The Dumbbell Workout for Full-Body Strength | MuscleSquad

icon Nov 11, 2021 - Jamie Grover

The Dumbbell Workout for Full-Body Strength

When you think about an intense, full-body workout, you likely imagine using lots of equipment. Commercial gyms are packed with barbells, racks, machines, and more to enable you to hit every muscle in your body. But what about at home?

In this article we cover:

  • Full body training (what you need to know)
  • Are Dumbbells enough for strength training?
  • Are dumbbells enough for weight loss?
  • How to do a Full-Body Dumbbell Workout
  • Full Body Dumbbell workout
  • Progressive Overload

Full-Body Training

You may have heard the phrase ‘workout split’ being used when people talk about how they train. Someone’s workout split is essentially how they ‘split’ up their training over the course of a week. Ideally, a split will hit every muscle group twice a week, as this frequency is shown to be optimal for building muscle. Some of the most popular workout splits are known as push, pull, legs, and upper/lower.

In this instance, we are going to be running a full-body split. In a full body split, every muscle group is hit in each workout, meaning you don’t have to work out as frequently. The main advantage of the full-body split is that each muscle group has more time to recover from the previous workout. In addition to this, no muscle is overworked in a single workout, meaning you can do each exercise as best as you can. Basically, full-body training is more convenient, aids recovery, and reduces fatigue; therefore, increasing the quality of your workouts.

After each time you complete this workout, you must take one rest day to allow your body to recover before doing it again.

Are Dumbbells Enough for Strength Training?

Contrary to popular belief, you absolutely CAN build size and strength across your whole body using just a pair of dumbbells. As long as the intensity is high enough, any sort of muscle stimulation will promote growth.

Intensity is one hundred percent the most important factor to consider when working out from home. This workout uses the popular intensity gauge of ‘RPE’ to tell you how hard to go on each set. RPE stands for rating of perceived exertion. It’s a measure of how hard you pushed yourself during a set of any exercise. A set at RPE9 would mean you could have done one more rep before failing. A set at RPE8 would mean you had two reps left in the tank. RIR (reps in reserve) is the inverse of RPE, a set at RIR1 is equivalent to a set at RPE9.

Are Dumbbells Enough for Weight Loss?

Weight loss can only happen if you are in a caloric deficit. To do this, you need to track what you’re eating through a calorie counting app such as MyFitnessPal.

Work out your maintenance calories by using a maintenance calorie calculator, then subtract 20-25% if you are looking to lose weight at a healthy rate. If desired, you can subtract a smaller percentage and lose weight more slowly.

Using dumbbells to work out doesn’t burn any more calories than using barbells or machines. If you want to burn more calories, supplement cardio into the ends of your workouts.

How to do a Full-Body Dumbbell Workout

For this workout, you’ll ideally have two sets of dumbbells: one heavier set, and one lighter set. You could also do this workout with a pair of adjustable dumbbells.

Each exercise has a recommended number of sets, reps, and a target RPE. For each set, you should aim to hit the RPE specified, even if it doesn’t fall into the given rep range. This will likely happen if your dumbbells are too light/heavy. For example, your dumbbells may be too heavy for you to do 10 reps at RPE8, so you stop at 6 reps, and vice versa (you may take 20 reps to get to RPE8 with a light pair of dumbbells). As long as the intensity is high enough, you will make progress.

Between each set you should aim to minimise rest times, resting between 1-2 minutes. With these short rest times, the workout will only take between one hour to an hour and a half.

Full Body Dumbbell Workout

Exercise 1: Legs - Bulgarian Split Squats

4 Sets, 8-12 Reps, RPE8

This will be the hardest exercise of the workout. So, let’s get it out the way first.

Bulgarian split squats focus on your quads and glutes, whilst also working your hamstrings.

To do Bulgarian split squats, hold your weights in each hand either side of your body. Place one foot face down behind you on a platform or bench at about knee height. Place your other foot out in front of your waist, as if you were about to lunge. Whilst keeping balanced, lower yourself down until the top of your front thigh is parallel with the ground or lower, then drive yourself up with your front leg.

Once you feel like you could only do two more reps, stop and switch legs. Then take a 1-2 minute rest.

Exercise 2: Chest - Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

4 Sets, 8-12 Reps, RPE8

Again, a pretty hard exercise. Don’t worry, it gets easier soon.

Incline bench press targets your pectoral muscles, with an emphasis on building the upper chest. It also heavily involves the triceps and front delts (shoulders).

Set your bench to a 15–30-degree incline. The higher the incline, the harder the movement will be. Sit on your bench with your dumbbells on your thighs, then lean back and press upwards. While pressing, try not to flare your elbows out too much, and push the dumbbells together (don’t hit them together). Once your arms are straight, bring them back down until the dumbbells are just above your chest, and repeat.

