The Best Dumbbell Exercises For All Levels Of Gym-Goer

Beef up your whole body with these beginner, intermediate and advanced dumbbell exercises

Dumbbells are the most accessible free weights so they’re the first most people tend to try, either in the gym or as part of a home workout. They’re also among the most versatile weights you can use, and even if you usually gravitate towards the barbell to tackle big lifts like the back squat, deadlift and bench press, there are plenty of reasons to make sure you also find time for dumbbell exercises.

“When using a barbell, your weaker side can get an easy ride,” says PT and Multipower ambassador Ant Nyman. “You can move the weight predominantly using your stronger side, meaning one side will always lag behind. Using dumbbells nullifies this problem because each side has to work individually, meaning you’ll develop strength and size evenly on both sides.

“The unstable nature of holding dumbbells also ensures that your stabiliser muscles have to work hard to keep you steady while you perform the movement. Without realising it you’ll be strengthening your core and other stabiliser muscles, which can help prevent injury.”

Sounds pretty convincing, right? Here are Nyman’s favourite beginner, intermediate and advanced dumbbell exercises, and a few of our own too. If you prefer to practise them at home, our round-up of the best dumbbells can help you find a pair to suit your budget and needs. We also have plenty of dumbbell workouts for you to try which employ the exercises on this page.


Lateral raise

Man performs lateral raise with dumbbells

Stand holding a dumbbell in each hand next to your outer thighs. Keep your back straight and slowly lift the weights out to the sides until your arms are parallel with the floor. Your elbows should be slightly bent. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.

“Lateral raises target the medial (outer) head of the deltoid muscle,” says Nyman. “You don’t need an awful lot of core strength to perform the movement, which is why it’s good for beginners.

“Imagine you are holding a bucket in each hand. As you raise your arms out to the side, tip the buckets as if to pour out the contents so that your thumbs point to the floor. This will ensure you hit the medial head as opposed to over-developing the front delt.”

Biceps curl

Woman performs biceps curls with dumbbells

Hold a pair of dumbbells in front of your thighs with your palms facing out. Slowly curl the dumbbells up to your chest and then back down again.

“Keep your elbows pinned to your sides,” says Nyman. “The minute your elbow comes up you are shifting the emphasis away from your biceps and onto your shoulders.

“If you’re a beginner you may be wary of picking up heavy weights. With biceps curls you won’t need to worry about that because it’s not about going heavy, it’s about the feel of the muscle lengthening and shortening. You can change grip to target different heads of the muscle but for a beginner I’d recommend using a supinated grip – palms facing up.”

Hammer curl

Woman performs hammer curl with dumbbells

This biceps curl variation works your upper arms in a slightly different way from the classic curl, targeting the brachialis muscle (found on the outside of the arm next to the biceps). Working the brachialis will add bulk to your upper arms and make your biceps stand out more. It’s a simple move, with the only change from the standard biceps curl being how you hold the dumbbells.

Stand holding a weight in each hand with your palms facing each other. Making sure to keep your elbows close to your upper body, bend your elbows to slowly lift the weights to your shoulders. Squeeze your biceps at the top, then lower the dumbbells with control.

Triceps kick-back


Pair this move with the biceps curl to ensure you’re working both of the major muscle groups in your upper arm. Like the biceps curl, the triceps kick-back is an isolation move, in that it targets solely the triceps.

Set up a bench so you can place one knee, shin and foot on it, and then bend over until your torso is parallel to the floor, holding the bench with one hand. In the other hand, hold a dumbbell and place your upper arm against your body with your elbow bent at 90°. Straighten your arm, moving the dumbbell backwards until your forearm is parallel to the ground, making sure to keep your upper arm still so you’re only using your triceps for the lift. Slowly lower the weight back to the start.


Man performs lunge with dumbbells in a gym

Holding dumbbells by your sides, take a big step forwards and lower your body until both knees are bent at 90°. Then push up through the front leg and return to the starting position.

“Working your legs is essential for many reasons, including building strength, muscle and burning loads of calories,” says Nyman. “But if you’re a beginner the thought of getting under a heavy barbell for a set of squats may seem intimidating. So instead grab a pair of dumbbells and get lunging. It’s a great way to add resistance to your legs and glute work, without the fear of being left in a heap under the squat rack.”

Overhead press


You can do this either seated or standing. Hold a pair of dumbbells by your shoulders with your elbows out to the sides and bent at 90°. Extend through your elbows and press the weights overhead, then slowly bring them back to the starting position.

