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Upper Body Dumbbell Workout – New Moves, New Strength

A couple of years ago I suffered a hip injury. Nothing too major, but it was enough to prevent me from doing any lower body work of note. Deadlifts, squats etc were all out. I was competing as a weightlifter at the time, so I used the enforced break to switch things up.

I embarked upon 6 weeks of upper body dumbbell training. No barbells and none of my usual movements. The workouts featured in this article are exactly the kind of thing I was doing. They’re complete upper body sessions, mixing push and pull exercises. 

They also feature abdominal exercises, with a bit of ‘vanity’ work thrown in.

I wasn’t trying to re-invent the wheel here, I just wanted to take things back to basics and challenge my body in a new way. 

It worked well and the break did me some good – despite not touching a barbell for weeks, I hadn’t lost any strength… Check out the comment I wrote on a PB equalling snatch I’d hit having not snatched for weeks…

It also taught me that occasionally, we need to shake ourselves out of a training rut. We can get into repeating patterns in training, and I’m not convinced it’s good for us. 

In this article, I’m going to show you an upper body dumbbell workout that will challenge you. It’ll change you. It’ll expose your body to a new stimulus, and it’ll give your body a chance to develop a different form of strength.

Finally, it’ll train you unilaterally. If you’ve read any of my stuff before, you’ll know I love unilateral training…

Table Of Contents
  1. Upper Body Dumbbell Workout: The benefits of switching things up
  2. 5 Steps to Use the Upper Body Dumbbell Workout to Gain Strength
  3. Upper body dumbbell workout – training notes
  4. Upper body dumbbell workout – the programs
  5. Upper body dumbbell workout 1
  6. Upper body dumbbell workout 2
  7. Upper body dumbbell workout… FAQs
  8. Upper body dumbbell workout plan: The bottom line

Upper Body Dumbbell Workout General Infographic

Upper Body Dumbbell Workout: The benefits of switching things up

Upper body dumbbell workout benefits

Benefit 1 – Exercise variation is good for strength AND motivation

One of the worries a lot of people have when they go off-piste in training terms is that they’ll lose gains. In reality, the opposite is true. There’s strong research that shows people who switch up their training actually benefit both psychologically and physiologically from it. 

In 2019 a study by Baz-Valle and Schoenfeld titled The effects of exercise variation in muscle thickness, maximal strength and motivation in resistance trained menwas published.

They took lifters who had followed strict programs and made them lift in a random selection of exercises, sets and reps.

The researchers concluded that…

‘Varying exercise selection had a positive effect on enhancing motivation to train in resistance-trained men, while eliciting similar improvements in muscular adaptations. Participants in the experimental group showed a significant, moderate improvement in the intrinsic motivation to training, while participants in the control group presented non-significant decreases in this variable.

This shows us that not only does mixing things up both preserve and even enhance physiological adaptations, but it also improves psychological markers around training. 

Benefit 2 – Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength

I’ve got a confession to make… the benefit above isn’t my work. It’s the title of a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2014

The study was by Fonseca et al and investigated the effects of varying strength exercises and/or loading scheme on muscle cross-sectional area (CSA) and maximum strength after four strength training loading schemes. 

The researchers concluded that…

a) constant intensity and varied exercise is more efficient to produce strength gains for physically active individuals;
b) as long as the training intensity reaches an alleged threshold, muscle hypertrophy is similar regardless of the training intensity and exercise variation.’

This is evidence that the stimulus is more effective than the sets and reps when it comes to strength and muscle gains. By mixing the exercises up (for example by using dumbbells rather than barbells occasionally) you both improve strength and muscle mass concurrently.

This is the case only as long as you’re training hard… but that bit’s a given!

A man performing a push up to row

Benefit 3 – Dumbbell training is more practical – it can be much quicker and is perfect in busy gyms!

This is less about the science and more about the practicalities. An upper body dumbbell workout doesn’t need much in the way of equipment – you need a selection of dumbbells and a bench. 

