You need to change the way you think about dumbbell training. Endless concentration curls in pursuit of the pump are, well, a waste of time. The dumbbell is a versatile piece of kit you can use at home or in the gym and, armed with a little extra knowledge, you can make them work a lot harder.
These carefully selected exercises from elite London trainer Tom Bliss will target the muscles that have the most immediate visual impact to bulk you up (that’s your arms and shoulders), but also work the larger muscles of your posterior chain (your back, bum and legs) to help burn some extra calories and shed fat. And by using exercises that create instability to focus on your core, most will become total-body moves that promise maximum benefit in minimum time, while also crafting a set of six-pack abs – no mind-numbing crunches necessary.
Head to the weight rack, pick your poison and hold on tight. This is going to hurt. In a good way.
Dumbbell Reverse Bicep Curl & Press
What: Perform three sets of 15 reps, with 60 seconds rest in between
How: Hold a dumbbell in both hands at your thighs with an overhand grip, palms facing down. Engage your forearm and contract your bicep to raise the weights up to shoulder height. From there, pinch your shoulder blades back to stabilise your shoulder joint before contracting your triceps to press the weights up overhead. Squeeze your triceps at the top to maximise the effectiveness of the rep and then reverse the movement back to the start. Lower both phases (the press and the curl) slowly for extra muscle-building benefit.
Why: Big arms and broad shoulders are useful for both beach season and broadening the silhouette of your suit. This move attacks all of your mirror muscles in one. It builds your biceps will grow because of the curl, plus you’ll add bulk to your triceps and shoulders with the press. When you’re tight for time you don’t want to waste it by focusing on just your biceps. This exercise gives you triple the bulk for your buck. Plus, Bliss says, the reverse grip hits your bicep from a new angle, as well as engages your forearm, to change the stimulus for an extra growth spurt.
What: Perform five sets of 20 metres and back, with 30 seconds rest in between
How: Start with two 5kg dumbbells held out in front of you. They may look small and feel light right now, but that will change quickly. Begin your march slowly, exaggerating the knee lift of every stride to tax your core and turn this move into an abs exercise, too. It’ll be tough now, but all that will be forgotten on the sun lounger in your swim shorts with a third mojito in hand. Grit your teeth. Finish the 20 metres, shake the lactic from your shoulders and go again.
Why: This exercise will hone in on your shoulders for some beach-ready muscle, but also works in lower body and core effort to melt through a few extra calories. Which will either put you one step closer to ditching the Dadbod in time for the departures lounge, or serve as an excuse to waive the two pints and a burger you snuck in on Friday lunchtime. Take your pick. Holding the dumbbells out in front, rather than lifting them for reps is a great way to build strength rather than just size, too. Which will carry across and make you stronger in all of your other upper body exercises.
Single-Arm Row On Rings
What: Perform three sets of eight reps each side, with 60 seconds rest in between
How: Hang a pair of gymnastic rings from the rig in your gym, or a tree and position them around six inches from the floor. Set up in a plank position with your arms on the inside of the tape and a light dumbbell outside each hand on the floor. Contract your glutes and brace your core to stabilise and then, with alternating hands, come off one ring, grab a weight and row it up to your armpit. Lower the weight retake hold of the ring and repeat on the opposite side. Prepare for the wobble.
Why: The Olympic rings are a gym bag hero worth investing in. Not only do they allow you to work on your callisthenics and train using just your bodyweight, but they also provide the instability needed to make a single rep switch on your entire body. The wobble in your shoulders and arms, combined with the activation of biceps and back will bulk up your upper body. And, according to Bliss, by contracting your abs and glutes to prevent total collapse you’ll hone your abs, while also activating just enough muscle fibres to make you sweat.
Bird Dog Rows
What: Perform three sets of eight reps each side, with 60 seconds rest in between
How: Position yourself in a plank with your hands up on a bench. Now lift up your left leg out behind you and hold steady. With the opposite arm, row a dumbbell into your armpit. Bliss recommends trying the exercise with a weight you can handle easily first, to get the hang of the movement, before levelling up and making your upper body muscles pay. From your armpit, lower the weight slowly to the floor, complete the set and repeat on the opposite side.
Why: The instability here will send your core into overdrive and speed your progress to a six-pack, while also working on your upper body. It’s primarily a back exercise, as you pull the weight up away from the floor, but it’ll also engage your biceps for a very welcome pump to fill out your T-shirt. More than anything else, there’s a hell of a lot going on here. It’ll focus your mind and help you to forge a body and brain connection that will make other exercises you do feel easier. Promise.
What: Perform four sets of 12 reps, with 60 seconds rest in between
How: Simple yet effective. Hold on to a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing upwards. Curl the weights up to your shoulder, keeping your elbows pinned to your waist. As you reach the top of the rep gradually turn your hands over so that your palms are facing down. Now lower the weight under control (grit your teeth through the pain in your forearms) and reset at the bottom for rep two.
