Believe it or not, you don't need access to an expensive gym to build muscle. What you do need is a basic understanding of some principles and a set of dumbbells. Muscle is built through the application of three simple rules. To build muscle you must:
- Progressively lift heavier and heavier weights
- Provide your body with enough nutrients
- Provide your body with enough rest to utilize those nutrients and repair damaged tissue
The first rule is formally known as progressive tension overload and was coined by U.S Army physician Thomas Delorme in the 1940s (1).
I like to call it the golden principle of muscle hypertrophy. It claims that in order for muscle to grow, it must adapt to a tension (or load) that it has not previously experienced.
And studies have shown that load is the single most important variable for stimulating muscle hypertrophy (2, 3). As long as you follow this golden rule, you will make progress. It’s really that simple.
And you don't need any fancy equipment- a set of dumbbells will suffice. The latest fitness statistics show that the popularity of home workouts is on the rise, and dumbbells can be a key component of your home or garage gym.
The only caveat is that you need a wide enough range of dumbbells to allow progressively increase the amount of weight you use and to lift as heavy as you can.
The fact of the matter is that access to a range of dumbbells (say 10-70 lbs) is sufficient enough to build muscle. Seriously. The only downside is that you may not have heavy enough dumbbells to effectively target certain muscle groups- namely, the quadriceps and hamstrings.
For this reason, we will train the lower body with high repetitions. The amount of variation in dumbbell exercises may surprise you.
To get an idea, check out Bodybuilding.com’s exercise finder. On the left-hand side, under “Equipment”, select “Dumbbell”. You can then filter the results by muscle group.
This workout follows a common 3x/week full body training protocol and is designed for those who have access to a range of dumbbells and an adjustable workout bench. Before jumping into the split, let's look at a few important principles.
Intensity refers to the amount of work done during each lift and is proportional to the amount of weight used (4). Make sure you perform each lift with maximum intensity! This means lifting as much weight as you can for the target rep range (discussed next).
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Volume refers to the number of reps and sets performed during each workout season (4).
- Reps: You should complete 6-8 reps for large muscle groups (chest, back, and shoulders), 8-12 reps for small muscle groups (biceps and triceps), and 15-20 reps for legs.
- Sets: This workout involves a total of 22 sets- 4 sets for each of the large muscle groups, and 3 for the small muscle groups. If you find that you can't complete all 22 sets within 45-90 mins, do 3 sets for each muscle group (for a total of 18 sets).
Frequency refers to the number of training sessions that are performed each week (4). This workout involves 3 full-body workouts per week. If you are new to weightlifting, you may find that your body cannot recover quickly enough for each session. If this is the case, start with 2 workouts per week, then move up to 3 when you feel ready.
Remember the golden rule — progressively lift heavier and heavier weights!
For instance, if today you complete 6 reps of dumbbell bench press using 60 lbs, you should aim to hit 6 or 7 reps the following week and to increase the weight by 5 lbs the week after that.
Keep in mind that is merely a general guideline, and how quickly you progress will depend on a lot of factors including age and genetics.
The workout below does not include warm-up sets. Before starting each exercise, do a warm-up set (with about ½ the weight you normally use) for as many reps as possible.
3 Day Full Body Dumbbell Workout Routine
- Dumbbell Bench Press - 4 sets of 6-8 reps
- Stiff-Legged Dumbbell Deadlift - 4 sets of 15-20 reps
- Standing Dumbbell Press - 4 sets of 6-8 reps
- One-arm Dumbell row - 4 sets of 6-8 reps
- Dumbbell One-Arm Triceps Extension - 3 sets of 8-12 reps
- Dumbbell Bicep Curl - 3 sets of 8-12 reps
- Dumbbell Flyes - 4 sets of 6-8 reps
- Dumbbell Hamstring Curl- 15-20 reps
- Side Laterals to Front Raise - 4 sets of 6-8 reps
- Straight-Arm Dumbbell Pull-Over - 4 sets of 6-8 reps
- Tricep Dumbbell Kickback - 3 sets of 8-12 reps
- Alternate Hammer Curl - 3 sets of 8-12 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Press - 4 sets of 6-8 reps
- Dumbbell Goblet Squat - 4 sets of 15-20 reps
- Arnold Press - 4 sets of 6-8 reps
- Bent Over Two-Dumbbell Row - 4 sets of 6-8 reps
- Seated Triceps Press - 3 sets of 8-12 reps
- Concentration Curls - 3 sets of 8-12 reps
Written by the Olympic Muscle Team
1 - “Progressive Overload.” Optimizing Strength Training: Designing Nonlinear Periodization Workouts, by William J. Kraemer, Human Kinetics, 2007, pp. 33–36.
2 - Schoenfeld, Brad J. “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 24, no. 10, 2010, pp. 2857–2872., doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181e840f3.
3- Fry, Andrew C. “The Role of Resistance Exercise Intensity on Muscle Fibre Adaptations.” Sports Medicine, vol. 34, no. 10, 2004, pp. 663–679., doi:10.2165/00007256-200434100-00004.
4- “Strength Training.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Jan. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strength_training#Intensity,_volume,_and_frequency.