Dumbbell workouts

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Give a man a pair of dumbbells and he can change, if not the world, then at least his entire body. As long as you also give that man this four-week, four-workouts-a-week training plan too. It’ll help you to build wider shoulders, a broader chest, bigger biceps, titanic triceps and a set of abs you could scrub clothes on – the very zenith of functional fitness. In just four weeks you’ll have added lean muscle mass all over your body and sculpted a stronger physique that’s ready to tackle whatever the world throws at you.

To produce these remarkable results you need to have a set of dumbbells and follow the plan below to the letter. And don’t just dive in – start by reading through how the plan works, because once you understand the thinking behind the design of a training plan you should be better prepared to stick with it.

If you don’t have a set of dumbbells yet, let us point you the direction of our comprehensive buyer’s guide and round-up of the very best dumbbell sets available right now, with all budgets and styles considered (including remarkable dumbbells that change the weight at the turn of a dial). Once you’ve selected your weapons, brace yourself for four weeks of top-quality workouts.

How The Plan Works

Here’s the theory behind your four-week muscle plan

1. Body part splits

This four-week plan includes four workouts a week. Each of the four hits a different body part. Workout 1 each week targets your chest and back; workout 2 your arms (biceps and triceps); workout 3 your legs and abs; and workout 4 your shoulders.

The body-part workouts have been selected to help you add muscle mass and transform your torso as quickly as possible.

The first three workouts each week hit two different muscle groups, so that while one body part is working, the other recovers, allowing you to keep the intensity level high and lift the heaviest weight possible with good form to stimulate the maximum amount of muscle growth.

2. Workout structure

All four weekly sessions comprise six exercises divided into three supersets, labelled 1A and 1B, 2A and 2B, and 3A and 3B. In a superset you pair two exercises and perform them back to back, only resting after doing all the reps of the second move. Once all the sets and reps of the first superset are completed, you move on to the second superset and so on.

This approach is fantastic for building muscle faster because supersets maximise both the intensity and the quality of your sets. And the harder you can push your muscles in the gym, the more damage gets done to muscle tissue, which is then rebuilt bigger and stronger when you recover.

3. Workout variables

The only way to keep making fast progress when you’re aiming to add lean muscle mass is to follow a progressive training plan that keeps challenging your body in new ways each week. That’s the key to keeping your muscles out of their comfort zone and working as hard as possible so your body has no choice but to keep building back your damaged muscle fibres bigger and stronger.

At the top of each exercise breakdown for the first week are details about each move, including sets, rest, tempo and rest (for weeks two, three and four this information is listed in tables). Tempo 2010 = 2sec to lower, 0sec pause at the bottom, 1sec to lift, 0sec pause at the top.

It is imperative you stick exactly to these workout variables because this plan has been designed to provide a progressively challenging workout so you can add the maximum amount of muscle tissue in four weeks.

For example, in week one you’ll do four sets of ten reps per move, which increases to four sets of 12 in week two. In weeks three and four you’ll do five sets of ten and 12 reps respectively, so every week is harder than the previous week. What’s more, in weeks three and four the tempo (the time it takes to do the lifting and lowering for each rep) changes to make the exercises more challenging, so your target muscles experience more time under tension and workload.

Workout 1: Chest And Back (Week 1)

1A Floor press

Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 0sec Tempo 2010

How Lie flat on the floor, holding a dumbbell in each hand above your chest with straight arms. Lower the weights towards your chest, then press them back up powerfully to return to the start.

Why Lying on the floor puts you in a stable position so you can attempt to go quite heavy with this move. The range of motion is shorter than a bench press, so focus on contracting the chest muscles being targeted.

1B Hammer bent-over row

Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 60sec Tempo 2010

How Hold a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing each other. Bend forward, hingeing at the hips, then row the weights up to your sides, leading with your elbows. Lower the weights back to the start under control.

Why This move hits the major muscles of your upper back, while your lower back gets worked to keep your torso upright. Using a hammer grip also hits your forearms and improves grip strength.

2A Dumbbell press-up

Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 0sec Tempo 2010

How Get into position with your feet together and hands holding dumbbells shoulder-width apart. Brace your core so your body is straight from head to heels. Bend your elbows to lower your chest, then press back up powerfully.

Why You might think press-ups are easy, but they are still a useful chest-building move – especially when you factor in the instability of the weights to work your chest, as well as your core, harder.

