Gone are the days when weight training was solely reserved for men in the 80s. Thanks to groundbreaking science, research, and undeniable evidence, we now know that women deserve their rightful place in the weights room. It’s time to shatter the outdated notions and discover why women should be pumping iron just as passionately as their male counterparts.
The benefits of weight training for women include improved strength and endurance, increased muscle definition and tone, reduced risk of injury and improved posture and balance which is even more important as you get older. Weight training is like the elixir of life, if there was one, so incorporating it into your weekly training regime is paramount for you to be healthy, and strong and feel confident in your own skin.
The purpose of this article is to provide you with an overview of the best dumbbell exercises you can perform in the gym for different muscle groups, target areas, how to perform them and then we will even provide you with an effective workout routine you can follow to get the best results, I know, sounds too good to be true right? Well, read on and find out…
Dumbbell exercises for the upper body
Let’s kick things off with dumbbell exercises for the upper body.
In my role as a coach and trainer, I’ve noticed a common concern among women when it comes to upper body training: the fear of appearing “Too Big & Bulky.” However, I’m here to reassure you that this fear is unfounded.
Women typically have a greater amount of muscle mass in their lower body compared to their upper body due to physiological differences. Additionally, hormonal variations make it less likely for women to gain muscle as quickly as men. So, rest assured, the chances of transforming into a bulky figure like Popeye are extremely slim to none.
Instead, you can sculpt strong shoulders, significantly decrease your risk of shoulder pain, and improve your posture. Imagine the empowering feeling of effortlessly performing pull-ups using your own body weight, a remarkable testament to your strength and resilience. Not only does this exercise showcase your power, but it also offers a multitude of health benefits. Studies even suggest that being able to pull your own body weight is associated with better overall mortality rates.
Chest & Triceps
Incline Dumbbell Chest Press
Now dumbbell pressing isn’t just for the guys. When we think about functional training, we need to incorporate horizontal pressing in some form to maintain a balanced posture in our upper body, so this is a must.
– Starting position: Lie on a 30-degree incline bench with a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing forward, at chest level.
– Execution: Press the dumbbells up and slightly inward until they meet the midline of your chest. Lower the weights back down to chest level with elbows tucked into the body at 45 degrees. Keep your sternum up when performing this exercise as a cue to help “open” the chest and stretch the chest muscles across your ribcage.
This exercise primarily targets your upper chest muscles, helping to lift and sculpt the chest and shoulders. It also engages the triceps and core for stability and improving horizontal pressing strength.
Decline Dumbbell Single Arm Bridge Press
Combining upper body with glutes and trunk stability? This is the best upper body movement you’ve potentially never done!
– Starting position: Lie on the floor with your feet flat, with your right arm extended upward holding a dumbbell, and your knees are bent in a hook lying position, from here we want to push through the feet and extend the hips to the sky whilst maintaining a neutral spine.
– Execution: Lower the dumbbell towards your chest whilst maintaining a slight bend in your elbow and holding the bridge position keeping your hips stable. Press the weight back up, fully extending your arm. Repeat the movement for 8-10 reps maintaining a consistent tempo then switch sides.
This exercise targets the lower chest muscles whilst also engaging the triceps, glutes and core, challenging trunk stability by resisting rotation as you press with one arm.
Dips target the tricep muscles, but also your lower/mid trapezius muscles which sit in the middle upper of your back, and aid in maintaining good posture through your shoulders.
– Starting position: Sit on the edge of a stable bench or chair with your hands placed next to your hips, fingers pointing forward. Extend your legs out in front of you.
– Execution: Lower your body by bending your elbows, keeping them close to your sides. Continue lowering until your upper arms are parallel to the floor and think about pulling your elbows and shoulder blades together as you lower. Push yourself back up to the starting position and repeat.
Lying Dumbbell Tricep Extension
Getting in an overhead position can aid in shoulder stability as well as here we are lengthening the triceps muscle. Which is why this is a great exercise to improve arm strength and keep your shoulders healthy and strong!
– Starting position: Lie on a flat bench with a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing forward. Extend your arms above your chest much like a dumbbell press mentioned above.
