Everything You Need to Know About Dumbbells

woman with dumbbells

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Spoiler alert—you do not need to join a gym to reap the muscle-building benefits of strength training. The secret? Equipment like dumbbells that stand the test of time, and can easily be stored just about anywhere. If you have been considering investing in a set of dumbbells, read more about their distinct benefits, how to use them, and which ones are right for you.

Benefits of Dumbbells

Although there is not one best type of fitness equipment, dumbbells offer a number of benefits both in strength training and cardiorespiratory fitness. In fact, Ruben Borges, CPPS, PPSC, a certified strength and conditioning coach and owner of Glute World Order emphasizes that dumbbells allow you to train heavy, often, and safely.

"As long as you're performing your movements with pristine form and following progressive overload, training with dumbbells will maximize your strength and muscle gains while minimizing joint stress," says Borges.

Here is what you need to know about dumbbells and how you might benefit from using them.

Add Convenience

Sure, you can trudge it out to the gym and use a variety of equipment—including dumbbells—to meet your goals. But free weights have the added benefit of convenience.

While your storage layout might look a bit different from that of a local gym, dumbbells can fit in a corner, under your bed, or in a basket. Some versions are even adjustable, taking up minimal space while delivering maximum results.

What's more, if you are going on a road trip or have an extended stay planned someplace else, dumbbells can be highly portable. This allows you to have access to equipment and continue your fitness routines even while on the road.

Challenge Balance

Aside from being compact and uncomplicated, strength training with dumbbells, as opposed to machines, also challenges your balance. In turn, this can lead to greater muscle recruitment throughout the body.

Two studies found that free-weight (dumbbell) training is as effective in building muscle and increasing strength as machine training. What's more, the researchers noted that using dumbbells and other free weights may result in a better overall body coordination and are generally considered to be more functional compared to using machines.

Offer Option of Targeted Workouts

While machines typically allow for one motion and one particular movement pattern, dumbbells can be used to create a variety of different movement patterns to develop task-specific as well as movement-specific strength. This is largely due to their size and the fact that they can be held in each hand.

Dumbbells also allow you to concentrate on one arm or leg at a time, which is one way to gain strength by using a heavy overload. A single dumbbell also can be used for a variety of exercises such as a one-arm overhead press or a split-leg goblet squat, both of which allow you to work out one limb at a time. 

Promote Healthy Weight

Utilizing dumbbells as either part of or as the primary equipment in your strength-training endeavors can lead to fat loss. In fact, resistance-based training is an effective option targeting fat and meeting weight management goals particularly for people who are overweight or obese. For best results, researchers suggest combining resistance training with a caloric deficit.

Moreover, research suggests that focusing on resistance training as opposed to aerobic training can be more effective in reaching fat loss goals. That said, researchers noted that meeting both resistance training and the aerobic exercise guidelines was associated with the lowest risk of obesity.

How to Choose the Right Dumbbells For You

When choosing dumbbells, keep in mind that the right pair can last forever, if you choose wisely. While rubber-coated dumbbells might be a slightly softer choice, pure metal varieties will hold up and require little to no maintenance for the long haul.

Store them in a dry place to prevent rusting. Although if they do develop rust, dumbbells can be cleaned in a variety of ways. For instance, you can sometimes soak the dumbbells in a mixture of water and vinegar and scrub with a wire brush. Consult your brand's user guide for the best way to clean your dumbbells.

As far as selection of actual weight, bear in mind that dumbbells are not always used in a pair. You might want a couple of sets of lighter weights for upper body movements. But you might also consider investing in one or two heavier, single dumbbells for lower body movements such as goblet squats and deadlifts.

Sample Dumbbell Workout

Remember, dumbbells do not always have to be used in pairs. Follow this workout below, using a variety of weights, to get the most out of your free weight training.

Reverse Lunges

reverse lunge

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

As a foundational movement, the reverse lunge provides the opportunity to challenge your balance as well as work on building strength when using a dumbbell. Here is how you perform a reverse lunge with dumbbells.

