does 5x5 work with dumbbells

How And Why Does The 5×5 Work With Dumbbells? Here’s What Skinny Guys Need To Know

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Are you interested in the 5x5 workout routine, but only have access to dumbbells? Then this is the post for you. Because today, I’ll be explaining how to make the 5x5 work with dumbbells.

The 5x5 can be done with dumbbells by substituting the barbell exercises with dumbbell variants. Dumbbells have limited weight and are not as effective as barbells. But it is still possible to build muscle with a dumbbell 5x5 routine by adding extra dumbbell exercises to increase training volume.

10 years of weight lifting experience has taught me one important lesson.

Any workout can be tweaked to make it effective.

That’s why I want to show you how to adjust the 5x5 workout to cater for dumbbells-only!

Let’s dive right in.

Can 5x5 Work With Dumbbells?

The 5x5 programme has gained traction over the years, the most famous being Strong Lifts 5x5.

Its popularity mainly stems from the 5x5’s simplicity and effectiveness for beginners to gain muscle, get stronger, and improve overall fitness.

The original programme was designed around the barbell.

But can the same 5x5 workout be performed using dumbbells? And if so, can it be as effective?

I turned to the following Reddit and Quora weight lifting communities to find out:

Here are the 29 compiled opinions:

pie chart to show poll results for can the 5x5 work with dumbbells?

31% State 5x5 Cannot Be Done With Dumbbells.

Just under a third of people outright stated that the 5x5 routine cannot work with dumbbells.

31% think 5x5 with dumbbells does not work

The most common reason being that dumbbells have insufficient poundage for long-term progression.

This is an important argument since the 5x5 program is predicated on fast weight progression (which can be easily done with barbells).

But since dumbbells are severely limited in weight, it stands to reason that a dumbbell 5x5 will provide fruitless returns.

It’s also important to note that the original barbell 5x5 workout has it’s own limitations, and these are further compounded by the limited weight capacity of dumbbells (more on this later).

So if you are serious about getting bigger and stronger, then the dumbbell 5x5 may be unsuitable for your goals.

31% Feel Dumbbell 5x5 Has It’s Limitations.

Another third of people feel that the 5x5 routine can work with dumbbells, but you should be aware of the limitations.

31% think 5x5 with dumbbells works but has limitations

This refers to the weight limitations described above.

Ultimately, there’s nothing stopping you from doing the 5x5 with dumbbells.

But you also need to be aware that it’s not the ideal way to make strength and muscle gains.

To put it another way- you most likely won’t get the same benefits from a dumbbell 5x5 as you would with the barbell 5x5.

That being said, doing some weight training is better than not doing any weight training at all right?

And the 5x5 with dumbbells can work for casual lifters looking to make improvements to their general fitness and physique.

38% Think The 5x5 Can Be Altered For Dumbbells.

The final third of people think that the 5x5 routine can work with dumbbells if the program itself is altered to cater for the limitations described above.

38% say 5x5 can work with dumbbells if the programme is altered

Out of the three opinions, I agree with this one the most.

One thing you need to realise is that the Strong Lifts 5x5 is inherently a very generalised program anyway.

Additionally, any workout programme can be tweaked to your personal needs.

If you only have a pair of dumbbells available, there’s no reason why you can’t get stronger and bigger.

But you have to be smart.

And it also helps if you have a pair of heavy adjustable dumbbells, rather than a pair of light fixed-weight dumbbells.

Through alterations, a 5x5 workout with dumbbells could work for beginners to develop a strength foundation before progressing onto barbells (read to the end for a dumbbell workout like the 5x5).

Performing The 5x5 Workout With Dumbbells.

Here’s how you can replicate the Strong Lift’s 5x5 with dumbbells.

Performing the Strong Lifts 5x5 with dumbbells will not yield the same results as the original barbell version, but it can still be a great program for beginners or detrained lifters.

It’s best used if you’re looking to make small (but noticeable) improvements in strength, size, and physique.

But after a few months, you may need to upgrade to barbells or alter the programme to make it harder.

Dumbbell 5x5 Overview.

The 5x5 with dumbbells is the simplest adaptation of the original 5x5 routine.

It replicates the same exercises as Strong Lift’s 5x5, but obviously using dumbbells instead of a barbell.

The programme is based on the 5 core compound exercises:

  • Squat.
  • Deadlift.
  • Bench press.
  • Overhead press.
  • Row.

The overall objective is to make small but frequent weight increases.