– Execution: From here we are going to keep the upper arm fixed, and bend at the elbow lowering the dumbbells down either side of our head. Stop at 90 degrees of elbow flexion (bend) and then extend the arms back to the starting position maintaining stability in the upper arm.
Back, Shoulders & Biceps
Supine Arm Bar
If I was going to choose one upper body exercise you should perform before your workouts, this would be it. Combining spinal rotation, shoulder stability and external rotation of your shoulders in one exercise is something I highly recommend you perform, there’s a reason the world’s best athletes incorporate this exercise prior to competing in their desired sports.
– Starting position – Lie on your back on a gym mat. Hold a dumbbell or a kettlebell in your right hand, with your arm extended straight above your chest. The left arm is horizontally leg out to the side of the body in a “T” position with your palm facing the ceiling. Bend the right knee (same side) pulling it into your chest to create a posterior pelvic tilt, whilst keeping your left leg straight.
– Execution – Begin the movement by “punching the arm” holding the weight towards the ceiling whilst simultaneously driving the right knee and right side of your pelvis and rolling towards the left arm as you take a big inhale. Keep your eye on the right dumbbell or kettlebell to aid in maintaining stability in this arm as the right side of the pelvis is driven into the floor on the left side. Slowly roll back to your starting position exhaling and maintaining the position of the right arm. Perform 6 reps then swap sides and repeat.
Incline Chest Supported Dumbbell Row
If you’re new to rowing movements then this is your starting movement to learn how to perform good rowing technique with minimal barrier to entry, the support of the incline bench mitigates the need for co-contractions and core stability to focus on learning how to control your shoulder blades in rowing movements.
– Starting position – Set up on an adjustable bench at an incline of around 30-45 degrees depending on your height. Place two dumbbells on the floor towards the front of the bench. The bench height should be adjusted to where you can lie face down with your chest supported on the bench and your feet firmly on the ground to stabilise your body.
– Execution – Pick the dumbbells up, holding one in each hand with an overhand grip (palms facing inwards) and let your arms hang straight down, perpendicular to the ground. Your head should be neutral, and your feet should be shoulder-width apart for stability pushing your body into the bench to act as counterbalance. Initiate the movement by retracting your shoulder blades (pulling them back together) then pulling the dumbbells towards your body aiming to pull the dumbbells into your pockets. Keep your elbows close to your sides as you maintain control until they are parallel to your body before lowering the weights slowly back to your starting position.
Single Arm Dumbbell Row with One Arm off an Incline Bench
If you’re ready to take your incline bench row to the next level, it’s time to explore the world of single-arm variations. By transitioning to a single-arm movement, you not only enhance your trunk stability and anti-rotational strength but also make significant gains in horizontal pulling power. It’s another exercise that should be included in many good programmes as it yields heaps of carry-over benefits to day-to-day functions.
– Starting position – Starting position: Set up an incline bench at an angle of around 45 degrees. Place a dumbbell on the floor on the same side as the hand you’ll be performing the row with. Position your non-working arm on the top of the incline bench for support. Standing facing that bench, with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent.
– Execution – Reach down and grab the dumbbell with your working hand, palm facing your body. Place the non-working hand on the bench to support your upper body and act as a counterforce whilst you row. Maintain a straight back and core engaged throughout the movement. Initiate the movement by retracting your shoulder blade and pulling the dumbbell towards your hip, keeping your elbow close to the body, think about driving it around the rib cage towards the midline of your body. Continue pulling until your upper arm is parallel to the ground and your elbow is roughly at a 90-degree angle. Slowly return to the starting position maintaining control before repeating another repetition.
Dumbbell Y Raises
Targeting your deltoids, lower-mid trapezius muscles between your shoulder blades in the upper mid-back this is a go-to for not only sculpting a toned upper body but improving posture and shoulder strength and function.
– Starting position – Set up on an incline bench at a 60–70-degree angle. Lay with your chest on the bench facing forward tucking your pelvis into a posterior pelvic tilt (forward) into the bench and hold a pair of dumbbells with a neutral grip (thumbs to the ceiling). Place your feet firmly on the ground to help drive your torso into the bench as you perform the movement. Begin with your arms fully extended holding the two dumbbells slightly in front of the body.
