Guide to a Complete Dumbbell Workout for Beginners

When you’re first starting to learn strength training, dumbbells can be intimidating. You’ve probably seen people use them but maybe you aren’t sure how they should fit into your own workout routine. After all, they don’t come with instructions like all the machines on the gym floor.

Why Dumbbells Make For a Great Workout

Rest assured, there is no need to be intimidated by dumbbells. They are excellent workout tools that can help you meet your muscle-building goals.

There are many reasons that dumbbells have managed to maintain a position at the forefront of exercising for decades.

Man doing dumbbell crunch exercises


One of those is symmetry. Because dumbbells are exactly the same on each side, both sides of your body get an equal workout. You can’t cheat on your weaker side. 

​Stabilizing Muscles

They also require you to use your stabilizing muscles when working out. Dumbbells may target a specific muscle. But, you have to recruit the muscles surrounding your target in order to keep the proper form.


Additionally, they are safe to use without a spotter so they can easily be kept in a home gym. When you’re done with your dumbbells, you can drop them if you have to. You don’t need to worry about dropping them on your chest, like you would with a barbell.

​Range of Motion

Dumbbells also help you meet you goals faster due to an increased range of motion. You can intensify your workouts by increasing your range of motion and taking advantage of the tension in the return motion.

​All Ages

Dumbbells can be used by people of all ages and fitness levels. If you’re looking to gain muscle and lose fat with more intense workouts, you should start incorporating dumbbells into your workout.

Here is a dumbbell workout tailored to those who are new to using dumbbells.

Dumbbell Workouts for Beginners

​1. Alternating Bicep Curl: 8 reps each side, 2 sets

The alternating bicep curl is the most iconic dumbbell move. It is also a great dumbbell move for beginners since it is a simple movement. It is designed to strengthen the biceps, but forearms also get in on the action. 

The reason you see it so frequently in the gym or on TV is because it is one of the best dumbbell exercises you can do for gaining mass in your biceps.

  1. To start this move, stand up straight with your feet shoulder width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand
  2. Keep your elbows in tight and face your palms towards your thighs. Begin the movement by rotating your palm forward.
  3. Next, bend your elbow to raise the weight upwards. Do not move your upper arm at all as you bring the weight up.
  4. Lift the weight as much as you can and then lower it back down with control.
Woman doing a dumbbell side raise

Then, repeat the same motion on the other side. Throughout the entire movement only the forearm should be moving.

Do not let your upper arm shift. If it does, your bicep will be getting a rest, and you will be cheating yourself out of the results you want.

2. Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 12 reps, 2 sets

Another great dumbbell workout for beginners is the shoulder press. As the name implies, it is best used for working your shoulders.

A shoulder press can be done sitting on a bench, or standing if you want to engage more of your back.

  1. Start standing up tall with your feet shoulder width apart while holding a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Hold the dumbbells up near your shoulders. Your elbows should be at a 90-degree angle and out to the side, so your chest is open.
  3. Keeping your torso straight, extend your arms to press the dumbbells over your head. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.

As you press, make sure your upper body remains still. Don’t lean back or round forward. Stand up straight and keep your core engaged for maximum benefit.

​3. Dumbbell Squat: 20 reps, 2 sets

The dumbbell squat is a move that will set your legs and glutes on fire. It is great for working your quadriceps. It is also a good dumbbell workout for beginners because it is a basic body weight move you are probably already familiar with, just with a little extra resistance.

  1. Start in an athletic stance with a dumbbell in each hand. Your palms should be facing your thighs and the dumbbells should be resting at your sides.
  2. Begin to squat down by bending at the knees while keeping an upright posture in your torso.
  3. Continue to lower yourself down until your thighs are either parallel to the floor, or you have reached your full range of motion.
  4. Then, drive through the heels to return to standing.
Man doing a dumbbell squat

Throughout the move, keep your head lifted and in line with your spine. If you look down, you may throw yourself off balance.

Additionally, your arms shouldn’t move throughout this exercise. Your legs should be the only ones really feeling it since this is not an upper body movement.

​4. Standing Dumbbell Calf Raise: 20 reps, 3 sets

Another great dumbbell workout for beginners that doesn’t need a bench is the calf raise. It is a simple and safe movement for even the most inexperienced exercisers. 

Your calves get worked throughout the day as they are supporting your legs, so they don’t usually need too much work.

However, giving them a little attention in your workouts can help tone them up.

  1. Start with a dumbbell in each hand and your feet shoulder width apart.
  2. Slowly begin to lift yourself up on to your toes and pause when you reach the top.
  3. ​Hold for a second and then slowly lower yourself back down. Remember to keep your core engaged so you can maintain balance on your feet.

If you want an extra challenge, you can do this move on a step or platform. You can also play with the way your toes are pointing.

For example, pointing your toes out emphasizes the inner calf, whereas pointing them in emphasizes the outer calf.

​5. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press: 10 reps, 3 sets

The incline dumbbell bench press is a dumbbell exercise for beginners who need to work their chest

You’ll be working the major pectoral muscles as well as the smaller surrounding muscles needed to keep the weight stable.

