I’ve been working out at home for the last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. I have a bench, and a set of Powerblock U-90s at my disposal, along with a few bands, so I’m about as qualified to speak on this topic as anyone can be!
Prior to my year at home with just my dumbbells, I went to a normal gym with every piece of equipment my heart desired. Dumbbells up to 125lbs, benches galore, and several power racks.
My experience on this topic then comes from a point of view of someone who was already in shape and has used dumbbells to maintain that shape while I wait for the virus to run its course.
An Example Of A 30-Minute Full Body Dumbbell Workout
This video by Caroline Girvan does a good job of explaining the different exercises you can do with dumbbells. Caroline doesn’t even have a bench in this video, so if you have a bench it opens up even more possibilities for you.
All of the exercises she performs are done standing, on the floor, or using the edge of her couch as support. While they are not as intuitive as going to the gym and choosing an exercise based on the machines/racks available, there are many exercises that can be done at home with only two dumbbells.
If you have dumbbells of varying sizes, or adjustable dumbbells that achieve the same purpose, you will have a greater capacity for results.
The Most Important Question - Can You Get Ripped And Build Muscle Using Only Dumbbells?
Well, Caroline is freakin shredded and her channel only shows her working out with dumbbells. But we don’t truly know if that’s all she does or if she also gets into the gym when she’s not filming for her youtube channel.
But yes, if you have the proper equipment, and follow a proper program, you can absolutely get ripped and/or build muscle using just dumbbells.
The main factor that limits your progression when only using dumbbells is the amount of weight that’s available to you. If you have adjustable dumbbells or a set of dumbbells that goes high enough to challenge yourself, you can progress on different exercises and build muscle reliably.
With just a pair of dumbbells you can do Zottman curls, weighted push ups, seated tricep presses, bent over dumbbell rows, alternating dumbbell presses, and plenty other exercises and their variations and work all the muscle areas in your body.
After all, the main way to build muscle is to introduce your muscles to increasingly harder repetitions over time while giving them time to recover.
While it will be harder than if you went to the gym each day, you can get stronger and challenge yourself at home, with just dumbbells. You’ll need to be a bit more creative, and get yourself online to look up exercises that can be done with just dumbbells.
So overall, you’ll need more determination and discipline while dealing with subpar exercises for certain body parts. With all that said, yes, you can achieve good results.
What Are The Benefits Of A Dumbbell-Only Workout?
While the last few paragraphs are basically reinforcing that a dumbbell-only workout is harder than a typical workout due to a combination of factors, there are some benefits that you get from working out solely with dumbbells.
Stronger Stabilizer Muscles
When you’re doing any sort of exercise with a dumbbell, your body works harder to compensate for the fact that the dumbbells are not connected to each other. Doing exercises like dumbbell presses, dumbbell shoulder presses, or dumbbell front squats will require your stabilizer muscles to work harder than they would if you were using a barbell for the same exercise.
You’ll be working your core and stabilizer muscles harder than you would if you were in the gym using a barbell, or especially a machine.
Prevent Muscle Imbalances
Since you will be using dumbbells for your workouts, your muscles will not have the option to compensate for each other in exercises like a dumbbell chest press, dumbbell row, or overhead dumbbell press.
If you complete these exercises with a barbell, your dominant muscle group (left or right, typically coinciding with your dominant hand) will compensate for any strength the other side lacks.
By keeping things separate, you will prevent and correct muscle imbalances since each side of your body need to work independently of the other. There is no room to cheat, or to have one side do more work in a dumbbell-only workout.
Dumbbell Workouts Are Safer
When you’re alone without a spotter, a dumbbell-only workout is guaranteed to be safer than using a barbell. There are just way fewer opportunities to drop the weight directly on yourself to crush your body.
While a falling dumbbell will hurt, it won’t pin you underneath with no way out! You can also safely abandon an exercise by dropping them on the floor.
One of the best examples of this is the chest press. With a barbell, the process of ditching your weight is much more complicated.
Better Range Of Motion
While machines and barbell exercises can be limiting in their range of motion, this is not the case with dumbbell-only workouts. You can essentially move them to wherever your arms will naturally go.
Just be careful and don’t get too enthusiastic with this information as proper form is still important to prevent injuries.
They’re Harder To Use Than Barbells Or Machines
This one isn’t just a positive for bragging rights. Working out with dumbbells is one of the hardest ways to complete any specific exercise.
While you’ve undoubtedly seen gym bros benching 225 on a barbell bench press, how many have you seen throwing up 100lb dumbbells?
In my experience, it’s not even close. If you have a friend that can bench 225 for reps, bring them over to the dumbbell rack and ask them to do the same with the 100s. It leads to interesting results.
The fact that the exercises are harder, means you’ll burn more calories as well. If you’re looking to cut and get shredded, this will help you on your way.
My Personal Experience With Dumbbell-Only Workouts
As I said, I’ve been at this for just about a year at this point and came from a traditional gym background where I consistently benched, squatted, and deadlifted.
