The 12 Best Upper Body Dumbbell Exercises For Building Muscle

There are so many effective dumbbell movements for your upper body hypertrophy sessions that we couldn’t add them all to this list. This is condensed down to just 12 movements that can make up the bulk of your upper body training. Moving consistently through these exercises will enable results in both muscle gain and strength, so get moving and try out the tri-set provided at the bottom.

11 min read
Sean Klein
Written by
Sean Klein
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In This Resource
  • Benefits Of Dumbbell Upper Body Training
  • Effective Tool For Muscle Growth of Back and Chest
  • Improved Aesthetics
  • Increase Strength of Muscles
  • Training Considerations
  • Hypertrophy (Muscle Growth) Protocols
  • Training Splits With Dumbbells
  • Sample Dumbbell Upper Body Tri-Set Workout
  • The 12 Best Upper Body Dumbbell Exercises For Building Muscle
  • References

Upper body workouts are comprised of emphasis around the chest, back, shoulders and arm muscles. Dumbbell workouts can be an excellent way to target all these different muscle groups. We provide an exercise or more for each of these muscle groups.

Benefits Of Dumbbell Upper Body Training

Effective Tool For Muscle Growth of Back and Chest

Dumbbells are probably second only to the barbell for upper body exercise with weights. They allow overload through almost every movement pattern and don’t require as much stabilisation as the kettlebell making them more effective in some instances. If your goal is to gain muscle, you will likely have a large number of dumbbell exercises in your programme. Consider adding a tempo to some of these dumbbell upper body exercises for increased muscle growth.

Improved Aesthetics

If you’re just trying to look better naked or you’re preparing for a show, muscle gain will be a key part of improving your aesthetics and dumbbell upper body exercises will be one of the main tools you use to achieve this aim. Don’t miss out on the dumbbell arm exercises for improving aesthetics.

Increase Strength of Muscles

Using heavy dumbbells is a little less effective than heavy barbells, that being said they can still be a very useful tool to increase strength. Also the muscle gained through the hypertrophy training will help with increases of strength.

Training Considerations

Hypertrophy (Muscle Growth) Protocols

Using high volume through each movement pattern will be crucial to gaining muscle. This will mean doing 8-12+ working sets for each movement pattern / muscle group. When writing your training plan, ensure that each muscle group is getting the volume it requires to grow. These guidelines are based on the latest research (1) and advice from some of the leaders in the field at RP Strength .

Training Splits With Dumbbells

There are many different ways you can organise and structure your training, the main two being either the upper and lower split and the full body split. There are many factors that go into choosing which one of these suits you best including:

  • Training Age
  • Preference / Enjoyment
  • Other Activities (running, swimming etc)
  • Training frequency
  • Using a full body split is probably the most effective as it allows you to be more dynamic and adapt to which muscle groups need attention. That being said, if you love running or other cardiovascular activities and would rather do an upper lower split timed around your different runs, that makes perfect sense too.

    Sample Dumbbell Upper Body Tri-Set Workout

    Complete 3 rounds

    1. DB Strict Press

    Complete 12 repetitions

    2. Alternating Bicep Curls

    Complete 15 repetitions

    3. DB Tricep Extensions

    Complete 8 repetitions

    The 12 Best Upper Body Dumbbell Exercises For Building Muscle

    The DB 1-Arm Low Row is the most effective dumbbell upper body pulling exercise. It allows for isolation of the upper back musculature while only requiring some lumbar and core stability. If we compare it to the DB bent over row seen below, it is technically much easier for beginners and intermediate individuals to perform as it doesn’t require good hinge positioning or the ability to deal with fatigue in a hinge hold, which can require a great deal of lumber stability.

    The DB Bent Over Row is another great horizontal pulling variation that can be used in upper body dumbbell workouts. However if your goal is to gain muscle specifically this exercise may not be the most optimal as the limiting factor may be the fatigue generated in the lumber spine, which will prevent you from performing as much volume in the muscles of the upper back. However if your goal is more general health and wellness, learning to withstand this fatigue while maintaining good positions will be very beneficial and a great addition to your training programme.

    DB Flies are a traditional bodybuilding exercise for a reason, because they are very effective at isolating and developing the muscles in the chest. If you looking to grow the muscles of the chest using dumbbells, then you should consider adding this exercise into your arsenal. Make sure you’re using weights that allow you to move through your full range of motion, if you start with weights that are too heavy for your ability it will make it difficult to keep movement quality. Focus on using moderate wights and really stretching the muscles of the chest and creating fatigue.

    The DB Strict Press is a simple and effective vertical press movement to grow the muscles of the shoulders, specifically the anterior deltoids. These can be performed for high amounts of volume to create hypertrophy adaptations, making this one of the best exercises in your tool box to build muscle with dumbbells.

    The DB Bench Press is the most effective DB exercise at growing the muscles in the chest. It requires a lot more shoulder stability than a bench press does so be aware that the weight will be slightly lighter with the dumbbell that what you may have previously done with the traditional bench press. Ensure you are performing these with a full range of motion, meaning you bring the dumbbells down to the chest and feel a stretch in the pictorial muscles, then at the top of the repetition locking the elbows.

    Front Raises are a great way to isolate the muscles of the anterior deltoids using dumbbells. It is really important that you don’t use momentum or swing the dumbbell forwards, all the motion needs to come from the muscles of the shoulders in order for this exercise to be effective. This may mean using very light weights, do not be embarrassed about using light weights and doing exercises correctly, its much better than using weights you cannot deal with and not performing the exercise correctly.

    The Half Kneeling Arnold Press is a fun variation of the vertical press movement that you can use to target the muscles of the shoulders. This exercise is a great way to add a novel and interesting exercise into your training plan, however be under no illusions that the extra twisting part of the exercise is going to increase the amount of muscle mass generated from the vertical press movement.

    Hammer Curls are a great way to deal with some heavier weights while targeting the biceps as they allow you to take something slightly heavier than if you were to use traditional bicep curls. As with all of these isolation exercises, momentum generated from anything other than the targeted muscle is just wasting your time, if your goal is to grow the muscle, use the muscle in question as much as possible, not momentum from the hips.

    Reverse Flies are the best way to isolate the rhomboids in the upper back with dumbbells. This exercise requires the chest to be held in the hinge position for a sustained period of time making it difficult for beginners. Another issue can be the raising of the chest as the repetitions are performed, so be sure to keep the chest low to the floor throughout the entire movement not just the first few repetitions.

    Seated bicep curls are another great way to target the muscles of the biceps with dumbbells. As with all the isolation exercises these need to be done with no momentum and through a full range of motion.

    The DB Floor Press is a great exercise that can be used if you do not have access to a bench to perform the DB bench press or just to add some variety into your horizontal pressing work. It is also a very effective exercise for athletes who play in contract sports as they can find themselves needing to generate a lot of force while in this position.

    DB Tricep Extensions are a great tricep isolation exercise that you can use with dumbbells. This exercise will really allow you to generate a lot of fatigue in the muscles of your triceps. Locking the elbow out on the exercise can be very challenging even when you’re using the appropriate weight, so make sure you do not use a weight that inhibits you from moving through a full range of motion.


  • Brad Jon Schoenfeld, Jozo Grgic & James Krieger (2019) How many times per week should a muscle be trained to maximize muscle hypertrophy? A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies examining the effects of resistance training frequency, Journal of Sports Sciences, 37:11, 1286-1295, DOI:  10.1080/02640414.2018.1555906
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    This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.

    Sean Klein


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