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Oct 11, 2022
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4 Workouts With a Single Dumbbell for Muscle, Fat Loss, and More

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You’ve heard about being “down to your last dime,” but how about being “down to your last dumbbell?” Maybe a hard economy forced the fire sale of your once epic home gym. Maybe you’re making do at a poorly equipped hotel gym. Or maybe you’re on a road trip with limited space for strength equipment. … Read more
The post 4 Workouts With a Single Dumbbell for Muscle, Fat Loss, and More appeared first on Breaking Muscle.

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You’ve heard about being “down to your last dime,” but how about being “down to your last dumbbell?”

Maybe a hard economy forced the fire sale of your once epic home gym. Maybe you’re making do at a poorly equipped hotel gym. Or maybe you’re on a road trip with limited space for strength equipment.

Person in pink tank top sitting on bench, resting a dumbbell on one thigh
Hryshchyshen Serhii / Shutterstock

No matter the scenario, these single-dumbbell workouts will help you turn strife into strength, lean times into lean mass, and hardship into a hard body. But don’t expect charity gains. You’re going to have to work for it.

Best Single-Dumbbell Workouts

Best Single-Dumbbell Workout for Muscle Gain

Training to put on muscle without the niceties of a fully equipped gym? Fortunately, muscle gain occurs across a wide range of repetitions and using weights ranging from light to heavy (e.g. 30% to more than 80% of maximum). (1)(2)(3)(4)

As such, a single dumbbell of moderate weight may be the most utilitarian tool for whole-body hypertrophy training. With thoughtful exercise selection and a time-saving strategy like agonist-antagonist supersets, you’ve got a no-frills recipe for growth.

For this single-dumbbell hypertrophy workout, a moderate weight works best (e.g. 15 to 50 pounds). Training to failure is not “required” for noteworthy gains. (5)(6) For best results with limited equipment, however, you will need to take these sets to a high level of effort. (4) That is, each set should approach failure. Select a number of repetitions that leaves between one and four repetitions “in the tank.”

Build Size with One Weight

This full-body workout uses paired exercises and an emphasis on single-arm or single-leg movements to get the most from minimal equipment. Begin targeting the back and chest. Like a standard row, the wide dumbbell row hits the mid-back (middle trapezius and rhomboids) but may better train the rear deltoids. (7)(8) Elevating one hand during the push-up will increase the difficulty of the exercise by achieving a greater stretch across pectoralis major (chest) in the bottom position.

Next you’ll tackle legs. During the single-leg Romanian deadlift, you can use a sturdy object, such as a chair or bench, for balance assistance and to keep the focus on your hamstrings rather than stabilizing muscles. But be disciplined. Do not push with your support hand.

You’ll end the session with some direct arm work. You’re welcome. By bracing your upper arm against your thigh during the concentration curl, you eliminate “cheating” from body sway and shoulder flexion. The long head of triceps is lengthened across the shoulder during the overhead triceps extension, making this exercise superior for muscle growth. (9)

Wide Dumbbell Row

  • How to Do it: Brace your free arm on a flat bench with your feet in a stable stance. Grab the dumbbell with your working arm and pull it “up and out.” In the top position, your elbow should be nearly in line with your shoulder and away from your ribs. Keep your torso level and avoid rotating as you pull and lower the weight.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 sets to muscular fatigue, per arm. Depending on the weight of your dumbbell, repetitions may range from six to 30 or more.
  • Rest time: No rest between arms. No rest before moving to the next exercise.

Single-Arm Emphasis Push-Up

  • How to Do it: Lie on the ground with one hand on the dumbbell and the other hand flat on the floor. Keep your spine and legs straight as you lower into a deep push-up. The chest of the elevated hand will be put into a significant stretch. Press up until the non-elevated hand is locked out. Perform an even number of repetitions with each hand elevated.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 sets to muscular fatigue.
  • Rest time: No rest between arms. Rest 90 seconds before repeating the previous exercise.

Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

  • How to Do it: Stand near a chair or the back of an incline bench while holding a dumbbell in one hand. Use the bench, as needed, for stability. Lift the leg of the working side slightly off the ground and softly bend the opposite knee. Bend at your hips as you “reach” the dumbbell toward your foot on the ground. Allow your working-side leg to rise into the air behind you. Keep your torso straight and don’t bend at the spine. Pull your torso back to stand upright.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 sets to muscular fatigue, per leg. Depending on the weight of your dumbbell, repetitions may range from six to 30 or more.
  • Rest time: No rest between legs. No rest before moving to the next exercise.

Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat

  • How to Do it: Face away from a flat bench while holding a dumbbell in one hand. Place the same-side leg behind you, resting your shoelaces on the bench. Squat down with your front leg and allow your back knee to drop to the floor. Keep your shoulders pulled back and your torso upright during the movement. Drive through your front foot to stand upright.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 sets to muscular fatigue, per leg. Depending on the weight of your dumbbell, repetitions may range from six to 30 or more.
  • Rest time: No rest between legs. Rest 90 seconds before repeating the previous exercise.

Concentration Curl

  • How to Do it: Sit on a bench with your feet wider than shoulder-width. Grab a dumbbell with a palms-up grip in one hand and rest the triceps of that arm near the same-side knee. Curl the weight toward your face. Don’t allow your legs or torso to swing the weight up. Lower the weight to full straight-arm extension.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 sets to muscular fatigue, per arm. Depending on the weight of your dumbbell, repetitions may range from six to 30 or more.
  • Rest time: No rest between arms. No rest before moving to the next exercise.

Single-Arm Overhead Extension

  • How to Do it: Sit upright on a flat bench. Press a dumbbell overhead with one arm. Keep your torso tight and upright. Lower the weight behind your head until your hand is roughly in line with the top of your head. Keep your elbow pointed generally toward the ceiling, don’t allow it to move significantly. Only your hand should move with the weight.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 sets to muscular fatigue, per leg. Depending on the weight of your dumbbell, repetitions may range from six to 30 or more.
  • Rest time: No rest between arms. Rest 90 seconds before repeating the previous exercise.

Best Single-Dumbbell Workout for Fat Loss

Circuit training, a method of exercise that links multiple exercises together with minimal rest between each, is effective for improving body composition. In addition to decreasing body fat percentage and increasing muscularity, circuits may also promote modest improvements in aerobic fitness and strength. (10)(11)

Single-dumbbell exercises are ideal for circuit training because they require minimal setup. Machine-based circuit training obviously requires plenty of equipment, but it also requires monopolizing more than one’s fair of the gym. Single-dumbbell circuit training can just as easily be done in a small corner of a busy gym or a lonely motel room.

One-Dumbbell Fat-Burning Circuit

A light dumbbell works well for this whole-body resistance training circuit — 10 to 30 pounds should work for most lifters, depending on your strength and fitness level. It uses a descending repetition scheme, with each exercise performed for progressively fewer reps, to accommodate fatigue as you continue to work.

Perform the exercises in order, rest briefly, and then repeat the entire sequence for a total of three rounds.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

  • How to Do it: Take a staggered stance with your front foot next to the dumbbell. Your working arm will be opposite your front foot — left foot forward with your right arm working, and vice versa. Brace your non-working forearm on your front thigh. Grab the dumbbell with your working arm and row toward your back hip. Maintain a neutral grip with your palm facing your leg. Lower the weight to a full stretch, nearly reaching ankle-level.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 30 per arm.
  • Rest time: No rest between arms. No rest before moving to the next exercise.

Single-Arm Floor Press

  • How to Do it: Lie down with the dumbbell in one hand and your elbow resting on the ground. Bend your legs with your feet flat. Press the weight above your chest to full lockout. Lower under control. Do not bounce your arm off the ground between repetitions.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 25 per arm.
  • Rest time: No rest between arms. No rest before moving to the next exercise.

Goblet Squat

  • How to Do it: Stand up while holding the dumbbell in the “goblet position,” supporting the dumbbell with both hands in front of your chin or neck. Keep your elbows close to your torso. Squat down as low as possible while keeping your upper body vertical. Keep your feet flat on the floor throughout each repetition.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 20
  • Rest time: No rest before moving to the next exercise.

Dumbbell Good Morning

  • How to Do it: Hold the dumbbell to your upper chest using both hands. Slightly bend your knees while pushing your hips back and bending at the waist. When your upper body is nearly parallel to the ground, “pull” with your glutes and hamstrings to return upright. Keep a neutral spine during the movement. Don’t allow your back to round forward.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 15
  • Rest time: No rest before moving to the next exercise.

Single-Arm Arnold Z Press

  • How to Do it: Get on the ground in a “long-sitting position” with your legs extended in front of you and your upper body straight. Hold the dumbbell in front of your working-side shoulder with your palm facing your body. As you press overhead, rotate the dumbbell so your palm faces forward in the top position. Reverse the movement as you lower the weight.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 x 10 per arm.
  • Rest time: No rest between arms. Rest 60 seconds before repeating the first exercise.

