You might be forgiven for thinking that two dumbbells are better than one, but that’s not always the case. Perhaps you only have access to one dumbbell and are wondering what you can do for an effective workout, or you’ve heard of unilateral training and are wondering what that can do for you. Using only one dumbbell and focusing on single-arm training is a productive way to build strength and muscle and functionally target the weaker side of your body.
Dumbbells are workout tools that support unilateral training, which helps focus on equalizing strength gains on both sides of the body. While having two makes workouts faster, many effective single-arm activities are available. A single dumbbell can also be used in kettlebell-type exercises.
We will look at whether or not you need two dumbbells vs. one and how best to train with each option. Even if you have two dumbbells, you’re going to find some great exercises here that will help blow up muscle in your arms, back, and shoulders and strengthen your supporting core. We’ll give you the rundown on how you can get the best out of single dumbbell exercises and which offer the most bang for your buck.
One Dumbbell vs. Two
Firstly, if you have access to a set of two dumbbells, that’s always going to give you more scope, but it’s better to have a range of dumbbell weights for different exercises than to have only one set at one weight.
If circumstances mean you’re limited to only one dumbbell, you can still create an effective, muscle-building workout. I’d say that if your choice were between one set of dumbbells in one weight or buying two separate dumbbells each of different weights, I’d go for the second option.
The biggest pro of having two dumbbells is doing exercise sets in a shorter period. Without a doubt, it will take longer to do all the reps with one arm, then switch to the other for the next round before that set is finished. Even exercises that might benefit from having two dumbbells, like renegade rows, can be done on one side, with one hand on the floor, or raised on a yoga block.
Dumbbells for Hypertrophy and Strength
Which weight dumbbell you use – be it for exercises with two or one dumbbell – will depend on your goals. Simply put, you’re looking at three basic options:
- Cardio fitness – light weight, high rep sets of 15+
- Hypertrophy, or growing muscle – medium weight, sets of between 8-12 reps
- Strength training – heavy weight, 1-5 reps per set
These three groups have a bit of overlap, but in general:
- Cardio focuses on raising your heart rate and improving cardiovascular and lung function, which is essential for increasing overall health and athletic endurance for sports.
- Hypertrophy focuses on muscle growth. By increasing the size of your muscle tissue, you will enable your body to recruit more muscle for later strength gains. Hypertrophy is an essential training block.
- Strength training focuses on increasing the amount of weight you’re able to move. You will build brute strength by completely fatiguing your muscles with very heavy weights.
While different training blocks will usually hone in on improving one of these three aspects, none of them happen in isolation. Still, they are typically determined by the weight you’re using, the time you’re talking to rest between sets, and the number of repetitions you do.
Before doing any new workouts, always make sure you’re fit to do so, especially if you have any pre-existing injuries that require a doctor’s clearance.
The Benefits of Single Dumbbell Exercises
With this in mind, we can use any of the single dumbbell exercises to do cardio, hypertrophy, or strength workouts. You can also adjust your rest time and repetitions per set to change your workouts if you’re limited with dumbbell weights.
While most exercise routines will depict a person using two dumbbells at a time, most exercises can be modified to use only one dumbbell, so if that’s all you have, there’s no need to worry.
There are some proven benefits to using only one dumbbell at a time to optimize training by focusing on unilateral muscle building. Some benefits will be obvious, such as fixing imbalances to improve the strength in a weaker limb, while others are enhancing sports-related skills and reducing your risk of injury.
Strengthen and Stabilize the Core
Single-arm exercises offer one particular advantage over using two dumbbells: it incorporates more of your core to adjust for the imbalance in weight. This is an excellent bonus as a strong core supports spine health and is essential for performing exercises correctly. Another advantage is that loaded unilateral exercises mean that you won’t have to concentrate on separate core exercises unless you feel the need.
You’ve probably seen them in Strong Man competitions, but a farmer’s walk, also known as a loaded carry, is an excellent full-body exercise. This exercise is one of my most recommended, providing lasting, quick results.
A farmer’s walk requires a strong core brace, and even more so if you do a single-arm variation like a suitcase carry, or an unbalanced option like a waiter’s carry (one dumbbell raised above your head, the other at your side)
The time under tension also increases the rate of muscle growth, and the heavy weight improves grip strength. Start off with a weight on the heavier side and aim to walk for approximately 30 seconds with good form, about 4-5 times with breaks.
If you do loaded carries with only one weight, be sure to swap so that each arm gets an equal amount of carry time to build core strength evenly. Besides developing your core muscles, unilateral loaded carries also increase your back strength, and both help strengthen your hips and spine.
One of the significant advantages of dumbbells over barbels is that it is much harder to cheat lifts. And by focusing on only one side of the body at a time, as with a single dumbbell lift, you’re forced to zone in on recruiting and using the correct muscles. If you have a much weaker side than the other, this is where unilateral training comes into its own.