2B Reverse flye

Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 60sec Tempo 2010

How Bend forwards from the hips with a light dumbbell in each hand, palms facing. Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, raise the weights out to shoulder height, then lower them back to the start.

Why This move looks a lot harder than it is, and it works wonders for your upper back and rear shoulders. Start with light weights and master the movement pattern to maximise muscle gain and minimise the risk of injury.

3A Wide dumbbell press-up

Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 0sec Tempo 2010

How Get into position with your feet together and hands holding dumbbells wide apart. Brace your core so your body is straight from head to heels. Bend your elbows to lower your chest, then press back up powerfully.

Why Placing your hands in a wider position reduces the involvement of your triceps and shoulders, so your chest has to do more of the hard work to lift and lower your torso.

3B Renegade row

Sets 4 Reps 10 each side Rest 60sec Tempo 2010

How Get into position with your feet together and hands holding dumbbells shoulder-width apart. Brace your core so your body is straight from head to heels. Row the weight up, leading with your elbow. Alternate arms.

Why It works your upper back one side at a time so you can fully engage each of the muscles, as well as recruiting your core and shoulder joints to keep your body stable.

Week 2

Exercise Sets Reps Rest Tempo
1A Floor press 4 12 0sec 2010
1B Hammer bent-over row 4 12 60sec 2010
2A Dumbbell press-up 4 12 0sec 2010
2B Reverse flye 4 12 60sec 2010
3A Wide dumbbell press-up 4 12 0sec 2010
3B Renegade row 4 12 each side 60sec 2010

Week 3

Exercise Sets Reps Rest Tempo
1A Floor press 5 10 0sec 2010
1B Hammer bent-over row 5 10 60sec 2011
2A Dumbbell press-up 5 10 0sec 3010
2B Reverse flye 5 10 60sec 2011
3A Wide dumbbell press-up 5 10 0sec 3010
3B Renegade row 5 10 each side 60sec 2011

Week 4

Exercise Sets Reps Rest Tempo
1A Floor press 5 12 0sec 2010
1B Hammer bent-over row 5 12 60sec 2011
2A Dumbbell press-up 5 12 0sec 3010
2B Reverse flye 5 12 60sec 2011
3A Wide dumbbell press-up 5 12 0sec 3010
3B Renegade row 5 12 each side 60sec 2011

Workout 2: Arms (Week 1)

1A Biceps curl

Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 0sec Tempo 2010

How Stand with dumbbells by your sides and palms facing forwards. Keeping your elbows tucked in to your sides, curl the weights up, squeezing your biceps at the top. Lower them back to the start.

Why It’s the classic biceps lift for good reason: performing this move perfectly is one of the fastest ways to add size to your biceps. Just keep your reps controlled to avoid swinging the dumbbells up and down.

1B Triceps extension

Sets 4 Reps 10 each side Rest 60sec Tempo 2010

How Stand tall, holding a dumbbell over your head with one hand and arm straight. Keeping your chest up, lower the weight behind your head, then raise it back to the start. Do all the reps with one arm and then switch and repeat.

Why Working one arm at a time allows you to focus on making your triceps work hard to keep the dumbbell under complete control throughout the lift and lower, while your core must be engaged to keep your torso upright.

2A Hammer curl

Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 0sec Tempo 2010

How Stand with dumbbells by your sides and palms facing each other. Keeping your elbows tucked in to your sides, curl the weights up, squeezing your biceps at the top. Lower them back to the start.

Why Adjusting your wrist position so that your palms face each other for the entirety of the set shifts the workload to a different part of your biceps muscles, as well as recruiting your forearms.

2B Triceps kick-back

Sets 4 Reps 10 each side Rest 60sec Tempo 2010

How Lean forward from your hips, keeping your back straight and arm bent holding a dumbbell. Raise the weight behind you until your arm is straight, then lower back to the start. Do all the reps on one side, then repeat with the other arm.

Why The key to making this an effective triceps-building move is to make sure you fully contract the working muscle as you straighten your arm, and then to lower the dumbbell back to the start position under full control.

3A Spider curl

Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 0sec Tempo 2010

How Bend down and rest your elbows on your thighs, holding a dumbbell in each hand with arms straight. Curl the weights up, squeeze your biceps at the top, then lower back to the start under control.

