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A Full-Body Dumbbell Workout to Hit Every Muscle in Your Body
From Self Magazine-By Jenny McCoy-Reviewed by Christa Sgobba, C.P.T.
Yup, even the ones that you might often overlook.
If you want to move through life as efficiently and safely as possibly, building balanced strength is key—and we have a full-body dumbbell workout that will help get the job done.
“It’s important to do strength-based workouts to help prevent injury and to train the muscle fibers to repeatedly work at higher load,” certified personal trainer Francine Delgado-Lugo, CPT, movement and strength coach and cofounder of Form Fitness Brooklyn, tells SELF.
The most functional, balanced strength workouts include movement in multiple planes of motion as well as both unilateral and bilateral exercises.
First off, most of us spend a lot of time in the sagittal plane—which involves front-to-back motion like lunges, step-ups, and presses—and neglect the two other planes of motion, the frontal plane (side-to-side moves) and transverse plane (diagonal or rotational moves). But life happens in all three planes, whether you’re quickly cutting to the side to dodge an obstacle in your path, or lunging diagonally to wrangle a child. By incorporating multiple planes of motion into your routine, your body will be better prepared to move safely and effectively in pretty much every scenario.
As for the importance of strength work that includes unilateral exercises (those where just one side of your body is doing most of the work, like lunges and single-arm rows) and bilateral exercises (those where both sides are contributing, like squats and overhead presses)? Again, it’s just a super functional way to train, since you encounter both types of moves in daily life. For instance, when you’re sitting in a chair, you use both legs and hips to lift and lower yourself. But when you’re climbing steps, you use one leg at a time to push up onto the next step, says Delgado-Lugo.
“In order to be stronger and fitter in those movements, we train similar movements in the gym,” she explains.
Unilateral work in particular can also help you identify, and ultimately correct, strength and mobility imbalances that exist side to side. “We all have these tendencies to just rely on one side of our body,” says Delgado-Lugo. “And so by training unilaterally, that gives us a chance to address some of the weaknesses on the sides of our bodies that we don’t use as often.” By addressing these imbalances, you can boost your overall strength while reducing your risk of injury.
The workout below, which Delgado-Lugo created for SELF, includes movement in multiple planes of direction (mostly the transverse and sagittal planes) as well as a mix of bilateral and unilateral functional exercises. It’s a full-body routine with some compound exercises that engage multiple muscle groups, including your shoulders, chest, back, core, quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
This is a traditional strength workout where you use heavy-for-you weights (in this case, in the form of dumbbells) and do fewer reps with longer rest periods. Since the focus of this workout is strength, not speed, really take your time and make sure you’re doing slow, controlled movements, says Delgado-Lugo. See if you can feel your muscles lengthening and contracting as you perform the reps.
You can do this routine two to three times a week. Just make sure to schedule enough time in between sessions (say, 48 hours or so) so your muscles have time to recover and build back stronger. Before getting started, take about five to seven minutes to warm up so you don’t jump in with cold, stiff muscles. Moves like bodyweight squats, jumping jacks, and gentle mobility drills that target your hips and shoulders are great options. You can also try these five pre-workout stretches.
Ready to fire up your entire body and build super-functional, balanced strength? Right this way for an awesome seven-move, full-body dumbbell workout that may just become the new staple in your routine!
What you need: Two to three sets of dumbbells. For each exercise, you want to use dumbbells that are challenging for 8 reps with good form. You’ll probably need a heavier set of dumbbells for the squat to overhead press, bent-over row, march with dumbbell hold, and kickstand deadlift; a medium set for the alternating chest press; and a medium-to-light set for the wood chopper and halo.
If you only have one set of dumbbells, adjust the number of reps on each move accordingly–for instance, if you have one set of medium weights, do more reps of the first four moves so that those exercises still feel challenging and then scale back your reps of the last two moves as needed.
- Squat to overhead press
- Bent-over row
- March with dumbbell hold
- Kickstand deadlift
- Alternating chest press
- Wood chop
- Do 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps of each move, resting 2 to 3 minutes between sets. Complete all 3 sets of a move before moving onto the next exercise.