When it comes to reducing imbalances in your limbs, unilateral training is more effective than bilateral, and studies show that targeting the weaker limb reduces the asymmetries.
If you know you have a particular weakness on one side, you will want to
- Focus on single dumbbell exercises
- Begin by training the weaker side first
- Matching the reps and sets with the stronger side
- Do additional sets on the weaker side.
By using only one arm at a time, you focus all your attention on that muscle group. Our instinct is usually to start training with our better side, but we need to switch that around when working on imbalances. Start every session of unilateral work with your weaker side.
Starting with the weakest sides allows you to find a limit for your stronger side. The weaker arm will be your marker for your workout volume.
Don’t train more volume on your dominant side, even if it can do more repetitions – this will only worsen the imbalance. Our goal here is to get the weaker side to ‘catch up’ with the other so that when performing bilateral exercises, you don’t cheat and shift the workload to the stronger arm.
Single Dumbbell Exercises for Correcting Imbalances
The other thing to remember with correcting imbalances is that we generally prefer push vs. pull exercises, which means looking at that too. If, for example, you usually do floor press rather than dumbbell rows, your push/chest muscles will be more developed than your pull/back muscles.
Excellent single dumbbell exercises to incorporate into correcting muscle imbalances include bicep curls, single-arm dumbbell rows, single-arm tricep extensions, single dumbbell overhead presses, and single-arm dumbbell floor press.
To correct lower body imbalances (and improve core strength), do single-arm dumbbell lunges, with the dumbbell held either at your side or at your shoulder. Perform single-leg Romanian with a single dumbbell to target hamstrings and glutes and have the additional benefit of improving proprioception and balance. Remember to alternate so that each side performs the same number of reps and sets.
Decrease the Risk of Injuries
You can use unilateral workouts to decrease your risk of injury. It’s harder to overload a single dumbbell movement the way you can with a barbell, and this alone forces good form over heavy weights. It’s always better to get form right first before increasing weights, and when form begins to slip, to move down to lighter weights.
By isolating specific movements with a one-sided exercise, you can concentrate on performing that exercise properly. And by correcting imbalances, you improve your all-round strength and fitness, which lowers the chances of injuries caused by asymmetry.
The extra focus required when doing single-arm workouts also helps you learn to engage the correct muscles for shoulder stability by locking your shoulder blade in place. This is especially helpful for overhead presses and rows, and by using good form and slowing the exercise down, you increase control and avoid injury.
If you are recovering from an injury, your doctor may allow you to begin working out again using very light weights. Since dumbbells come in much lower weight increments than barbells, this will enable you to slowly return to full strength without having to take a more extended break than necessary. Using a single dumbbell means you will avoid overloading strained muscles.
Improve Sports-related Skills
Related to imbalances, you can use dingle side dumbbell exercises to recreate some of your sports training to build strength across the body and use them for explosive movements designed to improve speed and power.
The Turkish get-up is one fantastic exercise you can use for full body conditioning with a single dumbbell. This exercise is a little challenging to master, so take it slow and use light weights 9or none) to get the form right before advancing. Done correctly, Turkish get-ups will work your obliques, abs, and shoulder muscles while also adding to cardiovascular fitness.
Modifications for Single Dumbbell Exercises
When you begin training with dumbbells — unless you’re very experienced — it’s best to start with a program that has been developed by a professional. This takes out the guesswork and planning on your part and ensures all muscle groups are targeted correctly. Many beginner-level programs are available for free or low cost that can be used to an intermediate level by increasing the weights over time.
Frankoman’s Dumbbell Split is an excellent choice if you’re unable to access gym machines or a barbell setup. https://www.muscleandstrength.com/workouts/frankoman-dumbbell-only-split.html
However, if you have limited access to weights and dumbbells, you may wonder how to follow one of the progressive programs available, especially if you have only one dumbbell.
The easiest way to modify most is to simply do each exercise on one side only for the total amount of repetitions, then swap to the other side. As I’ve said earlier, the most significant negative here is making your workouts take slightly longer. However, the benefit comes back with correcting imbalances and starting your training on your weaker side.
Some exercises will only require a single dumbbell, although in many cases, you will want to work up to as heavy a dumbbell as you can find that suits that particular exercise. Exercises that require only one dumbbell include:
- Goblet squats
- Hip thrusts
- Stiff-leg (or Romanian) deadlifts
- Dumbbell hamstring curl
- Turkish get-ups
While it is ideal to have access to sets of two dumbbells in varying weights for different exercises, you can modify most exercises to use only one dumbbell. Instead of being a disadvantage, it is beneficial to train with one dumbbell as unilateral exercises are excellent for improving core strength, balance, and asymmetry in muscular development. If you only have one dumbbell, you can still train effectively by changing the number of repetitions and sets you do and decreasing or increasing your rest times.