Over 50 & looking to build muscle? Awesome, me too.
This article features 9 of the best dumbbell exercises for older folk who are interested in increasing their strength & building some muscle from top to bottom.
Instructional videos & a couple of sample workout routines I put together are included too.
9 great dumbbell exercises for seniors
- Dumbbell Squat
- Dumbbell Chest Press
- Dumbbell Bent-Over Row
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Dumbbell Pullover
- Dumbbell Lying Triceps Extension
- Dumbbell Biceps Curl
- Dumbbell Weighted Crunch
- Dumbbell Standing Calf Raise
Up ahead we’ll get into each of these 9 dumbbell exercises in detail, including proper form & tips to maximize your results while performing each of them.
And as I mentioned there’ll be workouts too.
Next I’ll explain why I consider these dumbbell exercises a great group to build an effective total body workout around, and what a few of the benefits they provide us are.
Program note: If you’ve been here before and would like to skip ahead to either the exercise tutorials or to my workout section, you can use either the Table of Contents above or these two links below:
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
Best dumbbell exercises for seniors
Why these particular exercises?
Because as a group, these 9 dumbbell exercises provide a full body workout that can effectively increase your strength, build lean muscle, and reduce your body fat.
Compound exercises are the key
The first 5 exercises on that list I showed you above are all compound exercises:
- Dumbbell Squat
- Dumbbell Chest Press
- Dumbbell Bent-Over Row
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Dumbbell Pullover
This is an important distinction.
A compound exercise (as opposed to an isolation exercise) is one that utilizes more than one major muscle group and more than one body joint.
Why does this matter?
Because there are a number of benefits that you will provide yourself if you build your workout in such a way that the majority of your effort is spent performing compound exercises.
Benefits of compound lifting exercises
Get stronger & build muscle faster
In their Position Stand for Progression Models in Resistance Training, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends the use of compound exercises (aka multiple-joint exercises) for the core of any strength training program with hypertrophy (muscle growth) as one of its goals (1).
Compound exercises burn calories better
Isolation exercises aren’t as effective at burning calories as compound movements are, as noted by the American Council on Exercise, among others (2).
For an example of this, compare the dumbbell squat exercise that I recommend for our workout to a popular piece of gym equipment, the leg extension machine.
Both work your legs, so this is a good comparison.
The dumbbell squat is a compound exercise that utilizes multiple joints and several leg & hip muscles, while the leg extension machine isolates your quadriceps muscle while you sit there.
The squat requires a lot more effort, energy, & oxygen use out of you while performing it than the leg extension does.
That energy is paid for in calories.
More effort = more cardiovascular benefit
Performing a lot of compound exercises in every workout will improve your cardiovascular function, given the amount of energy & oxygen they require that I just mentioned.
Your heart rate will be up during a compound exercise.
And it will stay up throughout your workout, provided you keep your rests in between sets within recommended guidelines.
Thus while you’re busy getting stronger, you’re improving your heart & lung health too.
Improve your functional fitness
“Functional fitness” refers to day-to-day activities & movements.
Compound exercises improve your ability to perform these daily tasks more easily and more safely.
Again, this is because these exercises recruit multiple joints and multiple muscle groups.
And all these moving parts need to be coordinated in such a way so as to perform these strength training exercises properly.
This is a big help for all of us who are north of 50 years old.
We’ve seen how our stability, balance, coordination, & general strength isn’t what it was back when we were 40, let alone 30.
Compound exercises make us stronger and more able to confidently handle life’s physical activities with greater self-reliance, whether it’s
- running around with the dog
- unloading a ton of groceries
- climbing flights of stairs
- moving a heavy piece of furniture.
Build around our compound exercises
So by creating the right combination of sets & reps (repetitions) within our 9-exercise routine, the 5 compound exercises can be well over ⅔ of our total workout volume…which is great.
This puts us in a good position to realize our training goals of getting stronger, building lean muscle, and losing some fat along the way too.
9 great dumbbell exercises for seniors
OK, now we’ll look at each of these exercises individually and in more detail here.
