Here’s a beginner dumbbell workout: a 4 day per week plan using only adjustable dumbbells and an adjustable bench. It should take only 30 — 45 minutes per workout. It’s ideal for the beginner or someone who has limited amounts of equipment available.
If you’re just starting out, take it easy at first. Your very first goal is showing up each day to do the workout. Get accustomed to a routine. Make this a regular part of your schedule and lifestyle. Work up to a higher level of intensity over time. Use very light weights at first and get used to the motions.
Upbeat music can be a big booster, so crank up some tunes to help your head get into the zone. Motivation can be a tricky thing and little things like the right music can really help.
How Heavy Should the Weight Be?
Once you’re ready to go full bore, you want to select a weight level that causes you to “fail“ by the 12th rep of your first set in each exercise. In this case, failure is success. Think of failure as taking the target muscle to exhaustion. In other words, you are not able to do another rep in good form. Use good form, don’t cheat or use body english.
Ultimately, your goal is to feel a bit sore afterward. Not pain. Just muscle soreness. It’s a good thing. It’s a signal your muscle is in hypertrophy — the process of muscle building. Think of it as a Pump. It’s caused by blood flowing into your muscles bringing nutrients to help them heal and grow, while also flushing out toxins. It’s a good thing.
In fact, feeling a pump is your ultimate goal.
Lighter Weights and Higher Reps – Proven Effective
This method has been proven to work. Dr. Marcas Bamman, Director for Exercise Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was quoted in the New York Times saying that men and women in their 60s and 70s who began a weight training program developed muscles that were as large and strong as those of your average 40-year-old.
“Our lab and others have shown repeatedly that older muscles will grow and strengthen,” he said.
In their studies, volunteers used weights calibrated so that the lifters could barely complete a set of 8 – 12 repetitions before the target muscles grew tired and had to rest. In the weight training world, we call that failure.
Dr. Bamman says you should push your muscles in this manner until they are exhausted because this is what triggers the biomechanical processes that lead to larger, stronger muscle fibers.
See this post for more on Building Muscle Mass After 50. It has references to several more articles and studies on the proven benefits of lighter weight/higher reps.
A Note on Individual Needs
Everybody is different. We each have different levels of fitness and experience. And different body issues.
Take me for example. Iâ’ve been working out for nearly 5 decades. I’m in my early 60’s now and have the battle scars that go with time on the planet. My right knee is hanging by a thread, so I have to be selective in which lower body exercises I do. My shoulder joints are sensitive from too many years of benching extra-heavy weight, so I have to be selective in exercises that stress the shoulder joints.
The video shows me pushing up 610 for a couple reps on my Powertec leverage bench. I don’t touch heavy weights any more, and I’ve got more muscle thanks to lighter weight and higher reps.
In addition to all the injuries and sore joints, I’m naturally kind of clumsy, so I don’t do a lot of moves that require good balance. You’d never want to stand next to me in a Zumba class. I could go on, but the point is you can customize a workout to fit you.
As you build your plan, don’t be afraid to limit or delete some exercises and replace them with others, or double up on ones you are the most comfortable doing.
You can also modify movements in some exercises. For example, with my bad knee, I’m not going to do Lunges. But I can do squats as long as I don’t go too deep. The point of working out is to stress your targeted muscles in a controlled, safe way. If a particular movement causes real distress to any of your joints, modify or discard that one.
No pain. And if you have concerns about certain health conditions please check in with your doctor.
How do you do it?
3 – 5 Sets per exercise. Work up to a higher number of sets as you get in better shape. If you have to start with only one set per exercise, start there. The most important thing is to start and stay consistent. Do 3 Sets per exercise if your goal is to tone and simply get healthier. Do more work, 3 – 5 sets per exercise, if your aim is to build some serious muscle.
8 – 12 Reps per Set. You might get to failure with 12 reps in the first set, but only be able to do 10 in the next and 5 or 6 in the last one. Don’t get too hung up on the numbers. This is about the feeling in your muscles, not the numbers.
