hand holding dumbbell
Photo Credit:
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Dumbbells: The No-Machine Strength Workout

This classic piece of exercise gear can be used in a number of ways to tone your upper body. Here, three key moves to try
Written by 
Holly St. Lifer
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 
Updated on: 
October 2, 2014

Dumbbells are a great option for strength-training anywhere—in a gym, at home, outside—because they're compact and easy to use. If you’re already partial to another tool for strength training, that’s great. But remember: While doing the same exercises week after week can make you feel like you have a solid routine going, it eventually shifts your muscles into coast mode. The key to strengthening your muscles is to keep them challenged by changing up your workout—and your exercise equipment.

Ready to give a dumbbell workout a try? Determining the right one to pick up can take some trial and error. The weight should fatigue your muscles during the last few reps, but never to the point where you sacrifice form. You will likely need different weight for different dumbbell exercises, since the muscles you’ll work will vary in size and strength. For example, since your biceps are most likely stronger than your shoulders, you'll want to use a heavier weight when doing bicep curls than you would for lateral raises. 

If you’re just getting acquainted with training with dumbbells, start with one set of the following exercises, working your way up to multiple sets as you become comfortable with the movements. When you start breezing through three sets, you’ll know it’s time to increase the weight.

Bicep Curl

What It Does: Tones your biceps

How to Do It: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand. Start with your hands at your sides and your palms facing forward. Bend your elbows and lift the weights up to your shoulders and then back down by your thighs. Keep your abdominals engaged and your spine stable throughout the exercise. Repeat 10 to 15 times with each arm; complete three sets.

Be careful not to… move your whole body. In order to target your bicep muscles, your forearms should be the only part of your body moving during this exercise.


Lateral Raise

What It Does: Strengthens your shoulders and deltoids (the muscle that wraps around the top of your shoulder) 

How to Do It: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold one dumbbell down at your side, elbow slightly bent. Soften your knees and engage your abdominals. Lift your arm out to the side and all the way up to shoulder height, externally rotating your shoulder and turning the weight as you go so that your palm faces forward and your thumb points up. Slowly lower your arm back to your side, returning the weight to its original position. Repeat 10 to 15 times with each arm; complete three sets.

Be careful not to…bend your upper body. Keeping your posture erect allows your shoulder and deltoid muscle to do the work—and become stronger.


Chest Fly

What It Does: Targets your chest and shoulders

How to Do It: Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor, holding the dumbbells down at your sides. Raise both dumbbells above your chest, palms facing each other, elbows slightly bent. Feel your shoulder blades against the floor, keeping them relaxed. Engage your abdominals while keeping your back neutral, neither pressed against the floor nor arched.

Inhale and slowly widen your arms, lowering them toward the floor until they are lightly touching it. Exhale as you slowly lift your arms back up above your chest. Repeat 10 to 15 times; complete three sets.

Be careful not to…fully bend your elbows. In order to recruit the proper muscles, your arms need to be almost straight. If you can’t lift or lower the dumbbells without having to bend your elbows, switch to a lighter weight.

More: 

Top-Three, Must-Do Exercises for Your Arms
Resistance Bands: The No-Machine Strength Workout
Kettlebells: The No-Machine Strength Workout
Medicine Ball: The No-Machine Strength Workout
Body Bar: The No-Machine Strength Workout

Reference(s) 
American Council on Exercise
About the author 
Holly St. Lifer is a health, fitness, nutrition and human interest writer whose work has appeared in AARP, Health, Ladies' Home Journal, Prevention and other publications. She also teaches magazine writing at New York University.