The Ultimate Upper Body Dumbbell Workout

by Cole Matthews - Last Updated April 28, 2018

You don’t need a gym full of gear in order to get a great upper body workout. In fact, with nothing more than a pair of dumbbells and an adjustable bench you can provide every muscle in your upper body with an extremely challenging – and, therefore, very productive – workout. In this article, we’ll take you through a complete hardcore upper body workout you that you can do right in the comfort of your own home gym.

What You’ll Need

The first requirement for this upper body workout is a pair of dumbbells. Ideally, you will have a range of dumbbells to work different muscle groups. Your heaviest dumbbell pair will be needed for doing your chest pressing work and your back rowing exercises. You will also want a pair that are a little less than half this weight for your curls and shoulder presses.

You have three options as to how you will go about this. You can purchase individual fixed dumbbells. If you do this, we suggest going for the rubber coated hexagonal type. You may decide to buy changeable dumbbells that allow you to put weight plates onto dumbbell bars. The third decision is to go for a pair of selectorized dumbbells, which provide you with a range of dumbbells in one compact system.

You will also need an adjustable bench that allows you to perform flat, incline and decline work.

The Workout

Dumbbell Bench Press

This is your mass building chest exercise. Grab your heaviest pair of dumbbells and sit them in front of your flat bench. Take a hold of the dumbbells and sit them on your knees, then fall back into position on the bench as you bring the weights to chest level. In this position, you should open up your chest and depress your shoulder blades (imagine that you are Superman revealing that big “S” on your chest).

The pressing movement should be directly over the mid-chest in an arc to bring the dumbbells together at the top. Make sure that your palms are facing forward throughout the press. It is important that you get a full range of motion through this exercise. That means that you want to come all the way down until the weights are at the level of your armpits. You also want to keep your elbows out and your forearms perpendicular to your upper arms in the bottom position in order to place maximum contractile force on the pecs.

Do 8-10 reps on this exercise. The weight should be heavy enough that you reach failure on the last rep.

Rest for 60 seconds and then do two more sets, aiming for 6-8 reps on each set.

Incline Push Ups super-setted with Press Pushes

For this superset you will move from the first to the second exercise with no rest between them. To allow for this you need to set up your bench and weights on the second exercise before you start the first exercise. Adjust the angle of the bench back support to 30 degrees and place your lighter pair of dumbbells in front of it (approximately half the weight you used on the chest press).

For the incline push up, position yourself in front of a bench with your feet on the bench so that your body is angled at about 30 degrees to the floor. Keep your hands at about shoulder width. Now perform a push up, bringing your chest down to the floor at a 2 count before powerfully exploding back to the start position. Be sure to keep your elbows in as you do this move.

Perform 15 reps of incline push ups.

Now immediately sit on the bench and grab hold of the dumbbells, bringing them up to rest on your chest. With palms facing each other, squeeze the dumbbells together as tightly as you can. At the same time push them up above your chest to full extension. Maintaining the inward pressure throughout, slowly lower them to the start position. Aim to do 10 reps, but don’t be surprised if you fail at around 8.

Remember, on this exercise it is vital that you are pushing both inwards and upwards at the same time.

Rest for 60 seconds and then move into your second superset. You will be performing a total of three of these supersets.

Decline Dumbbell Row

The decline row is a great variation on the bent over barbell row. The benefit of doing it on an angled bench is that your legs and the assistance of momentum are taken out of the movement. It is also more friendly to the lower back.

Place your heavy dumbbells under the head end of your bench, which should be set at 45 degrees. Now lie face down on the bench so that your arms are hanging down towards the dumbbells. Brace your feet and then grab a hold the dumbbells with palms facing together. Keeping your head and chest up and your core pressed into the bench, pull your elbows back to bring the dumbbells up as high as possible. Squeeze the shoulder blades together as you come up to the top position. Hold for a second before lowering to the start position.

You should perform 12 reps on this exercise. Rest for sixty seconds and then repeat. You will do 3 sets, aiming to achieve 12 reps on each of them.

