The Best Upper Body Dumbbell Workout: 15 Upper Body Exercises & Complete Workout Plan

Dumbbells are an amazing training implement that can help you build total body mass and strength. As opposed to machines, utilizing dumbbells in your workout program, requires more than just contracting one muscle group in a fixed plane of motion. Dumbbell movements, require core strength, agility, mobility, balance, and coordination. We’re going to talk about some of the best dumbbell exercises, so you can get a killer upper body workout.

Upper Body Dumbbell Workout 

Upper and lower body training splits are a common workout methodology. With so many different exercises however, it can be difficult to decide which ones you should focus for the most effectiveness and efficiency.

The main goal of this upper body dumbbell workout is to increase muscle mass and strength. The upper body consists of several different muscle groups including the triceps, biceps, back, chest, shoulders, abdominals, and core. Therefore, using an upper body lower body training split, does mean your training session will take more time, intensity, and effort. 

What’s great about dumbbells, is that they constantly engage your core improving your balance, coordination, midline stability, and overall functional strength. Another major advantage of a dumbbell only workout program, is exactly that, you only need dumbbells, giving you training options and versatility on the go. This program is perfect for those working out from home, traveling and who need a consistent dumbbell program to perform at their hotel gym, accessory workout session at a CrossFit Box, or for those that want to start a new training protocol at their go gym.

First, we're going to cover what exercises are best to include in your upper body dumbbell workout. And follow with the guided rep - sets protocol to push more weight and build more muscle.

15 Best Upper Body Dumbbell Exercises

1. Lateral Raise

The lateral raise is a shoulder exercise, that stimulates and contracts the anterior, as well as the mediolateral deltoids. When incorporated with other deltoid exercisesrear delt, or shoulder exercises such as push press, and front raise the lateral raise can be a great accessory lift to help develop the anterior and lateral deltoid in your training split. 

  • Grab a pair of dumbbells and stand erect with your core right and straight.
  • Position the dumbbells at your sides arms length with palms facing your body
  • While maintaining a tight core, lift the dumbbells to your side, with a slight bend in your elbows na hands slightly forward as if you were pouring water in a glass.
  • Continue to raise your arms until they are parallel to the floor.
  • Exhale as you raise and pause at the top.
  • Lower the dumbbells back to starting position as you inhale
  • Repeat.

2. Front Raise

The dumbbell front raise is a strength training exercise, which stimulates the front, or anterior deltoid. This movement is key for strong muscle development in the shoulders. Your anterior delts can be stimulated and activated through several shoulder movement variations, however the front raise, is one of the most effective to isolate the anterior deltoid. Conventionally performed with dumbbells, the front raise can be done with a barbell, ez bar, or plate. You can also change variables, by making this a dual exercise or bilateral, or single-arm or unilateral.   

  • Start by holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides. Make sure the weight is manageable. It should be heavy enough to be challenging, but not too heavy to compromise form. 
  • Move and position the dumbbells lightly touching the fronts of your thighs with your elbows extended or holding a slight bend, using a closed, pronated grip (thumbs around the handles and palms facing your thighs).
  • Contract your abdominals, keeping them tight (brace) and retract your scapulae (pull your shoulders down and back).
  • Slowly raise the dumbbells up in front of your body, as you exhale to 90 degrees parallel with the floor, eye level and level with your shoulders.
  • Inhale and gently lower the dumbbells back towards your starting position keeping your elbows slightly extended, bracing and maintaining a tight core.

3. Shoulder Press

The Shoulder Press is an upper body strength training movement, traditionally performed with dumbbells or a barbell. The weight is pressed vertically overhead, similar the overhead press, military press, Arnold press, and push press. Shoulder press has a wide variety of benefits helping improve strength, optimize body composition, and improve functional movement.