This is called progressive overload, and frequent overload promotes rapid strength development.

A side effect of strength development is hypertrophy (or muscle growth).

beginners can use 5x5 to build muscle

This type of strength training facilitates myofibrillar hypertrophy in particular.

Myofibrillar hypertrophy occurs greatest when you strength train in the 1-6 rep range.

This results in the enlargement of the contractile components (myofibrils) in your muscle.

And as a result of myofibrillar hypertrophy, your muscles become both stronger and bigger.

Two Alternating Workouts In 5x5 With Dumbbells. 

Just like the original Strong Lift’s 5x5, the dumbbell programme comprises 2 workouts:

Workout A

  • Dumbbell squat.
  • Flat dumbbell bench press.
  • Bent-over dumbbell row.

Workout B

  • Dumbbell squat.
  • Overhead dumbbell press.
  • Dumbbell deadlift.
5x5 dumbbell routine

You’ll complete 3 workouts per week (1 workout per day), each separated by 1 or 2 rest days.

Additionally, you’ll also alternate between Workout A and Workout B.

For example- week 1 would be ABA, week 2 would be BAB, week 3 would be ABA again, and so on.

This cycle of alternating workouts continues repeatedly.

Both workouts are full-body routines.

The only difference between the two is that Workout A emphasises the upper body, whilst Workout B has more emphasis on the lower body.

Recommended Reps & Sets.

As with the original Strong Lift’s 5x5, you’ll do 5 set of 5 repetitions for each exercise.

The exception is for the deadlift, where you’ll only need to do 1 set of 5 reps.

This is because the deadlift is a strenuous exercise, and you’ll want to limit your weekly number of sets (especially as a beginner).

As your body adapts, and as the exercises become progressively easier to perform, you could then consider adding more deadlift sets.

But as beginner, you’re highly recommended to stick with 1 set of deadlifts per workout (on applicable days).

Recommended Dumbbell 5x5 Starting Weights.

The recommended starting weights need to be adjusted for the 5x5 to work with dumbbells since dumbbell exercises are harder to perform compared to their barbell variations.

I used Strength Levels strength standards to calculate the recommended starting weights for each dumbbell 5x5 exercise at different body weights:

BodyweightSquatBench PressBent-Over RowOverhead PressDeadlift
Estimated male beginner starting weights for dumbbell 5x5 programme. Calculated from Strength Level’s strength standards.

These starting weights are for male beginners (guys who’ve been training for less than 6 months).

The weights are also for two dumbbells combined.

So for example, a 66lb bench press would require you to use 2x33lb dumbbells.

Recommended Weight Progression.

With the Strong Lifts 5x5, you’re recommended to follow a linear progression for weight increase.

This involves adding 5lb to each exercise after successful completion in a workout. And a successful completion is when you’re able to complete 5 sets of 5 reps for that exercise.

For example, if you successfully complete 5 sets of 5 reps in the bench press, you’d add 5lb in the next workout.

The exception is the deadlift, where you add 10lb upon successful completion.

weight progression in the dumbbell 5x5 routine

Now le’s explore a problem you’ll face with dumbbells.

Most adjustable dumbbells only allow you to make 5lb increments. And when you increase by 5lb per dumbbell, that’s a 10lb total increase.

Obviously 10lb is more than Strong Lift’s recommendation of 5lb.

An extra 5lb may not sound like much, but when you’re pushing your maximum strength levels, you may struggle to push that extra 5lb.

And this will slow your rate of progression.

solutions to dumbbell 5x5 problem

The solution would be to get adjustable dumbbells with 2.5lb increments (they are uncommon but exist).

An alternative solution would be to increase the weight and use rest-pauses.

This involves taking a few seconds rest when you approach failure in a set, and then resuming to hit your 5 reps.

In this manner, you’re essentially turning each set into a mini set to make up for large weight overload.

Read my other guide to choose the perfect dumbbell for your needs!

Dumbbell 5x5 12 Month Goal.

Since dumbbell exercises are naturally harder than their barbell variations, you’ll need to adjust the yearly goals set out by Strong Lift’s.

Here are the adjusted 12 month goals for the dumbbell 5x5:

ExerciseBarbell GoalAdjusted Dumbbell Goal
Bench Press220lb160lb
Overhead Press135lb100lb
Dumbbell-adjusted goals for Strong Lifts 5x5.

These adjusted goals basically account for the fact that dumbbell exercises are harder than the same barbell variation.