“While lateral raises are good for working the delts, performing heavy overhead (or shoulder) presses is a great way to add serious strength,” says Nyman. “Make sure you don’t arch your back too much. If you do you’ll probably end up using your upper chest instead of your shoulders.”

Dumbbell bench press


This is a great option for beginners if you stick to a weight you’re comfortable with. Using dumbbells will work more muscles around the shoulders and chest than using a barbell because they’re forced to keep the weights stable, and it’s well worth developing those muscles before moving on to heavier barbells. Lie on a flat workout bench with your feet flat on the floor. Hold the dumbbells above your chest, palms facing towards your feet with your arms fully extended. Bend at the elbows to lower the dumbbells slowly until they reach your chest. Pause for one second, then press both dumbbells up powerfully.

Hammer press

This variation on the dumbbell bench press puts less strain on your shoulders, and so is a welcome addition to the gym routine for anyone who has concerns about that particularly easy-to-injure joint. Lie a bench holding a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing each other – that grip is the only real change in the move. Press the weights above you until your arms are extended, then bring them back down slowly.

Floor press

Man performs floor press with dumbbells

Not just an exercise to do when the bench is busy, the floor press places less strain on your shoulders than the standard move owing to the reduced range of motion, so it’s a good way to work your chest if you are worried about aggravating shoulder niggles. Lie with your feet and back flat on the floor, knees bent, holding dumbbells either side of your chest. Press the weights straight above you, then lower slowly until the backs of your upper arms touch the floor. This makes the move harder, since it removes the tension from your muscles, so it takes more to initiate the next rep.

Calf raise


Your calf muscles are among the trickiest to target during a workout. Your best option is to incorporate some kind of calf raise into your routine. This is an especially important move for runners, because the calf muscles have to bear a lot of the impact, so ensuring they’re strong enough to handle your training should be a key concern in your supportive workouts.

The calf raise is a very simple move. Stand holding heavy dumbbells, then push through your toes to raise your heels off the floor. Then lower your heels back down. You can vary the part of the calf you work by bending your knees during a raise, or doing them off a raised platform like a step or kerb, so your heels can sink below toe level.

Dumbbell woodchop

This functional exercise is terrific for core strength, with the rotational movement many of us lack in our gym routines – which often consist entirely of forward and back, up and down, and side-to-side moves. If you’re a golfer then make sure you start woodchopping ASAP, because the increase in rotational power you’ll gain will add serious yardage to your drives.

Stand holding a dumbbell in both hands, then lower into a squat and move moving the dumbbell to the right, until your thighs are parallel to the floor and the dumbbell is outside your right thigh. Drive up to standing and twist your torso to bring the dumbbell across and up until it’s above your left shoulder, keeping your arms extended throughout. Twist to come slowly back down to the starting position. Perform all your reps in one direction, then switch sides.

Hip thrust

This exercise strengthens your glutes, hamstrings and quads, and is traditionally done with a barbell, but there’s no reason you can’t sub in dumbbells for it if that’s all you have. Sit by a weight bench, facing away from it with your knees bent and feet planted on the floor, and leaning back so your shoulders rest on a bench. Hold the dumbbells so they’re resting on your thighs just below your hips. Drive your hips up to lift the weights. In the top position your knees should be bent at a 90° angle and your body should form a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Lower back down with control.



This exercise produces impressive results given the minimal movement involved, with your traps and shoulders in particular benefitting. Stand holding heavy dumbbells by your sides, with your palms facing each other. Lift the weights by shrugging your shoulders up, keeping your arms straight. Pause for a moment at the top of the exercise, then lower the weights back to the start.

Farmer’s walk


You’ll feel the benefits of this functional exercise the next time you do a big shop. Hold a heavy dumbbell in each hand and walk for a set distance, like 10m, or duration, taking short steps and keeping your core braced and torso upright – don’t let the weights drag you down. The farmer’s walk is also great for your grip strength and will help to improve your posture, and it’s a move with a very low injury risk since the form is easy to master.


Chest flye

Man performs dumbbell chest flye

Lie on your back on a flat bench with your feet on the floor. Hold the dumbbells above your chest with your arms almost straight, palms facing each other. Slowly lower them out to the sides, then bring them back up above your chest. Your arms should have a slight bend in the elbows throughout.

