How to Use Dumbbells for Strength Training

Dumbbells are a very simple piece of fitness equipment, but even something as simple as a dumbbell can cause damage. It’s important to learn and practice a few safety tips. When you practice safe dumbbell lifting you won’t have to take time off from your fitness program to nurse an injury.

1. Proper Lifting Form

Each movement has proper form. For example, a deadlift requires you to keep your back straight so that you lift with your legs. Never lift with your back! Rounding your back and lifting with your back can cause serious injury. Learn the proper form for any movement you do.

Even something as basic as a squat has proper form. Learn it to prevent injury. You can watch a few exercise videos to learn form or grab a book on strength training and lifting form, whichever works best for you. Another option is to hire a personal trainer to show you how to use your dumbbells properly.

2. Start Small. Don’t Overdo It

When you first start strength training it can be exciting. You will undoubtedly want to lift as much as possible. You’ll compete with yourself every time you train. Start small and go light. Learn what your body can handle and what your limits are. Always warm up.

Workout weight (your workout weight can be anywhere from 80% to your max weight, depending on your fitness program)

3. Wear Comfortable Clothes

They shouldn’t be too loose as the loose material can get in the way of proper form.

Gloves will help protect your hands. Athletic clothing that wicks away sweat will help you stay comfortable as you’re working out.

Shoes may be the most important aspect of your workout wear. Look for shoes that don’t have too much lift in the heel. Many running shoes have a heel that is much higher than your toe. When you lift, you want to be able to keep your weight in your heels.

If your shoes make your heels higher than your toes, keeping your weight in your heels becomes a significant challenge. Many people lift weights in flat skate shoes or Converse shoes.

You don’t have to invest in weight lifting shoes. You can work out barefoot, too. Just make sure you’re not on a slippery surface.

4. Strength Train to a Schedule

There are different approaches to strength training. If it’s part of a complete fitness program that includes aerobic or endurance training, you may want to train two or three times a week. If you’re focused on strength training exclusively, one approach is to alternate your program to focus on one body area each day.

For example, on Monday you might do a leg workout, on Tuesday an upper body workout and on Wednesday a core workout. You can then rotate through the cycle and give your muscles the necessary time they need to recover.

Okay, now you know how to use your equipment safely. Now let’s start designing a strength training program that helps you meet your fitness goals.

How to Create Your Own Dumbbell Strength Training Program

Okay, so you’ve unpackaged your dumbbells. You have the necessary accessories including a mat, a bench, and gloves. You’re ready to get started. What do you do first? How do you go from picking up a dumbbell to achieving your fitness goals?

You create your own dumbbell fitness strength-training program, of course.

There are many different types of programs and variations on these programs. Let’s take a look at the possibilities. You can then build a program that helps you achieve your strength training goals.


When it comes to strength training there are two basic approaches. One is to perform many repetitions with a lighter weight. This type of training is said to help sculpt muscles and tone areas. For example, if you want to tone your rear end you might perform one hundred squats with dumbbells in your hands.

This repetition program aims to have you complete ten to twelve repetitions. By the last repetition you should be struggling to finish but be able to. In other words, the last repetition should be difficult but not impossible.

The next question is how many sets you should do. A set is a complete round of repetitions.

For example, if you do ten biceps curls and then ten pushups, if you go back and do ten biceps curls again, that’s another set.

In most cases if you’re just getting started with strength training you’ll only complete one set of ten to twelve repetitions. Once you feel ready to increase your weight and lift heavier, try to add one or two more sets to your program. Be sure to rest between sets. You can actually rest for two to five minutes or you can move onto another exercise that utilizes different muscles.

For example, you might perform twelve squats with thirty-pound weights in each hand and then do twenty sit-ups and ten pushups. You could then go back and perform twelve squats, twenty sit-ups and ten pushups. When you’re doing sit-ups and pushups you’re resting your squatting muscles.

Go Heavy

The other approach to strength training is to go heavy. With this type of program the goal is to increase your strength and muscle mass. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn, and so if you’re striving to lose weight, this may be the best approach.

