You Only Need Two Moves And Two Dumbbells To Pack On Upper-Body Muscle

Man performing dumbbell shoulder press
(Image credit: MDV Edwards / Shutterstock)

Need to be in and out of the gym in 30 minutes and not sure what to do? Grab a couple of dumbbells and build upper-body muscle.

This session from WIT Fitness head coach Jordan Shelley follows the 21-15-9 format popularized by CrossFit, but if you’re more of a bodybuilder, don’t be put off by the C-word. Shelley has applied the format to two hypertrophy training staples—the dumbbell shoulder press and dumbbell bent-over row—to help you build strength, muscle and endurance in your back, shoulders and arms.

Much like the CrossFit workout Cindy, this session uses complementary movements, targeting antagonistic (opposing) muscle groups. The overhead press works shoulders and triceps (pushing muscles), while the bent-over rows hits the back and biceps (pulling muscles). 

One muscle group recovers while the other works, putting your muscular endurance to the test and minimizing rest periods for an efficient training session. Imagine a push/pull workout plan, squeezed into a single gym session.  

“This is a great standalone session if you’re short on time as it allows you to get a lot of work done in less than 30 minutes,” says Shelley. But it doesn’t have to be used in isolation. “If you have more time to play with, try starting the session with a separate strength piece, or add on some steady cardio at the end.”

How To Do This Workout

Start a timer and perform 21 reps of each exercise as a superset of sorts, followed by sets of 15 and nine. Use the same pair of dumbbells for both the press and row, and rest only as needed between movements in a race against the clock. 

“Choose a weight that allows you to do between eight and 10 strict dumbbell overhead press reps in a row so you don’t have to break too many times,” says Shelley. “When loads are chosen well and rest is applied, this can be a workout to develop upper-body musculature.”  To hit the desired muscle-building stimulus, you should still use a weight heavy enough to force you to break the rounds of 21 and 15 into at least two sets. 

1A Dumbbell shoulder press

Sets 3 Reps 21, 15, 9

Stand holding the dumbbells by your shoulders with your palms facing forward. Keeping your spine neutral and your core tight, extend your arms to press the dumbbells overhead. Lower the dumbbells under control to the starting position. 

1B Dumbbell bent-over row

Woman performs bent-over row with dumbbells

(Image credit: Mayur Kakade / Getty Images)

Sets 3 Reps 21, 15, 9

Stand holding the dumbbells in front of your thighs with your palms facing you. Hinge forward at your hips and push your butt backward, like you were performing a Romanian deadlift, until your chest is at 30-45° with the floor. Pull the dumbbells up to your stomach, bringing your elbows above your torso. Lower the dumbbells under control.

Harry Bullmore
Staff writer

Harry covers news, reviews and features for Coach, Fit&Well and Live Science. With over a decade of training experience, he has tried everything from powerlifting to gymnastics, cardio to CrossFit, all in a bid to find fun ways of building a healthy, functional body.