How to start using dumbbells, with workout guides and tips from personal trainers
Want to start incorporating dumbbells into your workouts but don’t know where to start? We spoke to two leading personal trainers to help you out.
The dumbbell is one of the most popular pieces of gym apparatus in the world - both professional athletes and fitness novices can benefit from training with them, but if it’s your first time picking up dumbbells, it might feel daunting.
The gym can be an intimating place for many at the best of times, and If you’re attending your first gym sesh, the prospect of picking up equipment for the first time can be scary. That’s why we’re here, to help beginners start on their dumbbell and weight-lifting journey.
We’ve put together a complete guide to dumbbells where we discuss how beginners can start to use them. We’ve also got the help of two personal trainers and fitness experts who explain the benefits of dumbbells, useful tips, and good exercises for beginners.
Our dumbbell experts
To help explain dumbbell exercises in finer detail, we’ve drafted the help of two fitness experts. They are both personal trainers and have years of experience training clients from beginners to athletes - their tips are sure to turn you into a confident lifter in no time.
Our first expert is James Dabbs, personal trainer and founder of Dabbs Fitness. He runs his Mayfair gym and provides elite fitness services to both corporate and individual clients as well as athletes. James has an MSc in strength and conditioning and has created training plans for hundreds of people at all stages of their fitness journey.
Our second expert is James Bickerstaff, personal trainer at OriGym, a fitness course and qualifications centre. Here he helps in assisting aspiring and experienced personal trainers in reaching their goals and unlocking their potential in a way that suits them. At OriGym, they also craft plans to help people gain personal training qualifications.
(Both our experts are coincidentally called James, so throughout our guide, we will refer to them by their surname.)
What are dumbbells, and what are they made of?
You may have heard of them, seen them, or not have a clue what a dumbbell is, so before we go into any exercises or tips, what actually are dumbbells? Simply put, they are a type of weightlifting equipment that consists of two handheld weights used for strength training and resistance exercises.
They are held via a bar that sits between two weights and can range from 0.1kg in weight all the way up to over 100kg. They are made from a variety of materials, including:
- Cast Iron: Cast iron dumbbells are a popular choice due to their durability and affordability. They are made by pouring molten iron into a mould and allowing it to cool and solidify. They are typically more expensive than other types of dumbbells but are praised for their long-lasting nature.
- Chrome: Chrome dumbbells are made of solid steel with chrome plating that provides a smooth and shiny finish. They are often seen as an ‘old school’ style of dumbbell used in gyms for decades.
- Water and sand: Cheaper dumbbells, ones which people usually buy for home use, can be made of plastic which is filled with water or sand to add weight.
Other materials might also be used when dumbbells are made, and these are often used to cover the weights and protect them. These include:
- Neoprene: Neoprene dumbbells have a layer of synthetic rubber around the weight that provides a comfortable grip and helps to prevent calluses. Neoprene is usually used to cover metal weights rather than plastic.
- Rubber: Rubber-coated dumbbells have a layer of rubber around the chosen weight that provides a non-slip grip and helps to protect floors from damage.
What are the benefits of using dumbbells?
It is particularly important for beginners to know the benefits of weight training as motivation levels can be increased with an envisioned goal in mind. It’s extremely rare to find anyone picking up weights without benefits in mind, so you should know what they are before you start.
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Our two experts, James Dabbs and James Bickerstaff, helped explain these benefits. It’s important to note that, with all things, especially weight training, the benefits come with consistency and are a result of dedication to training. So how can dumbbells benefit you?:
They help build strength
Both personal trainers agreed that strength increases are one of the main benefits of dumbbell training. Dabbs explained that dumbbell exercises are a great way to build strength and said that dumbbell training “will improve your general performance in pretty much everything” strength training related. Bickerstaff also praised dumbbell exercise as being key to improving overall athleticism over time.
Improves muscle tone
Dabbs explained that another benefit of dumbbell exercises is aesthetics. He said that “becoming stronger and building muscle will improve your aesthetic look and make your muscles more defined.” A sculpted appearance is often a big motivator for beginners on a weight loss journey. If you are looking to lose weight, you’ll have to think about a diet as well and remain in a calorie deficit.
Improves bone density
Experts at the Mayo Clinic explained that dumbbell training has been proven to increase bone density. A regular pattern of dumbbell training can help strengthen bones and reduce the risk of osteoporosis. For older people, this is more important as bone density reduces over time.
Burns fat and boosts metabolism
Dabbs explained that dumbbell training “will assist you in burning fat on a daily basis as having muscle will increase your metabolic rate, essentially causing you to burn more calories every day before you have performed any exercise”. This is backed up by experts at York Fitness, who agree that strength training burns fat and can help to improve metabolism.
Form is another word for technique and is key when doing dumbbell training, as James Dabbs tells us: “The main benefit of dumbbells over, say, a barbell, is the bilateral nature of the exercise - by having a different weight in each hand during a dumbbell chest press, for example, you will fix any potential imbalances between different sides.”
Dabbs also praises dumbbell workouts because they can “largely decrease your risk of injury by making your bones and tendons stronger.” Stronger muscles and tendons help hold the body in proper alignment and protect the bones and joints when moving or under impact.
Versatility and convenience
Dumbbells are versatile pieces of equipment that can be used for a wide range of exercises, including strength training, HIIT workouts, and circuit training. They are also compact and easy to store, making them a convenient choice for home workouts or for use in a gym.
Beginners tips for using dumbbells
If the benefits of dumbbell training have inspired you to pick up a pair, then you should follow some best practices. By following these, motivation for training can be improved and maintained, injuries can be avoided, and muscle gains can be achieved more quickly. Our two experts gave their tips for starting off with dumbbell training.
