Are you trying to build strength with nothing but dumbbells? Then stick around. Because today I’ll be explaining how and why you can get strong with just dumbbells.
It is possible to get strong by using just dumbbells. Becoming strong requires heavy resistance training combined with regular progressive overload. This can be achieved with any type of weight, including dumbbells. 70+ pound adjustable dumbbells are great for beginners to get stronger.
I worked exclusively with dumbbells over the 2020 gym lockdowns, and I managed to maintain my strength on some exercises and get stronger on other exercises.
That’s why I’m sharing my research and experience with you today!
- Can You Really Get Strong With Only Dumbbells?
- Progressive Overload Is The Name Of The Dumbbell Game.
- 3 Factors Determine Strength Gains With Dumbbells.
- How Strong Can You Get With Dumbbells?
- Best Dumbbell Exercises To Build Strength.
- How To Build Strength With Dumbbells.
- Buy The Heaviest Dumbbells You Can Get.
Can You Really Get Strong With Only Dumbbells?
The short answer to the question- yes, you can get strong by using just dumbbells.
To understand how and why, you need to know the mechanisms for strength development.
So here it is put simply.
The 2 main mechanisms you get stronger are by myofibrillar hypertrophy and neural adaptations.
What do these mean?
- Myofibrillar Hypertrophy – describes the process where your muscle fibers increase in size and number in response to lifting heavy weights. As a result, they are able to contract harder and your strength increases.
- Neural Adaptations – describes the process where more neurons are recruited to activate the primary target muscle. As a result, the muscle receives a greater electrical stimulus and contracts harder. This builds your strength.
And guess what?
Dumbbells are able to drive both mechanisms of strength development!
Progressive Overload Is The Name Of The Dumbbell Game.
Any form of resistance can increase strength.
Whether you choose to use dumbbells, barbells, or weight machines, it doesn’t matter
As long as there is sufficient resistance to challenge your muscle, they will become stronger.
The important concept to note is progressive overload, which refers to the act of increasing the workload put on your muscles.
And when you consistently overload, you build strength.
Here are the best ways to progressive overload and get strong with just dumbbells:
- Increase weight load every week- by increasing the weight of your dumbbells, you present a muscle with greater mechanical tension. As a result, muscle fiber size and number increases to deal with the greater demand exerted on the muscle. This is the most effective way to increase strength!
- Increase number of sets- the more sets you perform, the greater the metabolic demand is placed on your muscles. This forces them to recruit metabolic machinery to become stronger in order to deal with the greater demands.
- Increase training frequency- the more often you train, the more often your muscles will be subjected to the demands mentioned in the previous 2 points, and the stronger they will be!
By implementing these 3 principles of progressive overload, you can use dumbbells to build strength.
But make sure you overload sensibly.
This means don’t add so much weight that your form is like a drunk donkey, limbs flailing everywhere.
Instead, you should use a weight in which you can still maintain good form.
You should also overload when you feel your body is ready.
A good sign for when to overload is when you are confident you have the energy to handle more weight or reps.
Or if you feel your muscles can recover at a fast enough rate, add an extra training day to your program.
3 Factors Determine Strength Gains With Dumbbells.
You can certainly become strong with just dumbbells.
But how much stronger can you become, relative to your current strength levels?
This will depend on various factors:
- Current training level affects how much strength you can add- a newbie lifter will be able to use dumbbells to increase strength far more effectively than someone who has already been training for a few years.
- Starting strength influences progression- strength progression is not linear but follows a curve. This means that the stronger you become, the harder it is to add more strength.
- Dumbbell weight limits how much strength you can build- building strength requires you to lift heavy. So it makes sense that the heavier your dumbbells, the stronger you will become.
Here’s an example to put things into perspective.
Let’s take an elite powerlifter who can barbell bench press 300 pounds.
Now compare him to a beginner who struggles to bench press 50 pounds.
Let’s also assume that both have access to a pair of 70 pound adjustable dumbbells.
Who do you think will build more strength?
You’d be right if you chose the beginner!
That’s because the beginner has a low starting strength. And he’ll be able to increase his strength considerably by using the 70 pound dumbbells.
Moreover, if he were to use 90 pound dumbbells, he’d be able to become even stronger.
Check out my other article for a dumbbell 5x5 strength workout!
How Strong Can You Get With Dumbbells?
Here’s are the expected strength gains for different training levels:
|Training Level||Estimated Strength Gains|
|Beginner (<6 months)||300%|
|Novice (>6 months)||150%|
|Intermediate (2 years)||75%|
|Advanced (5 years)||30%|
|Elite (5 years and competes)||marginal gains|
As you can see, a brand new lifter can expect to get significantly stronger by using dumbbells.
