Dumbbell Only Workout

updated January 1, 2019

So, all you’ve got is a single pair of dumbbells – and they weigh just 30 pounds each. Think there’s no way you can get a challenging workout in, especially for your stronger muscle groups like back and legs?

Well, think again – with the right techniques and the proper exercises you can complete a devastating workout for every muscle in your body with that pair of 30 pounders. In fact, by concentrating on your form and exercise order, those dumbbells will feel a whole lot heavier. Let’s find out how to do it with a dumbbell only workout.

Planning Your Approach

Start off by thinking about the muscle groups you need to work in order to complete a full body workout:

Single dumbbell complete body workout

  • Chest
  • Back
  • Legs
  • Shoulders
  • Biceps

Now, think about how close a 30-pound dumbbell is to the normal weight you would lift if you had access to all the dumbbells you wanted.

Clearly, the weight you use on your smaller muscle groups – shoulders, biceps, triceps – would be closer to 30 pounds than for your legs or back. That means that the techniques that you need to use to intensify the resistance of your 30 pounders will be different from those needed for a leg exercise, like squats.

Start your workout with the muscle groups that are closest to the normal weight you would be using – arms and shoulders.


biceps workout with dumbbells

Your first exercise will be the standing dumbbell press. You may be used to using more weight than 30 pounds on this move. To make the ’30s feel heavier, you need to eliminate momentum on this exercise. You can do this by backing up to the wall and pinning your shoulder blades to the wall throughout the entire movement. This prevents you from leaning forward and back to ‘cheat’ the weight up.

You can further intensify this exercise by performing a technique known as one and a half reps. This involves performing a full rep and then bringing the weights back up to a position where your forearms are parallel to the floor on every rep. This increases your time under tension, making the exercise much tougher.


triceps with dumbbells

Your 30-pound dumbbells are a good weight to use on the lying dumbbell extension. Lie on a bench with the dumbbells in your hands and your arms straight up above your head and slightly angled back. Keeping your elbows in, lower your forearms so that the dumbbells travel down past your forehead and end up around your ears. Use the power of your triceps to push back to the start position.

Again, on this exercise, you should use the one and a half reps technique to make your 30-pound dumbbells feel a lot heavier. Complete a full rep and then come back down to the level of your forehead and push back.


chest workout with dumbbells

30 pounds may be less than half the weight that you normally use on your shoulders. That means that you will have to utilize a more intense technique to make the chest work harder. By combining pre-exhaustion with slow motion reps, those ’30s will feel like 60’s or even ’70s.

Pre-exhaustion training involves doing an isolation type exercise to exhaust the target muscle – in this case, the chest – before immediately doing a compound move. In this case, our isolation move will be push-ups done while gripping onto your pair of dumbbells. This allows you to get a deeper stretch on the chest as you come down in the push-up. As you lift back up, roll the weights in toward each other to further enhance pec activation. Keep going to failure.

Once you’ve reached the point where you can’t do any more reps on your dumbbell only workout, go directly into the incline dumbbell press. However, you should do this with the following variation:

Rather than holding the dumbbells with palms facing forward, as you normally would, turn your hands so that they are facing toward each other. Now press the dumbbells against each other. Keep this inward pressure going as you lower and raise the dumbbells.


shoulders workout with dumbbells

Your chest workout has already given your deltoids a good workout, meaning that you won’t have to use so much weight to exhaust them.

Start off with the Front “L” Raise. This is an exercise that you would probably use around 30 pounds with, even if you did have access to more weight. The “L” Raise involves standing with the dumbbells at your sides. Keeping your arms straight, lift one dumbbell directly out in front of you and the other out to the side. Bring them up to shoulder level and then lower under control. Now reverse the movement to bring the opposite arms up and out.

Immediately following the Front “L” Raise, go to the standing dumbbell press. Because the previous dumbbell only workout has pre-exhausted your deltoids, those 30 pounders will feel twice as heavy. Still, you can intensify further by doing the wide arc dumbbell press. Rather than going straight up and down, allow your elbows to travel in a fairly wide arc, with the dumbbells touching at the top.


legs workout with dumbbells

When you’re able to squat with hundreds of pounds, it may seem impossible to get a decent workout for your legs with nothing but a dumbbell only workout. Well, you can even do a total body training with only a pair of dumbbells and here’s how . . .

The first technique for legs is to split the load. By working each leg individually, you’re able to make that 30-pound weight go a lot further. The second technique is to incorporate explosive, plyometric type moves into the reps. Finally, you will incorporate a progressive stop ladder to really increase the tension on your thighs. And, we’ll put all of these techniques to use in a great single leg exercise – the Bulgarian Split Squat.

The Bulgarian Split Squat involves standing about three feet in front of a bench and resting one foot on the bench. The rear leg should be slightly bent. Holding the dumbbells in your hands, you lower down into a squat position and then push through the front thigh to return to the start position.

To intensify this exercise, jump up at the top of the move so that your front foot lifts off the ground. Now, when you lower into the bottom position of the next rep, hold that bottom spot for one second. Then go into your next rep, jumping up at the top. This time, when you come down, hold for two seconds.

Continue this progression adding a second’s hold on each rep. This increases the time under tension, which is the real key to muscle growth and strength gains.


back with dumbbells

The back is another body part that you can go extremely heavy on. Again, we need to use some techniques in order to eliminate momentum and provide more isolation on the working muscle group. To achieve this, you will be performing the inverted incline row.

Set up an incline bench to a 45-degree angle. Now, lie face down on the bench with your arms hanging down and the 30-pound dumbbells in your hands. Pull the dumbbells up so that your elbows travel back as high as possible. The weights should end up alongside your ribcage.

Utilizing the same technique as on the Bulgarian Split Squat, hold for one second as you squeeze your scapulae together. On the second rep, hold for two seconds and so on. By the eighth rep, those 30-pound dumbbells will feel like the ’80s!

single dumbbell workout

The Workout

  • Wall Dumbbell Curls – 3 x 12
  • Lying Dumbbell Extension – 3 x 12
  • Dumbbell Push Ups / Incline Dumbbell Press – 3 x failure / 3 x 12
  • Front “L” Raise / Arc Dumbbell Press – 3 x 12 / 3 x 12
  • Bulgarian Split Squat – 3 x 12
  • Inverted Incline Row – 3 x 12

You should rest for 60 seconds between sets in this dumbbell only workout. However, there should be absolutely no rest between the dumbbell push-up and the Incline Dumbbell Press. The same thing applies when doing the Front “L” Raise and the Arc Dumbbell Press.


Your muscles do not know how much weight is in your hands. All they know is how heavy the weight feels. You now have at your fingertips a whole host of intensity techniques and custom exercises that will make 30 pounds feel like double, or even triple that weight. A dumbbell only workout allows you to get a crushing workout in with those 30 pounders that you thought you’d outgrown. So, grab those dumbbells and crush it!


Crushing Workout with Just a Single Pair of Dumbbells