Start off with weights you can lift
Bickerstaff made sure to underline this and said: “This is obvious but starts with weights you can actually lift!” This is to make sure that injuries are prevented, and good form can be maintained throughout training. By starting off with weights that are easy to lift, you can become accustomed to dumbbells and how to properly train with them.
Take the ego out
This follows on nicely from starting with weights that you can lift. Dabbs says: “Take your ego out of the training session. It is only once the movement is mastered that you should try to up the weight and not compromise your form.”
It is important to not try and show off or fool yourself into thinking you can lift heavier weights. Leaving your ego at the door means you can choose weights that are safe for you and can help you in your training.
Without good technique, you won’t see the same gains or increase in muscle mass, Dabbs explained and said: “As a beginner, you should focus on the movement and technique first and foremost, allowing for mastery of the movement first.”
Good technique also comes down to weight choices, and it is easier to master technique when the weight is appropriately suited to you. You can learn how to practise good form in our beginner's exercises section below.
Build your strength
After mastering the technique, the next logical step is to build your strength. Bickerstaff explains a good way to do this and says: “Should you wish to increase the weight you’re lifting, follow the 10% rule. This will see you lifting weights that are 10% heavier every week.”
Dabbs added: “If you're a beginner, make sure you start light as you learn the movement, and then go heavier as your confidence and strength build.”
This is one of the most important parts of training, and Dabbs said: “As a beginner, you can get far quicker improvements in your strength levels than more advanced lifters, and for the first 6 months or so, you can expect some great improvements if you remain consistent.” There isn’t any point in following tips or reading the benefits if you aren’t committed and disciplined to training.
Four of the best exercises for beginner dumbbell users
If you want to start using dumbbells to work out, then it's important to know a few exercises to get you started. Knowing these will give you the confidence to walk into the gym and get started, do your first home workout, or even teach a friend who is just starting out.
Both our personal trainers, Dabbs and Bickerstaff, advise starting off with lower weights and perfecting the technique before increasing. They gave us their favourite exercises, and we’ve listed how to perform them below:
1. Bicep curls
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing up. Keep your elbows close to your sides and your upper arms still. Slowly curl the dumbbells up towards your shoulders, keeping your palms facing up and your elbows still. You should feel a strain in your biceps. Once the weight is close to touching your shoulder/arm, lower it back and repeat.
2. Overhead press
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a barbell or dumbbell at shoulder height. Then push the weight all the way above your head. As you press the weight overhead, focus on keeping your elbows directly under the dumbbells and avoid flaring them out to the sides. Once the weight is overhead, pause briefly and then slowly lower it back down to the starting position.
3. Squatting with dumbbell punches
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing each other. Keep your arms by your sides. Lower into a squat by bending your knees and pushing your hips back. Keep your chest up and your weight in your heels.
As you come up from the squat, punch one dumbbell forward at shoulder height while keeping the other dumbbell by your side. Alternate arms with each squat. Continue to alternate punching while squatting for your desired number of reps or time.
4. Bent-over row
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and bend forward at the hips to lower your torso/chest until it's almost parallel to the floor. Keep your back straight, and do not round your shoulders.
Let your arms, with the weight in them, hang straight down toward the floor, keeping a slight bend in your elbows. Pull the dumbbells up to your sides, keeping your elbows close to your body. Imagine squeezing your shoulder blades together as you lift. Pause at the top of the movement, and then slowly lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position.
Best dumbbell sets for beginners
Now that you’ve learned all about dumbbells, it’s time to get some of your own. We put together a list of the five best dumbbells you can buy for your house.
- Mirafit 10kg Dumbbell Weight Set with Carry Case, £29.95 at Mirafit: This set of weights for Mirafit is comprised of four pairs of dumbbells, ranging from 0.5kg to 2kg, making a total combined weight of 10kg. The range of sizes in this eight-piece set makes these weights great for a variety of lightweight training workouts.
- ZIVA SL Premium Hexagon Virgin Rubber Dumbbells, £63.48 at Physical Company: ZIVA is one of the biggest names in professional workout equipment. This set of 8kg dumbbells is made from hardwearing rubber and corrosion-resistant chrome, ensuring professional-level performance for your home workouts.
- KG Physio Dumbbells Set, from £14.99 at Amazon: This set of dumbbells ticks all of our experts’ boxes: hexagonal design, neoprene coating, and a variety of available sizes for different exercises and levels of ability. These dumbbells are made from cast iron, coated in a non-slip, sweat-resistant neoprene coating, and are available in weights from 1kg to 10kg, covering most requirements for at-home weight workouts.
- ACTIVE FOREVER Dumbbells Set of 2, from £16.99 at Amazon: These dumbbells are ideal for more advanced full-body workouts and floor work, thanks to their flat-sided hexagonal design preventing them from rolling around. With a waterproof, non-slip neoprene coating, you should be able to keep your grip on these weights no matter how sweaty your workout gets.
- Northdeer Steel Dumbbells, from £49.90 at Amazon: These adjustable dumbbells from Northdeer feature a unique, patented screw-in system that lets you change the weight of the dumbbells quickly and easily. You won’t have to interrupt your reps to readjust loose screws, making them ideal if you want the versatility of changing weights without needing multiple dumbbell sets.
Why not add kettlebells to your home workout as well? Check out our guide to the best kettlebells to add to your home gym (however big that might be).
Want more guidance and expert tips on fitness routines and products? Check out our fitness section, with guides including the best multi-gym equipment for working out at home, how to use resistance bands, and how and when to use pre-workout.
Finn Byrne is a Digital Writer for Immediate Media. He works across several brands including The Recommended, RadioTimes.com, MadeforMums and BBC Gardeners’ World. Finn has previously written for publications including MyLondon, The Mirror, The Express, and The Star. When not writing Finn enjoys spending time on the football pitch and getting stuck into a book.