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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
July 21, 2021
Most would agree that big, compound, FULL BODY exercises are the best way to build muscle, increase strength, lose body fat, and even improve athleticism...or, in other words, get into tip-top shape.
And while barbell and bodyweight exercises are great, thanks to the versatility of dumbbells, your options for effective total body dumbbell exercises are innumerable. Dumbbells are arguably the best equipment for full body workouts.
On that note, we’ve put together 17 of the best full body dumbbell exercises (meaning exercises that hit both the upper and lower body in one go) that you can add to your workouts. We also have highly effective total body dumbbell workouts at the end for those who want to do dumbbell-only workouts that target muscles head to toe.
When it comes to compound exercises, full body exercises and complex exercises, the main benefits are:
When it comes to total body dumbbell workouts using big compound movements, you get all of the same benefits above, but in regards to the workouts themselves, the main advantages are:
Although full body exercises act on multiple joints and activate multiple muscle groups, a single exercise will not emphasize every single muscle in your body and they typically won’t involve more than two movement patterns, so it’s important to have variety in your exercise selection.
Ideally, each big compound exercise in your workout will have at least two major muscle groups as the primary movers.
Moreover, each week, you will want to work your body through the basic movement patterns, which are squat/lunge, hinge (vertical and horizontal hinges), push (vertical and horizontal pushes), pull (vertical and horizontal pushes), and core (through all three planes of motion). As you'll see, many of our total body dumbbell exercises involve a combo of two movement patterns.
For reference, here are the major muscle groups to target:
You have many other muscles in your body that are important of course, but by doing compound, full body exercises, the smaller muscles should have sufficient stimulation.
Note: Although pretty much every major muscle group will be activated to some degree each workout, as you are doing full body movements, you don’t have to specifically target each muscle group every workout. For example, one workout may emphasize your quads, glutes, core, chest, and triceps (i.e. focusing mainly on squat and push patterns), while the next emphasizes your calves, hamstrings, glutes, core, back and biceps (i.e. focusing on hinge and pull movement patterns). These are still full body workouts even though you aren't doing an exercise for every single muscle group. Just be sure that everything gets checked off ✅ each week.
Dumbbells are extremely effective for building muscle, increasing strength, improving athleticism and burning fat. Furthermore, they are probably the most versatile training tool there is. So, if all you had access to was dumbbells, you most certainly can build a good physique. Dumbbell exercises and bodyweight exercises are more than enough to get in and stay in stellar shape.
This is going to depend on your fitness and strength level. It is also going to depend on what the full body exercises is that you are doing. Some full body exercises are best done with heavy dumbbells (relative to your strength) while others should be done with light dumbbells, even if you are really strong. So, you will have to use your best judgement, which will be pretty easy as even by just looking at the exercises below you can get a good idea if its an exercise that should be done with a light, medium or heavy load. Overall, when it doubt, start light.
Related: What weight dumbbell should I buy?
Below are 17 of the best total body dumbbell exercises. Most of these are not just simple compound exercises, they are truly full body dumbbell exercises as they will involve both the lower and upper body, acting on multiple joints and targeting multiple muscle groups.
After going over all the exercises, we have some full body dumbbell workouts that incorporate these exercises. So, stick around...
When it comes to total body compound exercises, the dumbbell squat with bicep curl is actually pretty simple in terms of mechanics, which makes it a great exercise for all fitness levels.
The main target of this exercise is the quads, glutes, biceps, and forearms, but your core and back will also be working hard to maintain stability and good posture.
How to do the Dumbbell Squat with Bicep Curl:
The dumbbell forward lunge with tricep extension is not only a great exercise for your legs, glutes and triceps, but it is also a good athletic builder as it is going to test your balance and coordination, which means you are going to build good core stability with this one.
And, of course, like other total body dumbbell exercises, it is going to burn a lot of calories fast.
How to do the Dumbbell Forward Lunge with Tricep Extension:
Like the prior full body exercises, this one combines a standard compound leg exercise with an isolation arm exercise. In this case, it is a reverse lunge with a front raise.
Being that it is a single leg, single arm unilateral movement, it is also going to significantly involve core and back strength for stability and posture.
All in all, this is a really great exercise to build up athleticism and get that heart rate pumping.
How to do the Dumbbell Reverse Lunge with Single Arm Front Raise:
The dumbbell burpee is definitely an advanced exercises as the bodyweight burpee alone is killer.
