StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout

Training your upper body one day and your lower body the next – an upper/lower workout routine – is one of the most popular splits for building muscle and strength. With StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout, you train your major upper-body muscle groups one or two times weekly, depending on your goals, preferences, and experience. 

This article outlines a great upper body workout using dumbbell exercises, ideal for training at home, when traveling and using a hotel gym, or even in a fully-equipped commercial gym if you prefer dumbbells over barbells and machines. StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout fits anyone regardless of age, sex, or fitness level. Combine it with a leg and calf workout or your choice for a complete upper/lower workout program.

This premium workout is available in the StrengthLog workout tracker, which you can download using the button for your device. StrengtLog helps you get the best results possible with hassle-free workout logging, 100% without ads, including the free version.

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Can You Build Muscle Using Only Dumbbells?

Many people think you need a fully equipped gym to train your entire body for muscle growth and strength.

This is not true.

Your muscles do not know if the resistance comes from a barbell, a pair of dumbbells, or a pulley machine. As long as you place sufficient tension on a muscle and practice progressive overload by increasing the weights as you get stronger, they will adapt by becoming bigger and stronger.

Dumbbells are versatile enough to train all major muscle groups of your body effectively without any other equipment.

That being said, free weights like dumbbells have several benefits.

  • Training with free weights increases your testosterone levels more than training with machines.1 In the short term, that does not translate into more significant muscle growth, but it’s certainly not a disadvantage in the long run.
  • Dumbbells make it easy to train using a full range of motion in most exercises. Preliminary research suggests that performing most of your sets with a full or long range of motion might result in slightly improved strength, speed, power, muscle size, and body composition compared to a short range of motion.2
  • Dumbbells offer an almost unlimited exercise variety. Even the most advanced and expensive machines are made for only one movement. You have hundreds of exercises to choose from when using a set of dumbbells. Granted, some are better than others, but you never get bored by a lack of variety.

Muscles Worked in StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout

As the name suggests, StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout works the upper-body muscles in your chest, back, shoulders, and arms. You gain upper body strength and muscle mass with the best old-school exercises using dumbbells and your body weight.

Chest

Your pectoral muscles consist of the pectoralis major and minor, serratus anterior, and subclavius. These four muscles help move your upper extremities in a wide range of motion, and you target them all in this workout.

Back

The latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius, and teres major muscles in your back contribute to a strong upper body, good posture, and athletic performance. StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout hits them where it hurts, in a good way, forcing them to grow in size and strength.

Shoulders

Your shoulder muscles consist of three heads: the anterior, lateral, and posterior deltoids. Together, they bring your arms forward, to the sides, and back, as well as aid in stabilizing your shoulder joint, retracting your shoulder blades, and rotating your shoulders. This workout leaves no head of the deltoids untouched.

Arms

A pair of muscular upper arms immediately identifies you as someone who regularly engages in strength training. The smaller and weaker biceps might get most of the attention, but StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout offers complete upper arm development. That included the biceps, all three heads of the triceps, and the brachialis, the real power behind bicep curls.

StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout: What Equipment Do You Need?

This workout effectively train all different muscle groups, but you don’t need to spend a fortune on training equipment. StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout only requires the following:

A set of dumbbells. Regular fixed or adjustable dumbbells both work fine. However, consider adjustable ones to avoid collecting enough dumbbells over time to require a dumbbell rack. Because some exercises require heavier weights, you can’t train your entire upper body with a single pair of dumbbells. If you get a couple of adjustable dumbbells, you can adjust the load on the fly, saving both money and space.

adjustable dumbbells
Adjustable dumbbells.

A pull-up bar. For optimal back development, you want to include vertical pulls (like pull-ups or lat pulldowns) and horizontal pulls (like rows). You can train your entire body using dumbbells, but the one thing they aren’t great for is vertical pulling to build your lats. That’s why you need a pull-up bar and a place to mount it for this workout. Fortunately, a quality pull-up bar doesn’t cost much or take up much space.

Pull-up bar.

Your body weight. This one’s free! Some of the best exercises for your upper-body workout require nothing but your body weight and complement the dumbbell work for a complete muscle-building package.