Rest: Take about 30 seconds of rest between sets. Adjust that rest time as you progress. Use a little more time if you need it at first.
Form & Feel: Use a smooth motion with the weights. Your purpose is to feel the target muscle working. Focus on the smooth movement and the sensation it causes in the target muscle. They call this the Mind-Muscle Connection. Your brain has a tendency to wander, especially if you’re conditioned to think of exercise as drudgery. That’s why it’s key to mentally focus your mind on that muscle and really be aware of how it feels as it contracts and releases. This is really key.
A Note on Dumbbells
Dumbbells have some advantages over barbells and machines. For one, they help you really focus on certain muscle groups and help create a great Mind/Muscle Connection. Dumbbells are like a primal form of resistance training.
You really need to focus when you use them vs. the sometimes mindless state people can find themselves in on a machine or other device. In my opinion, this is the strongest benefit of using dumbbells. The better your mental focus, the better your workout will be.
They also have some disadvantages. You will be somewhat limited in how many different exercises you can do. For example, machines and resistance bands are great for lower body exercises like hamstring curls, knee extensions, and weighted glute kickbacks.
Those are hard to replicate with a dumbbell. Also, you need to be careful with the adjustable aspect. If you are using clamps to secure the weights, make sure they are good and tight, especially when doing moves like triceps extensions behind your head.
Also, adjustable dumbbells can vary in how heavy they can go. Getting the right amount of resistance “failure” by the 12th rep — is key to this workout. If your dumbbells are too light, you will need to amp up the number of reps. But if they are way too light and you can’t reach failure within a reasonable amount of reps, you will need to consider other options like adding a set of inexpensive resistance bands to your equipment mix.
That said, you can definitely get a great full body workout with a simple pair of adjustable dumbbells and an adjustable bench. Here’s a simple plan to try:
BICEPS: Choose 3 of these exercises for each Biceps Workout. Perform 3 – 5 Sets per exercise. Various options and variations are shown. Do whichever style and grip is most comfortable for you.
3 – 5 Sets of 2-Handed Bicep Curls.
Standing: simultaneously curl both dumbbells. Start with your hands down next to your thighs, knuckles toward the floor and palms facing up, and smoothly curl the weight up completely toward your shoulders. Without stopping, curl slowly back down and then back up again in a smooth motion. Keep continuous tension on your biceps.
3 – 5 Sets of Alternating Hammer Curls
Similar movement as above, but keep your knuckles aiming straight ahead and palms facing each other. Curl up slowly and smoothly up. Alternate one arm and then the other. You can do these while standing or in the Optional ways noted below.
OPTION 1: Incline on the Bench. For both of the above, you can, instead of standing, use the adjustable bench. Raise the back so that you are seated at an incline. Do the same movements as above, only your hands will start off hanging toward the floor. Curl upward toward each shoulder and down again in one smooth move.
OPTION 2: With the Hammer Curl, you can also perform it cross-body style as pictured below.
Cross body hammer curl
3 – 5 Sets Dumbbell Concentration Curls
Seated on the bench, ball or sturdy chair. Bend over slightly. Start with the weight at a comfortable position and rest you elbow against your thigh if seated. If lying face forward on an elevated bench, begin with arms as shown in the middle picture. Using one arm at a time, slowly curl the weight up toward your chest and down again in one smooth motion. Stay with one arm to finish a full set of 8- 12 reps. Then repeat with the other arm.
Seated on an exercise ball
Lying on an elevated bench
Seated on a bench
Choose 3 of these exercises for each Triceps Workout.
3 – 5 Sets of Triceps Seated Extensions
Sit on the bench or sturdy chair. Hold one dumbbell with both hands around one end. Lower the dumbbell behind your head and raise it back up again in one smooth motion. Feel the tension in the back of your arms. If using one dumbbell-like this feels awkward, you can also perform this with two dumbbells, one in each hand and lower them simultaneously behind your head with your hands in a hammer style grip.
