A Guide to Strength Training Using Adjustable Dumbbells

These simple moves will help you build a routine to work your whole body

Person adding weight to an adjustable dumbbell. Photo: Tero Vesalainen/Getty Images

Getting a cardio workout without specialized equipment is simple: Put on your shoes and go for a run or a walk. But for strength training, it helps to have some gear on hand. 

That’s where a set of adjustable dumbbells for your home can come in. These products, which allow you to easily change the weight on a single set of dumbbells, usually between approximately 5 and 50 pounds, have become extremely popular—especially as people spent more time at home over the past year and a half. They don’t take up much space. And because they’re adjustable and can be set for a wide range of weights, they can help anyone improve their overall strength and ability to better perform the activities of daily living, says Araceli De Leon, a certified personal trainer based in San Diego.

Using just a set of dumbbells, you can create a circuit that will work out your whole body in about 30 to 45 minutes, says Don Saladino, a personal trainer who has trained celebrities including Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman. 

Doing strength training at least two or three times a week is an essential part of physical fitness, says Peter Ronai, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and clinical professor of exercise science at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. “With appropriately selected exercise you can slow down the rate of bone loss, and can increase muscle mass and the strength of connective tissue,” he says.

Plus, when compared with working out using machines that have you lift weights on a set path, working out with free weights like dumbbells “produces superior strength gains in the real world,” Ronai says.

Before You Begin

When figuring out your routine, it’s key that you know what you’re training for, Saladino says, whether that’s averting the bone loss that can come with aging or building your lower- and upper-body strength.

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Once your goals change, so might your workouts—someone training for a competitive cycling race might adjust their training plan, for example. But anyone can start a few times a week with the fundamentals outlined below, Ronai says.

The basic idea is to include exercises that force the muscle groups in each part of your body—front, back, and both sides—to push and pull. Making sure not to favor a particular side will help avoid any sort of muscle imbalance. 

Ronai recommends that you do at least one training session with an expert, especially if you’re not comfortable with any of the movements suggested. Some gyms have personal trainers that may offer a free consultation and walk you through some of the basic movements, De Leon says. Otherwise, you could try reaching out to a friend who is familiar with strength training if you are not, she says. But if you are already comfortable with using weights, you can work these exercises into your existing routine—just ensure you’re not trying to lift more than you can with good form for the recommended number of sets.

5 Moves to Get Started

If you are just getting started, you can create a well-balanced strength training routine that includes five key exercises, Saladino says: an upper-body push, an upper-body pull, a squat (a lower-body push), a hinge (a lower-body pull), and a core exercise. 

Here are some ways to accomplish each of these exercises with adjustable dumbbells, with a few alternatives to help you build some variety into your routine when you are ready for that. If your focus is strength and power, you want to aim for a weight you can only lift for a lower number of repetitions, five to eight reps. For endurance, you’ll want to pick a weight you can lift for eight to 12 reps. Both Ronai and Saladino recommend mixing it up, having some days where you lift for strength and power, others for endurance. 

With adjustable dumbbells, you can find your weight by starting low, then finding the right weight for your desired set of reps. But make sure you can do your reps correctly, De Leon says—if your form is struggling as you hit six reps of an exercise, you may need to use less weight, she says.

Warm up first, and then complete three to five sets of each exercise. Start off doing this twice a week, and add in a third day when you feel ready. (Exercise suggestions and descriptions are from Saladino and Ronai, with supplementary information from the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal and the American Council on Exercise’s exercise library.)

1. Squat

Suitcase squat: Hold dumbbells on each side of your body like you are holding two suitcases. Keep your back straight and activate your core, tightening your abs as you squat down. Keep your knees roughly over your toes and squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel with the floor. Don’t let your back curve or your heels lift up. Return to your upright position by pushing your feet against the floor. 

Alternative: Rear foot elevated split squat: While this is a more advanced move, Saladino recommends working to incorporate a split squat into your routine. Stand on one leg and put the other foot, shoelaces down, on a bench or coffee table behind you. Holding dumbbells in each arm (or one with two hands, goblet style), squat down until your thigh is parallel to the floor, keeping your knee roughly over your toes, without it going too far forward, then return to your starting position.

2. Upper-Body Push

Chest press: Lying flat on your back on a bench or on the floor, hold dumbbells with your elbows bent and your palms facing forward, just above the middle of your chest. Press straight up until your arms are fully extended, then lower the dumbbells back to chest level.

Alternative: Alternating dumbbell press: To engage your core more, Saladino suggests trying an alternating dumbbell press. Lie flat on your back, holding a dumbbell in one hand with your elbow bent and palm forward, above the middle of your chest. Stabilize yourself with your other hand by reaching back to grab your bench, or putting your arm to the side if you are on the floor. Press until your arm is fully extended, then lower to chest level. Complete a set of reps on each side.

3. Upper-Body Pull

Dumbbell row: Stand up and hold the dumbbells at your side, one in each hand, with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees slightly, and hinge forward, bending at the waist while keeping your back straight. Start with your arms extended fully toward the ground, then pull the dumbbells straight back, bending your elbows and engaging your lats. This exercise should help counteract some of the effects of leaning into a desk for much of the day, Ronai says.

Alternative: Reverse Dumbbell Fly: Try lying chest down on top of a training bench or stability ball, keeping your chest and back straight, and letting your arms hang down. Then pull the dumbbells out to the side, as if you are creating a letter T. Try pausing for a second before slowly lowering your dumbbells again.

