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7 min read

Can You Build Your Arms With Just Dumbbells?

Dumbbells aren’t as fancy as modern cable machines, but they're certainly more affordable. And if you're trying to save money on your gym membership, you can work on your arms at home with a set of dumbbells. So the question is, can you build your arms effectively with just dumbbells?

Although simple, dumbbells are an effective tool for toning and strengthening arms. Dumbbells are incredibly versatile, and allow you to target different muscle groups in different ways, including biceps, triceps, forearms, and shoulders.

So grab your dumbbells, because that's all you need as we show you how to tone and strengthen your arms with our favorite bicep and tricep exercises. You'll walk away with physical proof that you can build your arms with just dumbbells.

How To Grow Your Arms With Dumbbells

Consider this the prep section of your workout where we'll cover dumbbell weights, sets and reps, and how to fit your arm exercises into your workout regimen.

Will Any Dumbbell Weight Work?

You might be wondering if any weight of dumbbells will get the job done, like those 3lb weights we all seem to own.

Don’t worry if you only have a limited selection of weights, we’ll explain how you can build muscles by doing either low or high reps. Trust us, your arms will feel this workout regardless of the weight.

Or, you can trust the researchers at the University of British Columbia who investigated whether light weights or heavier weights were better for building muscle in women.

In the study, female participants did bicep curl exercises with relatively light or heavy weights. They did as many reps as they could with a given weight. 

They found that women who used lighter weights gained a little more muscle mass than those who used heavier weights. While the difference was small, this study shows that you can absolutely build muscle even if you have lighter dumbbells.

So, tell your 3lb dumbbells to cheer up, they can be just as useful as a 5lb dumbbell.

How Many Sets and Reps?

For each exercise in this guide, aim for at least 3 sets. The number of reps you do depends on the amount of weight you’re lifting, but at a minimum, you should aim to do at least 6-8 repetitions.

If you can’t complete that many reps, then consider using a lighter dumbbell. However, if you find that 10-12 reps are too easy, you can go up in weight.

If you don’t have access to heavier dumbbells you can even do 20-30 reps per set, as long as it’s challenging by the end!

Where Does This Fit In Your Workout Regimen

Depending on your current workout regimen, you can add a couple of arm exercises at the end of your workout or set aside one day per week to work both your biceps and triceps.

If you decide to add dumbbell arm exercises to the end of a leg or upper body workout, pair one bicep and one tricep exercise and do them back-to-back.

Or, if you have one day set aside for arm workouts, you can do 3 exercises for each muscle on that day.

Now then, let's get to the good stuff; the actual dumbbell exercises. We'll start with bicep exercises and then go into the best dumbbell exercises.

Best Dumbbell Bicep Exercises

You’re going to want to show off your biceps after doing these exercises. Since they run down the front of your arms, the biceps are a fun muscle to show off. With these three simple dumbbell exercises you can build arms that stand out:

1. Standing Dumbbell Curl

Don’t let the simplicity of this exercise fool you. It works the bicep through the entire range of motion, which builds muscle. 

  • Step 1: Stand with one dumbbell in each hand and your hands by your sides. Your palms should be facing your legs. 
  • Step 2:Curl the dumbbells up and turn your palms up as you lift. At the top of the movement, your palms should face your shoulders.
  • Step 3: Lower the dumbbells back down and turn your palms so that they face each other at the bottom.

2. Dumbbell Concentration Curl

This is a must-have in your workout routine because you can isolate the bicep by pressing your arm into your leg. Doing so prevents your arm from swinging while you curl, which is a common mistake.

In fact, this is such a must-have exercise that the American Council on Exercise showed that the concentration curl activated the biceps more than 7 other exercises.

  • Step 1: Sit at the edge of a bench or chair with both feet planted on the ground. Hold a dumbbell in one hand, and press your elbow into your inner thigh. 
  • Step 2: Curl the dumbbell up towards your shoulder, pressing your elbow into your thigh the entire time. 
  • Step 3: Slowly lower the weight back down until your elbow is straight. 

3. One-Arm Isolated Curls

This exercise is certainly well-named since it helps you isolate one arm at a time. But the part that puts it on this list is how it keeps the other arm engaged. 

