Dumbbell exercises are loved by Rihanna and the Kardashians - 10 to try tonight

Our weight training experts have got you covered.

Dumbbell exercises: Two women in the gym
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Walk into any gym and you’ll be sure to spot a rack of dumbbells waiting. But why are they such a popular gym staple and what exactly are they good for? Well, given that a dumbbell exercise adds external load to the body during movement, they’re an excellent way to make your workout a bit more challenging.

So, what are dumbbells? Good question. In short, they're a piece of weight training equipment that has weight at each end, stereotypically used two at a time (one in each hand) for muscle-building.

Celebrities such as Rihanna, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kourtney Kardashian and athletes spanning Simone Biles, Tia-Clair Toomey and Dina Asher-Smith don't need telling - they're already incorporating dumbbells into their workout routines. 

Why? Because research - including this recent study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports - has shown that even brief dumbbell workouts can lead to a significant boost in muscle strength.

Ready to learn a bit more about the do-all piece of kit? Keep scrolling, and do check out our guides to home workouts, weight lifting apps, and gym workouts, while you're at it.

Dumbbell exercises: your guide

What are dumbbells best for?

So we've established that no matter your gym anxiety, dumbbells are relatively easy to use - but what other perks do the weights offer? "The beauty of using dumbbells is that the variety of exercises is endless," says personal trainer and fitness coach Caroline Idiens. She loves the fact that dumbbells are an uncomplicated piece of kit that challenge your core stability and balance via weight lifting exercises, as opposed to a machine in the gym. 

“It’s easy to add heavier dumbbells as you progress for the extra challenge in your workouts,” adds Idiens. They're also useful for building strength and toning muscles by adding resistance to movements, as well as helping with flexibility and stability in muscles and joints, she adds.

Another great benefit, as Idiens points out, is that you can use dumbbells to isolate just one muscle group, such as your biceps in a bicep curl. Keen to target more than one muscle group? You can choose a compound movement such as a squat or press. “This makes the exercise much more functional and builds strength in movements which we do in daily life,” she explains.

Lucy Campbell, a personal trainer and Nottingham-based CrossFit coach, is also a fan of dumbbells for their versatility - "you can use them for home or gym workouts," she points out.

Rugby World Cup winner and former England star, Kat Merchant agrees, adding: “The weights section of the gym can be a pretty intimidating place for many women, but dumbbells are a fantastic introduction for beginners.” Not just that, they're hugely beneficial for experienced athletes and trainers, too. 

New to the weights section and not sure how much weight to start lifting? Try this: She suggests starting light on the weights and tracking your progress over time as you work your way up.

Dumbbell kit to invest in for home

10 best dumbbell exercises to try, according to an expert

Dumbbells can be used really effectively for chest, triceps and biceps exercises,  Merchant explains.

Campbell recommends using dumbbells as part of your weekly weight training  (the NHS recommends two sessions a week). She thinks they work best when performed as part of a compound exercise, such as squats or deadlifts, or in a conditioning workout, when used for movements such as snatches and clean and jerks.

The below dumbbell exercises are recommended by Campbell, the second British female ever to go to the CrossFit Games.

You can try them on their own or all together as a workout - just be sure to aim for the correct form and technique to prevent injury. Happy squatting. 

1. Goblet squat with dumbbells

A great option for working the glutes, quads and hamstrings, it’s also one of the best dumbbell exercises for working the lower body, shares Campbell. She advises holding one dumbbell in both hands, adding: “It’s great at helping people keep their chest up when performing the squat.”

How to? Hold a dumbbell vertically at the top of the weight with both hands and stand hip distance apart. Then, keeping your knees aligned over your toes, squat towards the floor, engaging your core and shoulders. Drive through your heels to your starting position and repeat.

How long? Aim for 45 seconds.

2. Romanian deadlift (RDL) with dumbbells

Another top dumbbell exercise which really targets the hamstrings, says Campbell, the RDL is a deadlift with a slight bend in the knee.

How to? Again standing with your feet hip width apart, hold a dumbbell in each hand and rest them at your hips. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and drive your hips backwards, hinging at the hips to lower the weights to your knees (in front of your thighs). Drive through your heels to initial position and repeat. 

How long? Aim for 45 seconds.

3. Step ups with dumbbells

This dumbbell exercise puts your glutes, quads and hamstrings through their paces. “Adding a weight to a box or bench step up is a fantastic way to help build your glute strength,” shares Campbell.

How to? This one's pretty self-explanatory - hold a dumbbell in each hand on either side of your body. Then, bracing your core and shoulder blades, step up with one foot onto a box in front of you. Make sure to push through the leg on the bench to work your leg muscles and glutes. Return to your initial position and repeat. Do note: Ensure the step is stable before trying this.

How long? Aim for 45 seconds.

4. Dumbbell lunges

“This is one of the best exercises and most challenging exercises for your lower body that also feels like cardio when you’re doing them,” says Campbell. Again, they really work your glutes, quads and hamstrings.