– Execution – Initiate the movement by raising both the dumbbells upwards and outwards in a Y shape, forming a wide “V” with your arms. Keep your arms straight throughout the movement and focus on pointing your thumbs to the ceiling as you continue to raise your dumbbells up just above shoulder height, pause here for a brief second feeling the contraction between your shoulder blades before lowering slowly back to the starting position.
Dumbbell Lateral Raises
Want sculpted shoulders whilst improving your posture and improving stability? Incorporating this exercise into your upper body routine can contribute to well-rounded shoulder development and overall upper body strength.
- Starting position – stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Let your arms hang naturally by your side with your palms facing your body, engage your core before you lift and maintain a neutral spine position.
- Execution – Maintaining a slight bend in your elbows, simultaneously raise your arms out to the sides until they are parallel to the floor. Keep your wrists straight and your palms facing downwards throughout the movement. As you raise your arms, focus on lifting out to the side, not “shrugging” up as we want to use our deltoid muscles to initiate and control the movement, not our trapezius muscles. Avoid excessive swinging or momentum. Once we’ve reached shoulder height with our wrists, pause for a second or two before returning slowly down to your pockets.
When it comes to training your core and toning your abs and midsection, learning to maintain the relationship between your pelvis and ribcage is paramount to successfully tone your tummy. The dumbbell deadbug provides us with tactical feedback from the ground to help teach us the right body position we need to utilise to train the ab muscles properly.
– Starting position – Lie on your back with your knees bent and back flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, extending your arms straight up towards the ceiling imitating a “dead bug”. You can see where this exercise gets its name right? Engage your core by drawing your belly button in toward your spine.
– Execution – Begin the movement by simultaneously extending your right arm overhead and straightening your left leg, lowering them towards the floor. Keep your lower back pressed into the ground and maintain a stable core throughout this exercise. Avoid any arching or excessive movement in your lower back, your arm and leg should hover slightly above the ground without touching it. Pause for a moment in the bottom position, feeling the engagement of your core and the stability of your body, then return back to the starting position.
Dumbbell Exercise for the Lower Body
Now for the lower body, this is where women tend to focus their attention and quite rightly so, who doesn’t want muscular, toned, and strong legs with a peach to die for? We all do, right?
Glutes, Quads, and Hamstrings
Breaking down your lower body training so it’s evenly split between working your quadriceps, hamstrings and glute muscles, is going to help you develop a strong set of legs even Kylie Minogue would be proud of. Here are the go-to exercises and how to perform them correctly to ensure you get the most out of them.
Dumbbell Heel Elevated Goblet Squat
This exercise is the goat of squatting and for the newbie gym-goer this is your new best friend. Why, you may ask? A lot of people are too quick to jump to a barbell and start back squatting, but the reality is you need to learn the skill of squatting and improve the control of your centre of mass.
The Dumbbell Heel Elevated Goblet squat, which focuses on an anterior load helps push our centre of mass backwards which can help maintain a more upright torso in the squat position and shift more weight into our heels rather than our toes. The majority of people’s centre of mass is always travelling forward which is why a lot of dysfunctions can occur in our knees, hips, ribcage, and shoulder so learning to properly control your centre of mass can yield a whole heap of health benefits.
– Starting position: stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, heels elevated on a 10-degree ramp or with two small plates under your heels holding a dumbbell vertically with both hands, close to your chest, elbows tucked to the body. Now, close the space between your pelvis and ribcage and “brace”. Imagine you’re about to take a punch to the stomach and maintain this throughout the movement.
– Execution: Lower your body into a squat position aiming for hips below parallel and weight evenly distributed through your feet, keeping your knees tracking over your toes. Keep your back upright whilst maintaining the relationship between the pelvis and ribcage. Push through your heels to return to the starting position and repeat.
Dumbbell Front foot elevated split squat
Much like the goblet squat, if you’re new to split squats the dumbbell front foot elevated split squat is your go-to exercise for newbies. With a 60/40% weight distribution of front to back leg this will help you learn to get stronger on one leg and improve your bodyweight control.
