Simple, supremely effective and beginner-friendly. Almost every man starts his fitness journey with a set of dumbbells, and for good reason. Small enough to tuck under a bed or sofa, dumbbells are easy to use and massively versatile. 

But that doesn’t mean they’re basic. For anyone with a bit of training knowledge, they offer much more than endless cheat curls.

By incorporating smart training techniques like tempo, time under tension or technical drop sets, you can use dumbbells to build just as much muscle as more fashionable fitness kit – and often more efficiently.

And, of course, if they’re tucked under your bed, you’re never far from your next workout.

DUMBBELL SHOULDER EXERCISES

1. Dumbbell Shoulder Press

This classic shoulder-builder is slightly easier on your rotator cuffs (the small stabilising muscles around the shoulders) with a set of dumbbells, because your hands can rotate naturally. The ‘military’ version of this – done with your feet together, as if you were on parade – is slightly tougher on your core.

  • With your feet shoulder-width apart, hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder height.
  • Keep your chest upright and your core muscles braced.
  • Press the weights directly upwards, keeping your core braced, until your arms are extended overhead.
  • Lower and repeat.

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2. Seated Shoulder Press

The seated version of the overhead press takes your legs completely out of the equation, forcing you to keep the form strict and slightly reducing the focus on your core so your shoulders get more of a hit.

  • Sit with your back against the upright part of a bench, holding a pair of dumbbells at your shoulders.
  • Press them slowly overhead, allowing your arms to rotate naturally.
  • Pause at the top, then lower under control.

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3. Seated Arnold Press

This variation of the overhead press – popularised by the Governator himself – hits all three heads of the deltoids, adding thickness and width to your shoulders. It’ll also stabilise your shoulder joints for use in bigger lifts.

  • Start at the top position of a biceps curl, with your elbows by your torso.
  • Allow your palms to rotate as you press the dumbbells overhead, finishing with your palms facing forwards.
  • Reverse the movement as you lower the dumbbells.

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4. Lateral Raise

This isolation move shifts all the focus to your lateral deltoids, which move your arms away from your body. To make sure they’re working their hardest, angle your hands so your pinkies are slightly higher than your thumbs.

  • Stand tall with your abs braced and feet close but not together, holding a light dumbbell in each hand by your sides with your palms facing one another.
  • Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, raise the weights out to the sides making sure you use your muscles and not momentum.
  • Stop just below shoulder height, then lower.

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5. Front Raise

This move targets the anterior deltoids, which is why many lifters use it in conjunction with the lateral raise to build bigger shoulders.

  • Stand tall with your abs braced and feet apart, holding a light dumbbell in each hand by your sides with your palms facing one another.
  • Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, raise the weights in front of you using your muscles and not momentum.
  • Stop at shoulder height, pause for a second, then slowly return to the start.

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6. Reverse Flye

This move targets your rear delts, while building stability through your shoulder region and rotator cuffs. Use it in tandem with lateral or front raises for a shoulder-building superset.

  • Leaning forwards at the hips with a weight in each hand, keep your back flat and bring the weights upwards as if you were spreading your wings, aiming to bring your shoulder blades together at the top of the move.

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7. Alternating Press

This move targets your shoulders while also forcing your core to work as you stabilise the weight. Because you’re pressing one dumbbell at a time, you should also be able to handle slightly more weight in each hand.

  • Stand tall with your chest up and core braced, holding a pair of dumbbells at shoulder height.
  • Press one overhead, pause and lower, then press the other.

42 Of The Best Dumbbell Exercises For Every Body Part | Men's Fitness UK 42 Of The Best Dumbbell Exercises For Every Body Part | Men's Fitness UK

8. Cuban Press

This move, which combines an upright row, external shoulder rotation and press, will strengthen your rotator cuffs, making you stronger and less injury-prone in other pressing variations. Do it for recovery on off days.

  • Hold a light set of light dumbbells or weight plates by your sides, palms facing behind you.
  • Raise your arms to the sides until your elbows are bent at 90° and the weights are hanging straight down.
  • Keeping your upper arms horizontal, rotate your arms until your hands point up.
  • Press the weights directly overhead.
  • Reverse the movement back to the start.

DUMBBELL CHEST EXERCISES

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9. Bench Press

Using dumbbells for this classic chest-builder emphasises your pecs more than the barbell version, because the dumbbells move slightly inwards throughout the rep and also go through a greater range of motion.

  • Lie on a bench with your feet on the floor directly underneath your knees.
  • Hold the dumbbells above your chest, then lower them to your chest.
  • Drive your feet hard into the floor and push the dumbbells back strongly to the start position.