Why It may raise a few eyebrows in the gym, but this exercise works your biceps through a full range of motion so you hit them from a slightly different angle, meaning even more muscle fibres are recruited.

3B Narrow dumbbell press-up

Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 60sec Tempo 2010

How Get into position with your feet together and hands holding dumbbells that are touching. Brace your core so your body is straight from head to heels. Bend your elbows to lower your chest, then press back up powerfully.

Why Bringing your hands close together reduces the involvement of your chest and shoulders so your triceps muscles have to do a lot more of the hard work to lift and lower your torso.

Week 2

Exercise Sets Reps Rest Tempo
1A Biceps curl 4 12 0sec 2010
1B Triceps extension 4 12 each side 60sec 2010
2A Hammer curl 4 12 0sec 2010
2B Triceps kick-back 4 12 each side 60sec 2010
3A Spider curl 4 12 0sec 2010
3B Narrow dumbbell press-up 4 12 60sec 2010

Week 3

Exercise Sets Reps Rest Tempo
1A Biceps curl 5 10 0sec 2011
1B Triceps extension 5 10 each side 60sec 2011
2A Hammer curl 5 10 0sec 2011
2B Triceps kick-back 5 10 each side 60sec 2011
3A Spider curl 5 10 0sec 2011
3B Narrow dumbbell press-up 5 10 60sec 2010

Week 4

Exercise Sets Reps Rest Tempo
1A Biceps curl 5 12 0sec 2011
1B Triceps extension 5 12 each side 60sec 2011
2A Hammer curl 5 12 0sec 2011
2B Triceps kick-back 5 12 each side 60sec 2011
3A Spider curl 5 12 0sec 2011
3B Narrow dumbbell press-up 5 12 60sec 2010

Workout 3: Legs And Abs (Week 1)

1A Squat

Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 0sec Tempo 2010

How Stand tall holding a dumbbell in each hand. Keeping your chest up and core braced, squat down as deep as you can. Push back up through your heels to return to the start position.

Why It’s the classic lift for building bigger and stronger legs and because it’s a big compound lift that recruits multiple muscle groups, it’s also effective at torching belly fat too.

1B Woodchop

Sets 4 Reps 10 each side Rest 60sec Tempo 2010

How Stand holding a dumbbell in both hands to one side. Squat down then stand back up while raising the weight up and across your body until it’s above your shoulder. Reverse the movement. Do all the reps then switch sides.

Why It’s not as well known as other abs exercises, but do it right and you will build muscle across your entire core, as well as working your shoulders and lower back.

2A Lunge

Sets 4 Reps 10 each side Rest 0sec Tempo 2010

How Stand with a dumbbell in each hand. With your chest up and core braced, take a big step forward with one foot until both knees are bent 90°, then push off your front foot to return to the start. Do all the reps with one leg, then switch.

Why The lunge provides many of the same benefits as the squat but with even more core-sculpting advantages because your abs must work overtime to keep your body stable as you lower and raise.

2B Halo

Sets 4 Reps 10 each side Rest 60sec Tempo 2010

How Stand tall holding a dumbbell in both hands in front of your face. Raise it and move it around your head in a clockwise direction. Do all the reps, then repeat in an anti-clockwise direction.

Why It will work your abs, which must be fully braced and engaged to keep your torso stable and upright, and it will improve the strength and mobility of your delicate shoulder joints for added injury-prevention benefits.

3A Goblet squat

Sets 4 Reps 10 each side Rest 0sec Tempo 2010

How Stand tall holding one end of a dumbbell with both hands. Squat down, keeping your back straight and core braced, until the weight almost touches the group. Stand back up to return to the start.

Why At this point of the session your legs will already be close to fatigue but this move, with a single dumbbell as resistance, will tax a few more muscle fibres for growth and keep your heart rate high for fat-loss benefits.

3B Crunch

Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 60sec Tempo 2010

How Lie flat on the floor, holding a dumbbell across your chest. Engage your abs, then raise your torso off the floor. Squeeze your abs at the top, then lower yourself slowly and under control.

Why The crunch is great for developing your upper abs, but only if you do it right. And the added resistance of the dumbbell will force those muscles to up their game to lift and lower your torso without help from momentum.