One Arm Row supersetted with Superman

Position yourself alongside your bench with your heavy dumbbell sitting on the floor at your feet. Place your inner knee on the bench and then reach down to grab the dumbbell. Now, keeping your elbow in at your side, pull directly up and back. You want to get your elbow as far back behind your torso as possible.

Slowly lower to the start position and repeat in a smooth, flowing motion.

Do 12 reps on each arm then immediately move to the Superman exercise.

To perform the Superman, lie on the floor with your arms stretched out in front of you and your feet together. Now, imagine that you have become superman and you are flying overhead. Arch your body to bring everything but your core off the floor, pushing out your arms and your feet. Do not bend your knees as you do this. Hold the top position for a 2-count and then drop back to the floor.

Perform 12 reps of this exercise.

Rest for 60 seconds before performing two more supersets of this exercise.

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Stand with your lighter pair of dumbbells resting at shoulder level with your palms facing forward. Brace your core and push the weights directly overhead until your reach a position just short of lockout (you don’t want to lock out because this takes the tension off the target muscle). Slowly lower back to the start position and repeat.

Perform three sets of 10 reps on this exercise.

Shrugs

Stand with your heavy dumbbells in your hands and hanging at your sides. This movement simply involves shrugging your traps as high as you can in an up and back motion. Imagine trying to get them all the way up to your ears. Perform the movement slowly and deliberately and do not straighten your arms.

Perform three sets of 10 reps on this movement.

Seat Dumbbell Curls supersetted with Lying Triceps Extension

Set the angle of your bench to 30 degrees and lie back with the lighter pair of dumbbells in your hands. Making sure that your elbow in close are at your sides, start with your palms facing in toward your body. Now supinate your wrists so that the palms are facing forward and curl the dumbbells up to a fully contracted position. Squeeze your biceps tightly before slowly lowering to the start position.

Do 12 reps on this exercise.

When it comes to your second set perform the exercise in alternating fashion, so that you are doing one arm at a time. On your third and final set, perform it with both arms together as in the first set.

Once you have completed your first set of curls, quickly change the bench angle to a flat position and go straight to the next exercise.

Lying Triceps Extension

Lie on the bench with your feet up on the end of it and the two dumbbells you have just been using in your hands. Lift the weight up overhead and angle your arms so that they are about at 80 degrees tilted toward your head and your elbows are locked out.

Now, keeping your elbows in (imagine that there is a basketball between them that you need to keep in place), bend at the elbows to bring the weights down to your forehead. Then forcefully push them back to full extension. Focus on feeling the lengthening and contracting of the triceps. The only movement that you want is through your forearms.

Perform 12 reps on this exercise.

Rest for 60 seconds and then go through this superset twice more, aiming for 12 good reps on each set of lying triceps extensions.

Renegade Row Push Ups

The Renegade Row is a great finisher that targets the core while also finishing off the muscles of the chest, lats, arms and shoulders.

Place your lighter pair of dumbbells in front of you and get down into standard push up position, holding the dumbbells in your hands. Keep your torso and lower body in a straight line, tense your core and perform a push up. Next, row one dumbbell up to your ribcage. Do the same with the other side. You have now performed one rep.

Do 10 reps of this exercise.

Rest for 60 seconds and then do a second and final set.

Workout Summary

Dumbbell Bench press – 3 x 10-6

Incline Push Ups/

Press Pushes – 3 x 15 / 12

Decline Dumbbell Row – 3 x 12

One Arm Row /

Superman  – 3 x 12

Dumbbell Shoulder Press – 3 x 10

Shrugs – 3 x 10

Seated Dumbbell Curls /

Lying Triceps Extensions – 3 x 12

Renegade Row Push Ups – 2 x 10

Conclusion

This heavy duty full body workout should be dome twice per week, with a two-day break between workouts (i.e. Monday, Thursday). On two other days, you should complete a lower body dumbbell workout. Follow this program for 12 weeks, striving to lift a little heavier at each session and you will pack on an impressive amount of size while maxing out your upper body strength and stamina.

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