Use This Seven-Move Dumbbell Upper-Body Workout To Build Serious Strength

Man performing incline chest press with dumbbells
You’ll also need a weights bench for this dumbbell upper-body workout (Image credit: Hirurg / Getty Images)

There are plenty of techniques that can help you to build muscle, but there are two you’ll find in many of the best upper-body workouts. Those are supersets and time under tension. 

Supersets tend to dramatically reduce the amount of rest you take during a weights workout. Making the most of time under tension means increasing the amount of time your target muscles are working by slowing the speed of each rep. 

In this workout, Steve Chambers, personal trainer and gym manager at Ultimate Performance Manchester, has harnessed these two ingredients to provide a ruthlessly effective dumbbell upper-body workout that will target all the major muscles in your chest, back, shoulders and arms. 

“The workout itself is a classic superset and tri-set program,” says Chambers. While a superset combines two exercises in a set, a tri-set (you guessed it) combines three.

“Back-to-back upper-body exercises will really fatigue your muscles and push you to muscular failure,” says Chambers, This is crucial for hypertrophy

How To Do This Dumbbell Upper-Body Workout

The key to getting the most from this session, according to Chambers, is paying careful attention to your form and tempo. “Tempo refers to the speed with which you lift the weight in each repetition. This is a four-digit number that refers to different parts of the lift,” he explains.

In brief, the first number is the time in seconds to perform the eccentric, or lowering, part of the move. The second number is the time to pause at the bottom of the rep. The third is the time to perform the concentric, or most dynamic, part of the move, usually the lift. The fourth number is the time to pause at the top of the rep.

For example, a 2020 tempo means lower for two seconds, pause for zero seconds, lift for two seconds, and pause for zero seconds for a total working rep time of four seconds.

A range is given for reps and rest. Begin with the easiest combination (10 reps and 90sec of rest) and then, when you repeat the workout, increase the difficulty.

Choosing Dumbbells

Ideally you’ll have access to a range of weights, whether that’s a well-stocked rack of dumbbells in a gym or a pair of adjustable dumbbells of the kind you’ll find in our round-up of the best dumbbells.

Choose a weight that means you near failure between 10 and 12 reps. As you work through the four sets of each superset or tri-set you might need to increase or decrease the weight—you can even change dumbbells mid-superset.

Dumbbell Upper-Body Workout Overview

  • 1A Incline dumbbell press 4 x 10-12 (2020)
  • 1B Chest-supported dumbbell row 4 x 10-12 (2020)
  • 2A Seated dumbbell shoulder press 4 x 10-12 (2020)
  • 2B Lying dumbbell pec flye 4 x 10-12 (2020)
  • 3A Seated dumbbell biceps curl 4 x 10-12 (2020)
  • 3B Overhead triceps extension 4 x 10-12 (2020)
  • 3C Seated lateral raise 4 x 10-12 (2020)

Dumbbell Upper-Body Workout Form Guides

1A Incline dumbbell press

Sets 4 Reps 10-12 Tempo 2020 Rest 0sec 

Sit on a weight bench set at 45˚, with the dumbbells resting on your thighs. Position your feet shoulder-width apart flat on the floor. Lean back against the bench and hold the dumbbells above you with your arms straight, with your wrist, elbow and shoulder aligned. Retract your shoulder blades to brace your upper body and keep your shoulders and glutes in contact with the bench. Lower the weights until your hands are level with your chest, then press the dumbbells back to the start. Lower for a count of two and press for a count of two. 

1B Chest-supported dumbbell row

Sets 4 Reps 10-12 Tempo 2020 Rest 60-90sec 

Lie chest down on a weight bench set at a 45˚ angle, with your chin clear of the top edge, holding dumbbells. Let your arms hang fully extended by your sides, with your palms facing inwards. Press your hips into the bench, lift your chest slightly and look at the floor just in front of you to keep your neck neutral. Pinch your shoulder blades together to engage your upper-back muscles, then lift the dumbbells until they're level with your chest. Lower under control and continue into the next rep. 

2A Seated dumbbell shoulder press

Sets 4 Reps 10-12 Tempo 2020 Rest 0sec 

Set a weight bench up at a 90° angle to support your back in a seated position, and hold a pair of dumbbells at shoulder height, palms facing forward. Press your lower back into the back pad, keep your abs engaged throughout and drive your feet into the floor for extra support. Straighten your arms to press the dumbbells overhead, then bring them down to the lowest point that allows you to maintain tension in the shoulder muscles.

2B Dumbbell chest flye 

Sets 4 Reps 10-12 Tempo 2020 Rest 60-90sec 

Lie on your back on a flat bench, holding a pair of dumbbells about your chest with palms facing. Keep a slight bend in your elbows and pull your shoulder blades down to stabilize yourself against the bench. Slowly lower your arms out to the sides, then bring the weights back together above your chest with arms slightly bent.

3A Seated biceps curl 

Sets 4 Reps 10-12 Tempo 2020 Rest 0sec 

Set a weight bench up at a right angle to support your back when seated, holding dumbbells by your sides, palms facing forward. Pinch your shoulder blades together, then bend your elbows to lift the dumbbells to your shoulders. Keep your upper arms still and wrists straight throughout the movement. Squeeze your biceps hard at the top of each rep, and lower under control.

3B Overhead triceps extension 

Sets 4 Reps 10-12 Tempo 2020 Rest 0sec 

Sit tall on a flat bench, holding the upper end of one dumbbell in both hands, palms facing up. Straighten your arms to hold the dumbbell above your head. Keeping your upper arms still, slowly bend your elbows to lower the weight behind your head as far your range of motion allows. Now slowly press the weight back overhead. 

3C Seated lateral raise

Sets 4 Reps 10-12 Tempo 2020 Rest 0sec 

Sit on a flat bench, holding relatively light dumbbells by your sides with a small bend in your elbows, palms facing. Lean forward slightly from your waist, keeping your back straight. Keeping your neck relaxed and without shrugging your shoulders, raise the dumbbells to the sides until your arms are parallel with the floor. Lower under control. 

Alice Porter

Alice Porter is a journalist who covers health, fitness and wellbeing, among other topics, for titles including Stylist, Fit & Well, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Grazia, VICE and Refinery29. When she’s not writing about these topics, you can probably find her at her local CrossFit box.