Dumbbells for Dummies: A Beginner’s Guide

If you haven’t added resistance training to you’re exercise routine, here is why you should:

  1. Increased muscle mass: Having more muscle on you will improve your overall body composition.  Muscle is “metabolically expensive” as well, meaning it runs on more energy than fat, so you will burn more calories if you have more muscle.
  2. Improved bone density: Loading your bones will trigger an increase in calcium deposition, leading to denser, stronger bones.  This is especially important for women, because our bone density starts to decline starting around 30.  Lifting before 30 will increase your bone density so that it is still high even when its on the decline. If you are 30 or above, lifting weights will attenuate that loss.
  3. Strength gains: Carry all of your groceries inside in one trip?  Challenge accepted.

Alright, so the first step is picking your weight.  For any of the exercises, if you can do more than 12 repetitions per set, then your weight is too light. You won’t get any strength or muscular endurance gains.  For upper body exercises, try going up 2.5 lbs per dumbbell (i.e. 10 pounders to 12.5 pounders – a well stocked gym or athletic store should have a generous selection), and for lower body try going up 5 lbs per dumbbell.  If you can’t do more than 8 reps, then your weight is too heavy for general strength and muscular endurance gains, at least if you are new to resistance exercise, so go down in weight.

And the next step is lifting them!  Here are 10 basic dumbbell moves to give you a total body workout:

Upper Body

1) Bicep Curl: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, with a slight bend in your knee.  Keep movements slow. Make sure you aren’t swinging your weight – all movement from your weight should be from isolation of your arm muscles.


2) Shoulder Press: Stand shoulder width apart with a slight bend in the knees.  If it is too hard to safely lift both weights over your head, try doing one at a time – after a couple weeks, your body will have adapted and you should be able to lift both.


3) Bent over row: Standing shoulder width apart, hinge at the waist.  Be sure to keep your spine neutral – don’t slump over, but also don’t over arch.  Pull the weight back by squeezing your shoulder blades together.


4) Floor (or Swiss Ball) Bench Press:  Lie on your back either on the floor or on a swiss ball, with your knees bent.  Hold weights up light foot ball goals.  Press up, and slowly lower back down.


Lower Body

5)  Dumbbell Squat:  Stand at shoulder width or just wider than shoulder width apart, and hold dumbbell at chest level.  Squat down until your elbows tap the top of your knees, and return to standing.  Remember to keep knees in line with your toes, and sit back like you are sitting back in a big chair.


6) Russian Dead Lift:  Stand just wider than shoulder width apart, with a  slight bend in the knees, holding dumbbells at thighs.  Hinge at the waist until you are at a 90 degree angle, and return to standing.  Remember again to keep your spine neutral, and keep your weight in your heels – it should feel like you are sticking your butt out.


7) Dumbbell Calf Raise:  Stand shoulder width apart, and hold dumbbells at your side like two suitcases.  Raise up onto your toes, and lower slowly back down.



8) Side dips:  Stand shoulder width apart, with a slight bend in your knees, holding weights at your sides like suitcases.  Dip a tolerable amount to the side (try and touch the side of your knee) and raise slowly back to standing.  For a challenge, place on hand on the back of your head, instead of holding the other dumbbell.  Be sure to do 8-12 reps on each side.


9) Golf Swings:  Stand shoulder width apart.  Despite the name, this should be a controlled movement, no swinging.  Bring weight up over one shoulder, and back down to the opposite knee.  Be sure to do your 8-12 reps on each side.


10) Standing dumbbell crunch:  Similar to the gold swing, there should be no swinging of the weight.  Bring weight over one shoulder, and lift knee to meet the weight on its way down.  Aim for slow and controlled.  Be sure to do 8-12 reps each side.

ddstanding crunch

Add resistance exercise to your workout routine 2-3 times per week.  Aim for 2-3 sets of each exercise.  Keep trying to increase your reps, and if you find yourself over 12 reps, try a heavier weight – you’re getting stronger!

Another note:  It takes doing and recovering from a specific exercise about 16 times before you start seeing changes in the muscle structure (we are talking at the cellular level) so it takes time to get stronger.  Just stick with it though, it will be worth it.

If you have any questions feel free to contact me or comment below!

happy lifting!

-Juliane, ACSM CEP



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