the best muscle building dumbbell exercises curl

The BEST Muscle Building Dumbbell Exercises

So you want to get jacked, but you’re limited to using only dumbbells for your workouts?

This could happen for a lot of reasons. Maybe you’re building a home gym, and dumbbells are the only equipment you have. Or you belong to a commercial gym that doesn’t have a great selection of other weights or machines.

Does that mean you’re doomed to looking like a scrawny high schooler for the rest of your life?

No way! It’s perfectly possible to get jacked with dumbbells.

Dumbbells are merely one tool in a muscle building toolbox. They’re neither better, nor worse, than any other piece of gym equipment. This guide will show you how to sculpt slabs of muscle with only dumbbells as your chisel.

All About Hypertrophy Training

The first thing you have to consider when planning your muscle building routine are the training variables necessary for hypertrophy:

  • Time under tension
  • Rest periods
  • Training volume (sets x reps)
  • Weight selection
  • Progressive overload

Time under tension

“Time under tension“ refers to the amount of time your muscles spend contracting and relaxing while lifting a weight.

The optimal TUT for hypertrophy is 30-60 seconds per set.

You can increase time under tension by lifting with tempo. A great hypertrophy tempo is 2-1-2-1, where “2” refers to the lifting and lowering portions of the exercise and “1” refers to pausing in the contracted and stretched positions.

For hypertrophy, perform each rep by lifting with explosive force, pausing in the contracted position as you squeeze your muscle. Then, lower the weight with control, and pause again for a second in the stretched position before repeating the movement.

Research suggests that increasing TUT during your weightlifting sets by lifting with an intentional tempo can increase muscle protein synthesis and therefore increase hypertrophy. (1) Performing your sets as indicated above will land you squarely in the optimal TUT range for building muscle mass.

Rest periods

Keep rest periods relatively short – just long enough to recover and put full effort into your next set. Resting for 60-120 seconds is plenty. Any longer than that, and you’re going to spend way too much time in the gym. Any shorter, your muscles won’t be fresh enough for your next set.

Training volume

Training volume refers to the amount of work done in a particular training session. Think of it as the total of your sets times the number of reps performed in each set. For hypertrophy, you want to perform 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions. This works out to a total of 24 to 60 reps per muscle group.

Better still, working in the 8-12 rep range will guarantee that your time under tension falls within the optimal range for muscle hypertrophy.

Weight selection

For the greatest muscle building effect, choose weights that are 50% to 75% of your one repetition maximum (1RM). This insures that the weights are heavy enough to create a training stimulus, but not so heavy that you can’t lift the weight with proper form for the amount of reps necessary for muscle growth.

You may not know what your 1RM bicep curl is – and that’s okay. Pick a weight that allows you to perform 8-12 reps without compromising your form. Once you can get through 3-5 sets of 12 reps, increase the weight. That leads us to the final variable for hypertrophy training…

Progressive overload

This is perhaps the most important variable in any strength training program, whether your goal is to develop power, build strength, or achieve sweet, sweet gains.

“Progressive overload” refers to systematically increasing the amount of work you do each session. You can accomplish overload by choosing a heavier weight from workout to workout, or by increasing your training volume with extra sets or extra reps for each exercise.

For instance, if you’re doing a dumbbell row today for three sets of eight, the next time you train, you will want to perform 4×8 or 3×10, or use a heavier weight than before.

Now that we’ve covered the most important principles of a hypertrophy training program, we can get to the good stuff!

the best muscle building dumbbell exercises

The Best Dumbbell Exercises For Each Body Part


While many a gym bro will tell you that the bench press is king, the exercise actually doesn’t activate your pectoral muscles as effectively as many other exercises can.

Your pecs are responsible for AD-duction of your humerus – moving your arms toward the midline of your body. This is exactly the movement that the squeeze press and chest fly will work best.

The dumbbell squeeze press allows you to increase the contraction through your pecs. As discussed above, time under tension (contraction) is one of the most important factors for muscle growth. The movement is similar to a traditional dumbbell chest press, except you’re going to use a neutral grip and press the dumbbells together for the entirety of the the exercise.

I’m cheating a little by including two chest exercises, but the fly is a must. Your pecs respond very well to the stretch stimulus, and the bottom position of the chest fly will put a massive stretch on your pecs. Go lighter here and focus on the 2-1-2-1 tempo, especially the stretch you feel at the bottom of the movement.


Your lats are among the largest muscle group on your body. As such, they are capable of handling heavy loads. The best back building exercise for your buck is going to be the single-arm dumbbell row. Electromyography (EMG) studies show that the single-arm row is second only to the bent-over barbell row for lat muscle fiber activation. The barbell row activated 93% of lat muscles versus 91% of lat muscles activated in the dumbbell variation. (3)

Use a bench to support yourself, and row the weight with a slight “J” motion, starting under your body and finishing outside your ribs.

the best muscle building dumbbell exercises


As discussed above, key to muscle growth is time under tension. There’s nothing like a heavy dumbbell split squat to torture your legs with tension. Add in an iso-hold, and leg day will take on a whole new meaning.

Assume a split stance, where your front knee is stacked over your front ankle, and your back hip is over your back knee in the bottom of the split squat (like a lunge). Without picking up your feet, you will descend into the squat for a two-count, pause, and explode up for a two-count. Hold your last rep in the bottom position – knee just above the floor – for a 10-second count.


In terms of glute and hamstring development, the classic Romanian deadlift is your best bet when using dumbbells. This exercise comes in a distant second to machine leg curls (3), but it’s the best dumbbell exercise for building strength and size in your posterior chain.

