Dumbbells…a gym staple and an item found in many home kits. They’re not as effective on overall muscle and strength development and body composition (fat) management as performing heavy, barbell based, compound movements – but are still an important tool in your performance efforts. So, are you bringing dumbbell training exercises into your workouts?
Dumbbell exercises have been shown to activate a number of different muscles and stimulate muscle growth, help improve both muscle force and flexibility, and promote coordination and stability for muscles and joints. Even more, you can use them for a variety of exercises, ranging from simple mobility work to intense resistance training.
While in theory, you could often just replace a barbell with dumbbells for a motion – using dumbbells provides more than just a change in weighted item – dumbbells bring additional muscle action into play – notably in stabilization, that will not only improve your overall physical performance – but will help address muscle and mobility imbalances. They also allow you to introduce more range of motion resistance moves into your kit.
Before we get into our list of dumbbell exercises you should have in your routine toolkit, we also want to make sure you lift properly with them – improving your performance takes a set back with injury, and we want you to keep progressing!
There are two issues that many have found out the hard way by not controlling the dumbbells. First, in some motions, it is easy to get “swinging” with a dumbbell. This motion could involve a limb, joint, or both. As with all weights, movements are supposed to be controlled – you control it up, you control it down. Watch out for “out of control” weighted motions that run the risk of joint injury. Second – watch the joints when using dumbbells – they are not made to hold up well against strains that leverage against their natural alignment. Dumbbells can quickly fall to the side, wrenching an arm or leg in an angle that wrists, elbows, knees, shoulders, ankles, etc are not made to move. Performance is about being a mindful athlete and using a controlled effort in your routine, not throwing around metal for ego.
That said, you better have these dumbbell exercises in your routine kit!
1. Incline Dumbbell Press
Muscles worked: The clavicular head of the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, and and the triceps
Benefits: Targets the smaller, often underemphasized clavicular head, which isn’t as powerful as the sternocostal head but is nevertheless key to the muscle’s overall power. The exercise forces each pectoral muscle to work independently, so your strong side can’t compensate for its weaker counterpart, helping to prevent and correct muscle imbalances.
2. Shoulder Press
Muscles worked: The anterior and lateral deltoids, triceps brachii, pectoralis major, serratus anterior, and external oblique
Benefits: Works all aspects of the deltoid muscle; dumbbells activate more of the anterior deltoid than when using a barbell. Whether from a seated or standing position, the dumbbell exercise engages the core for stability. Avoid locking your elbows, as this transitions to emphasis to your triceps, rather than keep it focused on your deltoids.
3. Bent Over Row
Muscles worked: The posterior deltoid, brachialis, brachioradialis, middle and lower trapezius, infraspinatus, teres minor, teres major, and latissimus dorsi
Benefits: This motion targets your back and shoulders in the same motion. As a functional exercise, it is a great way to develop muscles and motion used throughout the day when picking up things. Knowing how to properly position your back and brace your abs can protect you from strain.
Alternative to increase difficulty: Assume a plank position to engage your core. You will likely have to decrease weight and or reps.
4. Tricep Kick-Back
Muscles worked: The triceps brachii, and posterior deltoids
Benefits: This helps build a stronger tricep muscle, working all three heads. This will help you not only in daily functional movements, but also support other pressing motions in your training, such as chest and shoulder presses.
5. Twisting Bicep Curl
Muscles worked: The biceps brachii (short and long heads), brachialis, and brachioradialis
Benefits: The simple process of starting with your gripped hands facing your body and then moving to the traditional supinated position during the curl helps work both the long and short head of the bicep, while also bringing the brachioradialis into the effort. In short, you activate more muscle fibers that a full range supinated curl, or hammer curl alone.
6. Goblet Squats
Muscles worked: The gluteus maximus, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, biceps femoris, erector spinae, vastus intermedius, sartorius, rectus femoris, medial deltoid, anterior deltoid, and biceps brachii
Benefits: Removes the tension and risk to lower back that a tradition barbell squat might cause, while maintaining focus on your quads and glutes – the major muscles in this exercise.
Muscles worked: The latissimus dorsi, serratus anterior, pectorlis major, triceps brachii, and teres major
Benefits: The motion beings into play many stabilizer muscles throughout your body, such as abs, upper back/scapular region, and the gluteal muscles. This in turn helps develop key strength in muscles critical in supporting many full chain body motions. You can help stabilize the motion by contracting your chest and elevating your ribcage, contracting your gluteals, and keeping your feet flat.
8. Weighted Lunge
Muscles worked: The vastus lateralis, rectus femorus, gluteus maximus, vastus medialus, adductor magnus, and soleus
Benefits: Adds more functional complexity to the training, and thus can offer more all-around development than quadriceps-focused motions. This dumbbell training exercise uses the gluteus maximus, adductor magnus of the inner thigh, and the soleus of the calf – in short, a compound motion. You also will need to bring in your stabilizer muscles in your back and legs to sustain your balance.
9. Lateral Raise
Muscles worked: The anterior, medial, and posterior deltoids, trapezius, and supraspinatus
Benefits: The motion primarily targets the deltoid’s lateral head, with some activation of the anterior and posterior heads. As an isolation dumbbell exercise working the lateral head of the delts, it helps strengthen your shoulders and can help correct strength imbalances between your right and left sides. Make sure the movement comes from your shoulders, not your neck. Avoid shrugging or “jerking” the dumbbells or flexing or extending your elbow as your arm is raised to keep proper form.
10. Fly (Regular or Reverse)
Muscles worked regular fly: The pectoralis major and minor, anterior deltoid, and coracobrachialis
Benefits: While helping with all-around pectoral development, the motion opens up your chest muscles, which may may help reduce upper back pain, increase range of motion, and reduce tightness in the upper body. Be careful with the weight you use to help obtain a full range of motion without overextending. Avoid bending your elbows excessively as the weight descends or flattening them as the weight ascends to avoid strain on your shoulder joints.
Muscles worked reverse fly: The anterior, medial, and posterior deltoids, triceps brachii, rhomboid, and trapezius
Benefits: Helps with a scapular retraction or pulling your shoulder blades in toward each other – which counteracts risks to posture caused by excessive chest training or prolonged periods of work at a desk or driving that tend to round the shoulders. Research indicates specific strength training such as the reverse fly is an effective tool to reduce pain and disability in neck and shoulder areas.
As with all exercise planning, if you have a shoulder, neck, or back injury, talk to your doctor or physical therapist to find out whether this exercise is appropriate. Dumbbell exercises are a great tool, but can also easily pull a joint, torque your body, or cause other unexpected movements if not properly handled. A key item to remember is to only lift manageable weights you can control in both eccentric and concentric phases, and that heavy weights (beyond what you can control) can result in poor technique. If you feel any pain during the exercise, slowly lower the weights and end the exercise. Additionally, beware of over-training risks with dumbbells, as their use may seem minimal compared to other motions, but overuse can risk fatigue, plateau, or injury. As with any fitness program – safety first.
– Train Hard!