When you’re going heavy the goal is to lift the heaviest weight possible. Now, it’s essential to warm up your muscles. Generally you would start with a weight that’s about fifty percent of your maximum. You’d perform five to ten lifts at that weight, increase the weight to sixty to seventy percent of your maximum, perform five lifts at that weight, do one more set at a slightly heavier weight and then dive into your heavy set.

You should be able to perform five to eight repetitions at your heaviest weight. Again, the last repetition or two should be extremely difficult. In fact, you may fail on the last lift. That’s okay.

You can of course, combine the two approaches depending on the area of your body you’re working on. For example if you want to build muscles in your arms but sculpt your backside, you might focus on high repetitions for your leg muscles and heavy weights for your arms.

Let’s take a look at a few exercises you can perform for the various areas of your body.

Exercise Examples and Ideas for Core

Your core muscles are your abdominal and back muscles. To strengthen these muscle groups with dumbbells you might consider:

Weighted sit-ups or crunches – hold the dumbbell on your chest to add resistance to the movement.

V-Sit with a dumbbell – Hold the dumbbell about mid stomach and perform a v-sit, balancing on your buttocks.

Side bends – hold the dumbbells in each hand and use your oblique muscles to bend from side to side.

Kettlebell swing – while this is easier using a kettlebell, you can use a dumbbell as well. You can even use a milk jug for this exercise. Standing with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width, hold a dumbbell in both hands. You might hold onto the round end of it if that’s easier. Keeping your back straight and let the dumbbell hang between your legs. Your knees will be slightly bent.

Using your hips, legs, and low back thrust forward and power the weight upwards. You can take the weight to chest level or you can take it over your head if you’re confident in your grip. Gravity will pull the weight back down, thus producing a swing movement. Then thrust your hips forward and power the weight back up again.

Exercise Examples and Ideas for Legs and Lower Body

While many people think of the upper body when they think about dumbbells, there are actually many exercises you can do to strengthen and tone your leg muscles and buttocks.

Squat – hold a dumbbell in each hand. Position your legs about shoulder width apart and bend your knees as if you’re sitting back in a chair. Keep the weight in your heels and your back straight. Lower yourself until your backside is parallel or just below parallel to your knees. Keeping your weight in your heels, stand up quickly. Repeat.

Lunges – holding dumbbells in each hand, take a large step forward with one leg. Bend the knee of the front leg until the back leg just brushes the ground. Using the power of the back leg, stand up. Repeat on the other side.

Deadlift – place the dumbbells on the floor in front of you. Position your feet just behind the dumbbells. Your feet should be about shoulder width apart.

Squat down but keep your back straight. Your weight should be in your heels.

Now grab hold of the weights and prepare to lift. Stand, using the power of your legs, not your back.

You will use your hips to power the movement. Once you’re fully extended and standing upright, reverse the move.

Don’t go heavy with this until you’re sure you have proper form. You can really hurt your back. If your low back ever hurts from this move, you’re not doing it correctly.

Exercise Examples and Ideas for Arms

Ah, the arms. This is where many people focus when they’re thinking about dumbbells and it’s easy to see why. There are many exercises you can perform.

Shoulder press – with one dumbbell in each hand, position the dumbbells at shoulder level. Raise them up over your head, keeping your arms behind your ears. Lower, repeat.

Bench press – lying on your back on your bench, position the dumbbells just below your shoulders. Raise your arms straight up until they’re fully extended. Lower. Repeat.

Pushups – You can also position the weights on the floor. Lie face down on the floor and position the weights just on the outside of your shoulders. Position your hands on the weights and do pushups from that elevated position. The added height will increase the difficulty of the movement provided you lower your body to the ground each repetition.

What to Expect the First Time You Use Your Dumbbells

Take it slowly and focus on form the first few times you work through your strength-training program. Proper form will help you increase your strength more quickly because it means you’re doing the movements correctly.

You’ll likely be sore for the first month or two of lifting. Take it easy on yourself. Some soreness is okay. An inability to move is a sign that you’re doing too much. You can support speedy muscle recovery by consuming protein within thirty minutes of working out.

Proper sleep and a good diet will help you recover too. Muscle soreness may not set in immediately. In fact, it generally hits a day or two after you’ve worked out. Enjoy the burn.

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