While your bodyweight is one hell of an exercise tool, there are some upper-body muscles that are best challenged with external resistance, like dumbbells. For example, you can totally work your triceps and chest by doing “push” movements sans weights, like push-ups and triceps dips. You can challenge your shoulders with pretty much any plank move. But your biceps and back muscles respond best to “pull” movements, for which you need something to work against (basically, something to pull against gravity). That’s where this dumbbell arm, chest, and back workout comes in.
The exercises in this workout are simple and effective. Many more complex exercises are based off these basic movement patterns, so mastering them will help you build a strong foundation so that you can tackle more unique and involved workouts later. This combination of exercises will hit your triceps, biceps, pectoralis muscles, and muscles in the shoulders and upper back, including the rhomboids, deltoids, rhomboids, traps, and lats. Basically, it works your entire upper body.
Since the exercises are so straightforward, this dumbbell arm, chest, and back workout is also really easy to adjust to best meet your fitness needs and goals. Want to build strength? Use a heavier weight and do fewer reps of each exercise, slowly progressing to more weight when you no longer feel challenged. Want to work on muscular endurance? Use a lighter weight and do more reps. (You can find more specific info on how many reps and sets to do to work toward certain goals by reading our guide to using free weights.)
Either way, this dumbbell workout makes a great go-to on upper-body days.
What you’ll need: One set of dumbbells. The rule is, generally, for building strength, to choose weights that you can do 6-8 solid reps with. For endurance, you want something that feels doable in the 15-20 rep range. If you’re not totally set on one or the other, and want to just work your arms, back, and chest muscles, choose medium-weight dumbbells (try 5, 8, or 10 pounds, depending on your current upper-body strength) and follow the rep suggestion given with each exercise below.
You may also find that you need lighter weights for some exercises—for example, smaller muscles, like triceps, won’t be a strong as biceps or other bigger muscles. Feel free to do fewer reps of those moves if you don’t have a second, lighter pair of dumbbells on hand.
- Bicep Curl to Overhead Press — 10-12 reps
- Overhead Triceps Extension — 8-12 reps
- Alternating Forward to Lateral Raise — 8-12 reps
- Bent-Over Row — 10-12 reps
- Upright Row — 10-12 reps
- Skull Crusher — 8-12 reps
- Chest Press — 8-12 reps
Try to do three rounds of the exercises for a complete arms, back, and chest workout.
Here’s how to do each move:
1. Bicep Curl to Overhead Press
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a weight in each hand with your arms in front of your body, palms facing forward. This is the starting position.
- Slowly curl your hands up toward your shoulders, squeezing your biceps. Keep your elbows tight to the sides of your body.
- Rotate the weights so your palms are facing in toward either side of your face, and then press the dumbbells overhead to touch, straightening your elbows completely. Make sure to keep your core engaged and hips tucked under to avoid arching your lower back as you lift your arms.
- Slowly bend your elbows to lower the weight back down to your shoulders. Then, rotate the weights so your palms are facing in toward your body and bring them back to the starting position. This is 1 rep.
- Do 10-12 reps.
Targets the biceps and deltoids.
2. Overhead Triceps Extension
- Stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Hold a weight in each hand behind your neck, elbows bent and pointing toward the ceiling. Press the weights together so they are touching and pull your elbows in as close to your head as you can. This is the starting position.
- Without moving your upper arms, straighten your elbows and extend the weights directly overhead. Keep your shoulders down and your core tight.
- Pause for a second, and then slowly lower the weights back down behind your head. This is 1 rep.
- Do 8-12 reps.
Targets the triceps and deltoids.
3. Alternating Forward to Lateral Raise
- Stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Hold a weight in each hand with your arms resting along the front of your legs, palms facing in. This is the starting position.
- With a slight bend in your elbows, slowly lift your arms straight up in font of your body until they are in line with your shoulders. Then, slowly lower them back down to the starting position.
- Next, keeping that same bend in your elbows, raise your arms out to the sides until they are in line with your shoulders. Slowly lower them back down. This is 2 reps.
- Continue, alternating between forward and lateral raises, for 8-12 reps.
Targets the deltoids and trapezius.
4. Bent-Over Row
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a weight in each hand with your arms at your sides.
- With your core engaged, hinge forward at the hips, push your butt back, and bend your knees slightly, so that your back is no lower than parallel to the floor. (Depending on your hamstring flexibility, you may not be able to bend so far over.) Gaze at the ground a few inches in front of your feet to keep your neck in a comfortable position.
- Do a row by pulling the weights up toward your chest, keeping your elbows hugged close to your body, and squeezing your shoulder blades for two seconds at the top of the movement. Your elbows should go past your back as you bring the weight toward your chest
- Slowly lower the weights by extending your arms toward the floor. This is 1 rep.
- Do 10-12 reps.
Targets the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, deltoids, trapezius, and biceps.
5. Upright Row
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a weight in each hand with your arms in front of your body, palms facing you.
- With your back straight, core engaged, and chest lifted, slowly lift your hands to shoulder height. Your elbows should extend out to the sides.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades at the top and hold for a second.
- Slowly lower your hands back to starting position. This is 1 rep.
- Do 10-12 reps.
Targets the trapezius, deltoids, rhomboids, and biceps.
6. Skull Crusher
- Lie faceup with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and extend your arms straight up toward the ceiling at chest level. This is the starting position.
- Slowly bend your elbows to lower both weights toward your head. Keep your elbows in place and simply bend them; don’t move your shoulders or upper arms. Try to lower your dumbbells so they are on either side of your head, elbows bent close to your torso (not flared out to the sides).
- Lift your arms back to the starting position. This is 1 rep.
- Do 8-12 reps.
Targets the triceps.
7. Chest Press
- Lie face up with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Hold a weight in each hand with your palms facing your legs and your elbows on the floor bent at 90 degrees so that the weights are in the air. This is the starting position.
- Press the weights toward the ceiling, straightening your elbows completely and keeping your palms facing your legs. Pause here for a second.
- Slowly bend your elbows and lower them back down to the floor and out so that they are perpendicular to your torso. This is 1 rep.
- Do 8-12 reps.
Targets the pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, triceps, and deltoids.