Seated triceps extensions
3 – 5 Sets Triceps Kickbacks
Rest one knee on a bench surface and hold the dumbbell straight down by your side. Press it straight back as pictured and repeat. Again, feel it in the back of your upper arm. Finish a complete set and then alternate to the other knee and arm.
Tricep dumbbell kickbacks
3 – 5 Sets Triceps Extensions
Standing, hold one dumbbell at a time. Start with your arms straight up toward the ceiling and by bending your elbow, lower the weight down behind your head. If you prefer, you can instead use both hands at once as in the seated version.
Standing one arm triceps extensions
Forearms & Wrists
Finish your arm workout with these exercises to build up your forearms. The illustrations show barbell, but you can also instead use dumbbells.
2 Sets of Wrist Curls
Seated, rest your forearms on your thigh with your wrists hanging over your knee. Curl the weight slightly upward using only your wrist. Palms facing down is a reverse wrist curl, palms facing up is a wrist curl. Do 2 sets of each. You can do one arm at a time, or both together. Keep the tension constant. Feel it in your forearms. Do as many reps as you need to feel the Pump. You can also do these with a barbell as shown.
Left: Palms down reverse wrist curl. Right: Palms up wrist curl
Seated reverse wrist curls w/barbell.
Standing wrist curls w/barbell
Choose 3 of the following exercises.
3 – 5 Sets of Bench Press
If you have a workout buddy, ask them to hand you the dumbbells as you are lying on the bench. If you are working out alone, try grasping the dumbbells while seated on the bench and then slowly lie down.
Hold the dumbbells at the sides of your body as shown above and press straight up, bringing them together and flexing your pecs at the top of the movement. Lower and repeat in a continuous smooth motion. For variety, you can set your bench at either an incline or a decline. You will feel slightly different stress on the muscles depending on the position. In addition, you can experiment with hand movement by turning your palms inward at the top of the movement. Focus on the feeling in your chest muscles.
Dumbbell bench press
3 – 5 Sets of Flyes
While lying on a bench, start with arms out to your sides with elbows bent slightly. Then, bring your hands up together in front of your chest and feel the pectoral muscles squeeze and flex. Repeat. Smooth continuous motion.
Dumbbell flyes on bench
3 – 5 Sets of Lying Pullovers
Lying on the bench. Grasp one dumbbell by the end with both hands and raise it up over your head. Keep your elbows slightly bent but keep maximum pressure on your chest muscles, not your arms. Lower it behind you keeping your arms relatively straight. Keep the tension on your chest and lat muscles. The difference between this movement and the Tricep Extension is this: Keep your arms relatively straight in this exercise, rather than lowering the weight with your elbows as you do for Triceps. Really focus on your pecs or chest muscles.
Chest: lying dumbbell pullovers
Finish with 2 Sets of Pushups to Failure
Pushups. The classic exercise is still ideal for building chest muscles. You can do them with your bare hands the old-fashioned way or add some challenge with some floor handles.
Shoulders & Back
3 – 5 Sets Reverse Flyes
These can be done standing in a bent over position or lying face down on the bench as pictured. Basically, this is the reverse motion of the Flye described above in the Chest workout. The standing version is more difficult because it requires you to focus on balance and also engages your core muscles. Do whichever you are most comfortable doing.
Reverse dumbbell flyes on the bench
Standing bent over reverse flyes, start
Bent over reverse flyes, finish
3 – 5 Sets One Arm Rows
Brace yourself with an arm and knee on a bench or against a sturdy chair. Raise the weight up feeling the sensation in your back and side (Lat) muscles. Try to make those back muscles do most of the the work, not your arms. Keep the tension on the lat muscles and keep the movement continuous and smooth.