4. Hinge

Romanian deadlift: Start in a standing position, holding dumbbells in each hand. Hinge forward from your hips, lowering the dumbbells to the front of your shins. Keep your back straight and spine neutral; don’t tilt your head up or down. You’ll feel a pull in your hamstrings. To raise the weights back up, push your feet into the floor as you hinge back to your starting position.

Alternative: One-legged Romanian deadlift: Begin with both feet on the ground, with a dumbbell in your right hand. Hinge forward from your hips, and raise your right leg off the ground behind you, keeping it in line with your spine to help you balance. As you stand back up, put your right foot back onto the floor. Complete your set, and repeat on the other side. You can also try this with dumbbells in both hands.

5. Core

Plank: You don’t need dumbbells to do this, but you should include a core exercise in your routine, Saladino says. Lie down on your stomach, with your toes toward the floor. Stiffen your core and abs and lift your body off the ground, with your shoulders over your elbows. Resting on your elbows, keep your entire body in a straight line from your head to your feet. Hold for as long as you can in a straight line, without raising or lowering your hips (and don’t forget to breathe). 

Alternative: Plank row: This is a good move, Saladino says, but it’s a hard one to do correctly. Raise yourself into a plank position, but position yourself on your hands instead of your elbows, like you are about to start a push-up. With your body in that plank position, take one arm and pick up a dumbbell that’s by your hip. Lift the dumbbell from the floor to your hip, but be sure not to move your hips as you do so.

4 Moves to Complete the Circuit

To make sure you are working other major muscle groups, include an overhead push and overhead pull—though you may need a pullup bar or some resistance bands for that pull—and a pushing and pulling movement with your arms that forces you to bend or extend your elbow.

1. Overhead Push

Shoulder press: Seated or standing, hold dumbbells just above your shoulders. (Standing will require more work from your core.) Brace your core and squeeze your abs while keeping your back straight, and press the dumbbells up until your arms are fully extended. Lower the dumbbells back to the starting position and repeat.

2. Overhead Pull

Pullup: This is one where you’ll need additional equipment. The simplest move for an overhead pull is a pullup or chin-up. If you can’t do a pullup, you can use a resistance band to make it easier and develop the skill. To do so, loop a large resistance band—sometimes called a super band—around each side of a pullup bar, so the band rests in a U-shape below the bar. Place your knees or feet inside the loop, so your body weight pulls the band down. The band should make it easier to lift your body.

3. Elbow Bend

Bicep curl: Seated or standing, hold dumbbells to your side. You can do this with a neutral grip, palms inward, or with your palms facing forward. Without moving your elbows, bring the weights up. Keep your wrists neutral and don’t shrug your shoulders.

4. Elbow Extend

Dumbbell kickback: This move is meant to help you work your triceps, the muscles in the back of your upper arm. Hold a dumbbell in one arm, and step forward with your opposite foot. Hinge forward, bending at the waist, keeping your back straight and your abs tight. You can hold onto something, even your own leg, with the hand not holding the dumbbell, if you need the additional stability.

Keep the upper arm of your dumbbell hand parallel with your bent-forward torso, but let your elbow bend at approximately a 90-degree angle, so your fist holding the dumbbell is pointed toward the ground. Use your triceps to push the dumbbell backward and straighten your arm so it becomes parallel to your torso. Lower it back to the starting position—all without moving your elbow at all—and repeat.

Adding Weight and Changing Things Up

Varying your workouts is essential to help your body adapt and get stronger, Ronai says. This is why both he and Saladino recommend training at certain times with a focus on endurance, and at other times using heavier weights with a focus on strength and power. Increasing the amount of weight you lift over time is important because it’ll help you avoid a plateau and continue to improve bone and muscle health, De Leon says. That’s why you should continue to challenge your muscles to get stronger by adding weight once you can do your workouts with excellent form.

The American College of Sports Medicine often recommends adding weight using what’s called the “two for two” rule, Ronai says. If you are doing three sets of 12 repetitions of one exercise, and on your last set, you are able to do two extra reps, try doing so again during your next workout. If you again can do two extra reps on your last set, you should be able to add some extra weight the next time you do that exercise.

Another thing to consider is the amount of weight you can add. If you are using adjustable dumbbells, the amount you can add varies—it may be 2.5 pounds, but it may be 5 pounds. Adding 5 pounds can be a lot for certain exercises, so if you need to do a few more reps at a lower weight before adding, do so. 

With adjustable dumbbells, you can also run into an issue where there’s no more weight to add, once you are using the full amount of weight on your set. One way to add more weight is to use a resistance band to add additional resistance, Ronai says. But don’t simply add the resistance band to the heaviest weight—it can be hard to quantify how the additional resistance will make an exercise harder, he says.

Instead, use a little less weight than you normally would when you first try adding in a band. Even at lighter weights, adding a band might be worthwhile, Saladino says, because it can force you to focus on correct form and add challenge throughout every movement in an exercise. You can also make an exercise more challenging without adding weight by decreasing rest time or performing lifts very slowly, De Leon says.

Head shot image of CRO Health editor Kevin Loria

Kevin Loria

I'm a science journalist who writes about health for Consumer Reports. I'm interested in finding the ways that people can transform their health for the better and in calling out the systems, companies, and policies that expose patients to unnecessary harm. As a dad, I spend most of my free time trying to keep up with a toddler, but I also enjoy exploring the outdoors whenever possible. Follow me on Twitter (@kevloria).