Demoing the moves below are Rachel Denis (GIFs 1, 6, and 7), a powerlifter who competes with USA Powerlifting; Francine Delgado-Lugo (GIF 2), cofounder of FORM Fitness Brooklyn; Morit Summers (GIF 3), a Brooklyn-based trainer and the owner of body-positive gym Form Fitness Brooklyn; Gail Barranda Rivas (GIF 4), a certified group fitness instructor, functional strength coach, Pilates and yoga instructor, and domestic and international fitness presenter; and Harlan Kellaway (GIF 5), a trans bodybuilder based in Queens.
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes slightly turned out, a weight in each hand on the tops of your shoulders, palms in.Engage your core and keep your chest lifted and back flat as you shift your weight into your heels, push your hips back, and bend your knees to lower into a squat.Drive through your heels to stand and squeeze your glutes at the top. As you stand, press the dumbbells overhead, straightening your elbows completely. Keep your core engaged and hips tucked under to avoid arching your lower back.Slowly lower the weights back to your shoulders for 1 rep.Do 6–8 reps.
- 2. Bent-Over RowStand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a weight in each hand with your arms at your sides.With your core engaged, hinge forward at the hips, push your butt back, and bend your knees slightly, so that your back is no lower than parallel to the floor. (Depending on your hip mobility and hamstring flexibility, you may not be able to bend so far over.) Gaze at the ground a few inches in front of your feet to keep your neck in a comfortable position.Do a row by pulling the weights up toward your chest, keeping your elbows hugged close to your body, and squeezing your shoulder blades for two seconds at the top of the movement. Your elbows should go past your back as you bring the weight toward your chest.Slowly lower the weights by extending your arms toward the floor. That’s 1 rep.Do 6-8 reps.
- 3. March with Dumbbell HoldStand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Raise your hands so your arms are bent to 90 degrees, keeping your elbows hugged to your sides.With your core engaged, and holding the weights still, march by bringing your right knee to hip height, then replace it on the floor, then lift your left knee to hip height, then replace it on the floor. That’s 1 rep. Do 6-8 reps.You can do this march as slowly or as quickly as you want but focus on engaging your core to pull your knee to hip height and try to keep your hips level (don’t tip too far to the left or right as your feet come up).
- 4. Kickstand Deadlift
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
- Place one foot a foot-length behind the other, heel elevated (as shown above), so your stance is staggered. You’ll be working your front leg.
- Hinge at your hips to lower your body. Push your butt far back and keep your back flat. Your torso should be almost parallel to the floor.
- Keeping your core tight, push through your front heel to stand up straight. Keep the weights close to your shins as you pull up.
- Pause at the top and squeeze your butt. That’s 1 rep.
- Do 6-8 reps, then switch sides and repeat.
- This move works your glutes, hamstrings, lats, core, and calves. Focusing on initiating the deadlift movement with your glutes and pushing your grounded foot into the floor, says Delgado-Lugo. Squeeze your armpits so your lats stay engaged.
- Lie faceup with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Hold a weight in each hand with your palms facing your legs and your elbows on the floor bent at 90 degrees so that the weights are in the air.Press one weight toward the ceiling, straightening your elbow completely and keeping your palm facing your legs.Slowly bend your elbow and lower it back down to the floor.Now, do the same thing with your other arm. This is 1 rep.Do 6-8 reps.
- Stand with your feet wider than hip-width apart, core engaged, holding a dumbbell by your left leg.Raise your arms diagonally in front of your body to the upper right of your reach, allowing your torso and toes to naturally rotate to the right as you twist.Now “chop” the weight down to the left, bringing it across the front of your body and aiming for your left ankle, allowing your torso and toes to naturally rotate in that direction. Focus on keeping your lower body stable and rotating from your core. This is 1 rep.Do 6-8 reps, then switch sides and repeat.
- Stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell at your chest with both hands, gripping it on each end. This is the starting position.Lift the weight to eye level and slowly circle it around your head counterclockwise, making a “halo” shape. Return to the starting position.Then, repeat in the opposite direction. This is 1 rep.Do 6-8 reps, continuing to alternate directions each time.As you move, circle the weight around your head, maintain a tight core, and keep your elbows close to your body to engage your triceps.