I’ll be going through them in the same order as I listed them, which will also be the same order you’ll find them in the sample workout programs I’ll be providing.
This is no accident.
Not only is this workout front-loaded with the 5 compound exercises, they are arranged in descending order from the highest intensity exercise on down.
So “first up” honors goes to the dumbbell squat, because the squat is the queen of compound exercises.
(The ExRx links I provide in the next section will open in an adjacent browser tab, and feature a 10-second looping demonstration video of the exercise along with detailed written instructions & tips on form.)
1. Dumbbell Squat
Keep your body engaged & upright, don’t tilt forward with head & shoulders.
The video’s tip about keeping your knees from extending past your toes is a biggie.
Given our age, I understand if you have stiff knees or weak hip muscles.
So if you can’t get all the way to where your thighs are parallel to the floor, don’t sweat it.
Keep your form excellent and squat down as best you can.
2. Dumbbell Chest Press
I agree with the video in principle regarding not letting the elbows go far below the level of your shoulders, because too far can give your shoulder joints the blues big time.
However, I think the gal in the video could’ve gone a couple of inches lower with her elbows without putting the shoulder area at risk.
A teeny bit of stretch there is beneficial for your chest muscles.
What if I’m at home and don’t have a bench?
No worries, I gotcha covered.
First, I have an article here on heydayDo I wrote on how to do a chest workout at home without a bench.
In it I offer 5 alternatives to using a weight bench that you probably have in your home already that you can use.
You can open a separate window to read that here.
(All of the exercises in this workout can be done at home without the need for a weight bench. If you don’t have one just get a little creative, and that article of mine tells you how.)
Second, you can watch these videos on how to do a chest press on something other than a bench.
First, you can do it on the floor:
Or you can do it on a Swiss ball if you have one:
3. Dumbbell Bent-Over Row
If you can keep your back angled & straight at the same time – like shown in the video – you can go for it with 2 dumbbells at once.
The second video shows an excellent alternative using just one arm at a time.
You bang out your reps with one arm, then turn around on the bench (or whatever you’re using) and perform your reps with the other arm.
Two-arm version of the bent-over row:
And here’s how you do the one-arm version of the bent-over row:
ExRx link (one-arm)
4. Dumbbell Shoulder Press
You can do this standing like she does in the video or sitting at the edge of the bench.
Standing is good for using your core & legs to stabilize you during the movement.
If you choose to sit, maintain erect posture – tighten your abs & core muscles, and don’t slump or roll your shoulders forward.
5. Dumbbell Pullover
This is a classic exercise that works your chest & your back, and activates your arm muscles as well (4).
It feels good to do too: the big stretch is real nice considering we’ve just worked out our chest, back, & shoulders in the previous 3 exercises.
I like this exercise so much I wrote a whole article about its benefits, form variations, & more…you can check it out here if you’re interested.
It’s the last of our five compound exercises, and is a great one to finish them off with before we head into the four isolation exercises.
If you need a non-bench alternative for this exercise, here’s a clever idea from The Buff Dudes: they use a camping cooler.
Tip:A nice comfy towel is handy when using a household item with a hard surface for any exercise.
This link here should take you to the right spot in their video.
If it doesn’t, their dumbbell pullover segment runs from 2:35 – 3:18 in this one.
6. Dumbbell Lying Triceps Extension
Key thought here:
Keep your upper arms still and let your elbows function as a lever as you lower the dumbbells down on either side of your head.
If you don’t keep your upper arms from moving, you’ll start using more of your shoulder muscles to bring the dumbbell back up.
Since this is a triceps isolation exercise, we don’t want that.
7. Dumbbell Biceps Curl
Key thoughts here:
Everybody & their grandmother (literally) does these.
It’s a simple movement that’s easy to imitate.
But I saw a lot of poor form going on in commercial gyms over the years.
Just a couple of important points to stay on track:
* Shoulders back & upright. Again, don’t let them roll forward.