Optional Equipment

  • A workout bench to perform dumbbell presses on is helpful but optional. They can also be quite expensive, and you’ll be presented with alternative exercises. 
  • A resistance band. Helpful for increasing or decreasing the load in exercises like the push-up and the pull-up. Resistance bands are inexpensive and take up no space, and you can use them to perform many different exercises. They are an excellent and minor investment for when you’re on the go, too. However, you don’t need one for this workout.

Warming Up

Before hitting the weights, it’s a good idea to ensure your muscles are warm and ready to lift. These simple steps prepare your body for the workout by increasing your heart rate and the blood flow to your muscles:

  • Start with a few minutes of cardio to loosen up your muscles, get that heart rate going, and increase your body temperature. Your body performs better when it’s warm, and a couple of minutes of cardio, be it jogging in place, jumping rope, or riding an indoor exercise bike, will benefit your workout. You can skip this step, but it’s a good way to prime your body for work instead of going from 0 to 100.
  • Perform some warm-up movements for your shoulders. The shoulder joints are involved in most upper-body exercises, and preparing this complex joint with a few specific movements is a good idea to keep it healthy, decrease the risk of injury, and avoid shoulder pain.
    • Arm circles, going from small circles to a full range of motion.
    • Pendulum circles for the rotator cuff muscles.
    • Shoulder rolls, both forward and backward.
    • Overhead pressing movements without any external load or only a very light weight.
  • Finally, perform a couple of sets of incline push-ups before you start the workout with chest presses.

Rest Intervals

For best performance, your muscles need to rest and recover between sets. Research suggests that a two to three-minute rest interval optimizes performance and enhances muscle growth compared to a shorter rest period.3 You will need to recover between your lifts to handle as heavy weights as possible.

However, don’t feel you have to time your set rest to the second. Rest as long as you need to perform well, and you’ll be fine. If you’re short on time or prefer fast-paced workouts, limiting your rest intervals to a minute won’t make or break your results. Resting for at least a minute is likely a good idea, though, if you’re training for strength and muscle mass.

StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout: The Exercises

The following exercises make up one session of StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout. You train the different muscle groups in this order:

  1. Chest
  2. Back
  3. Shoulders
  4. Biceps
  5. Triceps

You can see details like rep ranges and the number of sets in StrengthLog

Dumbbell Floor Press

The flat bench dumbbell chest press is one of the most basic and effective exercises for building strong, muscular pecs. Similar to the barbell bench press, it works your entire chest along with your front delts and triceps.

If you don’t have a training bench, don’t despair! Do the dumbbell floor press instead. You might not get the same range of motion as the dumbbell bench press, but you can handle as much weight as possible and practice progressive overload to gain muscle.

If you do have a weight bench, take advantage of it and perform the regular dumbbell chest press.

Muscles Worked in Dumbbell Floor Press

Muscles worked in the floor press exercise

How to Dumbbell Floor Press

  1. Sit on the floor with your legs straight and a pair of dumbbells beside you.
  2. Pick the dumbbells up and place them in your hip creak.
  3. Lay down while you bring the dumbbells up to your chest.
  4. Press them dumbbells to straight arms, bend your knees, and place your feet flat on the floor.
  5. Lower the dumbbells slowly until your upper arms hit the floor with a 90-degree angle in the elbow joint.
  6. Reverse the motion and push the dumbbells up to straight arms again.
  7. Gently drop the dumbbells to the floor to finish the set.

Push-Up

The push-up is one of the most useful upper body exercises for anyone from beginners to advanced athletes and bodybuilders. Research shows that push-ups are comparable to the traditional bench press for building strength and muscle mass.4 5 In short, it’s a great bodyweight exercise for your “pushing muscles”: your chest, shoulders, and triceps.

Push-up exercise technique for upper body dumbbell workout

Muscles Worked in Push-Ups

Muscles worked in push-ups

How to Do Push-Ups

  1. Assume the starting position, with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Try to form a straight line from head to feet, and brace your abdomen slightly.
  3. Lower yourself as deep as you can, while inhaling.
  4. Reverse the motion when you’ve touched the floor, and push yourself up to straight arms again while exhaling.
  5. Repeat for reps.

