The growth of muscle cells is referred to as hypertrophy. It can be achieved through regular exercise, and lifting weights is one of the most effective ways to improve muscle definition and tone.
Dumbbells can be an effective tool to reach hypertrophy when used properly. Reaching hypertrophy requires you to exercise with the correct amount of intensity and volume within your training.
Hypertrophy using dumbbells can be done by lifting between your MRV through lifting with a calculated amount of sets and reps throughout your training block. You can find your MEV and start at that point in a training block, and gradually add more volume to reach your MRV.
Beginners aren’t recommended to train at the point of MRV long due to the possibility of miscalculation that can lead to overreaching.
Whilst all equipment can be used for reaching hypertrophy (barbells, cables, or machines), some equipment is more suitable for muscle growth than others. And it’s no exception for dumbbells either.
In the gym, the equipment is used as tools to aid them in reaching their goals (muscle building, fat loss, or cardio) and most are interchangeable as long as you work the targeted muscle group with the correct amount of volume.
The easiest way to reach hypertrophy when using dumbbells is to use progressive overload. With dumbbells being in small increments it is easy to add both reps and weights over a period of a training block.
This makes it easy to increase training intensity and can be great for building muscle, burning fat, and increasing definition.
The results from using dumbells in hypertrophy training are ultimately determined on:
- Training with the correct workload
- Utilizing supersets
- Exercise choice
When using dumbbells you don’t have the option to use heavier weights for some exercises. Sometimes you will be working with weights requiring a large number of reps to get near failure. These sets will not be as stimulative of growth and it might be wise to do more sets than normal.
To start a training block you should start with the usual number of sets you’d do per muscle group to reach your point of MEV and add sets from there if you’re not feeling challenged during your workouts. If you end up having to do as much as 1.5x your usual set number, know that this is expected.
When using lighter weights you are going to use more of your slower twitch fibers that can recover faster allowing you to train with more volume. They are also less taxing on things like joints which decreases recovery time between training days.
For example, when training using heavier weights with barbells you typically can train chest twice per week. But with the lowered recovery time you may be able to train three times per week allowing for more training volume.
You will need to gauge your level of fatigue after a workout to make sure that you are performing the correct amount of workload within your workouts.
You should be experiencing these after a workout when training for muscle growth:
- Leave your workout with a decent pump in target muscle groups
- Feel like your workout was challenging
- And a small amount of soreness the day after
If you are not experiencing these you should look to add more sets within your workout to combat the lack of heavyweight when using dumbbells.
When using dumbbells it can be hard to maximize intensity within a workout. You can combat this by utilizing supersets in your workouts to increase aerobic intensity while cutting down on the total time of your workouts.
Supersets are when you perform two exercises back to back with minimal rest between each exercise within one set.
Typically in training, you will perform all sets for one exercise before moving on to the next exercise.
In a superset, you perform one exercise and then perform the next exercise right after the completion of the first one. This helps cut out rest time between sets as you are completing two exercises within one set.
This helps increase the intensity by shortening rest time while also pushing you to reach closer to failure sooner than you would if you were performing each exercise separately.
There are various types of supersets you can utilize to increase the intensity to reach hypertrophy.
Push-pull supersets are the most common type of superset and involve exercises that target two antagonizing muscle groups.
- Dumbbell bench press paired with dumbbell rows
- Elevated goblet squat paired with dumbbell RDLs
- Dumbbell bicep curls paired with dumbbell overhead tricep extensions
Push-pull sets are optimal for muscle growth as you are targeting opposed muscle groups, allowing for the second muscle group to not be fatigued after performing the first exercise.
Once you have rested after your first set the muscles in your first exercise have had plenty of time to recover between the time you took to perform the second exercise and the time spent resting.
This superset method is where you perform an isolation exercise followed by a compound exercise that utilizes the same muscle group. For example, performing tricep extensions followed by dumbbell bench press.
You can perform the isolation exercise before or after your compound exercise. However, if you perform the isolation exercise first you will pre-exhaust the smaller muscle group requiring more output from the bigger muscle group in the compound exercise.
Performing the isolation exercise second is a post-exhaustion superset which will add extra work to the smaller muscle group and will add more fatigue to the isolated muscle group.
Depending on where your strengths and weaknesses are you can use pre and post-exhaustion supersets to add more intensity, thus allowing for more muscle growth in a lacking muscle group.
When training with dumbbells you may be training muscle groups more often throughout the week. So you may be working both upper body and lower body workouts on the same day. When doing this you can add upper-lower supersets to help you decrease total workout times.
An upper-lower superset is when you perform an upper-body movement paired with a lower-body workout.
Upper-lower supersets are a good way to increase aerobic intensity when training for muscle growth.
When using dumbbells you lack access to heavier weight for lifts such as squats or deadlifts. So here are some variations that can be effective in targeting each muscle group:
- Dumbbell bench press (Flat, incline, or decline)
- Dumbbells flyes on a bench or floor
- Wide grip slow eccentric push-ups (Add elevation to get depth if capable)
- Feet elevated push-ups (feet up on a bench or chair)
- Archer Push-ups
- Dumbbell bent rows to hip (Lat biased)
- Dumbbell bent rows to armpits (Upper back biased)
- Incline dumbbell rows (Mid-upper back biased)
- Lateral raises
- Laterals with a pause
- Bent laterals
- Upright rows
- Dumbbell face pulls
- Dumbbell curls
- Dumbbell hammer curls
- Dumbbell seated curls
- Dumbbell alternating curls
- Dumbbell concentration curls
- Dumbbell overhead tricep extensions
- One arm behind the neck triceps extensions
- Triceps kickbacks
- Dumbbell skull crushers
- Weight sit ups/crunches
- Weighted Russian twists
- 2-legged and 1-legged calf raises with or without dumbbells
- Seated dumbbell single-leg calf raises
- Lunges of different types
- Single-leg glute bridges
- Top-hold glute bridges with dumbbells
- Slow eccentric sumo squats with pauses
- Stiff-legged deadlifts with narrow, normal, and wide stances
- Single-leg stiff legged deadlifts
- Dumbbell Romanian deadlifts
- Nordic curls if you can use someone or something to brace you
- Heel-elevated close stance goblet squats
- Long-step lunges
- Slow eccentric squats with dumbbells
- Single leg squats
When using dumbbells, variations are your friend because you may not have access to other machines or equipment that is optimal for muscle growth.
Switching up your foot and grip position can go a long way in targeting different muscles and allowing you to get the most out of limited equipment.
For example, do dumbbell bench press and overhead tricep extensions for a month and then switch to a flat dumbbell bench and single-over tricep extensions in the next training block.
When performing exercises with dumbbells to supplement the lack of heavyweight by focusing on slower tempos in the eccentric movements. This will increase intensity and allow your muscles to get more work in an exercise.
You can add variance by changing the tempo on lifts. Start with performing bench presses and dumbbell bicep curls with a normal tempo for the first block. And then for the second block add a 2-second pause at the bottom of the pressing movement, then try to focus on a 3-second eccentric tempo on the dumbbell bicep curls
The various types of tempo variants are:
- Top or bottom pause sets
- 3-second eccentric tempo
- Combining both (3-second eccentric tempo with 2-second pauses)
These will help add time under tension to your exercises and will increase overall intensity of your workouts allowing for optimal muscle growth when using dumbbells in your training