“Doing chest flyes is a great way to isolate the chest,” says Nyman. “Most pressing chest movements will enlist the help of the shoulders and triceps, but flyes keep the focus purely on the chest.

“Exaggerate the arch in your lower back slightly. This will help keep the tension on your chest as opposed to your shoulders.”

Bent-over row


Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees and lean over from your waist, keeping your neck lined up with your spine. Let the dumbbells hang with straight arms, then slowly bring them up to your chest by squeezing your shoulders together.

“Using dumbbells to perform bent-over rows is a great way to ensure you develop both sides of your upper back evenly,” says Nyman.

“Think of Donald Duck – stick your bum out and ensure you maintain the natural curve in your lumbar spine (lower back).”

One-arm dumbbell row

Opting for this one-arm row over the classic bent-over row makes it easier to focus on the side you’re working and also to ensure your body is in the right position, because you are supporting the upper body with your other arm. Place one knee on a bench and lean over to place your hand on the bench so your upper body is parallel to the ground. Reach down with your other arm to grab your dumbbell, then row it up to your chest, focusing on lifting it with your back and shoulder muscles. Pause at the top of the move, then lower the weight slowly.

Front squat

Woman performs squat with dumbbells in rack position

Hold a pair of dumbbells up by your shoulders with your elbows by your sides and palms facing each other. Lower into a squat until your thighs are parallel with the ground, then drive back up to the starting position.

“It’s not as daunting as getting under a loaded barbell, and performing squats while holding dumbbells by your shoulders will challenge your core in a different way to the barbell version,” says Nyman. “Because the weight is slightly in front of you, you’ll place more emphasis on your quads, too.”

Front raise


The first thing to know about this exercise is that it works the front part of your shoulders. The second thing to know is that you need to use light dumbbells. You don’t need much weight at all to work this area, and going too heavy risks a shoulder injury. You can lift two dumbbells simultaneously or work one arm at a time. Hold the weight in front of your thighs in an overhand grip, so your palms face your body. Keeping your arms extended and your back straight, lift the weight in front of you to shoulder height, then lower it slowly.

T press-up


A press-up with a twist, quite literally. The T press-up enhances the already considerable benefits of the exercise by increasing the challenge to your core. Take a pair of dumbbells (hexagonal ones are ideal for this because they provide a more stable base) and get into the press-up position, holding a weight in each hand directly under your shoulders, with your feet shoulder-width apart. Perform a press-up and once you’ve pushed back up, lift one dumbbell off the ground and rotate your torso until that arm is extended towards the ceiling. Pause at the top, then rotate back down slowly and go into another press-up.

Arnold Press


Everyone starts to think they’re the Terminator after a few good lifting sessions, so here’s a move the Terminator himself made famous. The Arnold Press works all three sections of your deltoids – or,machine-gun stabilisers, as we’re sure the The Austrian Oak refers to them – and keeps your muscles under tension for longer than a standard overhead press.

Stand holding dumbbells in front of your chest using an underhand grip, as though you’re midway through a biceps curl. Open your arms out to the sides while rotating your wrists 180° then, without pausing, press the dumbbells above your head.

Single-leg glute bridge with dumbbell hold

If you’re already familiar with the glute bridge you can add dumbbells to the mix by holding them on your hips as you perform the move to increase the difficulty, but for building power in the hips and glutes we prefer this single-leg variation. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet planted on the ground, holding a dumbbell in your right hand. Lift your right foot off the floor and extend your arm so the dumbbell is above you. Now drive through your left heel to lift your hips up, keeping the dumbbell steady. Do all your reps on one side, then switch.

Upright row


While this exercise looks simple, it’s vital to get your technique right and use an appropriate amount of weight, because you can really do your shoulders a mischief if you lift heavier than you can safely manage. Start lighter than you think you can handle at first and increase the weight incrementally in subsequent workouts. Once you have chosen your dumbbells, stand holding them by your hips in an overhand grip. Keeping your chest up, lift the weights towards your shoulders, leading with your elbows. Pause at the top and squeeze the traps muscles in your back – these are the main focus of the exercise – then lower back to the start under control.

Plank drag

The plank drag is a simple and effective way to increase the difficulty of the classic plank while also making it slightly less boring – we love the plank, but staying as still as possible during the move is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. With the plank drag you set up in a high plank position, supporting your body on your hands and toes while forming a straight line from your neck to your heels. Position the dumbbell on the floor, level with your chest on your left side. 