Pull-Up

The classic exercise for building a broad upper back and promoting that desirable v-taper look, the pull-up is a fantastic movement for your lats but also works your biceps effectively.

The pull-up is a challenging exercise, though. If you can’t perform the target number of repetitions, try one of these tricks until you’re strong enough.

  • Loop a resistance band around your legs and the pull-up bar. The band assists you in lifting your body weight and makes the exercise significantly easier. Use lighter bands as you get stronger, and you’ll eventually be able to do regular, unassisted pull-ups.
  • You can ask a partner, friend, or roommate to stand behind you, grab your feet, and provide the assistance you need to complete your pull-ups and reach the top of the move.
  • If you have no one to help you, you can place a sturdy chair or bench behind you, bend your legs, and place your toes on it. Then use a slight leg drive to assist your pull-ups.
Pull-Up exercise technique for upper body dumbbell workout

Muscles Worked in Pull-Ups

Muscles worked in pull-ups

How to Do a Pull-Up

  1. Grip the bar with palms facing away from you, slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  2. Keep your chest up, and look up at the bar.
  3. Inhale and pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar or the bar touches your upper chest.
  4. Exhale and lower yourself with control until your arms are fully extended.

Dumbbell Row

The dumbbell row is one of the best upper body exercises you can do for your back and will add strength and size to your back. It is a unilateral exercise, meaning you work one side of the body, your back in this case, at a time. That allows you to focus intently on the working muscles and may improve muscular imbalances.

One complete set of dumbbell rows means doing one set for your right side plus one for your opposite side. Place your left leg on a chair or bench and your right foot on the floor when rowing with your right arm (as shown in the video below) After that, switch sides and put your right leg up and your left foot down when rowing with your left arm.

Dumbbell row exercise technique for upper body dumbbell workout

Muscles Worked in Dumbbell Rows

Muscles worked by dumbbell row

How to Do Dumbbell Rows

  1. Lean against a bench with one knee and hand, and hold a dumbbell in your other, straight hanging arm.
  2. Inhale pull the dumbbell as high as you can in a rowing movement.
  3. With control, lower the dumbbell back to the starting position while exhaling.

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

The dumbbell overhead press is a great exercise for building shoulder strength and mass. According to research, standing up and using dumbbells activates the deltoid muscles more than using a barbell or performing the exercise seated.6

Be sure to maintain proper form during the lift. That means avoiding using leg drive to generate momentum and power. That’s a push press, a good exercise for explosive work, but not what you’re going for here. 

Dumbbell Shoulder Press exercise technique for upper body dumbbell workout

Muscles Worked in the Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Muscles worked in dumbbell shoulder press exercise

How to Dumbbell Shoulder Press

  1. Grab a pair of dumbbells and lift them up to the starting position at your shoulders.
  2. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, inhale and lightly brace your core.
  3. Press the dumbbells up to straight arms, while exhaling.
  4. Inhale at the top, or while lowering the dumbbells with control back to your shoulders.
  5. Repeat for reps.

Dumbbell Lateral Raise

You can’t go wrong with the dumbbell lateral raise to target your side delts and build full, broad shoulders. It’s an isolation exercise that benefits from lighter loads and from focusing on good form. Using too much weight transfers the work to the front delts and the traps.

Dumbbell Lateral Raise exercise for upper body dumbbell workout

Muscles Worked in Dumbbell Lateral Raises

Muscles worked in dumbbell lateral raise

How to Do Dumbbell Lateral Raises

  1. Hold a pair of dumbbells, in almost straight arms hanging by your sides.
  2. With control, lift the dumbbells outwards to your sides, until your upper arm is horizontal.
  3. Lower the dumbbells with control.
  4. Repeat for the target number of reps.

Reverse Dumbbell Flyes

The rear deltoids are often neglected, even among advanced lifters. That leads to incomplete shoulder development and possibly posture and stability problems. You avoid any potential imbalance issues by including an isolation movement for your posterior deltoids in your upper-body dumbbell workout.