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10. Chest Flye

Because your pecs’ primary role is to move your arms inwards, this move puts much more emphasis on them than pressing variations, even though you’ll have to do it with much lighter weights. For best results, superset a press and a flye together.

  • Lie on a flat bench holding a dumbbell in each hand directly above your chest with your palms facing each other.
  • Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, slowly lower the weights to the sides as far as is comfortable, feeling the stretch in your chest.
  • Squeeze your chest to reverse the movement and raise the weights back to the top.

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11. Incline Bench Press

This variation of the flat bench puts less stress on the pecs and rotator cuffs. It’ll also give your shoulders some work.

  • Lie on a bench set at an angle holding a dumbbell in each hand at chest level.
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor and your back against the bench.
  • Press the weight directly above your head but don’t lock out your elbows at the top.
  • Slowly lower the weights back to chest level.

42 Of The Best Dumbbell Exercises For Every Body Part | Men's Fitness UK 42 Of The Best Dumbbell Exercises For Every Body Part | Men's Fitness UK

12. Decline Bench Press

This bench variation targets your lower chest better than other versions, which will help to fix imbalances and build a well-rounded chest. It also takes your shoulders out of the equation, putting more emphasis on your chest.

  • Lie on a bench set at an angle – if your gym doesn’t have a decline bench, prop a weight plate under a regular bench – holding a dumbbell in each hand at chest-level.
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor and your back against the bench.
  • Press the weight directly above your head but don’t lock out your elbows at the top.
  • Slowly lower the weights back to chest level.

DUMBBELL BACK EXERCISES

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13. Bent-Over Row

This move will build all the muscles of your back, building stability in your shoulder region, improving your posture and balancing out all the pressing work you’re doing. The dumbbell variation allows your wrists and shoulder to move more freely than the barbell version, improving your range of motion.

  • Stand with your core braced, your back straight and your shoulder blades retracted, holding a set of dumbbells, then bend your knees slightly and lean forwards from the hips.
  • Pull the dumbbells up to just below chest level.
  • Pause, then lower under control. 

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14. Reverse-Grip Bent-Over Row

This variation puts extra emphasis on your biceps, making it ideal for adding some extra arm size while you work your back.

  • Stand with your core braced, your back straight and your shoulder blades retracted, holding a set of dumbbell with your palms facing away from you, then bend your knees slightly and lean forwards from the hips.
  • Pull the dumbbells up to just below chest level.
  • Pause, then lower under control. 

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15. Single-Arm Row

This isolation move works one side of your body at a time, allowing you to shift more weight as you focus on one arm. Do it with strict form to build muscle, or up the weight and ‘cheat’ the move for high reps to build a grip of steel.

  • Set up with one knee resting on a bench and the other foot on the floor, leaning forwards slightly and holding a dumbbell in one hand.
  • Row the dumbbell up until your thumb touches your armpit, then lower.

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16. Shrug

As well as being one of the only moves that directly targets the trapezius muscles, the shrug’s a rare excuse to use some of your gym’s heaviest dumbbells. Done without straps, it’ll also give you a grip workout.

  • Hold a set of heavy dumbbells with your palms facing your sides.
  • Keeping your core braced, chest up and a natural arch in your back, shrug your shoulders up towards your ears, keeping your arms straight.
  • Hold at the top briefly then lower back to the start position. 

DUMBBELL ARMS EXERCISES

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17. Biceps Curl

It’s the classic. Done correctly, a slow, controlled biceps curl is one of the best ways to put your biceps under the extended tension needed for growth. For best results, don’t let the tension off your muscles at any point during the move.

  • Stand tall with your shoulders back and feet close together, holding a pair of dumbbells with palms facing forwards and hands just outside your hips.
  • Keeping your elbows tucked in to your sides, curl the dumbbells up towards your chest, stopping just before your forearms reach vertical.
  • Lower under control to return to the start position.

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18. Alternating Biceps Curl

Done at the end of a set of biceps curls, these can let you squeeze out a few extra reps, increasing the damage to the muscle and the growth you’ll see afterwards. Using them on their own is less advisable because they’ll give your biceps too long to rest between reps. 

  • Stand tall with your shoulders back and feet close together, holding a pair of dumbbells with your palms facing forwards.
  • Keeping your elbows tucked in to your sides, curl one dumbbell up towards your chest, then lower it and raise the other.

42 Of The Best Dumbbell Exercises For Every Body Part | Men's Fitness UK 42 Of The Best Dumbbell Exercises For Every Body Part | Men's Fitness UK

19. Hammer Curl

Though it works similar muscles to the biceps curl, the hammer curl puts extra emphasis on the brachioradialis, which pushes up on your biceps to make the muscles appear bigger. They’ll also work well in combination with biceps curls for a technical drop set that takes your biceps past failure.

