Elite fitness expert shares top dumbbell exercises to build muscle all over

If you want to build muscle in your upper body, lower body and strengthen your core, then do these

Man doing dumbbell bicep curl
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It’s no secret here at T3 that we love a dumbbell workout. Why? Because a pair of dumbbells are the most versatile piece of home gym equipment you can own; you can work your entire body with them, they’re great for small spaces and you can do a ton of different exercises with them.

Elite fitness expert, Jeff Cavaliere, a strength coach and founder of Athlean-X, also agrees and has taken to his YouTube channel to share his top dumbbell exercises that, when combined, will hit every muscle in your body and help you make some serious gains. So, if you're ready to up your dumbbell game and start taking your strength training seriously, then keep on reading for Cavaliere's favourite dumbbell exercises that will pack on size to your upper and lower body, as well as strengthen your core.

1. Gorilla rows

Targets: back, shoulders and biceps

These are a variation of the bent-over row and are great for building your back. What makes this variation different from a bent-over row is that one dumbbell remains on the ground whilst your row the other backwards. It's in Cavaliere's top 10 because of its versitatliy. "If you want to target your lats you can do it by simply tucking your elbow a little bit closer to your side and almost try to wrap that elbow around your spine," he says. "But if you want to hit more of the upper back all you have to do is allow the elbow to drift out and away from you.” 

2. Reverse lunges

Targets: core, glutes and hamstrings

Cavaliere says these are one of his "all time favourite exercises" for the lower body. The reason being, again, because of how versatile it is. "If I were to remain upright during this exercise it becomes very knee dominant, focusing most of the effort building up my quads," he says. "If I wanted to shift the focus to the posterior chain, all it requires is a simple shift of my torso forward, because once I've done this I've made it more hip dominant and shifted the focus a lot more to the glutes and hamstrings."

Woman doing dumbbell lunges in the gym

(Image credit: Getty)

3. Static dumbbell press

Targets: chest, core, triceps

This chest press variation that you can do two ways: either where you start by holding one dumbbell either static in the air, or in the bottom position. Cavaliere explains that the latter will work your chest more, as it increases time under tension. However, if you start with one dumbbell in the air, while it won't work your chest as much, your core will have to work twice as hard. 

4. Farmer carries

Targets: shoulders, upper back, trapezius, quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, lower back, obliques and core

The farmer carry is a strongman move where you walk a set distance carrying a dumbbell in either hand, or you can use a pair of kettlebells. It's excellent for targeting the entire body and particularly good for your core.

Two men doing a farmer's carry holding two kettlebells

(Image credit: Getty)

5. High pulls

Targets: delts, traps and biceps

Just to clarify, this isn't an upright row. It's one of Cavaliere's favourite shoulder exercises and it's where you explosively lift the two dumbbells towards your shoulders, keeping your elbows down and your wrists high. What Cavaliere loves about this exercise is that he says it gives you the abduction that you'd get from a side lateral raise, but it comes with extra benefits, such as working your rear delts and traps.

6.  Dumbbell pullover

Targets: Back, chest and triceps

According to Cavaliere this exercise is referred to as the 'upper body squat'. "It's considered as important to upper body development, as a squat is to lower body development," says Cavaliere. When doing this exercise, Cavaliere says by tweaking your elbow position you can target different areas of the upper body. For example, flaring your elbows out will target your lats more, whereas turning them in more targets your chest.

7. Dumbbell step up

Targets: glutes, quads, hamstrings and hips

This is where you hold a dumbbell in either hand and step onto a stationary object, like a weight bench or box. It's a functional exercise that can easily be performed at home and, again, Cavaliere says you can shift your body's focus depending on your stance. To target specifically your quads, he says to maintain an upright torso, whereas if you want to focus on your glutes and hamstrings then lean forwards slightly.

Woman doing step ups onto a box

(Image credit: Getty Images)

8. Strict curls into dumbbell cheat curls

Targets: biceps

This is where your upper back, head and bum stays flat against a wall, whilst doing a bicep curl. What this does is stops your body being able to give you any extra momentum, so your bicep is literally doing all the work. But, once you've reached failure, Cavaliere suggests moving away from the wall and going straight into a 'cheat curl' – where you can use momentum from your body to help you knock out a few last reps and overload your muscles to help them grow.

9. Russian rows

Targets: Core, especially the obliques

You probably know these as 'Russian twists', but Cavaliere calls them Russian rows and for good reason. "What people often do is take the weight in their hand and just place it side to side turning it into something I call a 'Russian tap'", he says. Instead, he advises to think about "rowing" the dumbbell back and driving your elbows behind your body. 

Bryony Firth-Bernard
Staff Writer, Active

Bryony’s T3’s official ‘gym-bunny’ and Active Staff Writer, covering all things fitness. In her spare time, you will find her in her natural habitat - the gym - where her style of training is a hybrid of bodybuilding and powerlifting. Bryony loves writing about accessible workouts, nutrition and testing innovative fitness products that help you reach your fitness goals and take your training to the next level.