However, if you think you have what it takes to scale up the intensity of the already-brutal movement and want to add a little more hypertrophy potential, grab a pair of dumbbells and get to burpee-ing.
Overall, this is the true definition of a full body exercise. Dumbbell burpees are going to activate every single muscle in your body and they are going to burn a ton of calories. It’s going to be brutal, but worth it.
How to do the Dumbbell Burpee:
Be sure to start light. This is not an exercise where you will want to go heavy. Jumping with heavy kettlebells can put too much pressure on your spine. You can also skip the explosive jump at the end and rather just squat up to a standing position.
Related: Benefits of Burpees
The dumbbell clean is typically thought of as a kettlebell exercise, but it can most certainly be done with dumbbells, and effectively so.
It’s a great complex, multi-phase, multi-joint exercise that is going to help you build mass and brute strength while burning a lot of calories at the same time. The clean is also an exercise that can be done with relatively heavy dumbbells.
The primary muscles worked are your hamstrings, quads, glutes, calves, spinal erectors, traps, shoulders, and biceps, and essentially all other muscles are working to stabilize the movement.
How to do the Dumbbell Clean:
Go light to start. Really work on getting your form down pat. Only then can you start attempting heavier dumbbell cleans.
The dumbbell close grip shoulder press sit up is not technically "full body", as it is doesn’t act on the lower body. However, it does involve the entire upper body, so it is still a fit for this article.
The exercise is a sit up with a simultaneous overhead press. As such, it is going to hit the core/low back (big time), chest, shoulders, triceps, biceps, and even upper back.
If you don’t have a strong core, work on building core strength with standard sit ups and planks before attempting this exercise, because if you don’t have the strength, it can put too much pressure on your spine.
How to do the Dumbbell Close Grip Shoulder Press Sit Up:
The dumbbell overhead carry is a farmer’s carry with the dumbbells held up overhead. Ergo, it’s a harder variation.
Like standard farmer’s carries (aka farmer’s walks), this is a total body exercise for improving strength, power, cardiovascular health and endurance. It’s great for the legs, core, and traps, and since the dumbbells are held overhead, your shoulders, upper chest, triceps, and entire back are going to be working overtime to keep them there.
Note: You’ll have to go a lighter than you would with farmer’s carries. After all, you are holding the dumbbells up overhead rather than to your sides, but you should still attempt this exercise with relatively heavy dumbbells when you are ready.
How to do the Dumbbell Overhead Carry:
There are other variations that you can try, such as doing single arm overhead carries or up down overhead carries (with one pressed up overhead and the other dumbbell in the starting press position up by your shoulder).
Regular overhead carries are great for the core, but these other variations bring balance, coordination, and stability into play more.
This is like a plank on steroids. So, if you have trouble with regular bodyweight only planks, you might not be ready for this. You are going to need some serious core strength and stability to perform this exercise.
Essentially it is a bird dog from a plank position while holding onto dumbbells. Again, not easy.
It is going to work your pretty much every muscle in your body one way or another (either isotonically or isometrically), but it emphasizes the abs, obliques, low back, shoulders, chest, triceps, upper back, hamstrings, and glutes.
Start light and use hex or 12-sided type of dumbbells as the round ones will only make things harder to stabilize.
How to do the Dumbbell Front Plank Arm Leg Raise:
You’ve probably never seen this exercise before, but it is one we recommend testing out.
The iron cross is a total body dumbbell exercise that places emphasis on the quads, glutes, shoulders, and chest, but as you are holding the dumbbells out in front of you or to your sides throughout the exercise, your back and core will be working very hard to stabilize the movement and keep your posture upright.
How to do the Dumbbell Iron Cross:
Here we have a full body dumbbell exercise that is great for building durability and brute strength. We highly recommend this one for athletes who want to build power and injury resilience.
The dumbbell kneeling hold to stand is going to work all your major muscle groups, especially the quads, glutes, hamstrings, shoulders, and traps, as well as your entire core, which includes your obliques and erector spinae.
How to do the Dumbbell Kneeling Hold to Stand:
The step up alone is a great exercise for the quads, hamstrings and especially the glutes. This full body variation takes things to the next level. It involves a knee drive and a bicep curl as you perform the step up, which is going to work the hip flexors, biceps, and forearms, but also is going to seriously test your balance. To maintain balance, your core and glutes/hip abductors are going to need to be fully engaged.
