Dumbbell Exercises to Build Muscle

In the world of pumping iron, no matter whether you are training for strength or size, there’s no doubting the fact that the barbell is seen as the most macho free weight tool. Mostly to blame for this is because of the glossy magazines which show perfectly manicured guys grinning as they effortlessly lift a plastic dumbbell.

Disgusting… but the smart lifters will always make use of every worthwhile tool at their disposal, and dumbbells are equally – if not more so – important than the barbell because they are so versatile. Here I’ll give you some basic dumbbell exercises designed to build muscle. Remember – don’t take this for some poor-mans barbell training and scoff at it. Do it and you’ll see big results.

Just because we are using dumbbells doesn’t automatically mean the bread and butter mass building exercises change. Yes, you can use dumbbells for assistance exercises, but here I’m going to give you the raw compound exercises in dumbbell form.

Dumbbell Squats

There are two ways to squat with dumbbells – either holding them up in a neutral hammer curl grip over the shoulders, almost as if you are going to do a shoulder press, or allowing the arms to hang down by the sides. Naturally, if you have very long arms you may find it difficult to perform the dumbbell squat with the arms by the sides, equally if you don’t have small enough plates to allow for below parallel movement. In this case, you will have to hold them up.

How to perform…

Holding the dumbbells as you choose – up or down – take a stance of around shoulder width or slightly wider, with toes pointing outwards slightly. Facing forwards, keeping the back lock, bend at the knee until the thighs at the groin end tilt lower than at the knee end (below parallel) and then power back up. Throughout the movement, the shins – which will tilt forwards – should tilt neither outwards nor inwards. Also, the angle at which the thighs point should be matched by the position to which the feet point, so there is strain neither on the knee nor ankle, allowing for a smooth, powerful movement.

Dumbbell Dead lifts

This is a lift which takes some getting used to with dumbbells particularly. Dumbbell dead lifts are performed pretty much the same as a regular barbell dead lift, only this time there is no need for an alternating grip, and, more concentration is needed to keep the dumbbells to the front and sides – as if you were holding a barbell – without them either falling behind the line of your body, or moving together.

One common mistake when performing dumbbell dead lifts is for the lifter to perform them too much like squats, in that they start and finish with their butt way down low; that’s not how barbell dead lifts are done, and that’s not how dumbbell dead lifts are done either.

How to perform…

Place 2 dumbbells out to the sides of you slightly wider than shoulder width (or however wide you wish to ‘grip’) and be sure that they are in alignment, then step forward so that where your instep meets your leg, the alignment of the dumbbell bars would run just in front of, if it were a solid bar. Now, keeping a straight back, arms straight down (if your arms aren’t straight down, you’re in the wrong position!), looking straight forward, keeping your butt up, power up from your legs and straighten up using your lower back and hamstrings. Reverse the movement to complete.

Dumbbell Bench Press

When training alone, unless you have a power cage to bench press with a barbell safely, you might want to use dumbbells instead. Plus, dumbbells have some advantages over a barbell in that they allow for a more natural movement, and, each individual arm has to hold its own and stabilize something not fixed at all – which is a muscle building task in itself. Plus, you have the additional benefit of a greater range of motion as the dumbbells can drop lower than the bar of a barbell would permit.

How to perform…

In a seated position, have someone hand you – or safely pick up yourself – 2 dumbbells and take up a flat laying position. Now, manoeuvre the dumbbells out to your sides, palms facing forwards, and with you forearms pointing skywards. From this position, press straight up above the chest, until you lock out – arms vertical all throughout the movement, and then lower to the sides, in line with the chest, once more.

Dumbbell Bent over rows

A lot of people struggle with the idea of using their lats to pull a barbell up during rows, but using dumbbells can make this much easier an idea to comprehend and actually do, so I highly recommend this exercise to those who struggle with using a barbell.

How to perform…

This exercise is performed one lat at a time, which really helps you to focus on form. So, take up a position in which you kneel with one leg on a bench, using the same-side arm to hold your upper body parallel to the floor (as it would be on regular barbell rows). The other leg is simply stabilizing you on the floor. Pick up a dumbbell with your non-bench side, with your palm facing inward. Maintaining your upper body position – parallel to the floor – ‘row’ the dumbbell up as high as you can using your lats, and lower.

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