Free weights and in this case, dumbbells, came onto the scene as a staple part of physical fitness and strength training as early as ancient Greece and in a similar form in India. Even back then, athletes and coaches understood the importance of strength and power for their performance and experienced a wide range of benefits in using this type of equipment.
Fast forward to the 17th century when dumbbells, as we recognize them today, were formed. The dumbbells resemble a barbell, just on a smaller and more portable scale. The versatility, mobility and accessibility of dumbbells make them a favored piece of equipment for individuals and group fitness classes.
We see the use of dumbbells in bodybuilding, CrossFit, kickboxing and barre classes and in a similar form during Strongman competitions. These fitness modalities recognize what the ancient Greek did about dumbbell exercises, that they are beneficial for developing raw power and strength, creating balance between the right and left sides of the body, and that using dumbbells can be just as effective as training with a barbell.
So what are the best dumbbell workouts for women? What are the best dumbbell exercises in general?
6 Benefits of Dumbbells
So, what are the benefits of using dumbbells? This list, though not exhausted, outlines the top six benefits of using free weight during a workout.
1. Dumbbells are beginner-friendly
The variety of strict dumbbell movements like biceps curls, shoulder press, bent row and deadlifts, combined with the assortment of available dumbbell weights, makes working with dumbbells accessible for any level of athlete. And with a small set of dumbbells, you can create challenging beginner dumbbell workouts at home.
2. Dumbbells can be used for a variety of exercises
This is one of the best reasons to begin working with dumbbells. The library of dumbbell exercises is extensive and includes almost any bodyweight movement and barbell movement. For example, if you had a workout that called for 50 squats, 25 push-ups and 10 burpees, you could perform the squats with dumbbells on your shoulders, a renegade row for your push-ups and a burpee deadlift for the burpees. A few adjustments and this bodyweight workout becomes much more challenging.
3. Unilateral training
Unlike training with a barbell, dumbbell exercises offer you the chance to work unilaterally, meaning one arm or leg at a time. With this type of training, you are more likely to create balance in strength between the right and left sides of the body. (1) We all have a dominant side and because of this, spending time strengthening our non-dominant side means an increase in overall strength.
4. Increases coordination between your brain and your muscles
The balance and stability required for many dumbbell exercises creates a scenario in which your mind and body must work together to perform these movements well. This improves not only your physical capacity but your mental capacity as well. (2)
5. Dumbbells beat weight machines
Strength or weight machines are built for average-sized individuals, so while some modifications can often be made, people with longer or shorter arms, for instance, can get injured by using improperly fitting machines. In addition, many machines allow your dominant side to take more of the weight, such as a chest machine. Conversely, dumbbells follow the natural biomechanics of your body (reducing risk of injury) and as mentioned above, train you unilaterally.
6. They can be used in a wide variety of exercises and for nearly every muscle group
There’s no other at-home workout equipment that I recommend more highly than a set of dumbbells … or one of those all-in-one varieties. You can workout every muscle group with the right dumbbells, from chest, back, shoulders, triceps and biceps to your glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings and calves.
Best Dumbbell Exercises
There are many exercises you can perform with dumbbells and though many of them are great free weight exercises, there are a number of exercises that fall into the category of functional training. These type of dumbbell exercises mimic our bodies functional movement like squatting, pressing and pulling.
What are the best dumbbell exercises for dumbbell workouts? The list below is a combination of functional movements like the front squat and deadlift with targeted dumbbell exercises like biceps curls and bent row. Each movement on this list is also a great addition to any dumbbell workout routine and make for great dumbbell workouts for women.
Stand with your feet hips distance apart and your toes forward. Hold a pair of dumbbells by your sides with your palms facing your thighs. Keep your chest broad and your core tight as you bend your knees slightly. Then, bow forward keeping your back flat. Shift your hips back and allow the dumbbells to slide down your legs. Bring the front head of each dumbbell down toward the ground. This is the starting position of a deadlift. To lift the dumbbells back up, keep your back and core tight as you press through your feet to stand up the same way you lowered down. Try 5 sets of 10 repetitions. The weight of the dumbbells can vary but focus on maintaining good form before increasing the weight.
This dynamic movement using the mechanics of a deadlift plus a jump to bring the dumbbells from the ground to your shoulders.
From the starting position of a deadlift with the front heads of the dumbbells touching the floor, press through your feet and once the dumbbells are past the line of your knees, jump the dumbbells to your shoulders (palms facing each other, pinky finger edge of your palm is facing forward) by squeezing your legs and quickly pulling your elbows under as the dumbbells land on your shoulders in a front rack position. Try 3 sets of 15 repetitions with a light to medium set of dumbbells.
This dumbbell exercise is a great exercise for improving your balance as well as your core and leg strength. It’s a great addition to any full body dumbbell circuit workout as well as a stand alone exercise.
To perform this movement, you will need a step or a box that is between 15 and 20 inches or is at a height where when you place a foot on the box, that knee is in line with your hip. Hold onto the dumbbells by your side. Step onto the box with your right foot while keeping your chest up. Then, step down with your left. Alternate each step up through each set. Try 3 sets of 20 repetitions with a light to medium set of dumbbells.
Grab two light dumbbells and bring the dumbbells to your shoulders. In this position, your elbows should point forward in a strong front rack position. Bring your feet into a squat position or about shoulder-distance apart. With your toes turned forward (if mobility allows) and your feet completely flat on the floor, begin to shift your hips back and down into a squat. At the bottom of the squat your chest and elbows should be up and your heels completely flat on the floor. Drive down into your feet to stand. Try 5 sets of 10 repetitions.
