Best Dumbbell Workout for Your Upper Body

Of all the training tools you can choose from, dumbbells are the most readily accessible. Dumbbells have maintained their immense popularity because they not only force you to use your balance for extra engagement, they also force you to use both sides of your body equally.

Since dumbbells are perfectly symmetrical, it is difficult to favor one side of your body over the other when using them. This means you don’t have to worry about your weaker side not getting the same workout.

​The Best Dumbbell Workout

Dumbbells are also the equipment you want to be using if your goals are to gain muscle. One of the reasons dumbbells are so effective for gaining muscle is that they allow for a greater range of motion than other equipment. They also provide opportunity to include negative resistance in your workouts.

Negative resistance is the resistance that occurs when you focus on slowly lowering your weights down, instead of just letting them fall back without control. With dumbbells you can take advantage of the negative resistance. Whereas, if you were using machines, it is easier to just let the machines fall.

Man lifting dumbbells in his garage

While dumbbells can be used to work every part of your body, they are perfectly designed for upper body workouts. If you want to tone your arms, back, and chest, then you should be working out with dumbbells.

If you are wondering whether you should workout with kettlebells or dumbbells, we’re here to let you know that they both are used in different situations for different targets. However, if you like the idea of having your equipment adjust to your needs, then ​an adjustable dumbbell might be a good option.

Here ​are the best dumbbell workouts for your upper body.

One Arm Dumbbell Row: 12 reps, 2 sets on each side

Training one arm at a time with the one arm dumbbell row can actually help you utilize more muscles than doing the same move with both arms. This is because you need to recruit your stabilizer muscles in the single arm version.

  1. Start this move by placing your left knee and left hand on a bench.
  2. Keep your right foot on the ground and hold a dumbbell with your right hand.
  3. Pull the dumbbell up towards your hip, as far up as you can, and slowly lower it back down.

Repeat the pulling motion for 12 reps and then switch to the other side. Keep a flat back and keep your head in line with your back throughout this movement.

​Seated Dumbbell Press: 10 reps, 3 sets

The seated dumbbell press is one of the best exercises for gaining mass in your delts. Working these muscles will help you see width gains in your shoulders.

  1. Start by grabbing two dumbbells and sitting on a bench that is fully supporting your back.
  2. Bring the dumbbells to your shoulder height, holding them so that your palms are facing outwards. Your elbows should be bent at a 90-degree angle and your arms should be out to the side so your chest is open.
  3. Begin the move by pressing the dumbbells upwards until they touch at the top and, with control, bring them back down to the starting position.
  4. Exhale as you press the dumbbells and inhale as you bring them back down.

​Shoulder Shrugs: 12 reps, 4 sets

To work the trapezius muscles, you should start doing shoulder shrugs. This movement utilizes a small range of motion and focuses on smooth and controlled motions. While the motion is small, it is just as effective as some of the bigger movements.

  1. Start in an athletic stance holding two dumbbells in a neutral position at your sides. For this move your palms should be facing in towards each other. Keep your core engaged and your chest lifted.
  2. Then shrug your shoulders up towards the ceiling, squeezing at the top.
  3. Pause for a second and then slowly reverse the motion, letting your shoulders lower as much as possible.

Be sure to avoid rolling your shoulders as this can cause damage to your rotator cuffs.

Man lifting a dumbbell above his shoulders

​Flat Bench Dumbbell Press: 15 reps, 2 sets

The flat dumbbell bench press is one of the best moves for gaining mass in your chest​, and is also considered to be one of the best dumbbell ​exercises there is. It also works the front of your shoulders and the back of your arms.

  1. For this move find a flat bench and lie down holding a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing forward.
  2. Lift the dumbbells straight above your head.
  3. Next, slowly lower them down until your arms are at a 90-degree angle.
  4. Finally, press the dumbbells up until they touch at the top.
  5. Pause, and then lower them back down again.

You should feel a nice stretch in your chest as you do this move. Don’t lower the dumbbells too much or you will risk injuring your shoulders.

​Skull Crusher: 10 reps, 3 sets

Skull crushers are a great tricep move. They serve as an alternative to tricep dips with a little more resistance.

  1. Start by lying flat on your back. You can do this on a flat bench or on the floor.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand straight in the air, with your palms facing each other.
  3. Bend at the elbow and lower the weights, stopping right before they touch your forehead.
  4. Pause for a second and then straighten your arms to return the weights to the starting position.

​Dumbbell Thruster: 15 reps, 3 sets

Thrusters are one of the best moves you can do if you’re looking to see real changes in the composition of your body. They provide a full body workout, but really challenge the arms and shoulders.

  1. Start by grabbing two dumbbells and stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
  2. Rest the dumbbells on your shoulders in the rack position. Your palms should be facing in toward each other and your elbows should be slightly tucked.
  3. Begin to lower yourself down into a squat while keeping your torso upright.
  4. Once you have reached your full squat position, return to standing with an explosive motion.
  5. As you stand, press the dumbbells straight up over your head, keeping the palms facing inward.
  6. Then lower the dumbbells back to your shoulders and begin to squat again.

If you have back problems or have tight joints, you don’t have to force yourself to get into a low squat. Only go as low as you are comfortable.

