14 Dumbbell Exercises to Build Your Upper Body Strength

Tone the muscles in your chest, the back of your shoulders, and your arms with dumbbells. It's easy with these expert-approved, high-intensity moves.

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dumbbell exercises

Build your upper body strength

One of the things gyms don't want you to know is that building upper body strength doesn't require tons of equipment or a fancy membership. All you need is a pair of dumbbells for most of these exercises that strengthen your chest, back, shoulders, and arms. Opt for a combination of the following dumbbell exercises that focus on the chest and back so that you can avoid overdeveloping or strengthening one more than the other.

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Flat dumbbell bench press

For this classic upper body exercise, lie on your back on a flat bench with your feet firmly on the floor and your arms extended over your chest, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Your palms should face forward.

  1. Slowly bend your arms to lower the dumbbells down and outward until they are on either side of your chest.
  2. Extend your arms straight up and over your chest again, pressing back up to the starting position. Pause briefly at the top before repeating for 8-12 reps.

What it does: Strengthens the muscles in your chest, the front of your shoulders, and the back of your arms.

Form tip: Don’t lower the dumbbells too deep, or you’ll risk injuring your shoulders. You should feel a nice stretch in your chest and still be able to see your knuckles and thumbs in the bottom position. The width between your hands determine if you're using more chest (wide grip) or triceps (narrow grip)—and this goes for the other chest upper body exercises, too.

How many reps should you do? For all of these moves, it depends on how heavy your weight is. I typically recommend 8-12 per set, 3-4 sets with a 60-90 second rest in between. Once you can easily achieve 12 reps, bump up your weight.

(Stuck in a fitness rut? Here's how to amp up your sweat sesh and get it back on track.)

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dumbbell exercises

Incline dumbbell chest press

  1. Lie on your back on an incline bench set to 45 degrees with your feet firmly on the floor and your arms extended over your chest, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Your palms should face forward.
  2. Slowly bend your arms to lower the dumbbells down and outward until they are on either side of your chest.
  3. Extend your arms straight up and over your chest again, pressing back up to the starting position. Pause briefly at the top before repeating for 8-12 reps.

What it does: Strengthens the muscles in your chest, the front of your shoulders, and the back of your arms.

Form tip: Don’t lower the dumbbells too deep, or you’ll risk injuring your shoulders. You should feel a nice stretch in your chest and still be able to see your knuckles and thumbs.

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dumbbell exercises

Dumbbell crush press

  1. Lie on your back on a flat bench with your feet firmly on the floor and your arms extended over your chest, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Turn your hands in so your palms are facing, “crushing” the dumbbells up against each other.
  2. Pushing the dumbbells together, slowly bend your arms to lower the dumbbells down just to the middle of your chest.
  3. Extend your arms straight up and over your chest again, pressing back up to the starting position. Pause briefly at the top before repeating for 8-12 reps.

What it does: Strengthens the muscles in your chest, the front of your shoulders, and the back of your arms.

Form tip: Make sure you keep pushing the dumbbells together during both the lowering and lifting phases, as this increases the demand on the target muscles.

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dumbbell exercises

Incline dumbbell chest fly

  1. Lie on your back on an incline bench set to 45 degrees, with your feet firmly on the floor and your arms extended over your chest, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Your palms should face forward.
  2. Keeping your palms facing forward and your elbows soft, slowly lower the dumbbells down in an arching motion until you feel a gentle stretch in your chest muscles.
  3. Smoothly raise the dumbbells back to the starting position in the reverse motion, and repeat for 8-12 reps.

What it does: Strengthens the muscles in your chest and shoulders.

Form tip: Keep palms facing forward, rather than facing each other, to better work your chest muscles. Think about hugging a large barrel or beach ball sitting on your chest during the lifting phase.

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dumbbell exercises

Seated dumbbell shoulder press

  1. Sit on a bench with the back pad angled to a completely upright position at 90 degrees, with your feet planted firmly on the floor. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder level with your elbows out and your palms facing forward.
  2. Press the dumbbells upward until they are directly overhead and your arms are fully extended.
  3. Pause for a full second in the overhead position before lowering the dumbbells back down to the starting position. Repeat for 8-12 reps.

What it does: Strengthens the muscles in the front of your shoulders and the back of your arms.

Form tip: If you find this exercise causes any shoulder discomfort, bring your elbows in and allow your palms to face each other. There could be other reasons for your shoulder pain as well.

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dumbbell exercises

Dumbbell push press

  1. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at shoulder level, with elbows out and palms facing forward.
  2. Bend your knees and lower yourself down about 6 inches into a quarter squat.
  3. Explosively—with as much force as possible—press the dumbbells overhead by extending your arms, pushing your feet down into the floor, pushing your hips forward, and straightening your legs.
  4. Pause in the overhead position for a full second before lowering the dumbbells slowly back down to shoulder level.
  5. Take a full second to check your form before repeating for 8-12 reps.

What it does: Strengthens the muscles in the front of your shoulders and the back of your arms while building total-body power and explosiveness. Resistance bands are also a great way to build explosiveness.

Form tip: Focus on snapping your hips explosively—with as much force as possible—during the lifting phase.

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Single-arm dumbbell push press

  1. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand at shoulder level, with your elbow out and your palm facing in. Let your left arm hang by your side.
  2. Bend your knees and lower yourself down about 6 inches into a quarter squat.
  3. Explosively—with as much force as possible—press the dumbbell overhead by extending your arms, pushing your feet hard into the floor, pushing your hips forward, and straightening your legs.
  4. Pause in the overhead position for a full second before lowering the dumbbell slowly back down to shoulder level.
  5. Take a full second to check your form before repeating for 8-12 reps, and then switch to the left side.

