This trainer's quick upper-body workout strengthens your arms, back, chest and more with just five moves

Personal trainer Rebecca Stewart shows how to build strength and muscle with this dumbbell upper-body workout

Woman wearing leggings and a sports bra with her hair tied up, performing dumbbell rows in a gym
(Image credit: Getty Images)

An upper body workout doesn’t have to use gym machines or heavy barbells to be effective. All you need is dumbbells and some tried-and-true exercises to hit all the muscle groups in your arms, chest and back. 

This straightforward, five-move upper body workout was designed by personal trainer Rebecca Stewart for Fit&Well. If you’re short on time, or new to strength-training, it's an ideal choice. Simply perform each movement for the suggested number of repetitions below, then repeat the whole routine once or twice more, depending on your fitness levels.

The workout

  • Dumbbell dual row: 2-3 sets x 8-12 repetitions
  • Dumbbell chest press: 2-3 sets x 8-12 repetitions
  • Standing dumbbell shoulder press: 2-3 sets x 8-12 repetitions
  • Hammer curl: 2-3 sets x 8-12 repetitions
  • Standing dumbbell tricep extension: 2-3 sets x 8-12 repetitions

The exercises

1. Dumbbell dual row

Personal trainer Rebecca Stewart performs a dumbbell dual row

(Image credit: Rebecca Stewart)

Sets: 2-3 Reps: 8-12

  • Hold one dumbbell in each hand in a neutral grip and start with feet hip width apart. Bend your upper body so that it's horizontal, maintaining a neutral spine.
  • Pull your elbows back and exhale, bringing the dumbbells in towards the body. Engage your back muscles as you do this and pause at the top of the movement.
  • Lower the dumbbells towards the floor and inhale.

What muscles are worked by a dumbbell row?

Dumbbell rows target your back muscles, especially the latissimus dorsi, which are large muscles on the sides of your back that help you perform upper-body movements, such as reaching, and they even support healthy breathing, too. The smaller upper-back muscles and backs of your shoulders (rear delts) are also targeted this way.

Form tips

"Keep your elbows close to your body like you’re trying to glide them alongside your ribcage and keep your neck in line with your back to maintain proper form," says Stewart.

Dumbbell chest press

Personal trainer Rebecca Stewart performs a dumbbell chest press

(Image credit: Rebecca Stewart)

Sets: 2-3 Reps: 8-12

  • Sitting on the edge of a bench with dumbbells in a neutral grip, use your knees to lift the weights close to your chest and roll back to lie down. 
  • Exhale and press the dumbbells upwards until you lock out your elbows. 
  • Inhale and lower the dumbbells slowly and with control at a 45-degree angle until they’re just above your chest. That's one repetition.

What muscles are worked by a dumbbell chest press?

The dumbbell chest press is a compound exercise that helps build the chest muscles, arm muscles (primarily the biceps and triceps) and the front shoulder muscles, too. It also activates the serratus anterior, which is a muscle located in your ribcage. 

Form tips

Stewart says it’s essential to keep your feet flat on the floor and drive your legs into the ground to maintain tension in your body. "If the bench is too tall, you can put plates underneath your feet," she says. Engage the chest by squeezing the dumbbells with your hands.

You can also do this move on the floor, if you don't have access to a bench, but you won't get the same range of motion.

Standing dumbbell shoulder press

Personal trainer Rebecca Stewart demonstrates a standing shoulder press move

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Sets: 2-3 Reps: 8-12

  • Stand upright with your head in a neutral position, facing forward, and feet about hip width apart. Bring the dumbbells to shoulder height and hold at a 45-degree angle, palms facing forward.
  • Press the dumbbells overhead until your elbows fully extend. 
  • Slowly, and with control, lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.

What muscles are worked by a dumbbell shoulder press?

The dumbbell shoulder press works the front and sides of your shoulders and activates your triceps on the way down. You can stand during this movement, which will build core stability as well, but you can also perform the movement seated. 

Form tips

"If you have existing lower-back concerns, do this exercise seated with your back against an upright flat bench," says Stewart. 

Stewart stresses it’s important to focus on perfecting the form for this exercise before adding extra weight to ensure that your shoulders get the most out of your efforts. Don’t forget to engage your core to ensure your back doesn’t sway when pressing overhead.

Hammer curl

Personal trainer Rebecca Stewart performs a dumbbell hammer curl

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Sets: 2-3 Reps: 8-12

  • Stand upright with feet shoulder width apart and hold the dumbbells in a neutral grip at your sides. Create tension in the biceps by squeezing your elbows into your sides and bending the elbow slightly.
  • Maintaining a neutral grip, curl the dumbbells upward towards your shoulders.
  • Slowly lower the dumbbells back down to your sides. 

What muscles are worked by a hammer curl?

Hammer curls work your biceps, but they're a lot easier on the wrists than the classic bicep curl. Stewart says it’s crucial to maintain tension in the biceps through the entire motion. "Many people perform biceps exercises without proper muscle tension and miss out on potential strength and size gains," she says.

Form tips

"Don’t use momentum or rock your body backward to lift the dumbbell, and keep your elbows glued to your sides during the whole rep—don’t let them shift forward while you lift the weight."

Standing dumbbell tricep extension

Personal trainer Rebecca Stewart performs overhead tricep extension with heavy dumbbell

(Image credit: Rebecca Stewart)

Sets: 2-3 Reps: 8-12

  • Standing upright with feet shoulder width apart, grab the dumbbell at the top and set it up on one shoulder, then interlock your hands around the weight and press it overhead. 
  • Controlling the dumbbell, lower slowly behind your head until your forearms reach a 90-degree angle. Keep your head in a neutral position while lowering the weight. 
  • Return the dumbbell overhead by pressing through your triceps. 

What muscles are worked by an overhead tricep extensions?

Overhead dumbbell triceps extensions are one of the most effective exercises for your triceps. 

Form tips

To perform the move correctly, Stewart advises keeping your elbows stacked over your shoulders and pointed towards the ceiling while lowering the dumbbell. 

"Make sure your head doesn’t round forward while you lower the weight, and engage your core and glutes to reduce rib flare and lumbar flexion," she says. 

If you have existing lower-back issues, Stewart recommends performing this exercise seated with your back against an upright bench.

Want more exercise guides and workout ideas? Have a look at our favorite full-body dumbbell workout or try this six-move beginners bodyweight workout, which doesn't require any equipment.

Need help choosing your weights? Our guide to the best adjustable dumbbells can help

Rachel MacPherson

Rachel is a lifelong health and fitness enthusiast with 15 years of experience, a certified personal trainer, and a fitness writer with bylines at Livestrong, Verywell, and Insider. She is passionate about clearly and accessibly communicating actionable and science-based fitness advice. Alongside her writing, Rachel also holds several certifications, including nutrition, prenatal/postpartum exercise, and pain-free performance. She lives in coastal Eastern Canada, and her hobbies include jiu-jitsu, hiking, and trips to the beach.