* Keep the elbows in place. The gal in the video wants you to lock your elbows, and that’s a great idea. If they’re an inch or two off your hips but you don’t move them, that’s good too.
* Same as with the triceps extension exercise: if you start moving your upper arms around, your shoulders will do the work, and you don’t want that here.
This is a biceps isolation exercise.
“All I gotta do is…act naturally”
So says the old song.
As I said, she advises you to lock your ams at your sides and keep your palms facing directly forward.
I’d humbly suggest that in addition to that approach, you can also loosely drop your arms to your sides naturally, and start from there.
When you turn your palms out from that position, you’ll see that your wrists are now a few inches away from your hips and your arms are pointing out a little at an angle.
This is a very comfortable & natural position to be in for you & your biceps while you’re doing curls.
One last helpful biceps thing:
You can get a better pump in your biceps if, instead of taking the dumbbells all the way up, you stop just an inch or two before that.
That way you keep constant tension on the biceps muscle, since otherwise it gets to relax a little when you take the dumbbells all the way up to your shoulders.
8. Dumbbell Crunch
This version of the dumbbell crunch is also called the long-arm dumbbell crunch for obvious reasons once you’ve seen the video.
The extra weight in your hands adds to the resistance your ab muscles are dealing with, and this is a good thing.
Notice how little you’re actually moving, yet you’ll still definitely feel it in your abs.
And a variation:
And here’s another version of the weighted crunch where the gal is using a medicine ball and holding it close to her.
As they mention, you can do the same thing with a dumbbell.
Some people can’t get a comfortable position for the dumbbell on their chest, hence the long-arm version we just looked at previously.
Abs are muscles.
You may or may not be hiding them beneath a layer or two of fat, but they’re there.
And you treating them like the muscle group they are – making them stronger and bigger – will pay big dividends for you, both in your appearance and in the overall strength of your upper body core too.
9. Dumbbell Standing Calf Raise
Since we use our calves all day every day whenever we’re walking around, they’re pretty strong for most people.
So don’t be surprised if you can use a much heavier pair of dumbbells than the woman in the video is using.
This video has a nice idea to increase the intensity of the exercise.
The little bounce she does without touching the floor keeps constant tension which is good for your calves.
I’ll also suggest holding at the top of the movement for several seconds at a time.
Say every 5-6 reps or so you try and stay up in flex mode for 5-10 seconds.
In the ExRx demonstration video below, note that the guy is only holding one dumbbell.
This is because he’s using what looks like an aerobic stepper to increase his range of motion.
In other words, he can sink his ankles lower than his toes off the edge of the stepper.
And this increases his ability to stretch the calf and also to have a longer distance when he’s pushing back up off the balls of his feet.
He only has one dumbbell so that he can maintain his balance with his other arm.
I do 2-dumbbell calf raises off the edge of a step sometimes but it’s not a smooth operation for me, and maintaining proper balance is the challenge.
Dumbbell workout considerations
Are you at home or do you belong to a gym?
I ask this to see what kind of dumbbells you have access to.
At a gym you’re set, since they have a pair of every weight you’d ever need.
At home, if you don’t own a pair of adjustable dumbbells (I don’t), you’ll need to figure out a way to be able to do these these exercises with enough weight so that you can make real progress.
I have a mix & match bunch of used dumbbells I’ve collected over the last 25-30 years.
Here’s some of ’em:
The oldest ones develop rust holes from being exposed to salty ocean air, and end up losing some weight & needing replacement.
Over the past decade or so, I have found some really good deals on used dumbbells in the Amazon Warehouse, where people’s returned items end up.
Due to COVID causing so many gym closures, fitness equipment inventories have taken quite a hit…even at Amazon.
Here’s a search ad of theirs where I typed in “adjustable dumbbells”, and it should show you some of what’s in stock at the time you’re reading this article:
Do you have a Dick’s Sporting Goods nearby?
They’re not shipping much in the way of heavy items since the shutdown, however they are offering curbside “contactless” pickup in many locations for things you buy from them online.