What it does: Strengthens the muscles in the front of your shoulders and the back of your arms, while building total-body power and explosiveness.

Form tip: Keep your core tight, and do not allow the weight of the dumbbell to bend you laterally to the side. If it helps your balance, you can put your left arm out to your side.

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dumbbell exercises

Dumbbell thruster

  1. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, resting the dumbbells lightly on your shoulders as if in a rack, with your elbows pointed slightly up and your palms facing in.
  2. Keeping an upright posture and not allowing the dumbbells to tip down, bend your knees and lower yourself down into a full squat, with your thighs below parallel to the floor, as low as you can comfortably go.
  3. Explosively—with as much force as possible—stand back up and press the dumbbells over your head until your arms are fully extended, keeping your palms facing in.
  4. Return the dumbbells to the starting position. Take a full second to check your form before repeating for 8-12 reps.

What it does: This upper body exercise strengthens the muscles in the front of your shoulders, the back of your arms, and your hips and thighs, while building total-body power and explosiveness. Working your upper and lower body at the same time is an effective calorie-burner; add in some cardio throughout your week to bump up your results.

Form tip: You may have heard that in a full squat, the back of your thighs should touch your calves, but this often causes too much pressure on the knees. Don’t force it; just go as low as you comfortably can and make sure your knees don't extend past your toes (you should be able to see your toes).

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dumbbell exercises

Dumbbell iron cross

  1. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand at your sides with the palms facing forward.
  2. Raise your arms out to the sides to shoulder level, creating a cross with your body. Your palms should remain facing forward.
  3. Hold this position for one second, then slowly return to start position. Repeat for 8-12 reps.

What it does: This upper body exercise strengthens the muscles in the sides of your shoulders and upper back.

Form tip: Start with a light dumbbell weight on this exercise to ensure you're not straining your shoulders.

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dumbbell exercises

Power dumbbell front raise

  1. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart while holding a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing in toward your thighs.
  2. Bend your knees, leaning slightly forward, and lower yourself down about 6 inches into a quarter squat.
  3. Explosively—with as much force as possible—push your hips forward, straighten your legs, and raise the dumbbells in front of you until they are completely over your head. Keep your elbows straight and palms facing in.
  4. Pause for a full second in the overhead position before lowering the dumbbells back slowly to the starting position and immediately lowering yourself back into the quarter squat. Repeat for 8-12 reps.

What it does: This upper body exercise strengthens the muscles in the front of your shoulders, while building total-body power and explosiveness. Working your total body in one move is an excellent calorie-torcher. (To supplement your upper body strength, try one of these effective dance workouts.)

Form tip: Except when you pause in the overhead position, you should be moving constantly through this exercise; find a rhythm to keep the movement fluid.

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dumbbell exercises

Chest-supported dumbbell row

  1. Set an incline bench to about a 45-degree angle and lie face-down with your head and upper chest hanging off the end of the bench. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and let your arms hang straight down with your palms facing each other.
  2. Keeping your chest firmly on the bench pad, pull through your shoulder blades and elbows, and bend your arms to row the dumbbells up until they meet the bench.
  3. Extend your arms to lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position, and repeat for 8-12 reps.

What it does: This upper-body exercise strengthens the muscles in your upper back and the front of your arms.

Form tip: Make sure your chest stays flat and secure against the bench, and ensure that you're not straining your back.

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dumbbell exercises

3-point dumbbell row

  1. Stand alongside a flat bench with your feet about hip-width apart. Bend from the waist and plant your right hand on the bench. Hold a dumbbell in your left hand and let your arm hang straight down. Your back should be flat, and your neck should form a straight line with your back.
  2. Draw your left shoulder blade toward the middle of your back as you simultaneously bend your elbow and row the weight to your rib cage.
  3. Pause for a full second in this position. Then slowly lower the weight back down to the starting position. Complete 8-12 reps with the left arm before switching sides.

What it does: Strengthens the muscles in your upper back and the front of your arms.

Form tip: Do not rotate your torso during the lifting phase of this exercise; if you cannot keep your back and core still, lower your weight. Work on strengthening your abs with this six-week workout plan.

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Bent-over dumbbell rear-deltoid raise

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Push your hips back and bend over until your upper body is parallel to the floor, with your arms hanging straight down, palms facing each other and elbows straight.
  2. Using the upper-back muscles, slowly raise the dumbbells out to your sides until your arms are parallel to the floor. Make sure to keep your neck in a straight line with your back. Pause for a full second in this position before lowering the dumbbells back to the starting position, and repeat for 8-12 reps.

What it does: Strengthens the muscles in your upper back and rear shoulders.

Form tip: Be careful that you're not using momentum to raise dumbbells up to the sides. Use a conservative weight in order to keep the movement slow and controlled.

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Dumbbell pullover

  1. Lie on your back on a flat bench with your feet pressed firmly into the floor. Make a “diamond” out of your hands, with one hand on top of the other, and place the head of a dumbbell between your hands.
  2. Raise your arms above your chest with the dumbbell hanging down from above. Keeping your arms straight, slowly lower the dumbbell back behind your head until you feel a comfortable stretch in your rib cage.
  3. Once you reach this position, immediately raise the dumbbell back to the starting position, and repeat for 8-12 reps.

What it does: Strengthens the large muscles in your back that run along the sides of your spine, as well as the muscles in the back of your arms and chest.

Form tip: To engage your core and protect your lower back, push your lower back into the bench during the lowering phase of the exercise. Don’t bend your elbows to lower the dumbbells; keeping your arms straight recruits the target muscles more effectively.

Now that you know the best dumbbell exercises, check out these strength-training mistakes.