With two light dumbbells in either hand, stand with your feet hip-distance apart. Keep your torso tall and your core tight. Step back with your right foot so that as you bring your right foot gently down to the ground, your left knee is stacked above your left ankle. Then, push off your left foot to bring yourself back to standing. Repeat on the second side. Try 5 sets of 10 repetitions.
Stand and hold to dumbbells by your sides. Bend your knees slightly as you bow forward at the hips. Let the dumbbells hand in front of your knees directly under the shoulders. Turn your palms to face your legs. With a flat back and strong core, draw the dumbbells up towards your shoulders as you pull your elbows up toward the ceiling. Then, return the dumbbells back to the starting position. Try 4 sets of 7 repetitions.
Holding two light dumbbells in your hands, come to the top of a push-up or plank position. Separate your feet to about hips distance. Press down through the dumbbells while keeping your core and legs active and strong. Without letting go of the dumbbell, draw your right thumb to the front of your right shoulder to pull dumbbell off of the ground. Place the dumbbell back on the ground and repeat on the left side. Alternate between side for 3 sets of 10 repetitions.
Stand tall with a dumbbell in each hand. Keep your core tight and your shoulder relaxed away from your ears. Turn your palms away from your legs. One at a time, draw the dumbbell to the front of your shoulder and then return to the starting position. Alternate between your right and left side for 6 sets of 10 total repetitions.
For this exercise, you will need a bench or box to lie on. Sit on the bench with your feet on the floor. Hold two dumbbells and bring the bottom heads of the dumbbells to your thighs. Lie back and bring the dumbbells to your shoulders with the palms facing toward your knees. Begin to press the dumbbells up toward the ceiling as you keep your shoulder blades pinned to the bench and your feet flat on the floor. Bring the dumbbells back down to your shoulders to complete the repetition. Try 3 sets of 8 repetitions.
Strict Shoulder Press
Stand tall with a light dumbbell in each hand. Bring the dumbbells to your shoulders with your palms facing each other. Bring your feet to hips distance and keep your core tight and legs strong. Press the dumbbells overhead and finish with your biceps in line with your ears. Try 3 sets of 8 repetitions.
Dumbbell Workouts for Women
There’s an infinite number of ways to build workouts with dumbbells. But what’s the best dumbbell workout for women? Workouts that involve both dynamic upper and lower body exercises with a metabolic movement like running or burpees will increase overall core strength and stability while improving your cardiovascular fitness. Each of the workouts outlined below can be scaled to make the workout easier by changing and/or the weight of the dumbbells or the amount of repetition.
This first workout includes a few dumbbell exercises for weight loss — like the dumbbell front squat and dumbbell lunges — as well as a few dumbbell exercises for your shoulders and back. This type of time domain allows for rest within each minute. If you are not completing the set amount of reps with at least 15 seconds of rest before the next minute, reduce the amount of reps by 5.
Dumbbell workout for women No. 1:
20 minutes, every minute, on the minute
- Minute 1: 15x dumbbell front squat
- Minute 2: 10x dumbbell renegade row
- Minute 3: 15x dumbbell stiff-legged deadlift
- Minute 4: 10x dumbbell strict shoulder press
- Minute 5: 15x burpee
*At the top of minute 6, being with 15x dumbbell front squats, then minute 7, begin with 10x dumbbell renegade rows, etc.
Dumbbell workout for women No. 2:
This second workout includes a few dumbbell exercise for women’s chest, arms and shoulders. Depending on your level of fitness, perform 3–4 rounds of the following workout. Focus on holding form throughout each movement and each round. If form is starting to break, reduce the number of reps per round or select a lighter set of dumbbells.
- 7x push-up on a pair of dumbbells
- 8x dumbbell fly
- 9x renegade row
- 10x dumbbell front squat plus shoulder press
Dumbbells are one of the most versatile and accessible pieces of equipment at your neighborhood gym or for your home gym. They allow you to customize workouts to your current physical fitness, target areas that are weak or unstable, and create balance and symmetry within the body.
On the flip side, just like any other piece of equipment, we want to make sure we are performing the exercises correctly when doing any dumbbell workouts and with proper form to prevent muscle imbalances and injuries.
1. Always warm-up prior to starting your workout
Many people often skip warm-ups as they don’t see the benefit is adding that time to their whole workout. A good warm-up increases your heart rate and blood circulation, warms up large muscle groups through dynamic stretching and muscle activation and prepares your mind for the upcoming workout. Skipping your warm-up can lead to movement imbalances, injuries and a sluggish workout performance. So, before you start your workout take at least 7-10 minutes to warm-up.
2. During the warm-up, perform the movements without external weight
As part of your warm-up routine, practice the movements in your workout without external weight. Once you are warm, then begin to move with weight.
3. Practice with lighter dumbbells
Dumbbells are an amazing training tool but when we use dumbbells that are too heavy, it increases the likelihood of practicing improper form and can lead to injury. By choosing a lighter set of dumbbells, your building good movement patterns while learning what weight is appropriate for the workout.
4. Don’t forget to keep your core tight and stable
Almost all dumbbell exercises require you to stabilize your core before performing the lift. It is one of the main reasons why working with dumbbells is so beneficial. By focusing on your core during your workout, you will ensure that you’re executing the movement with proper and safe form.
Athletes have been using dumbbells as a training tool for hundreds of years. They knew then, what we know now. That dumbbell exercises are beginner-friendly and versatile in both accessibility and movements. They also offer athletes the chance to work unilaterally to improve strength and coordination.
And with a long list of exercises you can do with dumbbells, it’s a must have piece of equipment for everyone.