– Starting position – Stand in a split stance one foot in front of the other. The front foot should be elevated on a stable platform, such as a step or a weight plate. The back foot should be positioned with the ball of the foot on the ground and the heel lifted. Maintain an upright posture with the core engaged to maintain the relationship between the pelvis and ribcage, think of pushing into your rear foot toes to engage the glute on this side of the pelvis.
– Execution – Start the movement by bending your knees (knee flexion) and lowering your body straight down towards the ground maintaining the weight distribution between both legs and keeping whole foot pressure on the front foot. As a target keep the front knee in line with your toes. The back knee should approach the floor but not touch the ground, aim for an inch or two above the floor. Then reverse the movement, pushing through the front foot rising back to your starting position.
Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat Contralaterally Loaded
If you’ve trained your lower body before then you probably have done a Bulgarian split squat, hated by the masses for its pure difficulty and pain, but where there is challenge, there is growth, and this exercise brings with a whole heap of functional strength benefits. The contralateral load (weight in the opposite leg to the stance leg) allows for a bias of internal rotation of the hips aiding in hip mobility and strength which is an area that most lack. Add this to your repertoires and reap the benefits.
– Starting position – Stand a few feet in front of a bench or elevated platform, my preference is putting a hip thrust pad on a smith machine at bench level to aid stability. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in your right hand, resting it on your right thigh. Position your left foot a step or two in front of the bench, with the top of your foot resting on the pad or bench.
– Execution – Similarly to the split squat above start the movement by bending your knees and lowering your body straight down towards the ground. The main difference here is that most of your weight is on your front leg. Again, once you’ve reached the desired range of motion return to the starting position by driving through the whole of the front foot whilst maintaining core engagement.
Barbell Hip Thrust
While the world may claim diamonds as a woman’s best friend, the true gem in the gym lies within hip thrusts. Especially if you’re looking to master the hinge movement pattern and grow your glutes! This is your starting exercise to learn how to hinge properly before progressing into a standing hinge exercise such as a deadlift.
– Starting position: Set up a barbell with desired load on the ground, start off light until you feel competent in the movement pattern. Sit on the ground with your back supported on a bench or softbox, I recommend starting with a 12-inch box if you can as this will limit the range of motion initially until you are able to execute this well and then can progress this to bench height. Pull the barbell into your hips, bring your knees into your chest so they are bent at a 90-degree angle, with your feet flat on the floor.
– Execution: Grasp the barbell tightly with an overhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart pulling it into your hips directly above your pelvic area, don’t forget to use a hip thrust pad to save you from bruising the skin on your hips! To begin the movement, drive through the heels of your feet, extending your hips until your thighs and torso are parallel to the ground. Your body should form a straight line from your knees to your shoulders whilst maintaining core engagement and the relationship between your ribcage and pelvis.
Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
Want to tone your hamstrings and glutes, this exercise is for you! Strengthening and lengthening your posterior chain muscles, you want to make this part of your weekly exercise regime if you want to build your glute and hamstring muscles.
– Starting position – Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a pair of dumbbells in front of your thighs with an overhand grip (palms facing your body). Allow your arms to hang straight down keeping them close to your thighs, start with a slight knee bend.
– Execution – Engage your core muscles and maintain a straight back throughout the exercise. Initiate the movement by hinging at your hips, pushing your glutes back and allowing the dumbbells to travel down your thighs towards your feet, keeping them as close to your thighs as you can. Lower until your torso is parallel to the ground whilst maintaining core engagement, if you can’t perform this to full range initially, don’t worry, start with a limited range, and then progress. A good marker is stopping around mid-shin, then slowly raise the weights back up to the starting position driving your hips forward as you stand up, bringing your body back to an upright position.
Dumbbell Step Ups Loaded Contralaterally
There’s a lot of focus on the squat and hip thrusts for building your glutes however this exercise is a best kept secret to getting glute gains and building that peach, activating more muscle fibres in your glutes than both squatting and hip thrusting this is a must if you want a peachy, toned behind you can be proud of!
