The Ultimate Upper Body Dumbbell Workout with PDF

Dumbbells are the ultimate gym buddy – super versatile, easy to store, and perfect for those of us squeezing workouts into busy lives or small spaces.

Ever noticed how hotel gyms love them?

That’s because they’re awesome for getting a solid workout without needing a ton of equipment.

This is the heart of our exploration: a dedicated journey into mastering upper body strength and definition solely through the art of dumbbell training. Let our upper body dumbbell workout be your roadmap to unlocking the full potential of dumbbells, transforming routine workouts into a dynamic path of fitness discovery.

Jump to the workout now!

Alternatively, you can download the free PDF version of the routine using the link below:

Upper Body Dumbbell Workout In a Nutshell

Program styleResistance training with dumbbells
Workout duration1-2 hours
Scheduling4 days a week
6 days over 2 weeks
GoalBuild muscle
LevelBeginners to advanced
Target GenderMale and Female

What To Expect

If you’re new to training exclusively with dumbbells, be prepared to be surprised just how much you can do with them. Expect to be at least a little wowed.

When good exercise form is used, dumbbells deliver in ways no other weight can.

Expect to work all the visible upper body muscles from your rib cage up. I don’t get into abs or spinous erectors in this program.

It’s also likely you’ll learn a new exercise or two, or at least a new, better way to do ones you already are familiar with.

I’ve included some advanced dumbbell moves used by pro bodybuilders, who look to gain a competitive edge for their physiques.

Who Is This Routine For?


This routine is especially good for people who travel a lot and rely on hotel fitness centers. Those often have only dumbbells and an adjustable bench. We’ve got you guys covered.

This routine is also good for people with home gyms. Home gyms will need a range of dumbbell weights to make this routine worthwhile. Doesn’t mean you’ll need everything from 5lb/2kg up to 100lb/45kg, but you will need enough weight to progress.

The routine does require a basic understanding of the moves, in particular the ones you may not be familiar with, like Kelso Shrugs (which work the “yoke” better than just about anything).

I’m not including detailed descriptions here, so if you’d like instructions, reply back in the comments with the exercise you want to learn, and I’ll describe it in nauseating detail.

Some exercises need no explanation. Some don’t need an explanation but do need a coach because they’re so often poorly done. That’s outside the scope of this article.

Workout Structure

This workout will consist of two splits: a Push Day, and a Pull Day.

We all have our favorite exercises, and sometimes the favorites come and go.

For the advanced folks reading this, you already know that there are days when nuance matters, and you select a very specific move for a very specific reason.

Joint pain maybe. Or maybe because you want targeted isolation instead of compound.

The plan you’ll find here has choices written in. For the noob and less-advanced, you’ll see a “Pick 1” notation, signaling a solid choice.

Whichever exercise you select will get the job done, provided you execute it well.

PushChest, Anterior and Middle Deltoids, Triceps
PullLats, Teres Major, Traps (all divisions), Posterior Deltoids

How Often Should I Do This Workout?

You can do this routine twice a week, or four times a week. Or, you can live outside the tyranny of a weekly calendar (like me) and spread workouts over 10 days, or two weeks.

Here’s a traditional way to schedule the program as a 4 day workout week:


Here’s a less-traditional way to apply it over a 2 week period:

Week 1MondayPush
Week 2MondayRest

Point is that there are two workouts and that leaves you with lots of flexibility, again, terrific for people who travel for business or leisure and are looking for an effective plan to stay in shape on-the-go.

I travel for business; I wrote this routine from my own personal experimentation.

It works.

The Upper Body Dumbbell Workout

Download our free Upper Body Dumbbell Workout PDF for details, including the proposed equipment selection options.

To give you an overview, the 2 workouts are summarized below

Rep ranges are set in the range renowned for building muscle size, shape, and density (i.e, tone).