Grab two heavy dumbbells and place your feet hip-width apart. Breaking at the hips, lower the weights along your legs until they reach to mid-shin. Do this deliberately, taking about two seconds to get there. Pause, then squeeze your glutes to return to standing. Contract your glutes hard at the top of the movement, like you’re trying to crack a walnut. Remember to keep your core braced and your back flat throughout the movement.


Your shoulders are actually made out of three muscles – your anterior, lateral, and rear deltoids. Since these three muscles are responsible for many movements, there is no one best exercise to target all three of these muscles. However, the best bang-for-your-buck is the Arnold press. Named after Schwarzenegger himself, this exercise will build boulder shoulders faster than any other. The Arnold press requires rotating the dumbbells, thereby activating your entire shoulder complex and extending the time under tension for the set.

I’m going to take a cop-out here and mention that any dumbbell press primarily targets your anterior deltoids. The classic dumbbell lateral raise and bent-over rear delt fly can help build your lateral and rear delts, respectively, if those muscles are lagging behind.

the best muscle building dumbbell exercises


To really target your biceps and take advantage of the fact that you can independently rotate dumbbells, use the Z-curl. This exercise involves curling the dumbbells up in a traditional manner, then rotating so that your palms facing down towards the floor before lowering the weights to the starting position.

The benefit lies in the fact that your muscles are stronger on the eccentric portion of a lift. By pronating your grip before lowering the weights back to the starting position, you increase the challenge to your biceps and your forearms during the easier portion of the exercise. This does double duty to build bigger arms.


According to EMG data, the best tricep exercise is the humble dumbbell kickback. Researchers found that performing the kickback with various bench inclines helped to target the three different heads of the tricep. In fact, kickbacks performed with a 60° inclined bench were the number one exercise for the long head of the triceps (2).

For optimal tricep development, perform dumbbell tricep kickbacks with your non-working arm and leg on a bench, your working-side leg planted on the ground, and your torso parallel to the floor. It’s important to keep your upper arm on the side performing the kickbacks parallel to the floor as well – failure to do so will diminish the intensity by -20% (2). Perform 1-2 sets of kickbacks with a flat bench, 1-2 sets with a slight (30°) incline, and 1-2 sets with a 60° incline. This will ensure you target each head of the triceps muscle.


If you thought I was going to say calf raises, you’ll be happy to know that we’re getting more creative than that. While the calf raise is a great exercise, calves can be stubborn to grow.

Try tip-toe farmer walks for better calf development. Why? Because walking forces your legs to work in multiple planes of movement, as opposed to strictly “up and down,” as with a calf raise. Furthermore, walking tends to alleviate the calf raise “bounce” that allows your Achilles to take over and cheats your muscles from hypertrophy stimulation.

Pick up two moderately heavy dumbbells – certainly lighter than you would choose for regular farmer walks. Then, standing on tip-toe, walk as far as your space allows, maintaining good posture throughout your body. Turn around at the end of the space and return to your starting point. Aim for at least 30-60 seconds of tip-toe walking to hit the sweet spot for hypertrophy.


We saved the best (or favorite) for last. You probably don’t need any dumbbells at all to train your core. Bodyweight will suffice. The best exercises for abdominal development are crunch variations – the bicycle crunch being the most effective. Hanging knee and leg raises or V-ups are also super effective if you have access to a pull up bar in your training space.

As with the other body parts, it’s best to train your abs with a slow and controlled motion. It’s not about how fast you go, but how much tension you create during the exercise. Exhale hard on each repetition to contract your core and make every rep count.

the best muscle building dumbbell exercises

The Best Damn Dumbbell Training Program For Muscle Growth

We’ll use a two-day split for our muscle-building training program, and repeat each workout twice during the week for optimal training volume. The first time through, use 5 sets of 8-10 reps and focus on moving heavy weights without compromising form. The second time through, do 3 to 4 sets of 12 reps, focusing on slightly lighter weights and slow, controlled movement.

Workout A

Split squat with 10-second iso-hold on last rep

Seated Arnold press

Optional: DB lat raise and/or rear delt fly

Biceps – Z-curls

Triceps – Kickbacks

Optional: Bicycle crunches 3×15/side

Workout B

Romanian deadlift

Single-arm DB row

Squeeze press

Chest fly

Optional: Hanging knee/leg raises 3×15

Suggested schedule

Monday – Workout A – strength/hypertrophy focus – 5 sets of 8-10

Tuesday – Workout B – strength/hypertrophy focus – 5 sets of 8-10

Wednesday – cardio/off

Thursday – Workout A – volume focus – 3-4 sets x12

Friday – Workout B – volume focus – 3-4 sets x12

Saturday – cardio/off

Sunday – cardio/off

Dumbbells For Gainz

Just because you’re limited to dumbbell training, doesn’t mean you can’t pack on muscle mass. Using the principles of hypertrophy training and the exercises in the guide will get you started. Be sure to consume a slight calorie surplus (about 200-300 calories over maintenance) and adequate protein (1g per pound of bodyweight) while following this training plan, and you’ll take your physique from “does he even lift” to “dayum, son.”


  1. Burd, N. A., Andrews, R. J., West, D. W., Little, J. P., Cochran, A. J., Hector, A. J., … & Phillips, S. M. (2012). Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates differential muscle protein sub?fractional synthetic responses in men. The Journal of Physiology, 590(2), 351-362.

About the Author

Katie Prendergast helps the everyday athlete gain strength, power, speed, and athleticism to tackle life's adventures outside of the gym. She loves deadlifts, snowboarding, rock climbing, and craft beer. Follow her on Facebook ( and Instagram (@KPxFitness). Read more about training for athletics and adventure at