In comparison, experienced lifters will see much lower strength gains.
But be aware that these are only estimates.
Your real strength gains will largely be influenced by how heavy your dumbbells can go. The heavier your dumbbells, the more likely you will reach the benchmarks given above.
Go to my other article to learn how to use dumbbells to grow bigger muscles.
Best Dumbbell Exercises To Build Strength.
When you want to get strong and you only have a pair of dumbbells, it’s important to choose the right exercises.
The best exercises to get stronger are the compound lifts.
These will train multiple muscle groups in a single motion as well as replicate the two fundamental every day movements- pushing and pulling.
Here are the best dumbbell exercises to increase strength:
- Bench press for horizontal pushing strength- the bench press engages the pectorals and triceps to extend your arms and push in a horizontal plane. If you don’t have a weight bench, you can try dumbbell floor presses instead!
- Overhead press for vertical pushing strength- the overhead press engages the deltoids and triceps to extend your arms and push in a vertical plane.
- Bent-over for horizontal pulling strength- the row engages the trapezius, rhomboids, lats, and biceps to retract your arms and pull in a horizontal plane.
- Pull-up with dumbbells for vertical pulling strength- the pull-up engages the back muscles (mainly the lats) and biceps to retract your arms and pull in a vertical plane.
- Split-squat for leg strength- the split squat engages all the lower body muscles to extend your legs and hips.
- Deadlift for total body strength- the deadlift engages all the muscles in your body to the dumbbells off the floor.
How To Build Strength With Dumbbells.
Getting strong with dumbbells is not unlike using any other free weight or machine.
Here’s how you you can build strength using dumbbells only:
- Choose compound push, pull, and leg exercises. These can be selected from the list above. Combined, these exercises will train the entire body.
- Do 4 to 6 sets per exercise. This is the optimum range of sets to develop muscular strength.
- Perform 3 to 6 reps per set. This is the ideal rep range to build strength.
- Take a 2 to 3 minute rest between sets. A sufficient rest period allows your muscles to fully recover before performing the next set, allowing for maximal muscle contraction and strength development.
- Lift over 80% of maximum capacity. Dumbbell weight should be over 80% of your 1 rep max (the heaviest amount you can lift for 1 repetition).
- Train for 3 or 4 days per week. Beginners should start with 3 days and intermediates do 4 days. Intense weight training every day is not recommended, since muscle requires rest to recover.
- Maintain proper form at all times. This is especially important with dumbbells since they are inherently more unstable than other free weights or machines. So lift with good form to get the most from your dumbbell exercises.
- Explosive concentric lifting. The upward (concentric) phase of the lift should exert maximal effort to develop strength.
If you follow these 8 tips, you can expect to get stronger with dumbbells!
Although the principles remain similar to other types of weights, there are some unique nuances with dumbbell training.
So make sure you do it properly!
Have a look at my other article for 36 dumbbell exercises you can try (with videos)!
Buy The Heaviest Dumbbells You Can Get.
What weight dumbbells should you get for building strength?
With strength training in particular, it’s important to use as heavy dumbbells as you can get access to.
That’s because dumbbell weights are relatively limited, compared to barbells.
And when you’re constantly progressive overloading to develop strength, you may progress through the dumbbell weights fairly rapidly.
Here’s how long each dumbbell weight will last a beginner for strength training:
- 90 pound dumbbells- around 2-3 years (max).
- 70 pound dumbbells- around 1-2 years (max).
- 50 pound dumbbells- around 6 to 12 months (max).
- 30 pound dumbbells- only good for absolute beginners for a few months.
In general, strength training is more suited with barbells.
That’s because you pretty much have unlimited poundages, allowing you to maintain strength progression.
This becomes especially important on big lower body lifts such as the squat and deadlift which require heavy weights to challenge the muscles.
But if you are adamant about getting stronger with dumbbells, I’d recommend you choose at least 70 pounders.
This will provide enough redundant weight for a degree of future-proofing.
Check out my other article to find out what dumbbell weight you should get.
Today I’ve explained why and how it’s possible to get strong with just dumbbells.
Building strength simply requires you to lift heavy weights and apply progressive overload on a regular basis.
Although dumbbells may not be as good as barbells for strength building, it’s still possible.
But you’ll need to make sure your dumbbells are heavy enough for your current strength levels.
And you should also follow my 8-step plan to build strength with dumbbells.
Will you be trying to get stronger by using dumbbells?
Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for reading guys!
(Biochemistry BSc, Biomedical Sciences MSc, Ex-Skinny Guy)