RELATED ARTICLE The Best Overhead Press Variations  

Whether you’re using a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells, and you’re seated or standing, the movement pattern will be much the same when you shoulder press

 

  • Grab a pair of dumbbells.
  • In the seated or standing position, bring the dumbbells parallel under your chin and parallel to the floor with your elbows at 90 degrees.
  • When the weight is sitting at 90 degrees, push the weight overhead with your palms directly the bar or dumbbells, keeping your core tight and head slightly tilted.
  • Hold for 1-2 seconds overhead, then retract and come back to starting position
  • Repeated for desired amount of reps and sets

4. Bent Over Dumbbell Row

The bent over row, is a compound movement, which stimulates the low back, lats, shoulders, and biceps. The bent over row has many variations, depending upon the training implement used, whether that’s dumbbells, an EZ bar, a barbell, TRX, or kettlebells. Bent over row can also be performed in several different ways, either from a knelt position on a bench or standing freely bracing your core. Oh, and let’s not forget the different grip, whether that’s overhand or underhand.

  • Standing holding a a pair of dumbbells, one in each hand, with a pronated grip (palms facing down), bend your knees slightly and bring your torso forward. Bend at the waist, while keeping the back straight until it is almost parallel to the floor.
  • Keep your head up and hang the dumbbells directly in front of you as your arms hang perpendicular to the floor and your core.
  • Keeping your core and midline braced, breath in bringing the dumbbells toward your body, keeping your elbows close to your body, tucked, and in line with your knees.
  • Retract your scapulae, squeeze at the top of the lift, and pause.
  • Exhale and slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
  • Repeat for the prescribed number of reps. 

5. Dumbbell Pendlay Row

Pendlay row targets the upper back and significantly isolates the upper latissimus dorsi as you detract your scapula as well as the scapular stabilizers. During the movement, you retract your shoulder blades moving from a protracted to retracted position, increase strength and stability, of your shoulders. The erector spinae as well as the biceps, shoulders, and core are also stimulated.

  • Pick a moderate weight that can be lifted for volume
  • Using a pronated grip (palms facing down), slightly bend your knees and bring your torso parallel to the ground. Bend at the waist, while keeping the back straight and ore braced.
  • Keep your head up and hang the barbell directly in front of you as your arms hang perpendicular to the floor and your core.
  • Keeping your core and midline braced, breath out bringing the dumbbells up keeping your elbows close to your body and in line with your knees.
  • Retract your scapulae, squeeze at the top of the lift, and pause.
  • Inhale and slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position, on the ground, then pause.
  • Repeat for the prescribed number of reps. 

6. Bent Over Reverse Dumbbell Flys

Bent over dumbbell fly is an isolated strength training exercise, used to target the posterior or rear deltoid. Rear deltoids, or commonly referred to as rear delts, are the most crucial, yet often most neglected part of your shoulders that can make or break a beautifully capped shoulder. Rear delt fly’s are an effective exercise to isolate the delts and build bigger more defined shoulders.

The bent over lateral raise, or reverse fly, will target the rear delts effectively, building the back taper or cut for the coveted v-shape.

  • Sitting on the end of a bench or standing bend forward nearly 50 degrees and keep your hands to your sides in a neutral position with the dumbbells hanging.
  • Keeping your back straight and your arms slightly bent, lift the dumbbells straight out to your sides, palms facing the floor
  • Retract your shoulder blades slightly back and elbows behind you while you lift and bring your arms up laterally.
  • Hold then bring back to starting position 

7. Dumbbell Bench Press

The dumbbell bench press is a compound movement and activates multiple muscle groups such as the pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, and your triceps. Additionally, the dumbbell bench press, can improve muscular imbalances, correct posture, improve mobility, increase core strength, and help improve total upper body strength.

Like most other exercises, several variations of the dumbbell bench press exist, that may isolate, focus, or incorporate different muscle groups, for specific training purpose and intent. Weight positioning will determine what muscle groups you active. For example, a narrower position and descent with your elbows closer to the bench, will activate your triceps, as opposed to a wider position and descent, which will focus more on your chest.