Best Single Dumbbell Workout for Conditioning

A complex is a series of lifts performed in immediate succession with the same piece of equipment. Barbell and kettlebell complexes are extremely popular, and for good reasons. They train all major energy systems, build multi-joint strength, and fortify your grip. But the humble dumbbell does not get the notoriety it deserves for complexes.

As a unilateral (single–arm) implement, it hammers the core while its balanced center of mass may be more user-friendly than a kettlebell for certain Olympic lift-inspired exercises, such as the dumbbell snatch.

One-Dumbbell Conditioning Complex

The exercises in this conditioning complex are power- and strength-based, which would tend to tax the quick-energy phosphagen system when performed in isolation. However, as the repetitions and rounds of the complex add up, you will lean hard into the anaerobic glycolysis and aerobic systems. Meaning this single-dumbbell complex is a multi-functional conditioning workout.

Perform all repetitions with the dumbbell in your left hand, followed by all repetitions with the dumbbell in your right hand, before immediately moving on to the next exercise.

Dumbbell Snatch

  • How to Do it: Start with the dumbbell in the “hang position” between your knees — your feet should be slightly wider than shoulder-width and your palm facing your body. Drive through your hips and knees toward the ceiling. Carry that momentum through the dumbbell as you “zip” the weight in front of your midline and “flick” it into the overhead position. Lockout with a straight arm. Lower the weight with control to the starting position and repeat.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 to 5 x 4 per arm.
  • Rest time: No rest between arms. No rest before moving to the next exercise.

Front-Loaded Reverse Lunge

  • How to Do it: Hold the dumbbell at shoulder-level with your thumb near your shoulder. Step backward into a deep lunge position with your leg on the same side as the weight. Keep your torso upright and resist the weight pulling your upper body to the side. When your rear knee is close to the ground, drive through your front leg to return to a standing position. Perform all reps with one leg, then switch hands and repeat with the opposite leg.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 to 5 x 4 per leg.
  • Rest time: No rest between legs. No rest before moving to the next exercise.

Dumbbell Push Press

  • How to Do it: Combine a mini-squat and ballistic overhead press to drive the weight overhead. Begin with the dumbbell near your shoulder and your palm facing your head. Squat down several inches before exploding upward as you press overhead to full lockout. Lower the weight under control.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 to 5 x 4 per arm.
  • Rest time: No rest between arms. No rest before moving to the next exercise.

Single-Arm Overhead Squat

  • How to Do it: Challenge your trunk stability and shoulder complex mobility with this full-body squat. Press the weight to lockout overhead and widen your stance. Squat as low as possible without moving your locked out arm overhead. Keep your torso as upright as possible and resist any rotation or twisting.
  • Sets and Reps: 3 to 5 x 4 per arm.
  • Rest time: No rest between arms. Rest 90 seconds before repeating the first exercise.

Best Single Dumbbell Workout for Strength

Heavy bilateral (double-limb) movements with barbells and machines tend to be the go-to exercises for strength in traditional gyms. But if all you’ve got is a single dumbbell, you’re going to have to make it work.

An effective strategy for enhancing strength is “accentuated eccentric training.” Accentuated eccentrics apply greater loads during the negative or lowering phase of the exercise than those applied during the concentric phase. (12) Weight releasers are commonly used for accentuated eccentric training, but this specialized device only works for one repetition, as the extra weight is jettisoned at the bottom of the first repetition. More importantly, it’s not compatible with dumbbell training.

Fortunately, accentuated eccentric loading can be accomplished by performing a unilateral, or single-sided, exercise with the assistance of the other limb during the concentric (lifting) phase. In plain English, you will use your off-side arm or leg to “help” during the upward phase of the lift and lower the weight with only your working side.

Build Strength with Just One Weight

Just as training to failure is not essential for muscle hypertrophy, it is not a requirement for strength. (6) You can and will build strength with not-to-failure sets of these exercises as long as your dumbbell is moderately heavy (e.g. 30 to 70 pounds, depending on your strength).

Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Overhead Press

  • How to Do it: Kneel on the ground with the weight on the same side as the down knee. Use your off-side arm to assist in lifting the dumbbell from the bottom of the movement to lockout. Lower the weight using only your working-side arm. For each repetition, use the non-working arm to help lift the weight.
  • Sets and Reps: 2 to 6 x 4 to 6 per arm.
  • Rest time: Rest two minutes between sets.