It doesn’t take much time. You don’t have to change weights on the bar, you simply put one pair of dumbbells down and pick another one up. You can keep to strict rest periods and you don’t need to move around to another item of equipment.

It’s up there with the best of minimalist training methods.

You don’t need much space. You can occupy a small area and get busy, making it ideal when the gyms get busy at certain times of the year. Of course if you train in a home gym, this isn’t an issue you’ll ever experience! 

All of these points add up to one conclusion – dumbbells training is often more practical. It’s quicker and is perfect for training in a busy gym. No waiting for equipment to be free, no constantly moving around from one station to another just to exercise. 

5 Steps to Use the Upper Body Dumbbell Workout to Gain Strength

So far we’ve learned from the research that exercise variety improves strength as long as the intensity is high enough. We’ve also learned that the change in stimulus is important for muscle growth. 

What’s important though is that we don’t haphazardly perform a bizarre variety of exercises. What we’re looking to do is switch stimulus (from barbells to dumbbells for example) and rep ranges, but maintain the intensity.

Step 1: Work hard!

This goes without saying, but I want you to remember it. So far I’ve explained using science how it’s effective to switch up training stimulus. What I need to stress though is that this only works if the intensity is high enough.

I still want you to be working hard. I’m looking for you to reach mechanical failure (where technique breaks down) on the final set of each exercise.

I want you to be putting the effort into muscle and strength growth, and change only comes with the sustained hard work. 

These workouts are going to focus on your upper body only, so there’s not too much room to dilute the effort! You can’t jump in on a leg exercise to give your upper body a rest for example.

Step 2: Do both workouts twice per week

In this program there are two different workouts, both designed to build a lot of upper body muscle and strength. To maximize the benefits though, you need to perform both workouts a couple of times per week.

Here’s how I think you could split your training week when following the upper body dumbbell workout program…

Monday: Upper body dumbbell workout 1

Tuesday: Upper body dumbbell workout 2

Wednesday: Leg Day

Thursday: Upper body dumbbell workout 1

Friday: Upper body dumbbell workout 2

Weekend: Rest

This means you’ll be following a 5-day training plan, with a weekend off. It’s also very light on cardio. If cardio is particularly important to you, add it in on the weekends. If you only want to do light cardio (walking or very light cycling), it can fit in on training days.

Just make sure it’s lower body only – you want to save your upper body energy for your workouts.

Step 3: Rest for a maximum of 90 seconds between sets

We want to maintain a level of intensity with these workouts, but at the same time need to ensure that we don’t drag them out too long. The purpose is to keep the intensity up throughout the workouts to maximize the muscle growth potential.

These workouts are very much about adding strength and size to your upper body, which puts us in a tricky spot…

We want to allow enough rest to ensure strength returns between sets, but also keep the rest periods short enough that we maintain a high intensity throughout the training session.

I find that capping rest periods at a strict 90 seconds is a sweet spot. It allows for sufficient recovery of strength without allowing the workouts to drag on too long. 

Keep a close eye on this – either use a stopwatch or a gym timer. I know you could use a phone, but my worry is most people are too easily distracted by their phone and end up down a rabbit hole of instagram videos and facebook arguments. 

Step 4: Set your equipment out early (if you can – it’s not always possible)

If you’ve got the luxury of being able to set your workout station up before you start, take advantage of it. By getting ahead of yourself you’ll manage to save time later on in the workout.

By laying claim to the dumbbells you need ahead of time, you won’t risk them being used by someone else.

It also means you’ll reduce your waiting times later on in the session.

The reality is with a workout like this one you probably won’t be using too many pairs of dumbbells – perhaps 3 or 4 depending on your strength levels.

Having the dumbbells available to you means you’ll be able to seamlessly switch between exercises and weights as the workout progresses.

Step 5: Accept your progress will be different

This one might seem strange, so let me explain. Dumbbells increase in set increments that you’re unlikely to be able to change (unless you have those adjustable dumbbells – retro!).

That means you won’t always be able to progress in terms of lifting more weight each time as you would with a barbell. On a barbell you can increase your lifts by really small amounts by adding fractional plates to the bar.

