Chris Montgomery 6 years ago from Irvine, CA

      Ha! No doubt, the years keep coming faster. You're right though, in many ways I feel like I am in the best shape of my life. Cheers!

    • Crewman6 profile image

      Crewman6 6 years ago

      Gonna be an old guy like me before you know it! That's okay, it's not the years on the body, it's the effort that's put into maintaining it. You have great advice, no matter what the age is.

    • MosLadder profile image

      Chris Montgomery 6 years ago from Irvine, CA

      Hey Crewman6! They are fun toys, especially the new BowFlex and Powerbvlocks. I finally hit 40, maybe that's why I'm gravitating toward them!

    • Crewman6 profile image

      Crewman6 6 years ago

      Good information, and I'm really glad to see the dumbbell getting recognition. I prefer it over the barbells- at my age (over 50) dumbbells have an inherent weight limitation the keeps me from re-injuring old 'problem areas!'

    • MosLadder profile image

      Chris Montgomery 6 years ago from Irvine, CA

      Thanks CyclingFitness, glad you stopped by. Cheers!

    • CyclingFitness profile image

      Liam Hallam 6 years ago from Nottingham UK

      Great hub with lots of fantastic workout suggestions. Renegade rows are definitely a hardcore exercise when you watch them.

      Dumbbells provide great flexibility in the gym.

      Voted up- awesome!