Again, use the right amount of weight, allowing your rear delts to do all the work. Going too heavy allows other, stronger muscles to take over and complete the reps.

Reverse Dumbbell Flyes exercise technique for upper body dumbbell workout

Muscles Worked in Reverse Dumbbell Flyes

Muscles Worked in the Reverse Dumbbell Fly

How to Do Reverse Dumbbell Flyes

  1. Hold a pair of dumbbells, lean forward and let your arms hang towards the floor.
  2. With almost straight arms (just a slight bend at the elbow), slowly lift the dumbbells by raising your arms out to the sides.
  3. Reverse the movement and lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.

Dumbbell Curl

Your biceps got plenty of work from training your back muscles earlier in the session. Still, we’re also targeting them directly with one of the best dumbbell arm exercises: the traditional dumbbell curl.

You can curl both dumbbells simultaneously, as shown in the video below, or you can alternate between the right hand and the left hand.

Dumbbell Curl exercise technique for upper body dumbbell workout

Muscles Worked in Dumbbell Curls

Muscles worked in dumbbell curl exercise

How to Dumbbell Curl

  1. Hold a pair of dumbbells in an underhand (supinated) grip, arms hanging by your sides.
  2. Lift the dumbbells with control, by flexing your elbows.
  3. Don’t let your upper arms travel back during the curl. Keep them at your sides or move them slightly forward.
  4. Reverse the movement and lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.

Dumbbell Standing Triceps Extension

Your triceps are also pre-exhausted by now, having assisted in the pressing movements for your chest and shoulders. However, those do not fully develop the large long head of the muscle, which is why you’ll finish the workout with the overhead triceps extension. Research shows that performing triceps extensions with your arm overhead is 40% more effective for muscle growth than keeping it in a neutral position.7

If you prefer to sit down while performing the exercise, that works fine, too.

Dumbbell Standing Triceps Extension exercise technique for upper body dumbbell workout

Muscles Worked in Dumbbell Standing Triceps Extensions

Muscles worked in Dumbbell Standing Triceps Extension

How to Do Dumbbell Standing Triceps Extensions

  1. Lift a dumbbell up to a straight arm over your head.
  2. Lower the dumbbell down behind your head, while keeping your upper arm still and vertical
  3. Reverse the motion and extend your arm again.
  4. Go for a full stretch at the bottom of the movement and squeeze your triceps at the top of the rep.

That’s the workout! Nothing fancy, just basic exercises proven effective over decades of research and practical application. Your entire upper body should feel pumped and tight by now, every body part filled with blood. Keep at it, and your chest, back, shoulders, and arms will grow stronger and more muscular.

To train your entire body, add one or two weekly lower-body workouts to help you reach your fitness goals.

What About Abs?

By default, StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout does not contain any direct ab work. However, you can train your abdominal muscles at the end of the training session if you want, or you can work them on your lower-body days.

This is an excellent little ab routine you can do at home without any equipment, where and when you prefer.

  1. Lying Leg Raise
  2. Sit-Up
  3. Oblique Crunch
  4. Plank

Do 15–20 reps per set (hold the plank position as long as your can) and 3–4 rounds of exercises.

How Many Times Per Week Should You Do StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout?

Depending on your schedule and experience level, I suggest you perform StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout once or twice weekly. 

  • Advanced beginners can do it once per week and add a lower-body workout on another day. Which days you hit the weights don’t matter much, but it’s a good idea to get at least 24 hours of rest and recovery between workouts.
  • If you’re an intermediate-level lifter, consider doing StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout twice weekly, with a complementary lower-body workout on one or two other weekdays, depending on your priorities.

Of course, you could skip leg day entirely and focus on your upper body. I don’t recommend it, but that’s up to you.

According to current research, intermediate-level lifters and above need at least 10–12 weekly sets per muscle group for optimal strength development and muscle growth.8 9 Do StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout twice a week, and you’re golden. Beginners don’t need that high training volume for maximum benefits, and doing this workout once per week is enough for great results.

How Do You Integrate StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout into Your Workout Routine?

