Top 6 Dumbbell Exercises for Athletic Muscle Building

Eric Bach
Written By: Eric Bach
December 14th, 2015
Updated: May 25th, 2021
Categories: Articles Training
40.8K Reads
Top Six Dumbbell Exercises for Athletic Muscle
Even if you have access to a fully loaded gym, try adding these 6 dumbbell only lifts to your routine for increased strength, size, and athleticism.

Barbells get all the love, but what happens when every bar in your gym is being used by some bro hitting biceps curls? Can you still make sweet, sweet gains without the big three barbell lifts?

In short, yes.

In fact, too many lifters neglect dumbbells altogether, relegating their gains to mediocre at best.

I love barbells too and a few basic exercises will get you good results. But emotions aside, we’re after a jaw dropping blend of strength, size, and athleticism. And for that, it’s best to use more than just barbells. Dumbbells provide an excellent alternative to complement and vary your training for more strength, size, and athleticism.

Here are two reasons why:

  1. More exercise variety. Basic barbell builders are vitally important to build a foundation of strength and performance. But, as your training gets more advanced, variety becomes increasingly important to jump-start progress and new growth.
  2. Greater balance and proprioception. Compared to barbells, dumbbells require each hand to stabilize a load. When comparing a dumbbell bench press to a barbell bench press, the dumbbell press has greater relative demands in both range of motion and stabilization.

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With resistance held constant, dumbbells will have greater muscle fiber recruitment. With more recruitment comes greater stimulation for each individual muscle.

The benefits of training with dumbbells are real and shouldn’t be ignored. Here are 6 of the best dumbbell exercises to help you build strength and athleticism.

1. Dumbbell Farmers Walks

With a heavy dumbbell in each hand, stand up as tall as possible, with the shoulders retracted and slightly shrugged. Walk slowly heel to toe, holding the tallest position possible and preventing swaying and lateral movement.

Why You Should do Them

Plain and simple, farmers walks get you yoked. Your forearms and traps are under tons of tension to hold position through the entire body, stimulating muscular and metabolic fatigue, two huge components of hypertrophy.

So what does this all mean?

Farmers walks reinforce dynamic stability in your core to make you resilient to flexing your spine under loading like squats, landing on jumps, and taking off into a sprint, improving both power and safety. Combined with stress for muscle growth, farmers walks provide a potent punch for athleticism and muscle growth.

Related: Strong Core, Strong Body: Why Core Strength & Stability Matter

2. Dumbbell 1-1-2 Bench Press

Set up for a normal dumbbell bench press, with both arms extended over your chest. Keep one arm locked out and your eyes on that dumbbell, while performing a one arm press. Then, repeat the press on the opposite arm. To complete the first rep, finish with a regular dumbbell bench press, hence the name “1-1-2 Dumbbell bench press."

Why You Should do Them

The one arm bench press will hammer your obliques to build a strong core, while combining the bilateral press adds a ton of time under tension. Time under tension increases metabolic and muscular fatigue to trigger growth, while blasting your core.

3. Dumbbell Push Press

Hold two dumbbells at shoulder height. Rapidly dip into a quarter squat, then reverse momentum performing a push press. Lock the press overhead then lower the weight back to your shoulders.

Why You Should do Them

The dumbbell push press is an explosive overhead lift. Because the exercise is explosive in nature, you’ll move the weight as fast as possible, improving motor unit recruitment. Basically, this means because you’re using as much force as possible, you’re tapping into more muscle fibers to stimulate more growth.

4. Dumbbell Jump Squat

Set up with feet about shoulder-width apart in an athletic stance with arms up at chest height. The loading phase utilizes a simultaneous downward arm swing with flexing at the hips and knees to load the legs.

Exploding: Rapidly swing the arms up while driving your feet into the ground and extending the hips and knees, and then taking off on the balls of the feet.

Bend your knees into a squat position and absorb force evenly through the foot, not just through the toes. Keep your chest and head up, looking directly ahead.

Why You Should do Them

Dumbbell jump squats improve your explosive power and recruit a greater number of muscle fibers. By recruiting more muscle fibers in a squat pattern, this is a great exercise before squat workouts to maximize muscle unit recruitment. The more muscle fibers you can recruit, the greater their potential for growth.

Related: Warming Up for Dummies: A Guide to Injury Prevention

5. One Arm Dumbbell Snatch

Snatches are excellent for developing explosive power, thick traps, rhomboids, and forearms. Start with a dumbbell on the ground between your legs. In an athletic position holding the dumbbell, drive through your heels, fully extend the hip, and then drive the elbow high, catching the dumbbell in an overhead position. Return to the floor and repeat.

Why You Should do Them

Because you’re using one arm to execute the movement, one arm dumbbell snatches combine an explosive total body exercise with single arm stability overhead.

By using one arm dumbbell snatches, your body will generate force with your legs, transfer overhead, and stabilize through the shoulders. The end result is more athleticism, strong stable shoulders, and some serious volume to build your traps.

6. Dumbbell Split Row

Dumbbell split rows are a row variation that adds an anti-rotation stress to the mix. With a heavy dumbbell in one hand, lock the opposite arm out on a bench and hold a flat back position. Keep the feet slightly staggered, and row the dumbbell up towards your chest, preventing your torso from twisting and rotating. Perform desired sets and reps, repeat on opposite side.


A video posted by bachperformance (@bachperformance) on

Why You Should do Them

Dumbbell split rows improve core strength, scapular retraction, and trigger explosive growth in your forearms, traps, rhomboids, and lats. Program dumbbell split rows like you would any other row– as an accessory pulling movement to support training.

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No training tool, whether it be barbells, dumbbells, or otherwise is the perfect training tool. They all offer a plethora of unique benefits to take your training up a notch. Implement these exercises into your program, and watch your strength and athleticism skyrocket.

Posted on: Mon, 01/04/2016 - 16:47

Power Blocks are excellent-- recommend!

Posted on: Tue, 12/15/2015 - 10:52

Excellent video. Great example of various exercises using dumbbells. I'm in the initial phase of starting my own home gym. Can I get your take on the Power Block dumbbells?

Posted on: Fri, 01/01/2016 - 21:59

I have them in my home gym and love them. Saves and ton of space from individual size dumbbells and frees up space.