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand with feet hips distance apart.
  2. Tuck your lower abs in to engage the core (this will increase stabilization).
  3. Take a large step back with your left leg, lowering your left knee so that it hovers just above the ground, while simultaneously bending the right near.
  4. Return to standing position, slowly.
  5. Repeat with the other leg.
  6. Alternate legs for three sets of 10 to 12 reps.

When these steps become less challenging, try performing 1 and 1/4 reverse lunges, in which the moving leg pulses before bringing it back to the standing position.

Bent-Over Row

bent row

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

As one of the best muscle-building exercises for the back, the bent-over row is an exercise you may want to consider doing on a consistent basis. Here is how this exercise is performed.

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand with feet a bit wider than hips distance apart.
  2. Bend your knees slightly, and hinge from the waist to flatten your back.
  3. Allow arms to hang, then pull elbows back and up to frame your back.
  4. Pause, then return arms to starting position.
  5. Perform three sets of 10 to 12 reps.

Tip: To get the most out of this move, imagine squeezing a pencil using the muscles around your spine, while keeping the trap muscles relaxed.

Goblet Squat

If you are looking for a full-body exercise that builds muscle in your legs, core, and glutes that also can be used to develop cardiovascular fitness, you may want to consider incorporating the goblet squat into your workout routine. Here is how to do a goblet squat.

  1. Stand with hips wider than hips distance apart.
  2. Place weight a few inches in front of your body, and lift with both hands (like a goblet, hence the name).
  3. Hold weight close to your chest, with elbows extended away from your body.
  4. Lower your body as though sitting in a chair low to the ground in one continuous motion.
  5. Focus your weight on the outer edges of your feet and heels.
  6. Return to a standing position without hyper-extending the knees.
  7. Perform three sets of 10 to 12 reps.

For a more challenging goblet squat, hold each repetition for three seconds at the bottom of the movement.

Curl to Overhead Press

overhead press

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

In addition to helping build your shoulder strength, the curl to overhead press also engages your core for stability throughout the movement. These factors can help you strengthen your core and build balance and stability. Here's how to do this move properly.

  1. Stand with feet hips distance apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand with arms relaxed at your sides.
  2. Keep your upper arms close to your body and bend elbows to raise weight toward your chest.
  3. Hold for a second.
  4. Raise the weights up so that arms are straightened out above shoulders, keeping elbows aligned toward the body so they're framing your head.
  5. Bend elbows slowly to return arms to starting position.
  6. Perform three sets of 10 to 12 reps.

This exercise can also be performed unilaterally (using one arm with the other arm extended out to the side), to further challenge balance.

A Word From Verywell

Dumbbell workouts offer many benefits and can be a part of your overall training routine. Look for creative ways to add them both to your strength training regimen as well as your cardio workouts. If you are new to strength training or just getting started with working out, be sure to talk to a healthcare provider first. They can let you know what is right for you.

Additionally, a certified personal trainer can provide valuable insight into creating a workout program designed to meet your needs and goals. After you get a physician's all-clear you may want to consider meeting with a trainer at least once.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I build muscle only using dumbbells? 

    Resistance training, which includes strength training with dumbbells, builds muscle. Whichever modality of strength training you choose, the principle of progressive overload will be crucial in reaching your goals. Talk to a certified personal trainer about how best to reach your muscle-building goals.

  • Do you need rest days from dumbbells? 

    As with any strength training program, rest is essential for building muscle. However, utilizing a "split"—or training different body parts on different days—will allow you to take fewer rest days while still training. For example, you might train lower body one day, upper the next, and core the third, repeating this cycle and taking only one active rest day.

  • Does lifting weights burn fat? 

    Strength training builds muscle, and muscle tissue burns more calories than fat, even while at rest. Strength training combined with personalized nutrition can result in decreased body fat. Consider talking with a registered dietitian or a certified personal trainer with nutrition experience to develop a plan to meet your goals.

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5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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