A vast selection of dumbbells

What this means is that with your upper body dumbbell workout, you may find yourself struggling to add extra weight each week. This is fine – accept different types of progress markers.

Maybe you’ll add an extra rep each week. Maybe you’ll manage a heavier dumbbell for one of your sets. 

Progress won’t be linear – you’re not going to add extra weight each week. It just doesn’t work like that. 

As long as you’re making progress in some fashion, accept it as a win. The goal here is to build strength – not to build strength at a set rate. I’d suggest strength improvements of around 10% per month you spend on this program are acceptable – any extra is a bonus!

Upper body dumbbell workout – training notes

This is the learning section, where I explain why the program has been put together the way it has been. I’ll explain my thinking with some of the exercise selections, sets and rep ranges. 

Balanced pull and pushes

Normally I always bias pull movements when it comes to upper body work. This is because in my experience most people have slightly internally rotated shoulder positions, which impacts shoulder health. I’ve explained more in this shoulder program.

The reason I’ve made an exception here is because I’ve included a couple of exercises that help to improve scapular contraction and rear delt strengthening in the program. 

This will help to strengthen the shoulders, prevent the internal rotation at the shoulder and provide stability to the upper back, shoulders and neck. This will help to stop neck and shoulder issues from developing over time. 

Fewer exercises, more intensity

We’re sometimes guilty of confusing quality with quantity. In this program each workout is 8 exercises long. That might not seem like a lot, but I know each one of those is a great exercise that fits within the parameters of the workout (upper body dumbbell exercises).

Done well, with the right intensity and short enough rest these are great workouts and will build strength and muscle.

Remember, powerlifters and weightlifters basically rotate a handful of exercises for life, and those guys are jacked and strong. It’s the quality of execution that matters most. Not the amount of accessories in a program.

Different rep ranges for the exercises

In the program you’ll notice that there are different rep ranges for the different exercises. These are an unofficial way I’ve split them into ‘strength’, ‘conditioning’ and ‘hypertrophy’ movements. It’s so we cover all of the exercise bases in the program, essentially. 

Muscle tissue consists of fibers that grow best with heavy weights and low reps, some with medium weights and medium reps and some with light weights and high reps. By including a number of different weights and rep ranges we tick all of these boxes.

In some cases there’ll be a strength, hypertrophy and conditioning exercise all in the same workout that covers different body parts. That’s the benefit of programming compound exercises – big, multi joint movements that train a lot of muscle in one go.

Upper body dumbbell workout – the programs

Enough with the chatter – here’s the bit you’ve been waiting for, the programs. These are to be alternated twice through the week, so you’ll do each program twice in the week.

Try not to do more than two consecutive days of training – you’ll need time to rest and recover between sessions. This will help you to train harder on the days when you’re in the gym.

Following the pattern I suggested earlier will ensure you stick to this and manage enough rest.

Warm Up

Upper body dumbbell workout warm up

I want to keep the warm up here very simple. Our goal is to start by doing some light cardio to stimulate blood flow through the body and warm the muscle and connective tissues.

It’s important there’s an element of upper body movement in there too, so avoid standard cycling for example.

5 minutes of any of the following works…

  • Running
  • Ski Erg
  • Air Bike
  • Rowing
  • Shadow Boxing 
  • Jump Rope

From this point on, you’re ready to train. The caveat is this though – perform a set of 10 reps of each exercise with a light weight before you move onto your working weight.

For example, if you’d normally lift 60 LB dumbbells on a bench press, instead start with 30 LB dumbbells for a set of 10 to get warm and practice the movement pattern. After this go into the real work.

The warm up set isn’t written on the workout by the way – the only sets written are your working sets. So, if the workout says  4 x 10, they’re your working sets. You should still do a light set beforehand to warm up. Effectively therefore you’ll have done 5 sets of the exercise.

Hopefully that makes sense!

