Get in an amazing workout by incorporating these unique strength-training moves — they only use one dumbbell.
Some of these exercises work both sides of the body at once, while others target one side at a time, which may reveal which parts of your body are weakest. This will help to strengthen your body more efficiently and help prevent injury.
One-sided moves also require you to focus on your balance, which automatically fires up the muscles in your core and other stabilizing muscles. To learn more about one dumbbell exercises, click here.
How to Hold a Single Dumbbell?
You may be using only one dumbbell, but it can be held in a number of ways.
The dumbbell can be held with both hands in either the vertical or horizontal position. To be able to hold the dumbbell in either position, the ‘bar’ needs to be long enough for both hands to fit side-by-side comfortably. Because both hands are driving the dumbbell through the water, faster and more explosive movements can be performed.
A foam grip is when both hands grip the foam parts of the dumbbell. This means that the dumbbell can only be held in a horizontal position. If the foam sections are large, it could be an issue for participants who have arthritis, wrist problems or RSI as the fingers would need to be spread wider and grip harder to maintain control.
The dumbbell is passed from one hand to the other. This can be performed with the dumbbell in either the vertical or horizontal position. This allows the fingers and the muscles in the forearms to release, which is necessary when using the dumbbell throughout the class. It requires more coordination because the legs are also usually moving, sometimes in the opposite direction.
To ensure a smooth transition from one hand to the other, both arms need to move through the same plane of movement (saggital, frontal, transverse). If arms are alternating, for example forwards and backwards with a kick to the front, it is very hard to pass the dumbbell from one hand to the other. An alternative option is to have a transitional move that allows both hands to grip the dumbbell, so that the dumbbell is easily passed to the opposite hand.
The dumbbell can also be held between the thighs (half way up), or under the knee, between the calf and hamstrings. This is effective for incorporating core stabilisers more actively and for focusing on dumbbell-free upper body exercises. It is also a great way to give the fingers and hands a break from gripping the dumbbells for lengthy periods of time.
One Dumbbell Exercises
Hold a dumbbell in one hand at shoulder height with your palm facing your shoulder, elbow down, and extend your other arm out to the side at shoulder height.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent and core braced. Press the dumbbell straight up over your shoulder, rotating your wrist so that at the top, your palm is facing forward. Reverse these steps to return to the start.
Keep your core engaged and your rib cage tucked in (not flared) to keep your spine aligned and protect your back.
On a mat or bench, hold a single heavy dumbbell at one end with both hands. Brace the core and, elbows slightly bent, lower the weight behind you very slowly, stopping when you feel a stretch in the lats. Squeeze the back to pull the weight up.
Half-Burpee Over Dumbbell
Place the dumbbell on the floor and stand to one side of it, feet hip-width apart, arms at your sides. Crouch and place your hands on the floor, then jump your feet behind you into plank.
Bend your elbows and lower into a push-up, then extend back up to plank. Jump your feet underneath you, and as you stand, leap laterally over the dumbbell, landing softly on the other side. Drop right into your next rep and continue, alternating sides.
If you’re going for speed, keep your feet together on the jump, and stay low and compact.
One Arm Chest Fly
While laying on a mat or bench, press a single dumbbell straight up toward the ceiling. Brace the core to keep you steady and, elbow slightly bent, lower the weight out to your side until your arm is parallel to the ground.
Bring the weight back to start and repeat for 30 seconds on each side.
One Leg Row
Holding the dumbbell in your right hand, shift your body weight to your right leg. Lean your torso forward, keeping your chest up and shoulders back. Raise your left leg straight behind you while keeping your hips parallel to the ground.
With the weight hanging down, bend the elbow and pull the weight up, bringing the elbow to the torso level. Staying balanced on one leg, continue to do one-arm rows for 30 seconds before switching sides.
Pivot Squat Curl
Hold a weight in your right hand with your feet wider than shoulder-distance apart and knees in line with your toes. The dumbbell should be resting at your shoulder, as if at the top of a biceps curl.
Pivot to the left, taking the left foot back into a squat as you lower the arm. Pivot back to the front, squat, and curl the weight into a biceps curl. Repeat for 30 seconds and then switch sides.
Stand tall, holding your heavy weight at chest level. Step the right foot out into a side lunge. The right knee is bent, the left remains straight and the hips are behind you. Press off the right foot and return to the starting position with the feet together. Repeat on the left and then continue alternating sides for 60 seconds.
Side Lunge With a Triceps Extension
With a moderate to heavy dumbbell in the right hand, take a giant step out to the left and bend the knee into a side lunge. The right leg should be straight.