  • Lie flat on a bench and set your dumbbells on your knees. Kick up one dumbbell at a time, keeping them close to your body as you lay back. Plant your feet firmly into the ground, lay back and push up. Make sure your feet are placed proximal in towards your body, while keeping them flat on the floor. This will provide a good base for more driving power when it comes to heavy loads and finishing your set.
  • Back position is equally as crucial as your feet placement. Squeeze your shoulder blades by pinching them together and driving them into the bench and slightly arch your back.
  • Make sure your palms are rotated completely under the dumbbells. As you descend, follow your bend your elbows at a parallel 90 degrees, then push back up bringing the dumbbells together, while still keeping a slight bend in your elbows, not locking out. drive your feet into the floor, tightening your glutes, and pushing under the bar with one fluid motion, and extending the elbows again not locking out.

8. Decline Dumbbell Bench Press 

The decline dumbbell bench press is a compound movement and activates multiple muscle groups such as the pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, and your triceps. In addition to improving muscular imbalances, mobility, increasing core strength, and stability. Since the bench is positioned at a 30-40% downward slope, it naturally relieves pressure on your rotator cuffs and shoulders.

  • Tuck your feet firmly between the pads, with each dumbbell on your knees. Lie back on the bench and bring the dumbbells back to your chest and push up as you lay down.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades by pinching them together and driving them into the bench and slightly arch your back.
  • Make sure your palms are rotated completely under the dumbbells, squeezing them tight.
  • As you descend, follow your bend your elbows at a parallel 90 degrees, then push back up bringing the dumbbells together, while still keeping a slight bend in your elbows, not locking out.

9. Devils Press

Devil’s press is a combination of a double dumbbell burpee and dumbbell snatch. As a compound functional movement, the devil’s press recruits several upper and lower body muscle groups, multiple joints, as well as secondary stabilizing muscles. Devil’s press is typically programmed in high intensity functional training (HIFT) protocols and CrossFit.

What's great about including a HIFT movement into a split, is the aerobic work and output that goes into it. Adding a fast moving high-intensity exercise to your split, will increase your heart rate, maximize your intensity and inevitably burn more body fat.

There are a few variations and recommended ways to perform a devil’s press to optimize efficiency, time, and energy levels. The first variation, would be to place both dumbbells down, jump back into a traditional burpee and swing the weights into a snatch from the center between your legs overhead. Another variation, would be to jump back into a traditional burpee, jump back up, and with your feet close together, swing the dumbbells from the outside of your legs overhead.

  • Make sure placement of the dumbbells are beneath the shoulders and set wide enough to get your chest to the ground.
  • As you drop, whether you step back or jump, make sure you have tight core stability and tension holding your chest high.
  • When you jump or press back up your legs should be straight under yourself, to have a solid foundation for the press or snatch.
  • Use your momentum to get pop and hinge your hips getting the weight from the floor up overhead for your snatch
  • The movement from the dumbbells overhead is very similar to the same movement of a kettlebell swing, therefore keep your hands straight and together.

10. Hex Press (Crush)

Hex press is an upper body strength training exercise, specifically focused on training the inner chest. It’s a variation of the traditional dumbbell bench press, however, as opposed to keeping the dumbbells directly over your chest with separation, the dumbbells are pushed together throughout the movement, creating a hexagonal shape, hence, hex press.  

  • Lie flat on a bench and grab a pair of dumbbells, preferably hex dumbbells.
  • Plant your feet firmly into the ground and brace your core, pushing the dumbbells away from you.
  • With your arms extended over your chest, hold the dumbbells together
  • Slowly inhale and lower the dumbbells in a very controlled manner to the lower chest bracing your core
  • Touch your chest and drive the dumbbells back up, exhaling and driving your feet into the floor with controlled movement.

11. Triceps Kickback

The triceps kickback is an isolated strength training movement performed with dumbbells in a bent over or parallel position. According to the American Council of Exercise (ACE) the triceps kickback is the second most effective exercise in muscle stimulation only to the triangle-diamond push up. 

The dumbbell triceps kickback is one of the most effective isolated movements to help strengthen and build your triceps.

 

  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand, with your palms facing toward each other.
  • With your knees bent slightly, bring your torso near parallel to the floor and hinge at the hips.
  • Engage your core, and bring your forearms to 90 degrees, then extend your arm(s) behind you, while keeping your elbow stationary near your side and contract your triceps.
  • Lower the forearm down to about 90 degrees and repeat

12. Spider Curls

Spider curls are an isolated strength training movement that contracts and stimulates your biceps. Spider curls are performed using a pair of dumbbells or an EZ bar with your arms hanging over a 45-degree bench. This allows for a greater range of motion which will help increase lean muscle mass and strength.  