Woman lifting dumbbells parallel to her shoulders

​Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 10 reps, 3 sets

A lateral raise works the upper back and the shoulders. It is more difficult than it looks, so you will definitely want to start with a lower weight than you think you should. This move is also great for ​ladies who wish to tone their muscles.

  1. Start in an athletic stance holding a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing forward.
  2. Keeping your arms straight, raise the weights out to your sides until they are about parallel with your shoulders.
  3. When you reach the top position, hold it for three seconds and then lower the dumbbells back to your sides. Your palms should remain facing forward for the entire duration of this move.

​Bent Over Kickbacks: 15 reps, 3 sets

This is another two dumbbell move that targets the triceps. It’s important to make sure you give your triceps a good workout because they help to stabilize your arms while doing chest and back workouts.

  1. To start this move grab two dumbbells and stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
  2. Next, bend over at the hips so that your upper body is at a diagonal.
  3. Hold the dumbbells with your elbows close to your sides, and your arms bent so that the dumbbells are towards the ground. 
  4. Begin to slowly straighten out your arms so that the dumbbells are moving behind you.

Be sure to keep your chest lifted and your core tight to feel the full effects of this move.

​Alternating Bicep Curl: 10 reps each side, 3 sets

The alternating bicep curl is a classic dumbbell move, and one of the best dumbbell bicep exercises. This move is designed to strengthen the biceps, but the forearms do a little bit of work as well.  The reason you see it so frequently is because it is one of the best ways to gain mass in your biceps.

  1. Your starting position for this move is standing up straight with a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Tuck in your elbows and face your palms towards your thighs.
  3. Begin by rotating your palm forward and then bending at the elbow to raise the weight upwards.
  4. Keep your upper arm still throughout this entire move.
  5. Bring the weight up as much as you can and then bring the weight back down with control.
  6. Then repeat the same motion on the other side.

Throughout the entire movement only the forearms should be moving. Do not let your upper arm move. If it does, your bicep will not be doing as much work, and you won’t see the results you are looking for.

Man lifting a dumbbell with one hand while holding another one to his side

​Hammer Curls: 10 reps each side, 3 sets

This upper body dumbbell workout is called the hammer curl and is also considered to be one of the best dumbbell bicep exercises you can do. This move works your full arms.

You will really reap the benefits in your biceps, as well as the muscles that support the biceps. This is the ​perfect move to your complete dumbbell workout plan when you’re looking for a way to set your arms on fire.

  1. Start with a dumbbell in each hand while standing feet shoulder width apart.
  2. Hold the weights at your side with neutral grip and your palms facing each other.
  3. Next, bend at the elbow to raise the dumbbells to your shoulders, just like you would with a bicep curl.

The difference with this move is that your palms remain facing each other the whole time. When you have reached your full range of motion, lower the weights back down, and repeat.

You should be holding the dumbbells vertically, like you would a hammer, the entire move. Your upper body and upper arms should be still throughout the move as well.

Additionally, make sure to maintain control as you do the move so that you are challenging yourself. It is much easier to do it quickly and rely on momentum.

Man lifting a 15kg dumbbell with one hand

​Renegade Row: 8 reps each side, 3 sets

If you really want to tone up your back, renegade rows are the perfect move. Plus, you can do it in the comfort of your home, no bench required! Since they involve holding a plank, your core will get worked as well, but the middle back is where you will feel it the most.

  1. To do this move you need to put two dumbbells on the ground slightly wider than shoulder width.
  2. Get into the starting position, which is a high plank with your hands resting on the weights.
  3. Begin the move by pulling the weight under your right hand up to your hip and then slowly place it back down.
  4. Repeat the move on the other side.

This is a difficult move that requires you to be in control of your balance. You can wear workout shoes for flat feet to avoid heel pain and improve your stability . Try to keep your body squared off as you do it and not let yourself fall to one side.

​Dumbbell Front Raise: 10 reps each arm, 3 sets

When you need dumbbell exercises for your arms and shoulders, look no further than the dumbbell front raise. This is a move that can be done by beginners and advanced weight trainers alike.

  1. Start in an athletic stance with a dumbbell in each hand. Your palms should be facing behind you.
  2. Slowly raise the dumbbell in your right hand forward and upward, until your arm is in a horizontal position.
  3. Then, slowly lower the dumbbell back down and repeat on the left side. Your elbows should be straight or slightly bent the entire time.

Throughout the move be sure to keep your core engaged and your chest lifted. In addition, don’t try to force the lifting if you have any stiffness in your shoulders.


Dumbbell sets are the ultimate strength training tool for working your upper body. By doing dumbbell exercises you will start to see fat loss and mass gain in your back, arms, shoulders, and chest. Taking the right supplement stacks and following the moves in this routine will help you see real muscle gains. You may even start to see some increase in your width.

When doing this intense upper body workout, make sure you rest at least two minutes between exercises and rest one minute between sets. Not giving yourself enough prep or rest time can lead to injuries that might set you back in your progress.

Do this work out two to three times a week for maximum benefit. Leave at least two days in between sessions to allow for muscle recovery.

Robert Lemus has been a natural competitor for 6 years, starting in Men’s Physique, then Bodybuilding, and then into Classic Physique. He is the Orange County Bodybuilding champion in 2016 for the Musclemania Organization. In 2018, he received his Pro Card with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in Classic Physique.