Why: This is the closest you’ll get to us recommending a basic curl. But the twist from an underhand to overhand grip halfway through the rep will shift the stimulus to target more of the bicep as well as the forearm. To spend time in pursuit of bigger arms alone, this is the exercise for you. If you’ve ever considered purchasing a ‘muscle fit’ T-shirt, now is the time.
What: Perform three sets of 10 reps each side, with 60 seconds rest in between
How: Take your standard reverse lunge one step further. Or should we say, to the side. With a dumbbell in both hands, step back with your right foot and wrap it around behind your left. Now keep your torso facing forwards and your sink down into a squat and focus on going slowly to help maintain your balance. Push up through your left heel to reverse the movement and then repeat on the other side. Nailed it on the first try? Take a bow.
Why: Bliss explains that by changing the angle of your simple back and forth lunge, you work deeper into your glutes. This will, therefore, activate more muscle fibres in your lower body. This one may look dainty, but there’s nothing refined about the beads of sweating running down your forehead by the third set as you combine muscle-building and fat burning in one exercise.
What: Perform four sets of five reps each side, with 60 seconds rest in between
How: Look familiar? You’ve got the hang of this row now and so, with this classic variation, go heavier. Set up in a plank position, holding onto the dumbbells directly below your shoulders. Brace your core to keep your hips steady and pull one dumbbell up to your armpit by engaging your back and biceps. Hold it at the top of the rep for a second and then lower to the ground under control and repeat with the opposite arm. Your back is the stronger muscle here so focus your mind on the middle of your back and pull in your shoulder blade for some extra firepower when things get tough.
Why: This is another total-body exercise that requires you to engage multiple muscle groups to complete a perfect rep. Don’t cheat yourself and allow your hips to sag. Bliss refers to this as midline stability, which translates to ‘being able to keep your body straight by using your abs’. Learning to engage them here will not only put you’re a few reps close to that six-pack you covet, but it’ll also help to teach you to use and improve your abs in pretty much every other exercise you do. So get this one right.
Half Kneeling Unilateral Press
What: Perform four sets of 10 reps each side, with 60 seconds rest in between
How: Stand up, holding onto one dumbbell in your right hand. Step back your right foot and drop down to a half kneel. Straighten up your posture. Bring the weight up to rest it at your shoulder and extend your left hand out for balance. Press the weight up explosively overhead, contracting your tricep at the top. Lower the weight to your shoulder slowly over three seconds. This extra time will maximise growth in minimum reps.
Why: This exercise is a test for both shoulder strength, but also joint stability and mobility, according to Bliss. Now, that’s not as exciting or a sexy as bulking up your shoulders enough to make wearing a vest appropriate, but shoulder mobility is an essential remedy to the hunch and rounded shoulders you develop at your desk. The upright position forces you to pull your shoulder blades back and down and to open up your chest and reclaim perfect posture. While also getting you hench, of course.
Dumbbell Floor To Overhead
What: Perform five sets of 60 seconds on, 30 seconds off
How: Grab two 10kg dumbbells and hold on tight. Hinge forward at your hips, being careful not to curve your lower back, and bend your legs your touch the dumbbells down to the floor. Push up through your heels to straighten your legs, contract your glutes to push your hips forward and straighten your back. Finally, curl the weights up to your shoulder and press them up overhead. This exercise gives you the chance to forget about form a little bit and go hell for leather, but remember to engage your glutes when you start getting tired. They’re big muscles and won’t get as tired as everywhere else. When you’re flagging, thrust them into action and see the weights fly up easily for a second wind.
Why: Bliss says the benefit of this exercises is plain and simple, you want to achieve a huge calorie burn. Deploy this one for maximum weight loss. This movement is ideal because there is nowhere to hide for any muscle, and the more muscles you use, the more calories are torched to power through each rep. From your quads to your glutes, core, back, shoulders and arms, you need all the help you can get to shift these weights from floor to ceiling over and over (and over) again.
Static Beast DB Drag
What: Perform the sequence for three rounds of 45 seconds on, 15 seconds off
How: Position yourself on all fours, with knees lifted off the floor and a dumbbell sitting out to your left. Easy right? Not anymore. Press up onto your toes to hover your knees an inch from the floor while keeping your back flat and horizontal. Lift your right hand from the floor (steady now) and reach across underneath you to take hold of the weight. Drag the dumbbell across to rest outside of your right hand side and put your hand back down. Take a breath and repeat with your left hand. This one’s going to sting, we’re afraid.
Why: In Bliss’s words – “it’s the daddy of all mid-line exercises.” To us, that means finishing with one of the toughest yet most effective core and abs exercises. Even the starting position will have you wincing if you stay there too long, but add in the instability of taking a hand off the floor to move the dumbbell and the exercise kicks into overdrive. The reason is that your core has to fight against the gravity and the rotation that will, if you don’t overcome it, see you collapsed in a heap on the floor. Anti-rotation is a far more effective core and abs exercise than crunches. It also targets your obliques to turn your nascent six-pack into a lots-more-pack. You’re very welcome.