Push Day

Pick 1Flat Chest Press
Flat DB Flyes
Pec Major415-20
Pick 120 – 45° Incline Chest Press
45 – 75° Incline Chest Press
Pec Major
Anterior Deltoids
DB PulloversSterno-costal Pec
Pick 1Arnold Presses
Front Raises
Underhand Chest Press
Anterior Deltoids
Middle Deltoids
Clavicular Pec
Pick 1Lateral Raises
Seated Side Laterals
Middle Deltoids
(raise above shoulder
height for upper traps)
Pick 1Flat Dumbbell
Triceps Extensions
Seated Upright
Triceps Extensions

Pull Day

Pick 1Dumbbell Hammer Curls
Bicep Curls
Pec Major415-20
Pick 1Chest Supported
Dumbbell Rows**
Single Arm
Dumbbell Rows
Pec Major
Anterior Deltoids
Pick 1Arms Wide Chest
Supported Dumbbell Rows**
Rear Deltoid Flyes
Sterno-costal Pec
Pick 1Kelso Shrugs**
Upright Shrugs
Anterior Deltoids
Middle Deltoids
Clavicular Pec
Dumbbell “I” or “Y” Raises**Middle Deltoids
(raise above shoulder
height for upper traps)
**Face forward on high incline bench

Program Guidelines

1. Apply Progressive Overload: It’s Simple, It Works

Selecting weights on a gym machine

If ever there was a single, immutable truth in weight training, it’s the universally-applicable principle of Progressive Overload (PO).

Here’s how to apply it:

  • Establish a fixed Sets-Reps scheme, like the one provided in this program.
  • Select a weight that allows you to do the sets and reps prescribed, using RIR guidelines.
  • Perform each exercise strictly and with intensity, until you can do more reps than the specified number with the weight you’ve been using.
  • Increase the weight and repeat the above.

Very simple and very effective.

If you apply it correctly, you will get stronger and bigger, assuming you’re eating and sleeping right. Stronger may come before bigger. Don’t sweat that. Be patient and follow the process.

Here’s are the problem most newbies and intermediates face with applying PO:

  • Not working out anywhere near their max intensity, or,
  • Not performing the exercise correctly.

What I see all the time in the gym:

Young guys–and yes, it’s usually the guys–whose sets are performed with incorrect or sloppy form, and not nearly difficult enough. Rep #8 looks just like Rep #1.

These are called workouts for a reason. Progress requires real work.

2. Keep Reps in Reserve

Man doing concentration curls

The first set of 15-20 should be your warm-up for that exercise. Work with an RPE of 5… not too strenuous, but keep the form pristine. It’s not supposed to be a throwaway set.

Sets 2 and 3 should be 0 – 1 Reps in Reserve. The final set for each exercise should require an all-out effort–again, with excellent form–for the last rep or two.

3. Focus on Rep Cadence

Pump the weights smoothly without explosive motion. A good rule of thumb to use for beginners is a 1-second “up” with a squeeze followed by a 2-second “down”.

As you progress and gain experience, strive to abandon counting or using any external artificial timing. That stuff needs to be learned and in your head. You need to be the master of your workout and not be guided by something external.

4. Rest!

Dehydrated athlete

Rest Day suggestions are mentioned earlier in this article. This Upper Body Dumbbell routine offers tons of flexibility for scheduling.

This routine implies that you probably have a lower body or Leg Day somewhere in your routine.

If that’s the case, you’ll want to put a Rest Day after Leg Day, because Leg Day is strenuous and there is central nervous system cost for a well-done leg workout.

If you don’t have a lower body day, get one. We don’t get into that in this article. For you busy professionals, strenuous bodyweight leg exercises like Sissy Squats or Hindu Squats, and Horse Stance poses are a great starting-point.

Check out one of my other routines that include Leg Days for ideas. I suggest the 3-Day PPL.

Point here is that you need your rest days. Insert them as-needed, knowing the counterintuitive truth that you grow on rest days, not on workout days.

Rest Time Between Sets

Aim for 3 minutes of rest between the last “working” sets of each exercise. You can use shorter rest times for the first couple of sets if you like, provided that you’re ready to work when the next set rolls around.

A challenging set comes with central nervous system fatigue along with the more-obvious muscular fatigue, and oxygen debt.

Every set should be a work of art, so make sure you’re prepared to execute it flawlessly and with beastly intensity.

Download our Upper Body Dumbbell Workout PDF below:

We write custom programs. If you have specific physique goals–such as “I’d like wider shoulders”, or “I’d like more ‘V’ in my back”–we can write one for you. Reply in the Comments or simply contact us and we’ll get back in touch. First come, first served.

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Perry Mykleby, ACE CPT

Perry started lifting weights in 1974. He is an ACE-certified personal trainer and holds the ACE Orthopedic Exercise certification.

He holds a journalism degree from the University of North Texas, where he competed in powerlifting. His final competition was the Texas State Open in December of 1982, but has continued to study and practice muscle strength and hypertrophy. He is a four-decade veteran of the medical device industry.

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