By reaching these goals, you should still be able to build around 10-15lb of muscle in a year.

For the more observant readers, you may notice that the adjusted squat and dumbbell goals seem extremely low.

And they are.

It’s because these exercises are usually awkward to perform and require additional grip and shoulder strength to perform (compared to their barbell variants).

This highlights one of the main reasons why the 5x5 with dumbbells does not work- dumbbells are not ideal for squats and deadlifts.

Don’t get me wrong, you can still squat and deadlift with dumbbells.

But compared to barbells, dumbbells are inferior.

Check out my other article to find out how much weight you should dumbbell squat!

How Long Does A 5x5 Dumbbell Workout Take?

Each 5x5 dumbbell workout should take you around an hour to complete (including warm-ups and time spent changing weights).

Here’s a time breakdown for each 5x5 dumbbell workout:

  • 5 sets x 5 reps x 3 exercises per workout = 75 total reps.
  • 75 reps x 3 seconds per rep = 4 minutes lifting time.
  • 15 sets x 90 seconds rest per set = 25 minutes resting time.
  • Strethcing + warm up sets + changing weights = 30 minutes.

This gives a total workout time of 60 minutes.

You can spend longer on the warm up and stretching should you wish.

But a 60-minute workout hits the sweet spot in terms of ideal workout durations, and you should avoid going over 90 minutes.

Pro’s And Con’s Of The Dumbbell 5x5.

So that’s how you would actually perform the Strong Lifts 5x5 with dumbbells.

Now I’ll analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the dumbbell 5x5 routine.

The 5x5 With Dumbbells Can Work For Beginners.

The first question- is the 5x5 good for beginners?

In general, the 5x5 workout routine is excellent for beginners to start weight training. The program is simple, yet incorporates the most popular compound exercises. Additionally, the 5x5 routine also includes effective overload. Combined, this allows beginners to rapidly build muscle.

what beginners can expect to achieve from dumbbell 5x5

The same can be said for the dumbbell variation of the 5x5.

The main drawback of performing the 5x5 with dumbbells is limited squat and deadlift progression.

But if you have a pair of heavy adjustable dumbbells (up to 90 pounds) with suitable weight increments (2.5-5 pounds), the 5x5 can be a great way to build a foundation of strength.

As a side-effect, you can also expect to build and tone existing muscle (you’ll need to watch your diet to successfully achieve this).

My advice for beginners would be to go for the dumbbell 5x5 ONLY if you have a set of heavy adjustable dumbbells.

This is fundamental to making the 5x5 work with dumbbells.

5x5 With Dumbbells Can Work For Building Muscle.

Now for the next question- is the 5x5 routine good for building muscle?

In general, the 5x5 routine allows beginners to build around 10-20 pounds of muscle. After this has been achieved, it is recommended to switch to another workout program that has a higher training volume. This will allow muscle gains to continue developing.

Remember that the 5x5 routine was not made for experienced lifters.

progression route for dumbbell 5x5

Instead, it was designed for beginners.

With this in mind, the 5x5 can be very effective for detrained lifters or skinny beginners who have low starting strengths.

By performing the 5x5 with dumbbells, you’ll rapidly build a foundation of strength and muscle.

This makes it important to choose dumbbells that are heavy enough, and also provide suitable weight increments.

That being said, you will still be severely restricted by doing the 5x5 with dumbbells.

After you max out your dumbbell weights, you’ll need to find other ways to make your workouts harder, or upgrade to barbells.

Issues With The Dumbbell 5x5 Workout.

My main concerns with the dumbbell 5x5 workout are explained very well by Steve Shaw (powerlifter).

StrongLifts 5x5 - A Complete Guide and Critique

The issues fall into 2 categories:

  • Generic 5x5 issues.
  • Dumbbell 5x5 issues.

General Problems With The 5x5 Routine.

First let’s explore generic 5x5 issues:

  1. Lack of training volume – numerous studies, such as this 2016 study, have shown a dose-response relationship between training volume and muscle growth. Put simply, the more sets and reps you do, the more muscle you will build. The 5x5 may be good for strength (and some muscle development), but a low of training volume means it’s not the best for muscle growth.
  2. An insufficient number of weekly sets – it’s recommended to do around 10-15 sets per muscle group per week to build the most muscle. The 5x5 hits this target on the legs. But it falls short on the chest, back, and shoulders (which only see 5 sets each on the weeks where they are only worked in one workout).
  3. Not enough variety – it’s true that compound exercises work multiple muscles at once. But in reality, the 5x5 does not have enough variety to promote maximal growth in all your muscles. Prime examples are the quadriceps, upper chest, biceps, and triceps.
  4. No vertical pulling – these include exercises such as the pull-up which are one of the best exercises for the back. Horizontal pulling exists in the 5x5 in the form of the row, but there’s no vertical pulling to build the latissimus dorsi.