Week 2

Exercise Sets Reps Rest Tempo
1A Squat 4 12 0sec 2010
1B Woodchop 4 12 each side 60sec 2010
2A Lunge 4 12 each side 0sec 2010
2B Halo 4 12 each side 60sec 2010
3A Goblet squat 4 12 each side 0sec 2010
3B Crunch 4 12 60sec 2010

Week 3

Exercise Sets Reps Rest Tempo
1A Squat 5 10 0sec 3010
1B Woodchop 5 10 each side 60sec 1111
2A Lunge 5 10 each side 0sec 3010
2B Halo 5 10 each side 60sec 1111
3A Goblet squat 5 10 each side 0sec 3010
3B Crunch 5 10 60sec 2011

Week 4

Exercise Sets Reps Rest Tempo
1A Squat 5 12 0sec 3010
1B Woodchop 5 12 each side 60sec 1111
2A Lunge 5 12 each side 0sec 3010
2B Halo 5 12 each side 60sec 1111
3A Goblet squat 5 12 each side 0sec 3010
3B Crunch 5 12 60sec 2011

Workout 4: Shoulders (Week 1)

1A Overhead press

Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 0sec Tempo 2010

How Stand tall holding a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height. Keeping your chest up, press the weights directly overhead until your arms are straight, then lower them back to the start.

Why The key to building bigger, wider shoulders is to make these muscles work through their full range of motion, so make sure you lower the dumbbells all the way back to the start position at the end of each rep.

1B Lateral raise

Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 60sec Tempo 2010

How Stand with dumbbells by your sides and palms facing each other. Lean forward slightly, then raise the weights to the sides, leading with your elbows. Slowly lower them back to the start under control.

Why This is a fantastic move for hitting your side delts – the section of the shoulder muscles that, when developed, creates a strong and wide upper body to help create the coveted V-shaped torso.

2A Arnold press

Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 0sec Tempo 2010

How Stand tall with a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height with palms facing you. Press the weights directly overhead, rotating your wrists as you lift, until your arms are straight, then lower them back to the start.

Why It’s a similar lift to the straight overhead press, except your wrists rotate as you move the weights – and it’s this added movement that will fire up even more muscle fibres.

2B Upright row

Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 60sec Tempo 2010

How Stand tall holding a pair of dumbbells in front of your body with straight arms. Keeping your chest up and leading with your elbows, row the weights up until your hands reach chin height. Lower back to the start.

Why Building bigger shoulders means you also need to work your traps, which is what this lift does brilliantly. Don’t go too heavy at first – it’s better to perform quality reps than max-weight ones – and never jerk the weights up and down.

3A Front raise

Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 0sec Tempo 2010

How Stand tall holding a pair of dumbbells in front of your body with straight arms. Keeping your chest up and arms straight, raise the weights in front of you to shoulder hit. Lower back to the start.

Why This lift hits the front of your shoulders predominantly and, as with all shoulder moves, make sure you are controlling the weight at all times – it should never be controlling you. You can’t add muscle if you’re injured.

3B Shrug

Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 60sec Tempo 2010

How Stand tall holding a dumbbell in each hand with straight arms. Keeping your chest up, core braced and arms straight, shrug your shoulders. Pause at the top, then lower the weights back to the start.

Why It’s another great move for bigger traps, and the best thing about this move is that you can go heavy because its range of motion is so short. Keep everything tight and shrug the weights up powerfully to make it more effective.

Week 2

Exercise Sets Reps Rest Tempo
1A Overheard press 4 12 0sec 2010
1B Lateral raise 4 12 60sec 2010
2A Arnold press 4 12 0sec 2010
2B Upright row 4 12 60sec 2010
3A Front raise 4 12 0sec 2010
3B Shrug 4 12 60sec 2010

Week 3

Exercise Sets Reps Rest Tempo
1A Overheard press 5 10 0sec 3010
1B Lateral raise 5 10 60sec 2011
2A Arnold press 5 10 0sec 3010
2B Upright row 5 10 60sec 2011
3A Front raise 5 10 0sec 2011
3B Shrug 5 10 60sec 2111

Week 4

Exercise Sets Reps Rest Tempo
1A Overheard press 5 12 0sec 3010
1B Lateral raise 5 12 60sec 2011
2A Arnold press 5 12 0sec 3010
2B Upright row 5 12 60sec 2011
3A Front raise 5 12 0sec 2011
3B Shrug 5 12 60sec 2111

Photography: Danny Bird. Model: Shaun Stafford.