- Starting position – Stand facing either a step or stable bench that’s set up at roughly knee height (if this is too high to start, start lower to control the movement). Place your feet hip-width apart and keep your arms down by your sides. Engage your core muscles and maintain an upright posture. Start with the leading leg on the bench with your foot completely flat.
- Execution – Drive through the front foot that is on the elevated surface whilst keeping your chest lifted and torso upright. Try your best not to use the trailing leg as we want to use as much strength in our leading leg as possible, this is going to maximise the tension across your glute muscle fibres. Pause briefly at the top of the step with your right foot fully on the bench then slowly lower back down to your starting position with a slight hinge backwards (torso leaning forward) to emphasise the glute muscles.
Walking Dumbbell Lunges
To start off, focus on mastering the split squat exercise. Once you’ve gained proficiency in this movement, you can progress to the next step: the walking dumbbell lunge. Keep in mind that training for challenging lateral hip stability should be a priority for everyone, irrespective of whether the goal is to enhance glute growth, build lower body strength, or improve trunk and pelvic stability. The ability to move efficiently on a single leg highlights the vital role played by the glute muscles.
– Starting position – Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand allowing your arms to hang straight down by your sides. Engage your core and maintain a neutral spine as you move through this exercise avoiding excessive rotation of the torso or collapsing to one side.
– Execution – Take a step forward with your right foot ensuring your stride is long enough to create a 90-degree angle at both knees when you lower into the lunge position. As you step forward, simultaneously begin to lower your body by bending both knees. Continue descending until your back knee is hovering just above or lightly touching the ground. Your front knee should be directly above your ankle, and your weight should be evenly distributed between your front and back legs. Push through your front foot to drive your body upward and forward, extending your front leg and bringing your back leg forward to meet your front leg. As you complete the step with the right foot, immediately step forward with your left foot and perform a lunge with the opposite leg. Repeat the walking lunge, alternating legs with each step.
How Can I Incorporate These Exercises?
Don’t worry – the team here at Crunch Fitness have got you covered, we’ve put together two full-body workouts including the recommended exercises to take the guesswork out of your training all we ask is you tag us on social media if you’re giving these workouts a go and let us know how you get on or have any questions regarding the exercises or workouts!
Perform the alphabetically paired exercises as a superset pairing ie. A1 & A2 repeat 3 sets with the rest noted. The tempo is written as 3-1-2-0 which means 3 seconds on the eccentric (lowering phase), 1 second at the end range, then 2 seconds on the concentric (shortening or contractile phase) and 0 seconds at the top of the movement.
Dumbbell workout plans for women
|A1) Dumbbell Heel Elevated Goblet Squat||3||8-12||3-1-2-0||30s|
|A2) Single Arm Dumbbell Bridge Press||3||8-10 each side||3-0-2-0||60s|
|B1) Chest Supported Dumbbell Row||3||12-15||3-0-2-1||30s|
|B2) Incline Dumbbell Press||3||12-15||3-1-2-0||90s|
|C1) Barbell Hip Thrust||3||12-15||3-0-2-2||30s|
|C2) Walking Dumbbell Lunges||3||10-12 each way||2-0-2-0||90s|
|D1) Dumbbell Deadbugs||3||6-8 each side||2-0-2-1||30s|
|D2) Dumbbell Y Raises||3||12-15||2-0-2-1||60s|
|A1) Supine Arm Bar||3||6-8 each side||N/A||30s|
|A2) Dumbbell Deadbugs||3||6-8 each side||2-0-2-1||60s|
|B1) Seated Shoulder Dumbbell Press||3||8-12 reps||3-1-2-1||30s|
|B2) Front Foot Elevated Split Squat||3||8-10 each side||3-2-2-0||60s|
|C1) Single Arm Dumbbell Row Off Incline Bench||3||8-12 reps||3-0-2-2||30s|
|C2) Dumbbell Step Up||3||10-12 each side||3-0-2-1||30s|
|D1) Tricep Dips||3||8-10 reps||3-1-2-0||60s|
|D2) Dumbbell Lateral Raises||3||12-15 reps||3-0-2-1||60s|
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