One of the reasons they have proved so popular and continue to be included in a wide range of workout routines is their versatility. Dumbbells can be used to train every muscle group in the body, from shoulders to quads and even your abs.
But it’s also this versatility that can prove a problem when it comes to putting together a new workout routine. With so many exercises available, how do you know which ones will work your target muscle in a way that will provide the best results?
While it’s difficult to provide one specific exercise that works the best for a particular muscle group, we’ve put together a list of our top 5 dumbbell exercises for upper body workouts.
With the exception of abs, this will be a quick guide to the best exercises for the following upper body muscles:
The exercises chosen are designed to be suitable for all strength and fitness levels.
1. Dumbbell rows / Kroc rows (Back)
While barbell rows allow you to work both sides of your back at the same time, it’s easy to sacrifice good exercise form for weight on the bar.
Using a dumbbell allows you to focus entirely on the contraction and movement of your lats one side at a time, as well as offering a greater range of motion.
As with most of the exercises in our top 5, you do also require a weights bench to be able to perform the exercises effectively.
By using an adjustable weights bench that can be set to flat as well as incline angles, you can actually decrease and increase the range of motion for the dumbbell to isolate slightly different areas of your back.
Flatter bench settings will place more of an emphasis on your rear delts and traps, while more of an incline will target more of your middle back and lats.
A recent variation on the traditional dumbbell row is known as the ‘Kroc’ row.
There’s no change in the movement of the weight, but this does require a much lighter weight than you may be used to, as you will be performing sets with reps closer to 30 or 40 instead of the more common 8 to 10.
2. Dumbbell Bench Press (Chest)
Often a more popular choice for home gyms due to the increased safety aspect (you can simply drop the dumbbells if you can’t complete a rep without fear of being pinned under a heavy bar), the dumbbell bench press is still one of the best mass building exercise available for your chest.
We ruled out dumbbell flys due to being more of an isolation exercise that focuses on inner chest development and taking a lot of the focus off your shoulders and triceps.
We also didn’t choose pullovers as they tend to put too much emphasis on your lats doing the pulling, as well as stretching out your triceps too much at the mid-range of the exercise.
We wanted to find an exercise that was safe to perform, where you weren’t limited by the weight, and that allowed you to use a weight that was challenging enough to build strength, size, and tone quicker than any other. This is why we found dumbbell bench presses to be the best exercise for training chest.
With the addition of a dumbbell rack and a few different sets of dumbbells (or a single set of high quality adjustables), it’s much easier to perform drop sets than when using a barbell.
When you reach positive muscular failure with one set of heavy dumbbells, this allows you to drop the weight and perform a few more repetitions. Although this can be performed for as many sets as you like, we’ve found the best results to come when performing a maximum of 2 to 3 drop sets, using a weight that allows us to get an extra 4 to 6 reps on each.
3. Overhead dumbbell extensions (Triceps)
That’s not to say that there aren’t a wide range of variations available that isolate the muscle, but it’s difficult to find any that will give you any serious gains in size or strength.
Dumbbell kickbacks, lying dumbbell tricep extensions, and even the single arm variation of overhead extensions are a few of the other options we considered.
But they just don’t let you use the same heavy weight with a high degree of control and good exercise form that the classic overhead dumbbell extension can offer.
While this is certainly an exercise that can be performed on your own in your home gym, it can be useful to have a spotter to take the weight at the end of a set if you really want to work the muscle to failure.
It’s also made much easier if you find a workout bench that offers a slightly shorter back support pad than you would use for bench pressing. At an incline position of 70 to 80 degrees, this would give you much better freedom of movement in your shoulders to get the weight into position, as well as promoting a greater range of motion.
In our opinion, there’s no better exercise for stretching the triceps and keeping the muscle under tension, without placing too much strain on your shoulders or chest.
In a similar way to the dumbbell bench press, drop sets can be an excellent way to work the triceps beyond the positive muscular failure from your heavy set. That being said, it can take much more effort to get the weight into position without a spotter.
One of the best ways to increase the intensity of overhead tricep extensions is by varying the tempo. Take an extra second or two to lower the weight and feel the stretch before returning the weight to the starting position. Although you won’t be able to perform as many reps, it does tend to be more effective at breaking down the muscle in preparation for being built back stronger.
4. Seated shoulder press (Shoulders)
Whether you are just starting your first fitness program or have been training for many years, it’s important to include exercises in your workouts that are both effective for your training goal, and safe to perform.
As a muscle, the shoulders are made up of 3 sections; anterior (front), medial (middle), and posterior (rear delt at the back of the shoulder).
While side lateral raises are probably the safest option (when raised not much higher than your shoulder) due to a more restricted movement in your rotator cuff, they do tend to focus much more on the medial deltoid.
Seated dumbbell shoulder presses avoid too much rotation of your rotator cuff and don’t require any movement that could put your shoulders in a vulnerable position (as can be the case with behind-the-neck presses).
Although using a bench in a seated position is recommended to avoid excessive arching of the back, this is an exercise that can be performed both seated and standing.
The plane of motion that the dumbbell travels through during this exercise helps to stimulate all 3 heads of the shoulder, as well as your traps, serratus anterior, and triceps brachii (all 3 heads of the tricep).
The traditional method of performing dumbbell shoulder presses is from a seated position on a workout bench. Although this is the most effective method in terms of lifting the most weight, there are several other variations that can also lead to great results.
The first option is to use alternating presses. This is where instead of pressing both dumbbells up at the same time, you press one arm up, return it to the starting position, then repeat with the opposite arm.
Another option if your goal is more to tone using a lighter set of dumbbells is to perform the exercise while seated on a swiss ball. This increases the recruitment of stabilizers in your core, including your abs and obliques.
5. Hammer curls (Biceps)
In comparison to muscles like your quads and hamstrings, biceps are not a large muscle to train, and can easily be over trained without adequate rest and recovery time.
Depending on your current training split, it can be easy to include too many exercises too close together that work the bicep from a supinated angle. If you train biceps on the same day as back, underhand barbell rows and chin ups will take a lot of the strength out of your biceps before you get to the real isolation work.
Simply by rotating your grip to be neutral / semi-supinated you start to place slightly less focus on the bicep, and develop more of the brachialis and forearm. This helps to develop a fuller looking muscle, with strength gains that will carry over to a whole range of compound and isolation exercises. These include pull ups, deadlifts, and t-bar rows.
There are several variations that can help to isolate the bicep and brachialis more effectively.
- Resting your tricep against a preacher curl pad: Removes any momentum and assistance from the back muscles
- Seated on an incline bench: Greater range of motion
Although it’s best to split these exercises over several workouts as part of a wider exercise plan for each muscle group.
But you can also combine them into a single upper body workout if you have limited training opportunities.
Now that we’ve put together a quick guide to what we have found to be the top 5 dumbbell exercises for your upper body workouts, we’re interested to know if there are any you would change?
If we were to extend the list to be a ‘top 10’, which additional 5 exercises would you want to include in your own workouts? Let us know in the comments below.