So, if you are looking for an athletic based total body dumbbell exercise that fills a lot of needs with one deed, this is a great one.
How to do the Dumbbell Single Leg Knee Drive Step Up with Bicep Curl:
The dumbbell snatch is an explosive exercise that will increase total body power and strength with an emphasis on your shoulders, quads and back.
Being that this is a “single arm” variation, it is also an anti-lateral movement, so your core is going to have to fight to keep your body from leaning to the working side.
How to do the Dumbbell One Arm Snatch:
The dumbbell thruster is one of the best total body exercises in the game. The movement is pretty simple, but it is definitely not easy, especially if you are using a reasonable weight load.
This exercise is as compound as it gets, acting on all your joints. As such, it really does work almost every muscle in your body, but it emphasizes your quads, glutes, core, and shoulders. If you are looking for an exercise that can build muscle and power while also burning a ton of calories, the dumbbell thruster is it.
Note: You can also do single arm dumbbell thrusters if you want to change up the dynamics of the exercise a little.
How to do Dumbbell Thrusters:
The dumbbell squat press is essentially a goblet squat with a Svend press added at the bottom.
Assuming you don’t know what a Svend press is, it is simply a press out of a dumbbell (or plate) with your hands together from the center of your chest. So, from a vertical position, you press the weight straight out from your chest until your arms are fully extended. This primarily works the pec major and the shoulders.
As such, the main target of the dumbbell squat press is the quads, glutes, hamstrings, shoulders, chest, and even your biceps. Moreover, it also requires your core and back to work isometrically as to maintain stability and an upright posture.
How to do the Dumbbell Press Squat:
The dumbbell push press is an explosive overhead press that brings the hips and knees into play to allow for heavier dumbbells to be used. This makes it a great exercise for building muscle mass and explosive strength.
The primary lower body muscles targeted during a push press are the glutes (the prime movers of the quarter squat portion of this exercise), hamstrings, quads, and calves. The primary upper body muscles are the deltoids (prime mover of the overhead pressing motion), traps, forearms, and triceps. And like any full body dumbbell movement, the core and scapula stabilizers are worked to maintain stability and good posture.
How to do the Dumbbell Push Press:
Related: Push Press Exercise Guide
The dumbbell renegade row to squat is a complex exercise that involves multiple exercises combined into one.
This movement combines a plank, row, and a squat all in one. As such, you are going to be working all your major muscle groups, whether isotonically or isometrically.
The plank hits your glutes, core, chest, triceps and shoulders in an isometric fashion. The renegade row (which is a row from a plank position) works your biceps, back, and rear delts. And the plank to squat works your legs, glutes, low back and traps.
All in all, you can expect this exercise to be exhausting.
How to do the Dumbbell Renegade Row to Squat:
The dumbbell jumping lunge is an explosive exercise that is going to work your legs, core, arms and traps. However, this is primarily a dumbbell leg exercise, and thanks to the explosiveness of the movement, one of the main benefits of this exercise is increased calorie burn.
You should not use heavy dumbbells. Basically, the dumbbells are used just to scale up the intensity of the jumping lunge, which is normally just a bodyweight plyometric movement (similar to doing dumbbell burpees).
We love to incorporate this kind of whole body dumbbell exercise at the end of our workouts as a burnout. It also makes for a good addition to an intense HIIT workout.
How to do the Dumbbell Jumping Lunge:
BONUS EXERCISE: THE DEVIL'S PRESS
You are obviously not going to do all of the above total body exercises in one workout, so you will need to pick and choose exercises that fit well together.
Here are some examples of full body dumbbell workouts using the exercises above...
WORKOUT #1 - SETS X REPS:
WORKOUT #2 - CIRCUIT:
Repeat for 2 more rounds. Rest 1-2 minutes between rounds.
Repeat for 2 more rounds. Rest 1-2 minutes between rounds.
WORKOUT #3 - AMRAP:
10 Minute Total (As Many Rounds As Possible):
Rest only when needed. The goal is to do as many rounds as possible within 10 minutes.
WORKOUT #4 - HIIT:
Do one exercise after the other with 10-15 seconds in-between exercises. Repeat for 4 rounds. This is a total of 8-10 minutes.
More Dumbbell Resources:
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September 21, 2023
September 21, 2023
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