Upper body dumbbell workout 1

Upper body dumbbell workout 1 part 1

This is the first of the upper body dumbbell workouts. The goal here isn’t to get fancy, it’s to have you build strength with effective movements done well. As always, work hard and seek to make progress as often as possible.

Remember to do a light warm up set of each exercise before you get into the working sets. 

Dumbbell Gorilla Rows420 (10 per side)
Dumbbell Shoulder Press10
Alternating Dumbbell Snatch High Pull420 (10 per side)
Dumbbell Flyes412
Incline Dumbbell Curls315
Russian Twists310-12
Chest Supported Dumbbell Rows48
Lat Raises312

1. Dumbbell gorilla rows

The gorilla row is a real favorite of mine and features heavily in my training and that of the programmes I write. I like it for a number of reasons…

It’s a single limb exercise, it’s a variation on a row, you can lift big weights, it’s functional and useful in both low and high rep workouts and it trains anti-rotation, which is a big bonus. Overall, they’re a fantastic back exercise.

It’s a great exercise for getting the heart rate up as well, so you get a couple of benefits from the one single movement pattern.

Equipment needed for gorilla rows:

  • 2 dumbbells

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Adjustable Dumbbells

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Classic
Read our best adjustable dumbbell guide here

These are the dumbbells we recommend for ‘most people’.

We have spent over 50 hours of research and compared over 100 dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells make sense for most home gyms as they save space.

The Nüobell dumbbells go all the way to 80lbs per hand. This means they are much more versatile than most 50lbs adjustable dumbbells. You can use these for heavy shrugs, squats and bench press etc.

The main reason they are the top pick is because of their shape. They actually feel like real dumbbells and are not awkward to lift like some others.

How to do gorilla rows:

  • Hold the weights with a neutral (palms facing each other) grip
  • Set your body position – straight, stiff back. Chest pointing towards the floor, perhaps with a slight incline, slight knee bend
  • Pull one of the weights up towards your chest, squeezing the shoulder blade in at the top
  • At the top of the movement pause then slowly lower the dumbbell, but don’t let it touch the floor
  • Repeat the same movement on the opposite side, alternating for as many reps as required

2. Dumbbell shoulder press

This is a pure hypertrophy exercise here – we’re going for the medium weight, medium reps. Make sure you select a challenging weight (you’re well warmed up by now) that sees you reaching failure around the 10 rep mark.

Keep your form excellent and drive the dumbbells for a full range of motion. Keep your core tight and glutes squeezed to maintain a strong back. DON’T ARCH your lower back!

Equipment needed for dumbbell shoulder press:

How to do a dumbbell shoulder press:

  • With a dumbbell in each hand, stand upright and hold the dumbbells at shoulder height
  • Use either a neutral (palms facing each other) grip
  • Press the dumbbells directly overhead, maintaining the neutral grip throughout
  • At full extension, pause and lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position
  • Repeat as many times as necessary

Note: check out our dumbbell shoulder workout if your aim is to focus more on your shoulders.

3. Single arm dumbbell snatch high pull

This is the one of the conditioning exercises I mentioned earlier. It’s designed to work on explosive power, the kind of which you’d use in a sporting context. It’s also a perfect way to combine several body parts in a single movement, with the shoulder doing most of the work.

Finally, it’s a vertical pull movement from the ground up, which is unique in a shoulder training concept. A great movement for lots of training outcomes. 

Equipment needed for single arm dumbbell snatch high pull:

How to do single arm dumbbell snatch high pull:

  • Place the dumbbell between your feet, slightly in front of you
  • Take hold of the dumbbell with an overhand (palms facing towards you) grip
  • Keep your back straight and pull directly upwards
  • Pulling the elbow up high and wide, but squeeze the shoulder blade of the lifting arm in towards the middle
  • Emphasize the elbow traveling upwards and keeping the dumbbell close to the body
  • Lower the dumbbell under control
  • Repeat as many times as required

Want some ideas on a lower body workout to combine with the upper body dumbbell workout? If that’s the case, you will find these useful:

Check out our workouts and lower body alternatives for more resources.