Skater Squat

  • How to Do it: Stand on your working leg while holding the dumbbell in the front rack position, hugged to your upper chest with both hands. Squat down until your off-side knee gently contacts the floor. Dig your off-side foot into the floor to assist back to a standing position. If you are unable to perform skater squats with control, place a pillow or stack of textbooks under your off-side knee to limit the range of motion.
  • Sets and Reps: 2 to 6 x 4 to 6 per leg.
  • Rest time: Rest two minutes between sets.

Single-Leg Good Morning

  • How to Do it: Begin standing on one leg with the dumbbell in the front rack position, hugged to your upper chest with both hands. Hinge forward at the hips with minimal knee bend. Allow your back leg to rise into the air until your torso is nearly parallel to the ground. In the bottom position, bring your off-side foot to the floor to assist your return to a standing position. Perform all reps with one leg before switching sides.
  • Sets and Reps: 2 to 6 x 4 to 6 per leg.
  • Rest time: Rest two minutes between sets.

How to Warm-Up for Single-Dumbbell Workouts

A typical warm-up consists of five to ten minutes of general aerobic exercise followed by several lighter sets of the exercises that will be included in the workout. Since you’ve only got one dumbbell, cardio equipment and lighter “work-up sets” are out of reach.

person outdoors jumping up
Credit: Dusan Petkovic / Shutterstock

However, even in these desperate times, a warm-up is important to get the most out of your workout. Consider jogging or ropeless jump rope (“pogo hops”) to elevate your body temperature.

For squats, lunges, Romanian deadlifts, and good mornings, a bodyweight warm-up of three sets of 10 to 12 reps should suffice. For non-bodyweight exercises, perform non-challenging, low-repetition sets of the primary movements you will train in the workout.

One Weight is All it Takes

Performed with intent and intensity, single-dumbbell workouts can build muscle size, promote fat loss, improve conditioning, and develop strength. These workouts can be useful when you find yourself in less-than-ideal scenarios where equipment is limited or you can deliberately program a single-dumbbell workout as an exercise in minimalism. Benefits of single-dumbbell training include versatility, the potential for unilateral loading for a challenging stimulus to the core, and the ability to efficiently perform accentuated eccentric exercises. Next time you are “down to your last dumbbell,” a single-dumbbell workout might change your outlook from grim to grateful.

References

  1. Lasevicius, T., et al. (2018). Effects of different intensities of resistance training with equated volume load on muscle strength and hypertrophy. European Journal of Sport Science18(6), 772-780.
  2. Jenkins, N. D., et al. (2017). Greater neural adaptations following high-vs. low-load resistance training. Frontiers in Physiology8, 331.
  3. Schoenfeld, B. J., et al. (2021). Loading recommendations for muscle strength, hypertrophy, and local endurance: a re-examination of the repetition continuum. Sports9(2), 32.
  4. Pareja‐Blanco, F., et al. (2017). Effects of velocity loss during resistance training on athletic performance, strength gains and muscle adaptations. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports27(7), 724-735.
  5. Vieira, A. F., et al. (2021). Effects of resistance training performed to failure or not to failure on muscle strength, hypertrophy, and power output: a systematic review with meta-analysis. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research35(4), 1165-1175.
  6. Grgic, J., et al. (2021). Effects of resistance training performed to repetition failure or non-failure on muscular strength and hypertrophy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Sport and Health Science.
  7. Hedrick, A., & Herl, M. (2021). Technique of the Unilateral Dumbbell Wide Row. Strength & Conditioning Journal43(4), 121-123.
  8. García-Jaén, M., et al. (2021). Electromyographical responses of the lumbar, dorsal and shoulder musculature during the bent-over row exercise: a comparison between standing and bench postures (a preliminary study). Journal of Physical Education and Sport, 21(4), 1871-1877.
  9. Maeo, S., et al. (2022). Triceps brachii hypertrophy is substantially greater after elbow extension training performed in the overhead versus neutral arm position. European Journal of Sport Science, 1-11.
  10. Ramos-Campo, D. J., et al. (2021). Effects of resistance circuit-based training on body composition, strength and cardiorespiratory fitness: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Biology10(5), 377.
  11. Schmidt, D., Anderson, K., Graff, M., & Strutz, V. (2015). The effect of high-intensity circuit training on physical fitness. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness56(5), 534-540.
  12. Wagle, J. P., et al. (2017). Accentuated eccentric loading for training and performance: A review. Sports Medicine47(12), 2473-2495.

Featured Image: Arsenii Palivoda / Shutterstock

The post 4 Workouts With a Single Dumbbell for Muscle, Fat Loss, and More appeared first on Breaking Muscle.

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