As you lunge, extend the right arm out into a triceps extension. Lower the arm, return to starting position and continue this pattern for 30 seconds. Switch sides and repeat.
Single Arm Clean and Press
Start with the feet a little wider than hip-distance apart, heavy weight in the right hand. Squat, touching the weight to the floor if you can, and as you stand, pull the weight upward and "catch" it on your shoulder. From here, press the dumbbell overhead.
Sit-Up to Press
Lie faceup with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor, and hold a dumbbell with both hands at your chest. Curl your head, shoulders and torso off the floor, and as you sit up tall, extend your arms and press the dumbbell straight up overhead. Reverse these steps to return to the start.
Sit up all the way so your chest is close to your quads and extend your elbows completely to press the weight overhead.
Stand to Kneel Lunge With Dumbbell
While standing on a softer surface, hold a dumbbell in your right hand and press it straight overhead, keeping it there throughout the entire movement.
Step backward and lower both knees to the ground (the dumbbell is still pressed overhead). Carefully return to a standing position. Try to keep the weight up the whole time, if you can.
Repeat for 30 seconds and then switch sides.
Hold a dumbbell in one hand at your side, palm facing inward. Take a big step forward with one leg, then bend both knees to lunge straight down toward the floor.
When your rear knee “kisses” the ground, push off your rear foot to bring your legs together as you stand. Continue moving forward, alternating legs.
Keep your hips and shoulders square throughout; don’t lean or twist toward or away from the weight as you lunge.
Hold a dumbbell with both hands in front of you and stand with your feet outside shoulder-width apart, toes turned out slightly. Keep your shoulders back as you bend your knees and drop your glutes straight down, lowering until your thighs come parallel to the ground. Drive through your heels to return to the start.
As you stand, squeeze your glutes and push your hips forward just a little for extra glute work.
Triceps Extension With Kicks
Use both of your hands to hold a single dumbbell and take the right foot behind you, toe touching the floor. Bend the elbows, taking the weight behind the head. As you straighten the arms, squeeze the triceps and kick the right leg up as though you're going to touch your toe with the weight.
Tips for Dumbbell Training
If you're thinking about incorporating dumbbell training into your daily workouts, there are some tips you'll want to keep in mind to ensure the best results and to avoid the risk of injury.
Lift With Your Legs
When picking up dumbbells of any weight off the ground, always be careful to lift with your legs and not your back!
This applies even if you're only picking up a set of three-pound weights; the last thing you want is to throw out your back or otherwise injure yourself while simply picking up your dumbbells. Try to use a motion similar to a squat when picking up your dumbbells.
Watch Your Posture and Form
Another potential risk for injury when working out with dumbbells comes with improper posture and form.
If you plan on incorporating dumbbell exercises into your at-home workout routine, take the time to watch some demonstration videos for various exercises so you can ensure you understand the proper posture and form required to perform the exercise.
All it takes is one mistakes in terms of your posture to seriously injure yourself; if you have a gym membership, consider asking for a quick tutorial on how to perform some of the most common dumbbell exercises with proper form. When working out with dumbbells in a home gym, consider doing so in front of a full-length mirror so you can check your posture as you lift.
Know Your Limits
Finally, understand that more weight isn't always better. Ideally, you should be starting with smaller weights and very gradually working your way up to heavier ones.
While it's great to challenge yourself, do know your limits and don't push yourself too hard. Trying to lift weights that are too heavy for your muscles is only going to lead to injury.
The mantra "no pain no gain" only partially applies to strength training. Yes, you need to push yourself in order to increase your strength, but there's a fine line between pushing yourself and punishing yourself to the point of injury. When in doubt, stick with a lighter set of dumbbells until you're 100% confident moving up to the next weight level.
FAQs About Using Dumbbells
Whether you’re using one or two at a time, dumbbells allow for both greater range of motion (ROM) and more freedom of movement than an equivalent barbell exercise. Let’s use the barbell and dumbbell variations of the bench press to illustrate these points.
With a barbell, your ROM is limited to the point where the bar is touching your chest at the bottom of the lift. With dumbbells, you’re able to bring your hands lower at the bottom simply because there’s no bar stopping you at chest level. The obvious benefit of greater ROM is increased joint mobility.
Many individuals and athletes have limited mobility in joints like the shoulders, elbows, and wrists, so dumbbells can offer a more movement-friendly motion and help restore that mobility. As for freedom of movement, your hands are in a fixed position when using a barbell; you’re not able to rotate your wrists or change the orientation of your hands in any way during a set.