The ideal way to train your entire body using StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout is to combine it with one or two lower-body sessions for an upper/lower split.

Two-Day Workout Plan

  • Day 1: StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout
  • Day 2: Lower body

Select two days that fit your schedule. It doesn’t even have to be the same two days week after week. Try to include one or two rest days between the workouts, though.

This is an excellent routine for beginners. You can also use it when you don’t have much time to work out.

Three-Day Workout Plan

Depending on whether you prioritize your lower or upper body, you can do two different upper/lower splits.

  • Day 1: StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout
  • Day 2: Lower body
  • Day 3: StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout

The above split focuses on upper-body development while maintaining your lower-body strength and size.

  • Day 1: Lower body
  • Day 2: StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout
  • Day 3: Lower body

If you’re looking for a lower-body focused split, training your lower body twice weekly and your upper body once is a viable option.

Four-Day Workout Plan

For intermediate-level lifters looking for a balanced workout plan for both upper and lower body development, the four-day upper/lower split is ideal. You alternate between StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout and a lower-body session of your choice: an excellent workout split combining a high training frequency with adequate recovery.

  • Day 1: StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout
  • Day 2: Lower body
  • Day 3: StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout
  • Day 4: Lower body

A common way to structure a four-day upper/lower split is to train on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. That way, you get the weekend off. Of course, you can plan your training week in a different way to fit your schedule better.

StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout and our Leg Workout With Dumbbells is a fantastic combination for the ultimate full-body dumbbell workout split.

And, if you prefer training your entire body with a full-body workout, look no further than our 4-Week Home Workout Plan.

Read more:

>> The 10 Best Bodybuilding Splits: a Complete Guide

Track StrengthLog’s Upper Body Dumbbell Workout in the StrengthLog App

This upper body workout will add lean muscle mass to your frame and help you gain strength, but only if you put in the hard work and challenge your muscles. The key to fast and consistent gains is progressive overload: you increase the weight you use in your training or do more reps over time.

It’s almost impossible to keep track of your progress without a workout log. Our app StrengthLog is 100% free to download and use as a workout tracker and general strength training app. All the basic functionality is free – forever.

You’ll also find a bunch of training programs and workouts in the app. Many are free, but our more advanced programs and workouts (such as this one) are for premium users only.

Want to give premium a shot? We offer all new users a free 14-day trial of premium, which you can activate in the app.

Download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below:

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Good luck with your training!

>> Click here to return to our list of training programs and workouts.

If you enjoyed this workout, check out our other home dumbbell routines:

References

  1. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: July 2020 – Volume 34 – Issue 7 – p 1851-1859. Effects of Training With Free Weights Versus Machines on Muscle Mass, Strength, Free Testosterone, and Free Cortisol Levels.
  2. Partial vs full range of motion resistance training: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
  3. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: July 2016 – Volume 30 – Issue 7 – p 1805-1812. Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men.
  4. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: January 2015 – Volume 29 – Issue 1 – p 246-253. Bench Press and Push-up at Comparable Levels of Muscle Activity Results in Similar Strength Gains.
  5. Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness. Volume 15, Issue 1, June 2017, Pages 37-42. Low-load bench press and push-up induce similar muscle hypertrophy and strength gain.
  6. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: July 2013 – Volume 27 – Issue 7 – p 1824-1831. Effects of Body Position and Loading Modality on Muscle Activity and Strength in Shoulder Presses.
  7. Eur J Sport Sci. 2022 Aug 11;1-11. Triceps brachii hypertrophy is substantially greater after elbow extension training performed in the overhead versus neutral arm position.
  8. J Hum Kinet. 2022 Feb 10;81:199-210. A Systematic Review of The Effects of Different Resistance Training Volumes on Muscle Hypertrophy.
  9. International Journal of Strength and Conditioning, Vol 1 No 1 (2021). Resistance Training Recommendations to Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy in an Athletic Population: Position Stand of the IUSCA.
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Andreas Abelsson

Andreas has over 30 years of training experience and is a highly appreciated writer and educator on exercise, fitness, and nutrition. Few people stay more up to date and have a better grasp of the field of exercise science than Andreas.