Fun fact: All you really need to hit every one of your muscles from head to toe is a set (or two) of dumbbells. While high-tech equipment is fun, you can keep it simple and work your upper and lower body in one full-body dumbbell workout. (And just six moves!)
Dumbbells are one of the most widely available strength training tools, and they’re also incredibly easy to use, says Tina Tang, CPT, an NCSF-certified personal trainer and strength coach. You don’t need to tinker with machine settings or repeatedly load and remove weight plates. You can complete just about every exercise with them, which is why dumbbells are ideal for total-body strength sessions.
Meet the expert: Tina Tang, CPT, RKC, SFL is an NCSF-certified personal trainer, strength coach, and founder of Iron Strong Fitness. She focuses on helping women in middle age build strength.
When you prioritize full-body dumbbell workouts (like this one), you’ll get serious bang for your buck. A full-body session means you don't have to spend an hour or more on strength training specific muscle groups multiple times throughout the week, says Tang. In this case, you'll be done sweating in 40 minutes.
“Dedicated lower- and upper-body workout days tend to be more ideal for those who will be going to a gym more than three days a week and have the time to focus on the different muscle groups,” says Tang. What’s more, full-body workouts can lead to similar gains in muscle strength and size as split workouts for beginners, so long as the weekly training volume is the same, according to a 2021 study.
The six-move, full-body dumbbell workout programmed by Tang will train your body from head to toe. It features functional exercises that mimic movements you do daily and is designed to build strength in all your major muscle groups across multiple planes of motion, says Tang. She recommends completing the routine twice a week.
Time: 35-40 minutes | Equipment: dumbbells | Good for: Full body
Instructions: For each exercise, perform three sets of 8 to 10 reps and adjust rest breaks according to your goals.
- Boost strength: Complete all six moves in order circuit style, then rest for two minutes and repeat twice more.
- Build muscle: Perform all reps and sets of a given move before proceeding to the next and rest for 60 to 90 seconds between each set.
- Cardio endurance: Perform all reps and sets of a given move before proceeding to the next and minimize rest to less than a minute between each set.
Pro tip: When deciding which weight to use for each exercise, think about your rating of perceived exertion (RPE), she suggests. You'll know you picked a weight that's heavy enough if your final three reps feel really challenging but you're able to complete with proper form, she notes.
Muscles worked: Quads, glutes, and hamstrings
Why it rocks: The front-racked squat is a fundamental exercise for lower-body strength *and* healthy aging, says Tang. Since the move calls on the major muscles in your lower half, you can use heavy weights and continuously jack them up as you get stronger. Plus, you do squats IRL on an everyday basis (anytime you stand up from the couch or crouch down to pet your dog). Practicing this movement pattern can help you continue to move with ease as you get older.
- Stand with feet hip-width apart and arms hanging at sides, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
- Curl dumbbells up to shoulders, elbows bent and tucked at sides and palms facing each other.
- Brace core and gaze forward. Keeping chest lifted, bend knees and sit back into glutes to lower into a squat. Continue lowering until thighs are parallel with floor.
- Push through all four corners of feet to straighten legs and return to standing. That’s 1 rep.
Lunge With Twist
Muscles worked: Quads, glutes, and obliques
Why it rocks: While a classic forward lunge tests your lower-body muscles and balance, this version takes the stability component up a notch thanks to the added twist, says Tang. The core rotation will also fire up your obliques, the muscles that run along the sides of your trunk.
- Stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart holding one dumbbell in front of chest, hands grasping each end. Draw shoulders down and back, brace core, and gaze forward.
- Take a large step forward with right foot and lower until both knees are bent at 90-degree angles.
- At the bottom of the lunge, extend arms straight and twist torso to the right as far as is comfortable, keeping the weight close to torso.
- Reverse the rotation to return to center.
- Push through all four corners of right foot to straighten legs, and step right foot back to meet left foot to return to the starting position.
- Repeat to the left. That’s 1 rep. Continue alternating sides.
Muscles worked: Delts, triceps, and biceps
Why it rocks: This dumbbell exercise not only tests your upper-body strength, but it also helps improve your daily functioning for years to come. “The ability to press weight overhead is crucial for strong aging,” says Tang. “Most people need help putting bags or boxes overhead, [so] it’s important for us to train this movement in our strength workouts.”
- Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of shoulders with palms facing body.
- Brace core and keeping a neutral spine, press both dumbbells up toward the ceiling and simultaneously rotate palms so they face away from body. Continue pressing until arms are straight overhead but elbows are not locked.
- Reverse the movement, bending elbows to lower arms back to the starting position and rotating palms so the dumbbells face toward body again. That’s 1 rep.
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Alternating Bent-Over Row
Muscles worked: Lats, rhomboids, and traps
Why it rocks: This move will put your back muscles, which are often neglected but play a key role in supporting your posture, through the wringer, says Tang. Since the alternating exercise targets just one side of your body at a time, it can also help you pinpoint and correct muscle imbalances, which can potentially lead to injury if left unchecked.
- Stand with feet hip-width apart and arms hanging at sides, holding a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing toward one another. Brace core, gaze forward, and bend knees slightly.
- Hinge at hips until chest is nearly parallel with floor and back is flat, allowing straight arms to hang toward the floor.
- Draw shoulders down and back and keep chest open as you slowly bend right elbow to pull the dumbbell up and back toward right hip. Keep right elbow tight next to body so biceps graze ribcage.
- Pause, then slowly straighten right arm to return to the starting position. Repeat on the opposite side. That's 1 rep. Continue alternating.
Kickstand Single-Leg Deadlift
Muscles worked: Glutes and hamstrings
Why it rocks: This booty-building move gives you all the strength benefits of a single-leg deadlift, but the kickstand makes it a bit less of a balance test, so it’s perfect for beginners. Plus, it calls on your posterior chain muscles, aka the muscles along the back of your body, which aren’t challenged often in your everyday activities (hello, weakness!), says Tang.
- Stand with feet hip-width apart and right arm hanging at side. Hold a dumbbell in right hand, with right arm hanging in front of left thigh and palm facing body.
- Maintaining a hip-width distance, slide right foot backward until right toes are aligned with right heel or a bit farther back. Brace core and bend left knee softly.
- Keeping lats engaged, right toes on the floor, and spine neutral, shift body weight into left foot and slowly hinge at hips to lower right arm and chest toward the floor.
- Continue lowering until chest is parallel with floor or you feel a stretch in hamstrings.
- Pause, then press through all four corners of left foot to reverse the movement and return to the starting position. That’s 1 rep. Complete all reps, then switch sides and repeat.
Muscles worked: Core (primarily the obliques and rectus abdominis)
Why it rocks: Unlike static planks, this dynamic move challenges your core in multiple planes of motion, which can help improve your day-to-day functioning, says Tang. In fact, the powerful exercise mimics common activities like shoveling and picking up your kid. It also teaches you to hold a strong, stable core, which is essential for preventing injury.
- Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, knees bent, and pivot so toes point to left side.
- Hold one dumbbell, hands grasping each end, in front of left thigh. Draw shoulders down and back, brace core, and gaze toward the dumbbell. Shift bodyweight into left foot.
- On an exhale, twist at the waist and drive the dumbbell diagonally across upper body and up toward the ceiling until arms are fully extended overhead. (Keep core engaged to maintain stability.)
- Simultaneously, shift bodyweight into right foot and allow left heel to lift off the floor and pivot so toes point to right.
- On an inhale, reverse the movement and bring the dumbbell back down in front of right thigh. That’s 1 rep. Complete all reps, then switch sides and repeat.