As soon as you feel like you couldn’t do more than two reps, stop, and take a 1-2 minute rest.

Exercise 3: Back - Single Arm Dumbbell Row

4 Sets, 8-12 Reps, RPE8

This will be the last exercise with four sets. After this everything will be either done at a lower intensity or with a lighter weight. You’ve got this.

Dumbbell rows hit your mid back and lats, whilst also working your biceps.

The best way to do dumbbell rows is to set your bench to flat, and place one knee at the back, with the same side hand at the front. You should be leaning forward with the other foot on the floor, and a free hand. Grab your dumbbell with your free hand, and pull it up and back, keeping your elbow tucked.

When you feel like you can only do two more reps, switch hands and repeat. Then, take a 1-2 minute rest.

Exercise 4: Legs - Dumbbell RDLs

3 Sets, 8-12 Reps, RPE7

As you already hit your legs at the start with Bulgarian split squats, you only need to do three sets of these. Stop once you hit RPE7.

Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts are excellent for building strength and size in the hamstrings, whilst also strengthening your lower back.

Place a pair of dumbbells on the ground in front of you. With your feet about shoulder-width apart, pick the dumbbells up and stand upright, this is your starting position. Begin to lean forward whilst keeping your spine straight. Bend your knees very slightly and push your hips back until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Then drive your hips forward and straighten your legs until you are upright again.

As soon as you feel like you couldn’t do more than three more reps, put the dumbbells down, and rest for 1-2 minutes.

Exercise 5: SUPERSET - Lateral Raises and Dumbbell Curls

3 Sets, 8-12 Reps, RPE9

This is a superset. You should complete a set of lateral raises, and then immediately complete a set of dumbbell curls before taking a 1-2 minute rest. This is the penultimate exercise so give it everything.

Lateral raises work on your shoulders, specifically the side delts, and they also hit your traps.

To do lateral raises, grab a lighter pair of dumbbells, and stand upright. Keeping the dumbbells by your sides, bring them upwards and lead with your elbows. Almost as if you’re a bird spreading its wings. Once your elbows are level with your shoulders, control the dumbbells back down to the starting position, and repeat. Try not to swing back and forth whilst doing this.

Once you think you could only do one more rep before failing, stop the set, and instantly move on to dumbbell curls.

Dumbbell curls work solely on building your biceps.

To do this exercise, stand upright with a dumbbell in each hand. Keeping your elbows tucked, curl one arm upwards until you feel a squeeze in your bicep. Then, control the weight back down and repeat on the other arm.

When you feel like you could only squeeze out one more rep, stop the set, and take a 1-2 minute rest. Then repeat again, starting with lateral raises. Once you’ve done three sets of each exercise, you’re ready to move on.

Exercise 6: Calves - Weighted Calf Raises

2 Sets, 15-20 Reps, RPE9

You’ve reached the final exercise, congratulations. Although it’s only two sets, it should be high reps and high intensity. Don’t stop until you reach RPE9 if you want calves like Jack Grealish.

Ideally you should take your shoes off for this one as it’ll give you a better range of motion. Stand upright, holding two dumbbells by your sides. Whilst keeping your legs straight, force yourself up onto the balls of your feet so your heels are off the ground. Squeeze your calves at the top, before a controlled descent. Try to not let your heels make full contact with the floor throughout the set.

As soon as you can only do one more rep, stop and have a rest.

Progressive Overload

As you complete this workout every other day, it will undoubtedly start to get easier as you gain strength. This is where we need to make the workout harder, so you can keep progressing at the same rate.

To do this there are multiple things you can do:

  • Increase the reps. If you were doing eight reps on an exercise last week, try and do nine or ten this week. Keep adding reps every week until it becomes impractical, or the workout takes too long.
  • Add another set. Once you’ve added reps to reach the target RPE, you can add in another set to make your muscles work harder.
  • Reduce the rest times. Another way to progress. A shorter rest will make the next set harder. If you did an exercise with 2-minute rests last week, try and reduce that rest time to 1:45 minutes this week!

This process is known as progressive overload. It’s the number one driver of muscle growth and strength gain. You will not progress without implementing it.

Key Points to Remember when doing a Full-Body Dumbbell Workout

  • Keep the intensity high. Aim to reach the target RPE on every single exercise. This means you’ll be going hard enough to have an effective workout.
  • Keep the rests short. Between one and two minute rests is the sweet spot for muscle growth. This also helps to keep the overall intensity of your workout high, and also makes it quicker. Win win.
  • Progressive overload. As the workout starts to get easier, implement progressive overload to ensure it’s still challenging for you.
  • Stay consistent. If you repeat this workout every other day, you will see results. That’s only three or four times a week to get stronger and feel better, it’s worth it. Make sure you take a rest day after every session though, you don’t want to overtrain.

Jamie Grover, Fitness Journalist from Bristol.

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