4. Dumbbell flyes

The dumbbell fly is a great way of challenging the chest. It includes a pectoral stretch, an eccentric contraction of the muscles and controlled internal rotation at the shoulder.

The dumbbell fly is a very popular exercise in bodybuilding circles because it’s a perfect way to add variety and stress the muscle fibers in a new way.

The movement is an excellent way to open up the chest and improve shoulder health as well. It’s an excellent muscle builder, but also a movement improver. 

Equipment needed for dumbbell flyes:

REP AB-3000 Bench

REP AB-3000 Weight Bench
Read our best weight bench guide here

This is the weight bench we recommend for ‘most people’.

We compared over 70 benches against 12 criteria. This is our highest-ranked flat, incline & decline (FID) bench.

Some adjustable benches can be a bit wobbly when on the incline. But the AB-3000 is very sturdy.

With a height 18mm it’s comparable to benches that cost twice as much.

How to do dumbbell flyes:

  • Set the bench to the incline of your choosing
  • Pick the dumbbells up, lie back and hold them directly in front of you
  • Lower them slowly out to the sides, maintaining an almost-straight arm throughout the movement
  • When you feel a full stretch, pause and push the dumbbells back up under control
  • Repeat as many times as necessary

Note: check out our dumbbell chest workout to see the dumbbell fly in combination with other exercise to efficiently target your chest muscles.

Upper Body Dumbbell Workout 1 part 2

5. Incline dumbbell curls

This is the best bicep exercise to target the long head of your biceps. It’s a tough exercise with a huge range of movement, so be prepared to keep your ego in check and lift lighter than you expect.

It’ll catch up with you very quickly – don’t be surprised if you hit failure before you’d expect to. 

It’s the one  exercise that will add the most volume to your biceps and make them look bigger, quicker than any other exercise here. But there are many mistakes people make with this one so be sure to follow the steps below carefully. 

Equipment needed for incline dumbbell curls:

How to do incline dumbbell curls:

  • Raise the bench to 45-60 degree angle
  • Push your back, shoulders and head against the bench the whole time
  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand and let your arm fall vertically to the floor
  • Lift the dumbbells keeping your elbows fixed
  • Squeeze your biceps at the top for a second or two
  • Lower all the way to the bottom
  • Repeat as necessary

If you want even more ideas on how to target your biceps – check out some of the following articles:

6. Dumbbell Russian twists

The dumbbell Russian twist is the go-to rotational exercise for many. The other good thing about it is that the position of the torso forces abdominal engagement as well, meaning there’s a double win. It’s training the rectus abdominis and the obliques at the same time.

It’s a simple, but very challenging exercise when performed correctly.

Equipment needed for dumbbell Russian Twists:

How to do dumbbell Russian twists:

  • Hold a dumbbell in both hands, slightly away from the body
  • Lean your torso back around 45 degrees, extend your legs in front of you with slightly bent knees
  • Lift your feet off the floor and keep them there
  • Keeping your legs in front of you, twist your torso around to each side, holding the dumbbell throughout
  • Make sure your chest moves with you – don’t just move your arms from side to side
  • Repeat as many times as necessary 

7. Chest supported dumbbell rows

This is a horizontal row pattern that allows you to lift a lot of weight. This one is included as a real strength exercise. There’s also no need for the lower back to support a heavy weight, because the bench takes care of that for you.

The ability to move freely and adjust grip are also benefits of the exercise. In addition, the fact that it’s unilateral means that both arms will work as hard as each other, minimizing any imbalance in effort and strength/muscle gain.

You can lift a lot of weight because of the lack of lower back engagement, so I use it almost primarily as a heavy weight exercise. I don’t like an unsupported heavy dumbbell lift where the lifter maintains a hinged position. It’s not a great risk/reward ratio.