How to? Holding a dumbbell in either hand on each side of your hips with the weight facing forwards and the inside of your wrists facing your body, place one foot forwards. Then, lower your glutes towards the floor, bending your back knee. You want your thigh to be parallel to the floor. Step the leg back and repeat.

How long? Aim for 45 seconds.

5. Overhead tricep extension

This one does what it says on the tin - it’s one of the best exercises for the triceps. “Use one dumbbell to pull the weight over your head, either as a single or dual arm movement to target the triceps,” explains Campbell.

How to? Sitting on a bench, hold one dumbbell with both hands behind your head. Slowly bend both elbows and lower the weight downwards, engaging your core and shoulders. Return and repeat. 

How long? Aim for 45 seconds.

6. Dumbbell bench press

You can perform this on the floor or bench, but will get a greater range of motion on the bench, says Campbell. This dumbbell exercise will really get to work on the pecs, triceps, biceps and shoulders. 

How to? Lying on your back on a bench with your feet on the floor, hold a dumbbell in each hand. Raise them above your shoulders with your palms facing your feet.  Then, lower them towards your shoulders, bracing your core and biceps. Return and repeat. 

How long? Aim for 45 seconds.

7. Dumbbell shoulder press

“For a full range of motion, perform these so the dumbbell start and ends on your shoulders,” advises Campbell. This is another dumbbell exercise that’s great for shoulders, triceps, biceps and pecs.

How to? Start sitting on a bench with your back against the back of the bench. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height, palms facing forwards. Bracing your core and arms, push the weights up until your arms are straight. Return and repeat. 

How long? Aim for 45 seconds.

8. Bent over row

“I like performing these as a single arm movement as a three-point setup, resting one hand on a bench or box and keeping my back straight,” shares Campbell. As you can imagine, it’s a top dumbbell exercise to work the muscles in the chest and back.

How to? Start by standing with a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing towards your body. Bending your knees and hinging at the waist, row the weights into your body, making sure to keep your core braced, shoulders engaged and back straight. Return and repeat. 

How long? Aim for 45 seconds.

9. Dumbbell clean and jerk

This is a form of getting the dumbbell from the ground to overhead in two movements, explains Campbell.

How to? Start by bringing the dumbbell from the floor to your shoulder. Then, with your core and shoulders braced, push the dumbbells from your shoulder to over your head, with both arms fully extended. Return and repeat. 

How long? Aim for 45 seconds.

10. Dumbbell snatch

Last but by no means least, this is another form of getting the dumbbell from ground to overhead but in one movement, explains Campbell. Both are commonly used in Crossfit workouts, and are slightly more advanced dumbbell exercises than the rest in this round up.

How to? Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart and a dumbbell between your feet. Lowering down into a squat position, grab the dumbbell with one hand and raise it to your waist, then pull it up so it sits near your shoulder. Flipping your elbow, press the weight above your head. Return and repeat. 

How long? Aim for 45 seconds.

Keen to go ahead with a full workout, rather than individual exercises? We recommend giving this lower body dumbbell workout a go.

What is the most effective dumbbell workout?

Every body is different, and you'll have to work out which exercises work best for you. That said, as with using any weights, there are some things to be aware of for best practice and to limit any injuries. Campbell has the following advice:

“Most gyms will have heavy dumbbells for the compound lifts, such as squatting and deadlifting. When performing a heavy lift, it's worth having someone spot you to help you land the lift safely.”

She continues: “Lighter weights are more appropriate for hypertrophy-style training where you perform more reps and try to go close to failure (when you can’t do any more reps).”

As Idiens highlights, it’s imperative to look at your technique before using dumbbells and to get expert guidance, too. "When you begin to use weights as a whole, your correct form is key.” 

Amy Sedghi

Amy Sedghi is a freelance journalist, specialising in health and fitness, travel, beauty, sustainability and cycling.

Having started her career in The Guardian newsroom working with an award-winning team, Amy's proud to have reported on a variety of topics, speaking to a range of voices and travelling far and wide to do so. From interviews on ski lifts to writing up breaking stories outside courtrooms, Amy is used to reporting from a range of locations (she’s even been known to type up a story in a tent).

She also loves being active, spending time outdoors and travelling - with some of her favourite features she’s worked on combining all three. Cycling and eating her way round the Isle of Man, learning to sail on the Côte d'Azur and traversing the Caminito del Rey path in Spain are just some of her highlights.

Covering a diverse range of subjects appeals to Amy. One minute she may be writing about her online styling session with Katie Holmes’ stylist and the next she’s transporting readers to the basketball courts of Haringey where she joined a group trying to lower knife crime in the capital.

While at university, Amy was awarded The Media Society bursary. Following her stint at the Guardian, Amy worked at Google and as well as writing for Marie Claire, she regularly contributes interviews, features and articles to National Geographic Traveller, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, Stylist, Refinery29, Glorious Sport, Cycling Weekly and Rouleur.

When she’s not writing, Amy can be found trying to get through her towering stack of books-to-read, cycling down at Herne Hill Velodrome or looking for the next place to eat and drink with friends.