  • Step 1: Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Lift one hand up so that your elbow is bent at 90 degrees with your palm facing up. Hold that hand steady! 
  • Step 2: Curl the other hand up with your palm facing up. Do as many full repetitions as you can, lifting the dumbbell all the way from your side up to your shoulder and back down. 
  • Step 3:Switch hands. Curl with the other hand while the arm that was previously working stays bent at 90 degrees. Make sure you do an even number of reps with each arm.

Feel the burn yet? Great! Let's move on to your triceps now.

Best Dumbbell Tricep Exercises

Building stronger, leaner triceps comes with a powerful feeling; the kind that boosts your confidence muscle as well. All you need are three simple dumbbell exercises to kick your tris into high gear:

1. Lying Tricep Extension

This exercise (also known as the "skull crusher") comes with some serious credibility: the National Association of Sports Medicine ranked it on its Top 9 Best Arm Exercises. Here's how you do it:

  • Step 1: Lie on your back on an exercise bench, or the floor if you don’t have access to a bench. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with arms extended straight up towards the ceiling. 
  • Step 2: With palms facing each other, bend your elbows so that the dumbbells come down towards your head. They should go past your head until your hands are right next to your ears. 
  • Step 3: Press the dumbbells back up until your elbows are straight.

2. Standing Tricep Kickback

To get the best tricep workout possible, you should add standing tricep kickbacks. It's considered one of the most effective exercises for your triceps -the American Council on Exercise ranked it second on its list saying as much.

The only exercise more effective was the triangle push-up, which is a highly advanced push-up variation.

  • Step 1: Stand with a dumbbell in each hand. Slightly bend your knees and push your hips back, keeping your spine long and flat. 
  • Step 2: Squeeze your elbows into your sides and bend them slightly. With your palms facing each other, push the dumbbells back and straighten your elbows. 
  • Step 3: Once your elbows are straight, squeeze your triceps and push the dumbbells up slightly, toward the ceiling. 
  • Step 4: Bend your elbows and let the dumbbells come back down toward the ground.

3. Seated Overhead Tricep Extension

Just because you’re seated doesn’t mean this exercise is easy. Finish off your tricep workout with this variation that isolates the back of your arms. Here we go!

  • Step 1: Sit at the edge of a chair (or bench) with a dumbbell in each hand. Reach the dumbbells up towards the ceiling until your arms are straight. Your palms should face each other. 
  • Step 2: Bend your elbows and drop the dumbbells back behind your head, almost like you’re trying to scratch your back. 
  • Step 3: Once you feel the dumbbells tap your upper back it’s time to press them back up until your elbows are straight.

Congrats! You've just made it through the best dumbbell tricep exercises around - and as a bonus, your newfound tricep strength will help with exercises like push-ups and shoulder presses. The stronger your triceps are, the better you’ll be at most pressing exercises.

Do You Need Heavier Dumbbells?

Alright, this may seem counter to some of the earlier statements about any dumbbell weight sufficing, but you've been doing the best bicep and tricep exercises for some time now. Your strength is starting to show.

When you started, the first few dumbbell arm workouts were challenging. You were sore afterward and felt a little shaky - from texting and typing to brushing your hair and just about every other simple task.

If you no longer feel any of those side effects from your workout, it’s time to go up in reps, weight, or both.Over time it’s normal for your progress to slow down or even stall.

Increasing Your Dumbbell Weight

Luckily when you’re using dumbbells it’s easy to go up in weight. Buying new dumbbells can get expensive, but they’re not as costly as purchasing fancier pieces of exercise equipment, like a spin bike or cable machine.

If you have a gym membership, you should already have access to a wide variety of weights.

When you’re doing dumbbell arm exercises, aim for a 2.5-pound increase in weight. That should be enough to make you feel a difference.

You can also jump up 5 pounds if you don’t have access to smaller increments in weight. But if 5 pounds is a big jump, simply decrease the number of reps you’re doing for each exercise. 

No matter which path you take to progress, keep in mind that you should make small improvements as often as you can. The key to an effective dumbbell arm workout is to constantly strive for a little improvement each time you hit the gym.

Dumbbells Are Simple But Effective

Just because dumbbells are old-school doesn’t mean you should avoid them. On the contrary, you can build strong and sexy arm muscles with just a few different pairs of weights.

If you get bored easily, try switching these exercises with different bicep or tricep movements. Dumbbells give you the freedom that cable machines and resistance bands don’t offer, so you can constantly add variety to your arm workouts.