Dumbbell 5x5 Problems.

Second, let’s explore dumbbell 5x5 issues:

  • Limited progression – it doesn’t take long to outgrow a pair of 90lb dumbbells (heaviest you can get) for 5 reps. Depending on your body weight and starting strength levels, you could outgrow them in as little as 4-6 months. At this point, you’ll need to find creative ways to make the exercises challenging. One way is to switch to barbells…
  • Ineffective squat and deadlifts – these exercises are extremely effective leg-builders. But only if you have access to heavy weights. 90lb dumbbells may be enough for a few months. But after that, you’ll need to go heavier to keep your legs sufficiently challenged.
  • Awkward squatting and deadlifting – these exercises were made for the barbell. Although it’s possible to squat and deadlift with dumbbells, it’s inferior to using barbells. Many beginners struggle to stabilize and balance the dumbbells as they go through the range of motion. Additionally, dumbbell squats will be severely limited by your grip strength (unlike in a barbell squat where the bar rests on your shoulder).

Read my other article for a 50lb dumbbell workout to build muscle!

Kalibre 5x5 Dumbbell Workout Variation.

Now, taking all the previous concerns into consideration here’s an improved dumbbell workout like the 5x5 by Strong Lifts.

Workout A

  • Bulgarian split-squat.
  • Romanian deadlift.
  • Flat dumbbell bench press.
  • Bent-over dumbbell row.
  • High pull.

Workout B

  • Dumbbell squat.
  • Pull-up (weighted).
  • Overhead dumbbell press.
  • Dumbbell deadlift.
  • Incline bench press.

My variation of the dumbbell 5x5 swaps one of the squats for a bulgarian-split squat. This will work the quadriceps more than squatting alone.

Additionally, I’ve included pull-ups, high-pulls, romanian deadlifts, and the incline bench press.

These exercises will increase volume for the biceps, triceps, back, upper chest, and hamstrings. Additionally, these exercises are great for dumbbell use.

Other than this, the routine remains similar to the original 5x5 in terms of training days, sets, reps, rest, and weight progression.

This workout should take around an hour and a half to complete.

Check out my other article for more dumbbell exercises.

Performing The 5x5 Effectively At Home.

To wrap things up, allow me to clarify how you can do the 5x5 workout at home:

The 5x5 workout can be performed at home using barbells, dumbbells, or kettlebells. Barbells are the most effective way to perform a 5x5 workout at home, since they offer the greatest weight. However dumbbells and kettlebells require less space and are generally cheaper.

Ideally, the 5x5 would be performed at a commerical gym, since you’ll have access to all the required weights.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t also be done at home.

If you are to go down the home route and are serious about getting bigger and stronger, then consider investing in a home barbell setup.

These may be expensive, but a barbell will also give you the greatest room for progression.

For the casual lifter, dumbbells and kettlebells can also be used to do the 5x5 workout.

Just make sure your weights are heavy enough and have suitable weight increments.

You should also be aware that you won’t build as much muscle as you would by using a barbell.

But hey, some gains are better than no gains right?

Check out my other article to find out why home gyms are worth the money!


Today I’ve explained how the 5x5 can work with dumbbells.

Though not as effective as the barbell 5x5 workout by Strong Lifts, the 5x5 with dumbbells can still work for beginners to build a base of strength and muscle.

However, after you’ve outgrown the dumbbells, you’ll need to find ways to keep your workouts challenging.

This is particularly true for the squats and deadlift.

The obvious method would be to upgrade to a barbell.

But the easier alternative would be to include more dumbbell exercises and thereby increase your overall training volume.

The great thing is that I’ve shared with my dumbbell workout which is like the 5x5!

Will you be trying the Kalibre 5x5 workout?

Let me know in the comments below!

Alternatively, download the FREE Kalibre Muscle Blueprint to find out EXACTLY how I transformed my skinny body as a hardgainer!

Thanks for reading guys!

Peace Out,


(Biochemistry BSc, Biomedical Sciences MSc, Ex-Skinny Guy)


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