Equipment needed for chest supported dumbbell rows:

How to do chest supported dumbbell rows:

  • Set the bench to an incline and lie chest down – you should be able to reach dumbbells placed on the floor
  • Hold the dumbbells with the grip of your choice – overhand, underhand or neutral
  • Pull the dumbbells up towards your chest, squeezing the shoulder blades together at the top
  • At the top of the movement pause then slowly lower the dumbbells, but don’t let them touch the floor
  • Repeat as many times as required

Note: If you want more ideas on how to work your back using dumbbells – be sure to check out our dumbbell back exercises, with the 15 best back-targeting moves.

8. Lateral raises

The dumbbell lateral raise is a shoulder exercise almost everyone would have seen before. It has been popular in the bodybuilding world for years and hits the medial deltoid effectively.

It’s also a very simple exercise to do, with a range of movement that can be adjusted depending on your shoulder movement capability. Select a medium weight for this one – you’re looking to hit failure at 12 reps or so.

Equipment needed for lateral raises:

How to do lateral raises:

  • Take a dumbbell in each hand
  • Lean forward slightly – this helps to lock the lower back into place and prevent over-leaning
  • With an overhand grip, lift the dumbbells up and out to the side, going as high as you comfortably can
  • When you reach the top of the movement, pause for a split second 
  • Slowly return to the start position
  • Repeat as many times as necessary

This is the first workout of the two. Hit this one hard, then go into workout two the following day…

Upper body dumbbell workout 2

Upper Body Dumbbell Workout 2 part 1

As with workout 1, we’re not trying to do anything special here. We’re just trying to get a great upper body dumbbell workout in, using simple movements. The key to success here lies with the amount of effort you put in, so work hard!

Remember to do a light warm up set of each exercise before you get into the working sets.

Alternating Dumbbell Snatches420 (10 per side)
Dumbbell Reverse Fly20
Dumbbell Bench Press48
Arnold Press412
Hammer Curls315
Dumbbell Crunch310-12
Push Ups to Rows48

9. Alternating dumbbell power snatches

A dumbbell power snatch is the second power movement in the workout – it’s a complete upper body exercise that combines strength, power and stability. As well as being unilateral, it’s functional dynamic and will also help to build overhead range of movement if you need it to.

It’s a great addition to any dumbbell shoulder workout and tests the shoulder through a full range of motion. 

There’s a core training benefit too, as you’re supporting a weight overhead.

Equipment needed for alternating dumbbell power snatches:

How to do alternating dumbbell power snatches:

  • Set a dumbbell between your feet
  • Take an overhand grip, squat slightly and drive up with the legs, putting upward momentum into the dumbbell
  • Use the momentum to carry the dumbbell up, then lift it the rest of the way overhead
  • Once the dumbbell is overhead, drop it to the floor under control
  • Switch sides and repeat
  • Continue for as many reps as required

10. Dumbbell reverse fly

This a classic bodybuilding exercise for good reason – it hits the rear deltoids very well. I like it as a supporting exercise for the shoulders, helping to stabilize the scapular and strengthen the traps. As part of an overall dumbbell shoulder workout, it’s worth its weight in gold.

This is the final exercise of the warm up – keep your movements slow and deliberate here, don’t rush the exercise.

This exercise is the reason we can balance pulls and pushes in the program. It’s a pure rear delt prehab movement.

Equipment needed for reverse fly:

How to do reverse fly:

  • Take a dumbbell in each hand
  • Bend at the hips, keeping your back straight
  • With your arms straight and pointing directly below you, use your rear deltoids and upper back to lift the weights out to the sides
  • At the top squeeze the upper back muscles together
  • Slowly return to the start position
  • Repeat as many times as necessary

11. Flat dumbbell bench press

The dumbbell bench press is my favorite of the traditional chest exercises. I like it because the free weight element forces stability on both sides of the body, so is particularly good for creating functional balance.

Word of warning here – dumbbells are significantly harder than barbells to press, so they don’t translate equally. If you’re pressing 150 LBS on the bar for example, don’t go for 2 x 75’s. Shoot much lower and build up. Maybe start with the 50’s or so.

This one is included as our strength exercise for the chest.

