Want the perfect workout program?Take Quiz
Fact checked by Tyler DiGiovanni, BSBMFACT CHECKED
When it comes to making gains in the gym, there are many misconceptions about what it takes to build muscle. These myths include needing a gym membership, using machines to gain strength, and splitting strength training into specific body parts, like a “back and bi” day and “chest and tris.”
The good news? None of these are necessary. You can build muscle at home or at the gym, with only dumbbells, hitting the entire upper body in the same workout.
This upper body workout using dumbbells focuses on compound movements, so you get the most bang for your workout buck, and it’s great for a wide range of lifters, whether male, female, just beginning, or at an intermediate experience level.
Table of Contents:
Here's what to know before jumping into the program.
Here is a great dumbbell workout for upper body strength, endurance, and muscle hypertrophy (building muscle). Stay tuned after as I'll explain how to do each of these exercises.
Upper Body Dumbbell Workout:
Note: Rest 30-60 seconds between sets.
Perform this upper body dumbbell routine twice a week for optimal muscle-building results.
Research on the frequency of strength training muscles shows that training each muscle group twice a week is best for strength and muscle gains1,2. For best results, aim for 10 sets per muscle group weekly, and thanks to compound exercises, this routine will get you there.
Avoid performing these dumbbell exercises for the upper body on back-to-back days. Ideally, if you have an upper-body day on Monday, follow it with a lower-body day on Tuesday, rest on Wednesday, and prepare to hit the upper body again on Thursday.
You can vary this schedule, but make sure there are a few rest days in between your upper body days, so your muscles have time to recover.
Set yourself up for muscle building success with these tips.
Before jumping into your workout, take 5-10 minutes to perform a few dynamic bodyweight warm-up exercises. It will warm up your muscles, increase body temperature, improve blood flow, and loosen up the joints before working the upper body.
The dumbbell farmer walk will target the upper back, the rotator cuff, deltoids, triceps and biceps, and forearms. It’s also working the core and many of the lower body muscles. It's really a great exercise for the entire body. If you want total body strength and a formidable grip, this dumbbell exercise is it.
How to do the farmers' walk:
The pectoral muscles, triceps, and anterior deltoids are hit hard in the dumbbell bench press, and the movement engages the rhomboids and lats to keep the back tight throughout the movement. If there is no bench around, you can also do this movement lying on the floor. You can also switch it up by sometimes performing this movement with an inclined bench, which emphasizes the upper pecs even more.
How to do the dumbbell bench press:
This upper body exercise works all major back muscles, the latissimus dorsi, traps, rhomboid, and rear shoulders. It also engages the posterior deltoid, biceps, and pectoralis muscles. No bench? No problem! Find something at your house sturdy enough to brace yourself on, such as a kitchen chair.
How to do the one-arm dumbbell row:
We all love the Arnold press, but why not turn it into a compound move by including some extra arm work? The main muscles in this movement are the biceps, deltoids, and triceps. The press and curl also activates the pectoral muscles, traps, and forearm muscles.
This is one of the best dumbbell arm exercises and is excellent for your shoulders as it hits all three parts of the deltoid muscle - crucial for achieving round, defined shoulders. We love this move so much we've even included it in our ultimate shoulders and arms workout. What can we say? It gets results!
How to do the Arnold dumbbell curl to press:
The dumbbell chest fly targets the sternal muscle fibers, and growth in this area contributes to creating a defined chest. It’s also going to strengthen the muscles in the front of the deltoids, as well as the biceps. Secondarily, you'll hit the triceps and forearm muscles. One more note: If possible, it’s always a good idea to lift with a spotter, who can hand you your dumbbells once you are on the bench and set up for the move.
How to do the dumbbell chest fly:
The primary muscles worked in the dumbbell pullover are the lats, pecs, and serratus anterior. The posterior deltoids, triceps, and biceps will also all be activated.
How to do the bent-arm dumbbell pullover:
This upper body exercise is great for building some boulder shoulders. The lateral raise will also hit the traps. If you want to add some width to your shoulders and create that 3D look, this exercise is it.
How to do the lateral raise:
Your back muscles will love the renegade row, but this full-body move also activates several other upper body muscles, including the front of the shoulder, the biceps and triceps, and forearms. Your core will also get a great workout. If you’re a beginner, start with very light dumbbells as you get used to the movement. Complete 1-2 rounds of this exercise at the end of your routine, continuing to failure.
How to do the Renegade Row:
There are so many options when it comes to working out with dumbbells. Sticking to the same movements each week is effective because it enables you to track your weights, sets, and reps for the exercise, ensuring you continue improving - whether adding one more rep or increasing the weight used. Sometimes, though, adding variation is a nice break in your routine.
A lot of the exercises included here are compound movements, but another way to add variety to your routine is by including more isolation exercise, like the ones seen in these dumbbell arm exercises.
Here are a few options that you can substitute into your upper body plan.
Make sure to properly cool down with a few exercises and stretches after finishing your upper body workout. Looking for more workout ideas? Consider pairing 1 to 2 upper body muscles together for more strength-focused workouts, like in this back and shoulders routine.
You can build muscle with just dumbbells whether you're at home or in the gym. Although it takes hard work, the concept of increasing muscle mass is pretty simple. You need to fatigue the muscles to the point that micro-tears develop in the muscle fiber.
The next important step in the process is rest when the fibers repair. As mini tears repair, the body rebuilds the muscle tissues back bigger and stronger than before. You do not need machines or fancy equipment to fatigue your muscles. Remember that muscles are dumb. They don’t know (or care) whether you use machines or free weights. They need to be fatigued.
Some of the benefits of using dumbbells include:
A bonus: Unless you’re going to build a gym at home, machine-based workouts require you to be at the gym, whereas dumbbells enable you to work out pretty much anywhere.
The upper body includes several muscle groups: the chest, back, shoulders, and arms. The core isn’t technically part of the upper body, but it's important to strengthen it 2-3 times a week. Many of the moves in this routine require core stabilization, so your abdominals are getting a workout in - no sit-ups required.
Here’s a quick look at the muscles targeted in this upper body workout using dumbbells.
Building muscle and leaning out are two different gym goals requiring separate dietary plans.
If you’re hoping to lean out:
If you’re hoping to build muscle:
There you have it - everything you need to gain some serious upper body muscle only using dumbbells. Perform this twice weekly, allowing for rest in between sessions, and prioritize progressive overload every workout. You don't always need to bump up your weights, either. Adding a set or a few reps is another form of overload that will also build muscle.
Don't forget to also train your lower body twice weekly using these Best Dumbbell Leg Exercises.
At SET FOR SET, we strive to equip you with the tools and knowledge needed for your fitness journey. Our team of experts, including certified trainers, dietitians, and athletes, brings over a decade of industry expertise. Our goal is to be your primary resource for all fitness inquiries, guiding you toward a stronger and healthier life. Sign up to stay up-to-date!