If you go perusing on their site, just type in your zip code so they can check the inventory of local stores near you.
You can click this link to see what the dumbbell situation looks like at Dick’s stores in your area:
Different exercises, different weights needed
So with these 9 exercises, you’ll be needing a variety of weights.
For instance, you’ll be able to squat a lot more than you can curl with your biceps.
And so on.
And in order to build muscle & get stronger, you’re going to need weight sufficient enough to make you work hard &/or hit failure in the appropriate rep range for each exercise.
In other words, you don’t want a weight so light that you can breeze to 15 reps no problem.
As you get stronger, you’ll have days where you can get 15 reps in with a particular exercise, and that’s great!
But that’s a message we need to heed and take action on, because we are progressive resistance training.
Progressive resistance training
That 15 rep set I just talked about is a signal that you need to increase the weight for that exercise a little the next time you work out.
And your decision to bump up that weight is at the heart of progressive resistance training, which is the slow & steady increasing of intensity (the weight you’re lifting) and the volume (the # of sets & reps) you’re doing.
Progressive resistance training is the mode you want to be in with your workouts: always bumping up the weight anytime it gets too easy to do (e.g., 20 reps is too easy).
Your increases will be in very small increments, but they will add up over time.
At some point in the not-too-distant future you’ll look back and go
“Wow! Look how much stronger I am”, or “My body looks so much better now compared to then”, etc.
For all of your sets, you’re going to want your reps within an 8-12 range for beginners, or a 6-10 rep range for intermediates.
At first, there’ll be a feeling out period
When you first start out, you won’t know what weights are the right ones for you to hit your 8-12 rep target.
Don’t sweat it, you’ll figure it out as you go.
You’ll have days where you have those 15 rep sets I mentioned, and you may have some down days where everything’s harder to come by.
Tip: Diet & rest/recovery have a lot to do with how you feel come the next workout.
Over time you’ll get a feel for hitting your target reps by adjusting your weight accordingly.
And no worries, it’s not an exact science – you have some leeway as long as your goal direction is on point.
Another tip worth passing along: Keep track of your workouts. Write down the weight used and how many sets & reps you do for every exercise.
That way you’ll know when it’s time to bump the weight up a little, or add another set…as well as track your progress over the long haul.
Full body dumbbell workouts
I put together both beginner and intermediate routines, and provide examples of weekly workout schedules you can apply these dumbbell workouts to.
Both use the same 9 dumbbell exercises we’ve looked at, but the training frequency (# of times per week) and the volume (# of sets & reps) are different.
Sports science research has shown that as far as strength & muscle improvements go, our bodies respond differently to strength training, depending on our level of fitness (5).
Hence the different training volume between a beginner & an intermediate weightlifter.
Beginner dumbbell workout guidelines
* Do this workout 3 times per week, with 4 off days per week.
* Always rest at least a day in between.
* So your choices are Mon-Wed-Fri, Tue-Thu-Sat, or Wed-Fri-Sun.
* Do the exercises in the order written.
* Again, keep an eye on your weights so you don’t have a lot of 15-20 rep sets, but give yourself grace to figure it out in the beginning.
It’ll take a little time to get wired.
* I’m getting strict here: 60 seconds of rest between sets.
At 45 seconds, you should get in position to start your next set right at 60.
This is important.
Squat 2 sets of 8-12 reps
Chest Press 2 sets of 8-12 reps
Bent-Over Row 2 sets of 8-12 reps
Shoulder Press 2 sets of 8-12 reps
Pullover 2 sets of 8-12 reps
Lying Triceps Extension 2 sets of 8-12 reps
Biceps Curl 2 sets of 8-12 reps
Weighted Crunch 2 sets to failure*
Standing Calf Raise 2 sets of 15-20
(*to failure – If this term is new to you, “to failure” simply means you do as many as you can ‘til you poop out, and that’s one set.)
“Pump Up The Volume”
After several months on the beginners’ program, or if you’re already acclimated to some weightlifting, you can take your workout volume up a notch.
You’re going to need to anyway at some point, in order to continue building strength & muscle.
