7 Best Dumbbell Exercises: Build Muscle and Burn Fat

Dumbbells rule! They’re on the good end of the functional strength continuum, opposite machines. Those little hunks of iron give you all the range of motion you’ll ever need. They also force your body to take on full control responsibility, bringing in all the little stabilizing and control muscles you never knew you had.

As an added bonus, you can use a set of them to do just about any strength or muscle building movement imaginable. Next time you’re bored in the gym, imagine the possibilities! It’s all about adaptive response, and if you’re always doing the same workout, your body’s going to stop adapting. Not with dumbbells; you have plenty of different movements to choose from.

For both muscle building and fat burning, I’m a huge fan of heavy, compound movements. They maximize muscle fiber recruitment with each rep. If you’re into the ultimate physique, you can always add a few isolation exercises to more effectively target muscles the big movements don’t.

And one more thing….

Straight from the broken record department, if you use selectorized dumbbells, you can fit your whole gym in the corner of a room not much bigger than a closet. I know, mine’s stuck in a messy corner of my rec room. I’m fortunate enough to have PowerBlock Classic 90s. They give me about everything I’ll ever need, and then some! They came with an integrated adjustable incline bench. I keep meaning to get a pullup/captains chair/dip station to round out my home gym, and am still pissed off my neighbor threw his away without consulting me first! All the junk that’s found its way into our house, and the one piece I wanted got away…..

In any case, I’ve got some favorite dumbbell movements, and I’m sure you do too. From what I’ve seen, these are the dumbbell exercises that do the best job of overall muscle building and fat burning. If you stop and think about it, you’ll realize these are really the same thing. The more muscle you build, the faster your basal metabolic rate, and the more calories you’ll burn 24/7.

Dumbbell Bench Press

dumbbell exercises for muscle - bench press

Hittin the incline dumbbells will pay nice dividends in your chest and shoulders

One of the most popular and effective overall upper body exercises, the dumbbell variant calls many stabilizing muscles into play, compared to the barbell bench, It’s better for ensuring you work your muscles evenly on both sides, preventing asymmetrical development. If you’ve watched people barbell bench press and seen the invariable tilt, you’ll know why it’s so important.

If you have shoulder problems, using dumbbells may be easier on your shoulders than using a barbell. It’s helped me through shoulder recovery at various times.

Angle of the Dangle

As with the barbell variant, you can shift emphasis to different muscles by changing the angle. More incline hits harder the upper chest and lateral delts, while flatter angles target the lower chest and anterior deltoids more effectively.

Works pectorals, triceps, anterior and lateral deltoids with strong secondary effects on about a dozen other muscles.

Is the dumbbell bench press better for overall chest development than the barbell variety? An interesting study from Muscle and Fitness discovered “The barbell bench press involved the upper pecs and front delts more than the dumbbell version, while the dumbbell bench press hit the lower pecs to a greater degree”. More in-depth on the dumbbell vs barbell bench press is in their article here

Dumbbell Dead Squats

These are one of my favorites, since they typically take the place of both deadlifts and squats in my routine. WTF is a “dead squat”? Simple, a combination deadlift and squat.

  1. Grab a dumbbell in each hand, arms at your sides, with your palms facing your body.

    Dumbbell Dead Squats

    These dumbbell dead squats are my top dumbbell exercise to both build muscle and burn fat. Amazing how those two go together…..

  2. Do a squat. I like to go fairly low, so my thighs are parallel with the floor. Keep your arms hanging straight down by your sides. The dumbbells will almost touch the floor.
  3. Come back up, feeling strong contraction in your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and upper back/traps.
  4. Do a standing calf raise at the top. Hell, why not combine one more movement? Your time’s limited, right?
  5. Repeat.

My normal routine is 5 sets: 12 reps, 10, 3 x 8

Dumbbell Power Clean

Yeah, Baby! These things rock! There’s a reason so many pro athletes still do power cleans, despite all the other new-fangled crap they have to choose from now. Why do NFL players have no necks? It’s all about the clean! The mother of all compound exercises, my only complaint with power cleans is that it’s not as effective at lower body development as the dumbbell dead squats (or pain old barbell squats, for that matter) because your shoulders hold you back from using enough weight. They don’t? Then you have a strength imbalance.