  • Stand tall with your shoulders back and feet close together, holding a pair of dumbbells with your palms facing your sides.
  • Keeping your elbows tucked in to your sides, curl the dumbbells up towards your chest, stopping just before your forearms reach vertical.
  • Lower under control to return to the start position.

42 Of The Best Dumbbell Exercises For Every Body Part | Men's Fitness UK

20. Alternating Hammer Curl

Done at the end of a set of biceps or hammer curls, these can let you squeeze out a few extra reps, increasing the damage to the muscle and the growth you’ll see afterwards. For a triple drop set, go to failure on first biceps curls then hammer curls, and finish with alternating hammer curls.  

  • Stand tall with your shoulders back and feet close together, holding a pair of dumbbells with your palms facing your sides.
  • Keeping your elbows tucked in to your sides, curl one dumbbell up towards your chest, then lower it and raise the other.

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21. Zottman Curl

This move targets all the muscles on the front of your upper arm in every rep, using both heads of the biceps – brachii and brachialis – on the way up, and the brachioradialis when you go palms-down for the descent. The twist also adds some extra stimulation for an all-around arm builder.

  • Hold a dumbbell in each arm and curl them up to chest height, then twist your palms to face downwards before you lower, shifting the focus to your forearms. 

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22. Incline Biceps Curl

This move puts more emphasis on the biceps brachii, which is the largest and most visible of the biceps muscles. You’ll probably need to use less weight than you would on the standing curl, but it’s worth the effort.

  • Sit on a bench set to an incline between 30˚ and 45˚ holding a dumbbell in each hand.
  • Keeping your back flat against the bench and your elbows close to your sides, curl both dumbbells up to shoulder height.
  • Squeeze your biceps at the top of the move, then slowly return the start.

42 Of The Best Dumbbell Exercises For Every Body Part | Men's Fitness UK 42 Of The Best Dumbbell Exercises For Every Body Part | Men's Fitness UK

23. Triceps Extension

As well as working the largest muscle in your arms, the standing triceps extension forces your core to stabilise you, giving you some extra six-pack work as you lift.

  • Stand tall, holding a pair of dumbbells above you with straight arms.
  • Slowly lower the dumbbells towards the back of your head by bending your elbows, keeping your upper arms as still as possible.

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24. Single-Arm Triceps Extension

Used as part of a drop set, the one-arm triceps extension puts your triceps under extra tension, forcing further growth. 

  • Stand tall, holding a dumbbell above you with one straight arm.
  • Slowly lower the dumbbell towards the back of your head by bending your elbow, keeping your upper arm as still as possible.

DUMBBELL LEGS EXERCISES

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25. Dumbbell Squat

As well as being ideal for home workouts, the dumbbell squat keeps the weights in a back-friendly position, making it (almost) fatigue-proof. It’ll also work your forearms and grip. 

  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand and squat down, keeping your chest up, until your hip crease is below the level of your knees.
  • Drive back up through your heels. 

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26. Overhead Squat

It’s upper- and lower-body flexibility rolled into one move, and much tougher than the barbell version because the weights tend to wander. If all you’ve got is a brace of ultra-light dumbbells, try staying in the bottom position for a set of overhead presses – known as the ‘Sots press’. 

  • Press a set of dumbbells overhead, keeping your upper arms just behind the line of your ears and over your centre of gravity.
  • Keep your weight over your heels as you squat down and drive back up, trying not to let the weights stray forward. 

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27. Goblet Squat

It’s a near-foolproof squat variation: the position of the dumbbell forces you to keep your chest up and your weight on your heels. If you’ve got hip, groin or ankle mobility issues, spend some time in the bottom position during your warm-up for a helpful weighted stretch. 

  • Hold a dumbbell at chest height with both hands – like a goblet – then squat down until your elbows brush the insides of your knees.
  • Keep your weight on your heels as you stand up. 

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28. Jump Squat

Holding a pair of dumbbells is the simplest way to add weight to a jump squat, so this variation will let you add power once you’ve topped out on the no-weight version. 

  • Holding a dumbbell in each hand, squat down, then explode upwards, aiming to get as much height as possible.
  • Reset between reps for maximum power generation.

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29. Lunge

Working one leg at a time builds unilateral strength and also ensures you don’t have any weaknesses from imbalances in your body. If you’re limited by your grip, hold the dumbbell in front of your chest, goblet-squat style.

  • Holding a dumbbell in each hand, take one step forwards and lower your body until both knees are bent at 90˚.
  • Push off your front foot to reverse the movement. 