Bent over dumbbell rows
3 – 5 Sets Front Raises
Focus is on your shoulder or Delt muscles. Start with your hands down by your thighs and raise them up parallel with your chest. Lower and repeat 8 – 12 times. Can be done simultaneously or alternating as pictured. Your shoulders are a delicate joint so perform these moves carefully. Smooth motion.
Dumbbell front raises, alternating arms.
3 – 5 Set Lateral Raises
This also focuses on your shoulders. Can be done standing as pictured or seated on the bench. Begin with the weights down by your sides and simultaneously raise them to parallel to shoulder height with your arms fairly straight. Palms are facing the floor. Smooth motion. Do not use a weight that forces you to use any body english or cheat movement. Be careful with your shoulder joints.
Dumbbell lateral raise, both arms simultaneously
A word on “Leg Day.” This day is notorious among experienced trainers. It is perhaps the most beneficial set of exercises for your whole body, which is great. But they can be difficult and taxing, which sometimes seems daunting. So, some people do not look forward to leg day. Try to not fall into that trap. These exercises will greatly benefit your overall health and sculpt your lower body for a sexy appearance.
3 – 5 Sets Squats
You can use your bench to provide a safety catch. Stand as shown, holding both dumbbells. Squat down with your butt touching the bench and back up again. You may need to increase the number of reps to get to failure, depending on how much weight your dumbbells provide. Mind your balance. Focus on your glute (butt), thighs and lower back. This movement requires balance and can stress your knees, so modify how far you squat to your comfort level.
Using bench for safety
3 – 5 Sets Lunges
Standing straight up and holding both dumbbells at your sides, lunge forward with one leg and back again. Alternate each leg. Mind your balance and keep your mind focused through this movement. Requires balance. Modify accordingly. If you experience balance issues, try it without any dumbbell weight and/or modify how far you lunge forward.
Lunge, with or without dumbbells
3 – 5 Sets Calf Raises
While seated on the bench, hold a dumbbell on one thigh, near the knee. Raise your knee up, keeping the toes firmly on the ground. The focus is on your calf muscle. Do reps to ‘failure’ and repeat with the other leg. If you have a platform you can place your foot on, as depicted in the diagram, you can use it. It’s not necessary if you do not have one.
You can instead do this move while standing with or without dumbbells.
Seated calf raise. Foot platform shown is optional but not required.
Leg Day Finishers & Options:
Like pushups, the following exercises don’t use the dumbbells, but you could finish your workout with a few sets of each. These are especially good for the Glutes or butt.
3 – 5 Sets Glute Bridges
Lying on the floor, raise you butt up off the floor and down again as pictured above. Really focus on those glutes and lower back. You can increase the tension by holding a dumbbell across your lower midsection
2 Sets of Flutter Kicks
No dumbbells here, but if you own a pair of ankle weights, by all means strap them on. Lying face down on the bench or an exercise mat on the floor, slowly/smoothly kick your legs as if you were swimming. Focus on feeling it in your glutes and thighs. Rather than counting reps, do each set until you feel fatigue in the glutes. Go slow enough to keep constant tension on your butt.
2 Sets of Glute Kickbacks
No dumbbells here either, but if you own a pair of ankle weights, you can strap them on. Get on all fours on the ground, kick one leg all the way out and back for 8-12 reps and then alternate to the other leg. Your focus is again on the glute muscles. And, rather than counting reps, do each set until you feel fatigue in the glutes. It is not necessary to hold one arm up as shown.
This workout will work
The basic principles have been proven, especially regarding our Baby Boomer age group. You can grow stronger without Insanity or Pain. You can look better. Feel better. Defy age and Live Strong.
I hope if you are just starting out that you will give this a try. There are many more exercises you can use in your workout, but this one is designed to get you started with minimal equipment. You can consider adding resistance bands to your home gym. They are inexpensive and you can do most all of the exercises with them instead or for variety.
If you need to purchase dumbbells, resistance bands or a bench, read my review here.
You can also take a look at a full body resistance band workout here.
What’s your experience with home workouts? Please share your thoughts in the Comments below.
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