There are many ways to work out and build strength and muscle. Machines, barbells, kettlebells, smith machines, bodyweight… but did you know you can get a full-body strength workout using only dumbbells?
This is a super convenient way to do strength training.
Every gym has dumbbells, and they don’t come with a long wait as you might get with the bench press or squat rack.
But is training strength with dumbbells really a good idea? Is it even possible? And what are the best dumbbell strength exercises?
Read on and we’ll answer everything.
Can You Build Strength With Just Dumbbells?
Yes, you can build strength with dumbbells alone.
You don’t need any fancy equipment, or even a barbell, to train and get stronger.
All you really need are heavy things you can lift up and put down.
This could be a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, or even a couple of really heavy shopping bags.
Can You Do a Full Body With Only Dumbbells?
One thing a lot of people don’t realize is that you can do full-body workouts with dumbbells.
We typically think of dumbbells as good for isolation exercises, like bicep curls. Maybe you use them for shoulders too, like flys or overhead presses.
But dumbbells are actually extremely versatile.
You can use them to target any part of the body, along with doing both isolation and compound exercises.
All the barbell staples can be done with dumbbells, with a little tinkering, and they let you hone in on specific parts of the body easier.
Is a Full Body Workout Good for Strength Training?
There are some advantages to doing a full-body workout (dumbbell or otherwise), versus splits, for strength training.
Some may claim that the only way to work out is with splits, but that’s absolutely not true - especially when we’re talking about strength training.
The best thing about full body workouts is convenience.
Not everyone is able to get in the gym consistently enough to work different areas of the body on separate days of the week. You end up missing one because you’re too busy, and it sends your schedule out of whack.
A full-body workout means you don’t risk missing out on your legs or chest one week because something comes up. Full-body is thus great for busy people trying to get work in when they can.
Full-body is also a great fit for strength training.
To build strength, you want more explosive, compound movements. Training with splits often involves a lot more isolation, which is good for muscle growth and definition, but not so necessary for overall, full-body strength.
So you may feel that the limitations of having to hit every part of the body in one workout means more compound exercises and more overall strength gains.
How Heavy Should My Dumbbells Be to Gain Strength?
The correct answer to this is going to vary for each person and for each exercise.
For example, you won’t curl with the same weight as you would with a squat or bench press. And, obviously, every person has their own capability as to what they can lift.
If you’re lifting for strength, you generally want to go heavier on the weight.
That’s because strength training is about inducing an adaptive response in your body. As you lift heavy things, your body adapts to this, and the threshold for how heavy you can lift increases.
Yet, with dumbbells, you need to be a little more careful that you don’t overdo the weight.
Your form is important, and dumbbells provide less support for your form than barbells or machines do.
If you go too heavy, you’ll risk injury, or at least not get the right benefits as you would from doing it with proper form.
Long story short, the answer is to lift as heavy as you can while still maintaining proper form throughout your set.
How Many Dumbbell Sets and Reps Should I Do For Strength?
Dr Andy Galpin suggests a broad rule of thumb for building strength - the 3 to 5 rule:
- Do 3 to 5 reps per set
- Do this for 3 to 5 sets
- Take 3 to 5 minutes rest between sets
- Do 3 to 5 exercises per workout
- Repeat 3 to 5 times per week
Following this, you’d do 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps each, taking a decent rest in between each.
Of course, this is not the only way to do it. It’s not like you won’t get stronger if you do longer sets, or less reps.
When you’re starting out with exercises, specifically dumbbell exercises, you might want to go a little lighter weight, for longer sets, to get your form perfect.
Eventually, progress to doing this at heavy weights, with the 3 to 5 method outlined above.
The Best Dumbbell Exercises to Build Strength
Here are some of the best full-body, compound dumbbell exercises to include in your full-body dumbbell strength workout.
No full-body workout is complete without deadlifts. You can do deadlifts with dumbbells too, hitting your legs, back, and all through the posterior chain.
Overhead press (seated or standing) is a great compound exercise, hitting your shoulders and upper back.
Dumbbell Chest Press
Just like you would with a barbell bench press, do the same with dumbbells, working your chest along with a wider range of stabilizer muscles.
Rows will work your shoulders more, along with the lats and arms.
Finally, make sure you’re hitting the lower body with goblet squats, which will also help build core strength.
Best Weekly Dumbbell Workout Split to Increase Strength
If you’d rather do a weekly split, here’s a way to do it with only dumbbells, working off a three-day rotation.
Day One: Arms and Shoulders
- Bicep curls
- Overhead tricep extension
- Overhead press
- Bent-over row
- Rear delt fly
Day Two: Chest and Back
- Dumbbell chest press
- Dumbbell fly
- Dumbbell deadlift
- Reverse fly
- Dumbbell pullover
Day Three: Legs
- Goblet squat
- Dumbbell lunges
- Dumbbell step-ups
- Calf raise
- Romanian deadlifts
This split is a great way to get stronger from head to toe using only dumbbells. If you’re more pressed for time, use our full-body dumbbell workout above to do the same, whenever you can get access to a dumbbell rack.