30. Reverse Lunge

Stepping backwards instead of forwards shifts the emphasis to your glutes, but also makes the lunge slightly safer, because it’s easier to stop your front knee from wobbling off-line. If you’re fatigued, do these: you’ll still get a forearm hit from holding the dumbbells.

  • Holding a dumbbell in each hand, take a big step backwards and lower your body until both knees are bent at 90˚.
  • Push off your rear foot to reverse the movement. 

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31. Side Lunge

This move’s tricky to do with anything but dumbbells, but it works the inner and outer thighs as well as the usual muscles involved in the lunge, so it’s well worth including in your training plan.

  • Holding a dumbbell in each hand, take one step sideways and lower your body until one of your knees is bent at a right angle, feeling a slight stretch in your groin.
  • Push off your foot to reverse the movement.

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32. Split Squat

Simply repeating the lunge motion removes some of the coordination aspects from a heavy lunge, making this a safer variation for beginners or including in supersets where you’re likely to be fatigued.

  • Start in a split stance, with one foot in front of the other, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
  • Bend both legs until your trailing knee touches the floor.
  • Straighten both legs to return to the start, then go straight into the next rep. 

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33. Jumping Lunge

It’s tough with dumbbells, but the lunge jump will build explosive power off one leg – essential for sprinting or tackling. 

  • Stand tall holding a dumbbell in each hand.
  • Lunge forward, then explode into the air, switching legs in mid-air and aiming to land softly. 

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34. Romanian Deadlift

This deadlift variation shifts the emphasis to your hamstrings, making it an ideal accessory exercise to the normal deadlift. Doing it with dumbbells will ensure each arm gets to hold its share of the weight.

  • Stand tall with feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
  • Keeping your legs straight, lean forward from the hips, not the waist, and lower the weights down the fronts of your shins until you feel a good stretch in your hamstrings.
  • Reverse the move to the start and push your hips forward.

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35. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

This move challenges your balance and proprioception while firing up your hamstrings, making it the ideal warm-up for conventional deadlifting.

  • Stand on one leg, holding a dumbbell in the opposite hand.
  • Bend forward until you feel the stretch in your hamstrings, then straighten up. 

DUMBBELL CORE EXERCISES

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36. Renegade Row

This move works your back muscles while challenging your stabilisers to keep you level. Think of it as a brutal version of the plank. It’s even tougher on rounded dumbbells. 

  • Start in a press-up position holding the handles of a pair of dumbbells.
  • Row one dumbbell upwards and then the other, so that your thumb touches your armpit.
  • Try to stay parallel to the floor – don’t twist. 

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37. Press-Up to Renegade Row

Adding a press-up to the move engages your chest – especially if you use the extra height to descend further into the move. It’s pulling and pushing in one move, making this great bang for your buck. 

  • Start in a press-up position holding the handles of a pair of dumbbells.
  • Do a press-up.
  • At the top of the move, row one dumbbell upwards and then the other, so that your thumb touches your armpit.
  • Try to stay parallel to the floor – don’t twist.

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38. Halo

This move engages all the muscles of your core and, because you’re doing it from a standing position, teaches them to fire in practical situations.

  • Holding a dumbbell in both hands, move it around your head, engaging your core as you circle it around.
  • After one complete circle, reverse directions.

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39. Russian Twist

Training rotation is vital for sports performance and a well-rounded physique, and this is one of the safest ways to do it effectively.

  • Sit on the floor with your knees bent and feet slightly raised, holding a dumbbell in front of you.
  • Twist to one side, pause, and then twist to the other.
  • That’s one rep. 

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40. Crunch

In lab testing, weighted crunches activate the abs more than almost any other isolation move. Using a dumbbell (or weight plate) for slow, controlled reps is a great way to work your whole core. 

  • Lie flat on your back with knees bent and a dumbbell held at chest level.
  • Contract your abs to lift your shoulders off the floor and curl your chest towards your knees.
  • Pause at the top of the move and squeeze your abs, then lower slowly to the start.

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41. Side Bend

As well as your obliques the side bend also works the muscles of your lower back, safeguarding your core.

  • Hold a heavy dumbbell in one hand and bend your torso towards your weighted hand.
  • Pause when you feel a stretch up your opposite side, then straighten up without leaning forwards or back. 

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42. Crunch Reach

Leading with the dumbbell discourages you from jerking, ensuring that the focus stays on your abs while safeguarding your lower back. 

  • Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and a dumbbell held above your chest with arms straight.
  • Crunch upward, pausing at the top of the movement, then lower back to the start. 

Photography: Glen Burrows