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in: Fitness, Health & Fitness

Dumbbell Workouts for Size and Strength

Earlier this year, I changed up my strength training, transitioning from using barbells exclusively to combining them with dumbbells. This was due to a series of injuries over the past few years. My coach, Matt Reynolds, has done a great job accommodating my new normal and has programmed some great dumbbell-based workouts that have allowed me to stay healthy and strong while getting a bit more jacked. 

While you can’t lift as much weight with dumbbells as you can with barbells, dumbbell training has some benefits. 

Dumbbells are versatile, allowing you to do many different exercises, both compound and isolation movements. 

Dumbbells can also be easier on the joints and tendons, especially when you’re doing pressing or benching movements (this is a big reason I switched to dumbbells). 

Dumbbells are great for doing high-rep hypertrophy workouts to add muscle mass, and they can also be used for conditioning work. 

Finally, I’ve noticed that most hotel gyms don’t have barbells, but they often have dumbbells. Having a dumbbell workout in your back pocket can allow you to train even when you’re on the road.

As I said above, the biggest disadvantage of dumbbells is that you can’t add as much weight as you can with barbells. This can be a limiting factor in adding progressive overload to your workout (which is how you get stronger), especially on lower body lifts like squats or deadlifts. It’s still possible to progressively overload with dumbbells, though. You just have to add reps and not just weight to each workout. 

The way Matt does it is that he’ll start me off doing a weight for three sets of eight reps. For the next workout, I’ll keep the weight the same and add a rep. I add a rep each workout and keep the weight the same until I can complete twelve reps. Once that happens, I’ll add five pounds to the dumbbells in the next workout and return to doing three sets of eight. Rinse, wash, repeat. 

If you’re looking for a dumbbell strength workout, Matt put together the two below: one for your regular life and one for when you’re traveling. 

4-Day Split Dumbbell Workout Program

Matt recommends a four-day upper body and lower body split that looks like this:

  • Monday: Lower Body Workout #1
  • Tuesday: Upper Body Workout #1
  • Wednesday: Zone 2 Cardio
  • Thursday: Lower Body Workout #2
  • Friday: Upper Body Workout #2

If you don’t know how to do any of the exercises below, there are a boatload of good YouTube tutorials out there to watch.

Lower Body Workout #1

Main Lifts

Do the following exercises in the designated sets x reps scheme, with a 2-minute rest between each set.

  • Goblet Squat: 3×8
  • Dumbbell Deadlift: 3×8

Lower Body Conditioning/Hypertrophy Circuit

Do the following exercises in the designated sets x reps scheme, in a circuit (back to back); perform 3 circuits, with a 2-minute rest between each circuit. 

  • Bulgarian Split Squat: 3×10
  • Dumbbell Swing: 3×10
  • Single Leg RDL: 3×10
  • Sit-ups: 3×10

Upper Body Workout #1

Main Lifts

Do the following exercises in the designated sets x reps scheme, with a 2-minute rest between each set.

  • Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 3×8
  • Dumbbell Incline Bench Press: 3×8

Upper Body Conditioning/Hypertrophy Circuit 

Do the following exercises in the designated sets x reps scheme, in a circuit (back to back); perform 3 circuits, with a 2-minute rest between each circuit. 

  • Kroc Row: 3×15
  • Rolling Dumbbell Extension: 3×10
  • Dumbbell Curl: 3×10
  • Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3×12

Finish the workout with a set of push-ups for as many reps as possible.

Lower Body Workout #2

Do the following exercises in the designated sets x reps scheme, with a 2-minute rest between each set.

  • Thruster 3×12
  • Good Morning 3×12

Lower Body Conditioning/Hypertrophy Circuit

Do the following exercises in a designated sets x reps scheme, in a circuit (back to back); perform 3 circuits, with a 2-minute rest between each circuit. 

  • Walking Lunge: 3×10
  • Dumbbell RDL: 3×10
  • Bodyweight Squat: 3×10
  • Plank hold for as long as possible

Upper Body Workout #2

Main Lifts

Do the following sets x reps scheme, with a 2-minute rest between each set.

  • Dumbbell Bench Press: 3×10
  • Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 3×10

Upper Body Conditioning/Hypertrophy Circuit

Do the following exercises in the designated sets x reps scheme, in a circuit (back to back); perform 3 circuits, with a 2-minute rest between each circuit. 

  • Chin-ups: 3 x AMRAP (as many reps as possible)
  • Dips: 3 x AMRAP
  • Dumbbell Curl: 3×10
  • Dumbbell Rear Delt Raise: 3×10
  • Dumbbell Fly: 3×10

Full Body Dumbbell Workout

If you don’t have time to do the four-day split, or you’re traveling and want to get a full-body dumbbell workout in a single session, Matt recommends doing two of the main lower body lifts and two of the main upper body lifts for a workout. Here’s a sample:

  • Goblet Squat: 3×10
  • Single Leg RDL: 3×10
  • Dumbbell Bench Press: 3×10
  • Dumbbell Press: 3×10

If you’re looking to get some dumbbells to work out at home, and don’t want to buy a huge set of them in varying weights, here’s our pick for the best adjustable dumbbells. 

Also, if you’ve ever wondered why dumbbells are called dumbbells, well, we’ve got intel on that, too.

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