Equipment needed for dumbbell bench press:

How to do dumbbell bench press:

  • With a dumbbell in each hand, lie back and position them over your chest
  • You can use either an overhand or neutral (palms facing each other) grip
  • Slowly lower the dumbbells towards your chest, bending your elbows outwards until you reach a good stretch
  • At full depth, pause and push the dumbbells back up to a full extension
  • Repeat as many times as necessary

12. Arnold press

A classic shoulder exercise, possibly/probably invented by Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s an exercise that forces contraction through a press and a rotation, so works the shoulders two ways.

The Arnold press is a nice way to mix up pressing movements. The plan here is to maximize contraction by really concentrating on the movement.

Equipment needed for Arnold presses:

How to do Arnold presses:

  • Sit upright on a bench, with a dumbbell in each hand
  • Dumbbells should be at chest height, palms facing your chest
  • Press the dumbbells overhead, rotating them as you press
  • When your arms are overhead and at full extension, your palms should be facing away from you (180-degree turn)
  • As you return the dumbbells to the starting position, rotate the dumbbells back so your palms are facing you again
  • Repeat as necessary

We’ve also got a separate article on the Arnold split if you want to learn more about his approach.

Upper Body Dumbbell Workout 2 part 2

13. Hammer curls

Hammer curls are probably the bicep exercise I programme the most – they tend to be the most elbow-joint friendly and they train the long head of the bicep, as well as the brachialis and the brachioradialis.

This more general training of the bicep muscle group is an effective change from the other exercises, plus it gives your arms a new challenge.

You may even be able to lift heavier with the hammer curl than you could with a normal curl, so enjoy that too!

Equipment needed for hammer curls:

How to do hammer curls:

  • Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, hands by your sides, palms facing inwards
  • Perform a standard curl, but keep your arms in a neutral grip (palms facing one another) throughout the entire movement
  • Curl the dumbbells up slowly and smoothly until they reach full contraction
  • At the top of the movement, slowly lower them back down until the your arm reaches full extension
  • Repeat as many times as required

14. Dumbbell crunch

I generally steer away from sit ups or crunches in most ab workouts, because I think there’s a risk/reward issue at play. You need to have decent core stability in order to successfully manage a full range sit up.

The reason I’ve included this crunch in the workout is because it has a limited range of movement, with a very precise targeting of the rectus abdominis.

This makes it safer than a full sit up, which (in my opinion) encourages too much unnecessary lumbar flexion.   

Move slowly, but with great control.

Note that if you have issues with your lower back, you might want to switch this exercise up with some of our sit up alternatives.

Equipment needed for dumbbell crunch:

How to do dumbbell crunches

  • Lie flat on your back, feet flat on the floor and knees bent
  • Hold a dumbbell with straight arms, directly overhead (in front of you when you’re lying down)
  • Engage the abs and crunch up, lifting just the upper body off the floor – the lower back stays in contact with the floor throughout
  • Keep the arms straight throughout and the dumbbell extended in front
  • Return to the floor the second you feel the lower back starting to lift
  • Repeat as necessary

Note: Check out our cable crunch alternatives if you want more exercise ideas to engage your abs.

15. Dumbbell push up to row

The dumbbell push up to row is a complete all upper body exercise… It’s a chest and triceps exercise with the push up. It’s a back exercise with a row. It’s a core exercise with the push up plank position, and the push/pull element trains all of the shoulders. 

As exercises go, it’s hard to beat. As well as the upper body challenges, it’s also a skills test. You have to engage the core to prevent rotation, all whilst balancing on one side at a time. This is an exercise that will challenge you beyond what you’re used to.

If you’re not used to this exercise, practice with a light weight to start with.

Equipment needed for dumbbell pushup to row:

How to do dumbbell pushups to row:

  • Get into the push up position, with hands balancing on dumbbells and feet balancing on your toes
  • Keep your legs apart to help with balance
  • Lower your chest down into a full deficit push up
  • As you push back up and reach the top of the movement, row one of the dumbbells up to your chest
  • Perform another push up, then repeat on the other side
  • Repeat as many times as necessary

Note: if you enjoy using dumbbells, be sure to check out our full body dumbbell workout, our 12 week dumbbell workout plan, or our 5 day dumbbell workout.