How I Started With Dumbbell-Only Workouts
For me, it wasn’t by choice. I love the gym and having options available to me like barbells and machines.
Coronavirus happened, and I scooped up a second-hand pair of PowerBlock U-90s. I tried to purchase a set of their new commercial 125s, but they had to shut down production and canceled my order.
Unfortunately for me, the 90lb dumbbells don’t quite cut it for my needs. There are several exercises where this weight is not enough, and I have definitely hit a wall in my progress despite increasing reps to compensate.
What Workout Routine Have I Been Following?
Over the past year, I made my own dumbbell-only version of an Arnold Split. I work out 5-6 times a week, and the breakdown is: Chest/Back - Legs - Arms/Shoulders - Rest or repeat the split depending on recovery and how I’m feeling.
Some weeks I would feel recovered by the time I finished my arms/shoulders day, and head straight into chest/back the next day without a rest day. I never went 9 days in a row without a rest day, however, as I am usually feeling sore by day 3 or 6.
Did I Achieve Any Results/Progress?
Interestingly, I did progress on some lifts I’ve never really focused on before. For the main lifts (squats/deadlifts/bench) I did not progress as I did not have nearly enough weight to test my limits on.
I am hoping I have maintained most of my strength for the big 3, but we’ll see once I get back in the gym.
As for the lifts I’ve never really focused on before, I saw a lot of progress on lunges, Bulgarian split squats, dumbbell front squats, and side lunges.
Because I did not have enough weight to focus on regular squats, I spent a lot of time working my legs independently. This helped correct a slight muscle imbalance that I was feeling the effects of for the past 2 years or so.
So some good came of all of this, apart from me being able to write this article.
My main focus was to maintain my gains during the coronavirus. I have lost a small amount of muscle, but I’m also considerably more shredded than I was when lockdown began.
I attribute the slight muscle loss to lack of heavy enough weights and my composition change to my diet which has been strict.
My Advice To Anyone Starting With Dumbbell-Only Workouts
My main advice would be to ensure you have heavy enough dumbbells for your progression and to spend time looking up new exercises to do.
If you run into the issues I’ve been facing, which is a lack of heavy enough dumbbells to progress, you will have a hard time making gains. You can increase your reps, and slow your reps down, but these steps are tedious and harder to measure than putting up more weight.
I also typically have a controlled movement regardless of the exercise I am doing, so slowing the reps down further only works to increase time under tension.
My second point, about continuing to look up new exercises, is one that I can’t stress enough. You can very easily fall into a rut when you’re only using dumbbells, and doing the same 5 exercises for back or chest or legs gets old really fast.
One thing that helped me, was to think of the exercises I do in the gym and adapt them to a dumbbell-only style.
Outside of this trick, there are of course online resources like the aptly named “dumbbell-exercises.com”. They have a lot, but not all, of the dumbbell exercises available.
Manage Your Expectations
It’s important to manage your expectations when starting a dumbbell-only workout routine. While there are benefits, you can get those benefits by using dumbbells in addition to machine and barbell work.
There’s also the fact that if you’re doing a dumbbell-only workout, it’s likely because you don’t have access to a full gym. You won’t be able to achieve the results you would if you had access to a gym with hundreds of machines and racks in addition to dumbbells.
The best program for building strength and muscle will incorporate both dumbbells and barbells for a well-rounded group of exercises.
If you’re just starting out, you may be able to make solid gains with a dumbbell-only program. For me, and I expect many other intermediate lifters, it will be hard to get your hands on heavy enough dumbbells to make noticeable progress.
Dumbbell-Only Workout FAQs
Now we answer some frequently asked questions about this topic.
Q: Should I Start a Dumbbell-Only Workout Routine if I Have Access to A Full Gym?
A: No. While there are benefits to working out with dumbbells, you can simply incorporate dumbbells into your regular routine to get those benefits.
Q: Is a Dumbbell-Only Workout Ideal for Beginners?
A: You’ll be able to make more progress as a beginner, but the best workout programs involve combinations of machines and free weights including barbells. So if you are just starting out or you are still young and wonder if you should start lifting weights, you can start with the dumbbell only workout.
Q: Who Are These Programs for Then?
A: A dumbbell-only workout program would be perfect for someone who is not looking to reach their muscle and strength potential. If you’re looking to get and stay in shape, you can certainly do that with a dumbbell-only routine from the comfort of your home. My point is that you won’t be getting huge or reaching your full potential as an amateur bodybuilder this way.
Q: Should I Use Dumbbells if That’s All I Have and Can’t Get to A Gym?
A: Hell yes you should. Don’t let the negative discourage you. If you push yourself, you can develop a respectable physique.
Q: What Are the Best Dumbbells for A Dumbbell-Only Home Routine?
A: You’re going to want a pair of adjustable dumbbells if you’re working out at home. They take up less space, are less expensive, and are almost as durable as a set of fixed-weight dumbbells. You’ll thank yourself later!