Dumbbells, however, allow you to freely move your hands independently and rotate your wrists at any point during the movement. This is a key benefit if you have injuries that act up when you lift with a barbell. In addition, you may find that because dumbbells allow your arms and legs to find their own best paths, you don’t experience the same joint pain you get from barbell lifts. So injury prevention, rehabilitation, and all-around more joint-friendly strength training are all more possible with dumbbell work than with a barbell.
ROM and freedom of movement can also be huge for helping you build more muscle than barbell exercises. Another key benefit of using dumbbells is the muscular balance from side to side (left to right). For example, when doing a barbell exercise, your dominant arm can compensate for the weaker arm. This may help you get the weight up, but it will only exacerbate any imbalances you have and could eventually lead to injury.
Also, each side carries its weight with dumbbells, so the stronger arm can’t make up for the weaker one. This comes into play even when doing bilateral dumbbell exercises (both arms lifting the weights simultaneously), though unilateral exercises can be used to isolate each side further, particularly the weaker ones. Dumbbell training is a great way to identify a lagging side and immediately begin to correct it.
In addition, using dumbbells develops unilateral strength, which can help bring up your weaker side [usually your non-dominant side]. This will be beneficial overall and translate into you being able to move more weight on a similar movement when you load up a barbell. For example, dumbbell bench presses can make your barbell bench press stronger. Dumbbells also accommodate countless isolation (single-joint) movements, like chest flyes, lateral raises for the delts, and triceps kickbacks.
These moves can’t be made with a barbell, so if maximum muscle growth is your goal, you can’t train exclusively with a bar. These exercises often get bashed for not being “functional,” but even non-physique-focused lifters should make some use of them. They’re highly effective for targeting specific muscles and can play a role in overall performance and injury resistance.
There are two basic types of dumbbells: fixed-weight dumbbells and adjustable dumbbells. Fixed-weight dumbbells are the kind you see in commercial gyms, usually ranging (in pairs) from five-pound weights up to 100+ pounds and typically in five-pound increments. The weights are fixed to the bar and cannot be adjusted. Adjustable dumbbells allow you to change load quickly by sliding weight plates on and off the handle and clamping it or by pulling a pin or turning a dial that locks and releases the plates.
They, too, typically range from five to 100+ pounds, in increments of five pounds. Adjustable dumbbells tend to be a little more rickety than the fixed-weight kind (you better make sure the weight is secured, or it can fall off the handle during use) and can be a bit awkward to use (heavyweight often means lots of plates that make for a long dumbbell that can be hard to move around your body), but they’re cost-effective, space-efficient, and a solid choice for a home gym.
(A full set of fixed-weight dumbbells is expensive and takes up a lot of room.) Welcome to the great free-weight debate—the ongoing argument over which classic and widely used training tool is best, the barbell or dumbbell. For hundreds of years, people have been trying to pick the winner by analyzing each tool’s every possible feature and benefit.
Which is more functional? Which should you use in your training? And when would you choose one over the other? The truth is, there are no one-word answers here. Both the barbell and dumbbell are amazing implements that can bring value to your training, and you should use both, if possible. But to provide the ultimate guidance, we’ve enlisted the help of some reputable fitness experts to break down when, why, and how to use barbells and dumbbells to reach your goals.
Dumbbells don’t allow you to use the same kind of crushing weight that barbells do, and they’re (arguably) less awkward to use. They also mostly lend themselves to less risky exercises. But that doesn’t mean dumbbell exercises are injury-proof. With improper form, you can hurt yourself just as easily on a dumbbell press, curl, or triceps extension as you can with the barbell version. Thinking that dumbbells are an inherently safer implement to use in your program can be a mistake.
For instance, it’s not uncommon to pull or tear a pec by pushing the range of motion on dumbbell chest presses or fly too far. And simply setting up for those exercises—rocking back onto the bench to get into position or rocking back to a seated position at the end of a set—can be tricky. With that said, the barbell needs to be treated with more respect, generally speaking. Any athlete and individual must earn the right to train with a barbell.
Exercises like the squat, deadlift, military press, bench press, snatch, and clean requires a solid baseline of strength and skill in moving properly. Before an individual can perform basic barbell lifts, look at a foundation of strength built through callisthenics, resistance-band work, sled work, dumbbells, and kettlebells.
The barbell is simply a more unforgiving implement. With no room to adjust your hand/arm position during a set, the path of your range of motion is very limited. If your shoulders, knees, or lower back aren’t agreeable to it, you can get hurt. This is why there are far more back injuries from back squats and deadlifts than there are from the dumbbell versions of those lifts.