Similar to a concentration curl, the spider curl requires a slow controlled movement. With full isolation of both biceps, the spider curl is one of the best bicep exercises to build bigger, stronger arms.

  • Adjust a flat bench to a 45-degree angle.
  • Place your chest against the bench and rest your feet on the floor. Your legs should be long with a slight bend in your knees. Your weight should be on the balls of your feet.
  • Grab the dumbbells with your palms facing away from your body and arms hanging towards the floor.
  • With your arms fully extended and neutral, contract your biceps, and bend your elbows until your lower arms fully curl the weight straight up as high as possible.
  • At the top of the rep squeeze your biceps hard, pause at the top of the movement.
  • Slowly deload and contract weight on the eccentric phase of the lift lowering your elbows with control. Come to a complete stop at the bottom before beginning another repetition.

13. Incline Bicep Curl

Incline dumbbell curl can be a great addition to your arm day workout split. While performing an incline dumbbell curl, your arms tend to move behind your body, increasing the range of motion and creating a deeper stretch, which is why it's one of the best bicep exercises.

  • Position the incline bench at 55-65 degrees.
  • grab two dumbbells are let your arms hang at your sides, slightly behind your shoulder.
  • Using a supinated grip, curl the dumbbells towards the shoulders.
  • Once your biceps are contracted, lower the weights back down, and repeat.

14. Zottman Curl 

The Zottman curl Is it very effective bicep dumbbell exercises that combines a conventional bicep curl with a reverse curl.

This strength training movement is an exceptional exercise to add to your training day split to help fully contract your bicep while also progressively overloading your forearms on the eccentric phase of the lift.

  • Standing holding a dumbbell in each hand
  • Rotate your wrists into a supinated position (palms facing upwards). Arms fully extended and resting by your sides
  • Place your feet shoulder width apart to establish a solid base
  • Contract and isolate your biceps as hard as you can and curl the dumbbells upwards as you bend your elbows
  • Pause at the top of the movement. 
  • Rotate your wrists into a pronated position (palms facing the floor)
  • Slowly lower and deload down until your arms are extended
  • Twist the dumbbells back into the starting position as described at above (palms facing upwards) for the next rep
  • Repeat for the desired number of reps

15. Dumbbell Snatch 

The dumbbell snatch is a powerful functional strength movement, and a variation of the barbell snatch. It can help generate more power, mobility, strength, and indue greater changes in body fat, since it is done at a higher intensity for cluster sets, as opposed to normal rep and set schemes. 

  • Grab a single dumbbell, with your back parallel to the ground. Feet shoulder width apart and slightly pointed out. 
  • With your chest high and head face forward, push your weight through your heels and pull the dumbbell off the ground, generating power with your hips. It will and should feel like two opposite forces at once. As you push yourself into the ground, you are pulling the weight overhead. 
  • As the weight reaches eye level, turn your wrist and "catch" the weight, with your knees slighlty bent. The movement should almost feel like you are jumping, with your feet never leaving the ground. Going from set up, all the way to the catch overhead. 
  • Once you have it overhead, lock out your arm close to your ear, then reverse, and repeat.

Upper Body Dumbbell Sample Workout Plan

Use the following workout plan as a template, for you upper body workout. You can add exercises, substitute, increase rep and set protocols, or adjust how you like. 

Exercise

Reps

Sets

Rest

Dumbbell Bench Press

16

4

1 min

Dumbbell Triceps Kickback

14

4

1 min

Dumbbell Hex Press

14

4

1 min

Zottman Curl

12 (each arm)

3

1 min

Spider Curls

12 (each arm)

3

1 min

Lateral Raise

16 (each arm)

4

 

Front Raise

16 (each arm)

4

 

Shoulder Press

16

4

1 min

Decline Dumbbell Bench

16

4

1 min

Devils Press

10

5

2 min

 


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