This intermediate program will boost the number of sets & reps you perform per week per muscle group.
One of the best ways to do that is to split the body parts up, and train each of them twice per week.
This is to allow for adequate recovery time for your muscles, so that you feel strong and that they grow.
There are countless variations of this approach, so I’m showing just one logical example.
I’m basing it on the principles laid out by the American College of Sports Medicine (6).
Intermediate dumbbell workout
* These 9 dumbbell exercises will be split over two days, which you will do twice per week.
So you’ll be lifting 4 times a week, with 3 off days.
* This is known as a 4-day workout split.
This weekly plan is sometimes called a “Monday Thursday, Tuesday Friday” schedule.
* Your “life” schedule may require you to use different days of the week than this; that’s totally cool.
Just honor the same amount of rest/recovery that this schedule provides for each muscle group.
* The goal is to have 2 off days minimum for every muscle group.
In the version I’m showing you, there’ll be a 2-day recovery followed by a 3-day recovery for each muscle group every week.
* Do the exercises in the order written.
* You’re more experienced now, so staying on top of your weights is easy.
We’re going a little heavier and dropping your rep range to 6-10 reps per set**.
* We’re still strict with our 60 second rest time in-between sets.
Be ready to go before the minute is up, then start right at 60.
This is important. (Oops, I said that twice didn’t I…😉)
** 6-10 reps per set – This is because sports science has shown that working out in an intensity zone (intensity = the amount of weight you’re using) similar to this is optimal for strength & muscle gains (7).
Mon – Thu
Chest Press 4 sets of 6-10 reps
Shoulder Press 4 sets of 6-10 reps
Pullover 3 sets of 6-10 reps
Lying Triceps Extension** 4 sets of 6-10 reps
Weighted Crunch 3 sets of 6-10 reps
Tue – Fri
Squat 4 sets of 6-10 reps
Bent-Over Row 4 sets of 6-10 reps
Biceps Curl** 4 sets of 6-10 reps
Standing Calf Raise 3 sets of 12-15 reps
** – You can add some variety to your arm exercises now that you’re up to 4 sets per muscle group, and I’ve written a tutorial+workout article featuring 7 additional arm exercises, 4 for your triceps & 3 for your biceps.
The link to that article is down below this in the Wrapping Up section, or you can click here.
Feel free to swap in any of the exercises in that article for the two I’ve already shown you, and you can do two exercises for two sets apiece for both your triceps & biceps if you like as well.
A sufficient warmup is an important part of any strength training program.
And 10-15 minutes coasting on a stationary bike isn’t going to cut it.
The goal is to get the blood flowing into all of the muscles & joints so that when your weightlifting begins, they’re warm, lubricated, and ready to go.
And since we’re older models, we definitely need a good warmup beforehand.
Here’s a video of a dynamic mobility/flexibility warmup from Jeff Cavaliere at Athlean X.
This is just an example, but note the 10 short drills and see how the whole body gets prepared for the workout ahead.
You can make up your own or find something similar online to copy too.
I do something along the lines of this, and I incorporate Theraband stretching exercises too.
These are dynamic stretching exercises not static stretches, meaning I keep moving versus holding the stretch in one position for X number of seconds.
I’ve written an article on this topic, and here’s the link: Dynamic vs. Static Stretching, and it has a couple dozen nice dynamic stretches illustrated in a video if you want a few ideas.
Doing something similar that’s appropriate for your level of fitness for 8-10 minutes or so will make a big difference when your lifting starts; I can vouch for that.
Related workouts & exercises here on heydayDo
If you’re looking to take your weight training program up a notch or two from what I’ve presented here, I’ve written a couple of workout articles that may be of interest to you:
In the 5×5 Workout I share a number of additional exercises for each muscle group that I do on a regular basis in my various lifting programs. (I usually change my routine every 6-8 weeks or so these days.)
I hope my dumbbell exercises for seniors article is useful to you, and that the workout sections are helpful too.
I wish you well on your fitness journey; let’s go.