Woman sitting down while holding a dumbbell sideways
  1. To start an incline bench press you first need to find a bench with a small incline.
  2. Lie back on the bench with a dumbbell in each hand.
  3. Lift the dumbbells to shoulder height one at a time. You can use your thighs to assist if you need to.
  4. When the dumbbells are even with your shoulders, rotate your wrists so your palms are facing away from you. This is your starting position.
  5. Start the move by pushing the dumbbells up until they meet above your chest.
  6. Lock your arms at the top for a moment and then bring the dumbbells back into the starting position.

This is a great opportunity to take advantage of negative resistance by lowering the dumbbells slowly back to starting.

Remember to exhale during the press and inhale on the return.

6. Standing Dumbbell Tricep Extensions: 15 reps, 2 sets

Your triceps are the backs of your arms that often get neglected when weight training. You need to work your triceps just as much as your biceps to achieve overall strength.

Tricep extensions can help you tone your full upper arm to gain the overall mass you are looking for.

  • For this move you will need one dumbbell. Grab your dumbbell with both hands and take an athletic stance.
  • Raise the dumbbell above your head until your arms are fully extended.
  • Next, slowly lower the dumbbell behind your head by bending at the elbow.
  • Stop lowering when your forearms are just beyond parallel with the ground..

Throughout the entire movement only your forearms should be moving. Your upper arm should be completely still.

Ideally, you should be balancing the weight equally in both hands. If one hand is above the other one side will be getting more of a workout.

Woman lifting a pair of dumbbells

​7. Dumbbell Deadlift: 12 reps, 2 sets

​A dumbbell deadlift is a good dumbbell workout for beginners who want to work up to the barbell deadlift. It can be a little awkward for extremely heavy loads.

But, you don’t want to be working with weights that heavy when you’re first starting out anyway. This move helps train your grip strength, while also working the hamstrings.

  1. To start, place two dumbbells about six inches in front of you.
  2. Stand up straight with your feet shoulder width apart, keeping a slight bend in the knees.
  3. Next, bend over at the waist to grab the dumbbells in front of you with an overhand grip. Do not bend at your knees as you do this.
  4. When you are holding the dumbbells, hinge forward at the hips to straighten your body again.
  5. Once you are fully standing, lower the dumbbells back down and repeat.

Be careful to keep a straight back throughout this entire movement. You don’t want to arch or round your back.

​8. Bent Over Row: 20 reps, 2 sets

Bent over rows with dumbbells is a good beginner workout that targets the back. It will also help you work the backs of your arms.

  1. Start in an athletic stance holding two dumbbells with a neutral grip.
  2. ​Hinge forward from the waist until your upper body is almost parallel with the ground.
  3. Start the movement by driving the elbows behind you and bringing your shoulder blades in towards each other.
  4. Continue to bring the dumbbells up towards your hips, until you have reached your full range of motion.
  5. Pause for a moment at the top.
  6. Then, slowly lower the dumbbells back down into a neutral position.

It will help if you engage your abs in this movement as they will prevent you from overarching your back. You also need to make sure you keep control of the dumbbells the entire time, taking care not to let momentum take over. If you just let the dumbbells fall back down, you are not giving yourself the benefit of the full workout.

You can also try the variation where you place your knee and hand on a bench if you want to focus more on your arms.

Man carrying 15lb dumbbell weights

​9. Shoulder Shrugs: 25 reps, 2 sets

Another dumbbell workout that can easily be done by beginners is the shoulder shrug. This exercise utilizes a small range of motion and focuses on smooth and controlled movements.

Beginners can get the hang of it quickly. It is a great workout for your trapezius muscles.

  1. Start by grabbing two dumbbells and holding them at your sides in a neutral position. Your palms should be facing in towards each other.
  2. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your torso upright.
  3. Engage your core and lift your chest.
  4. Then, shrug your shoulders up towards the ceiling.
  5. Pause for a second and slowly reverse the motion.
  6. Let your shoulders lower as much as possible. The motion is up and down, not rolling.

Utilizing a rolling motion can put undue stress on your rotator cuffs and potentially cause damage.

​10. Lateral Raise: 6 reps each side, 2 sets

You can end your work out with lateral raises. This is another move that isolates the shoulders. It is good for beginners because it is straightforward.

  1. Start in an athletic stance with a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Without bending your elbows, raise your arms out to your side until your arms are at shoulder level.
  3. Pause momentarily, and then slowly lower your arms back to the starting position.
  4. Focus on using controlled motions throughout the movement and not letting the momentum take over.


Anyone can use dumbbells. There are plenty of workouts you can do that are suitable for those who have very little experience with weight training. Everyone has to start somewhere and dumbbells are a great place to take that first step.

Women may want to do some workouts that focus less on the upper body. There are plenty of dumbbell exercises for female beginners who want to do more core or lower body moves. Since dumbbells are so versatile, you can use them to train whatever area you want to focus on.

​​As you begin to build your strength you can move on to more advanced dumbbell weights and exercises or simply purchase an adjustable dumbbell to help you continue to up your workout game.

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.