While maintaining your plank position, reach across and under with your right hand to grab the dumbbell and drag it under your body over to your right side. Then put your right hand back down and drag the weight the other way with your left hand. Make sure to engage your abs when dragging the weight so it’s not just your arms doing the work. The extra challenge to your balance ramps up the core benefits of the plank, while helping the time pass faster.


Split squat


Get into a staggered stance, holding dumbbells by your sides. Using your legs, slowly lower as far as feels comfortable, then push back up to the starting position. For a tougher variation of the split squat, put your back foot on a bench.

“These are tough at the best of times but performing them with a dumbbell in each hand will take it to a whole new level,” says Nyman. “You’ll feel every muscle in your legs and glutes working hard just to stabilise yourself.

“Keep your chest up throughout the movement. Push up through your heels as opposed to your toes to target the quads and glutes instead of your calves.”

Chest pull-over


(Image credit: Unknown)

Lie on your back on a bench, holding a dumbbell in both hands above your head. Keep your arms straight but not locked. Slowly lower the dumbbell behind your head until you feel a stretch in your chest. Return to the start position and squeeze your chest hard at the point of contraction.

“This is a great way to finish off a chest workout and target the upper and inner sections of your chest,” says Nyman.

Dumbbell snatch

Man and woman demonstrate different positions of the dumbbell snatch exercise

This full-body exercise relies on a rock-solid technique to be effective, so don’t overdo the weight when you first start doing the dumbbell snatch. Stand holding a dumbbell in one hand. Lower into a squat and touch the dumbbell to the floor between your feet. Then drive your hips forwards to stand up and lift the weight explosively. Once it reaches chest height, flip your wrist under the dumbbell and then push it above your head until your arm is fully extended.

Do it right and the final press will be a fluid extension of the move using the momentum created by your legs and hips. If you have to press the weight overhead using mostly your arm, then get your technique checked and/or use a lighter weight.

Single-leg Romanian deadlift


This fantastic functional move trains each leg in turn to mimic the movement of running, and it also helps to build a strong posterior chain. It’s also an incredibly frustrating move at times, because it tests your balance as well as your strength. Stand holding dumbbells, using a lot less weight than you would for a two-footed deadlift. Lift one foot off the ground and hinge forwards at the hips, raising your foot behind you for counterbalance, to lower the weights towards the floor. Stop when you feel a stretch in your standing leg’s hamstring and snap your hips forwards to come back up to standing.

Renegade row


The most demanding dumbbell row asks you to hold a plank while pulling the weights up to your chest – a stern test, especially if you don’t rush your reps. Use dumbbells with hexagonal weights to provide a firm base, otherwise you risk turning your wrists. Get into the top press-up position, holding the handles of the dumbbells with your hands under your shoulders and spreading your feet wide to ensure a stable base. Brace your core and keep your torso as still as possible throughout the move. Lift one dumbbell towards your chest, keeping your arm close to your body. Lower under control, then repeat on the other side. Continue, alternating sides.



A dumbbell thruster is a fiery little move – literally, because you’ll feel the burn in a lot of different muscles. It’s also a great way to build up to the barbell thruster and to iron out any strength imbalances.

Stand holding dumbbells at shoulder height with your palms facing. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outwards.

Squat down slowly, then explode up, thrusting the dumbbells above your head so that your arms are extended. Work on making the action from the bottom of the squat one fluid movement – it shouldn’t be a squat followed by an overhead press.

Bulgarian split squat


The weighted split squat is a tough move in itself, and the Bulgarian version literally takes it to another level, because you’ll be putting your back foot on a raised surface. This creates instability that increases the work your core muscles have to do to keep you balanced, and also places more load on the front leg to maximise the strength-building benefits.

Stand in a split stance, holding dumbbells by your sides. Place the top of your back foot on a raised surface behind you – it should be about knee height. Bend your front knee to lower until your front thigh is parallel to the ground, then drive back up. Make sure your front knee does not travel past your toes at the bottom of the move. If it looks like it will, reset with your foot further forwards.

Dumbbell reverse flye

This challenging shoulder exercise should be done with light weights to make sure you don’t pull your body out of position during the move. Stand holding a weight in each hand with your palms facing. Hinge forwards at your hips and let the weights hang down beneath you. Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, lift the weights out to the sides, then bring them back down slowly. The reverse flye is a great move for working the side and rear parts of your shoulders and will help you build a broader upper back.