16. Shrugs

One of the movements people forget about when it comes to shoulders is elevation – lifting the shoulders upwards, if you were trying to touch your ears with them.

This movement is important for shoulder support, and also helps to prevent injury by strengthening the muscles at the back of the shoulders. You’ll likely be able to lift a heavy pair of dumbbells here, even for multiple reps. Go heavy for the 20 reps.

This is another reason we can balance the pulls and pushes. It’s an exercise we’re using to strengthen the shoulder girdle and prevent neck and shoulder pain.

Equipment needed for shrugs:

How to do shrugs:

  • Stand with a heavy dumbbell in each hand, palms facing your body
  • Keeping your arms and back straight, shrug your shoulders up (towards your ears) and together, squeezing your shoulder blades together tightly
  • Hold the squeeze for 2-3 seconds
  • Lower your shoulders and repeat

That concluded the second workout. If you’ve done these two workouts on consecutive days, rest at least a day before going back to workout 1 again. It’ll help you to rest and recover ahead of the next session. 

Upper body dumbbell workout… FAQs

Got questions? Here are the answers…

How long can I stay on the program for?

There’s no limit really, but I’d suggest no less than 4 weeks, no longer than 12. This is because I think the body would enjoy new stimulus, but also because there’s less leg training than I’d like generally.

This is a program that is designed to ‘bring up’ a lagging body part – in this case the upper body. It can also be used to give your body a complete break from barbell training.

What do I do about my legs?

It’s not a leg program, so I’d suggest you get the mid week session in as a leg day. There’s nothing wrong with you doing a second leg session on the weekend, as long as you feel like you can recover, and it doesn’t bother the rest of your training.

And what about cardio?

Again, it’s not a cardio program. I don’t think there’s much room for an intense cardio program alongside this, so I’d probably treat them separately. Focus on this for a few weeks, then catch up with the cardio you’ve missed out on.

You’d struggle to do both concurrently unless you had incredible training capacity!

Is this a fat loss program?

No, it’s very much about muscle building. If anything you should be eating a surplus on this program, so you can grow more muscle.

There are far better programs out there for fat loss. If you’re looking for a weight loss program, try our HIIT workout or our guide on how to lose fat.

What should I eat on this program?

Well this is very much a muscle building program, so you should be in a mild calorie surplus. You want to ensure you’re eating plenty of protein too. Ideally from animal sources, so beef, chicken, fish, turkey, lamb, eggs etc.

Drink lots of water and stock up on the healthy carbs (rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes etc).

I can’t say how much you should be eating, because a lot of people will read this and you’ll all have different requirements. What I will say though is you’ll find good nutritional advice on the MyFitnessPal app. Just download it and use it to help plan your calorie and macronutrient targets.

Upper body dumbbell workout plan: The bottom line

This program isn’t supposed to be sexy. It’s supposed to promote the virtues of simple exercises done well. It’s supposed to tell you how effective training with dumbbells is. It’s also supposed to shake you out of a training rut.

Do this workout properly and you’ll stack on the muscle and enjoy a new set of training challenges. All it’ll take is a few sets of dumbbells, a bench, and some work ethic.

Good luck!

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Adjustable Dumbbells

SMRFT Nüobell 80LB Classic
Read our best adjustable dumbbell guide here

These are the dumbbells we recommend for ‘most people’.

We have spent over 50 hours of research and compared over 100 dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells make sense for most home gyms as they save space.

The Nüobell dumbbells go all the way to 80lbs per hand. This means they are much more versatile than most 50lbs adjustable dumbbells. You can use these for heavy shrugs, squats and bench press etc.

The main reason they are the top pick is because of their shape. They actually feel like real dumbbells and are not awkward to lift like some others.

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Hi! My name is Steve Hoyles. I’m a personal trainer, gym owner and fitness copywriter. Since graduating with my Sports Science degree in 2004 I’ve worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. My writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries.

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