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The Best Dumbbell Exercises For Women

Women resting next to dumbbells
(Image credit: Getty Images / Maskot)

Few pieces of gym kit are as versatile as dumbbells. They easily add resistance to almost any exercise and, if you’re in the gym or have an adjustable set at home, the ability to add as little as 1kg at a time allows you to increase the challenge steadily over time. For home exercisers, an adjustable pair can also be tucked away easily. 

Dumbbells also offer a number of benefits over using weights machines in the gym. Using dumbbells forces you to engage additional muscles required for stability and allows a bigger range of movement.

Another major advantage is that for upper-body exercises, dumbbells force each arm and  shoulder, and each side of your chest and back, to work separately. That means a dominant side doesn’t do more of the work, leaving a weaker side underdeveloped, which can happen when using a barbell or weights machine.

For women, resistance training is of particular importance because building muscle can help stop bones from deteriorating after the menopause. Hormonal changes during this period of a woman’s life can lead to osteoporosis.

Below are six dumbbell exercises that target the body’s main muscle groups. Combine them into one session and you’ll hit your whole body. Repetitions and sets are given for each exercise, but be sure to perform each exercise with slow, controlled movement because time under tension is crucial when building muscle.

Bent-over row

Dumbbell bent-over row

(Image credit: Getty Images / bluecinema)

Sets 3 Reps 10

Muscles worked Back, glutes and biceps

Stand with your feet hip-width apart and a slight bend in your knees, holding dumbbells by your sides with your palms facing. Push your hips back until your torso is almost parallel to the ground, letting your arms hang down. Draw your elbows up past your torso to raise the dumbbells to your ribs. Pause and squeeze your shoulder blades at the top, then slowly lower the dumbbells. 

Biceps curl into press 

Dumbbell curl

(Image credit: Getty Images / COROIMAGE)

Sets 3 Reps 8

Muscles worked Shoulders and arms

Stand with your feet hip-width apart and a slight bend in your knees, holding dumbbells by your sides, palms facing forwards. Engage your core and, keeping your upper arms tight to your body, bend your elbows to raise the dumbbells to your shoulders. Then press the dumbbells overhead, rotating the dumbbells so your palms face forwards at the top of the move. Lower the dumbbells under control to your shoulders, then reverse the curl movement to return to the start. Move through the exercise slowly.

Curtsy lunge 

Dumbbell lunge

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Sets 3 Reps 8 each side

Muscles worked Quads, glutes and core

Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding dumbbells by your shoulders. Engage your core, then step back with your right leg, bending both knees to lower while moving your right foot sideways behind your left leg. Finish the movement with your left knee stacked above the left ankle, and your right knee hovering above the floor. Push through your left foot to return to the start. Repeat the movement on the opposite side, and alternate with each rep.

Floor press

Dumbbell floor press

(Image credit: Getty Images / Gary Yeowell)

Sets 3 Reps 8

Muscles worked Shoulders and chest

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, holding dumbbells with your elbows bent, upper arms on the floor and the dumbbells resting just above your chest. Use your chest muscles to push the dumbbells up, extending your arms. Pause at the top, then slowly lower the dumbbells back to the start.

Glute bridge

Glute bridge

(Image credit: iStock / Getty Images Plus / Maryviolet)

Sets 3 Reps 10

Muscles worked Core, hamstrings and glutes

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, holding a dumbbell on the crease between your hips and stomach. Raise your hips, squeezing your glutes as you do so, until your thighs, hips and torso form a straight line. Pause for two seconds, then slowly lower your hips.

Russian twist 

Russian twist exercise

(Image credit: Getty Images / Drazen_)

Sets 3 Reps 12

Muscles worked Abs and obliques

Sit on the floor with your torso leaning back slightly, your knees bent and your feet held just above the floor. Hold a dumbbell in both hands in front of your bellybutton. Twist at the waist to the left, keeping the dumbbell in front of your bellybutton as it moves, then twist back to the right. Keep your core engaged and move with control. Try to keep your lower body as still as possible.

Lucy is a freelance journalist, and former health and fitness editor across various UK women’s magazines. She is also a level 3 personal trainer and is trained in pre- and post-natal fitness.