Dumbbell Lunges

These are one of the all around best lower body development exercises, and will build hecka powerful glutes, quads and hammies. For athletes, they’re fantastic at helping acceleration in sprints. Your first three steps will really thank you. I definitely noticed it playing tennis. Yeah, the old man can ball out!

Knees Killing You?

Congrats, you’re on a long and distinguished list! Lunges can exacerbate that, so instead of using walking lunges, go with alternating lunges instead. The difference? Instead of going forward when you come up, drive backward toward your original standing position, then switch legs and do it over again.

Dumbbell Overhead Presses

Best dumbbell muscle building exercises - overhead press

Dumbbell overhead presses have almost limitless variations. You can do them more traditionally, or start with your palms facing you, as shown here.

Shoulders make the man (and woman, too), and overhead presses make your shoulders. They’re an old standby for delt, tricep and trap development, and with damned good reason! It was the first weight exercise I ever did, back in the dark ages at the YMCA dungeon. I had a bad case of clavicle stickoutitis, and the giant working there promised they’d help cure my ailment. I still do them, 35 years later. Yes, they did work, although my shoulders now are a far cry from what they once were. K Sara Sara….. I don’t do 90 minute shoulder routines anymore, either.

Much like bench presses, a bit of angle creativity can shift emphasis to different muscle groups. Moving to the front shifts stress more to the anterior (front) delts and upper chest, while doing them at the sides hits the lateral delts better.

Be careful of putting the shoulder joint at angles that can put undue stress on the joint itself, and cause shoulder troubles down the road. On some people, moving behind the neck can cause this.

Bent Over Dumbbell Rows

Hey, it’s like the bench press for your back! Really, bent over dumbbell rows hit about everything, and with dumbbells, some angle adjusting makes sure you can target whatever you want. You can do them with both arms together or alternating left and right. Alternating allows you to concentrate on one at a time, plus it gives you greater stretch on the way down.

Dumbbell rows are terrific for building overall thickness in the upper back and trap area, plus they’ll help your forearms and biceps along the way. While bent over rows will build some size and strength in your biceps, you’re never going to get close to reaching full biceps potential with them, so you’ll have to add a curl set or 12…. using dumbbells, of course!

Weighted Dips

Yeah, so the only use for the dumbbell here is hanging off your waist. I go back and forth on dips. They can be shoulder killers, in more ways than one! If there’s an exercise that puts your shoulders at a weird angle and threatens to separate every ligament you’ve got there, well, it’s weighted dips. On the flip side, damn, they do a great job at overall upper body development!

Triceps, chest, back and shoulders can all get a heavy hit from a dip workout. If you’re having trouble getting into the attic from the top of your ladder, hit the dip station for a few months. You’ll never have trouble again. Of course, then you’ll have no excuse not to clean the place out…..

In college I used to hang some decent sized weights off my waist while doing dips. Now the weight doesn’t come from the rack. Oh, well… One thing I noticed; if you haven’t done dips for a long while, you’ll have troubles hitting the weights you used to, even if you’ve been training. They put your body at a mechanical disadvantage that needs some acclimation. It comes back fast though, so take heart, and hit ’em hard!

Do These Dumbbell Exercises Burn Fat?

Doesn’t everything? The beauty of a solid weight training program isn’t so much the fat it burns while you’re training, although it certainly does that. With weight training, it’s the long term fat-burning benefits that rock. As your muscle mass increases, your body becomes a fat burning furnace, for many hours after you’ve left the gym.  I’m talkin’ like 24 of them, plus your basal metabolic rate stays permanently higher than if you haven’t developed that muscle mass. More fat burning, all day long…

Unfortunately, if you haven’t been weight training you’ll also develop a ravenous appetite. Channeling that into solid nutrition is a must if you don’t want to end up looking like an ’80s powerlifter.

What are your favorite dumbbell exercises? Did this dumbbell miss any? Let me know, thanks!