When you’re just starting to work out, small dumbbells are a godsend: You can do the same exercises as everyone else, but with less weight. When we get strong enough, we often leave those little dumbbells behind, and that’s a shame. There are actually a lot of worthwhile exercises that don’t require much in the way of weight.
What counts as a “light” dumbbell is going to vary depending on how strong you are. Even as a beginner, you may be able to do these exercises with, say, 1 kg dumbbells. As you get stronger, we might be talking about something like a 10-pounder. Whatever your experience level, go ahead and grab those little weights in the corner and try out some of these moves.
If you’re not familiar with the deadbug, it’s a core exercise that asks you to stabilise your body while you extend one arm and one leg. Once you get the hang of that, do it with small dumbbells in your hands to increase the challenge.
Wrist or wrist-and-finger curls are excellent ways to work on your grip strength, giving you strong and healthy forearms (and making it so you never have to ask someone to open a jar for you again). To really focus on the movement, you can do these seated with your forearm on your knee for sets of 20 or more.
Reverse wrist curls
This lesser-known exercise works the opposite muscles as a regular wrist curl, but you may need to go even lighter (or use fewer reps). You can set it up the same way, with your forearm resting on your leg. Hold each rep for a few seconds at the top to make it even more of a challenge. Superset these with regular wrist curls for a killer forearm circuit.
Lateral (side) raises are one of those humbling exercises that’s difficult to do properly with a heavy weight. So go for something lighter, and do a ton of reps. But don’t stop there: front raises (where you bring your straightened arm up in front of you) and rear delt raises (where you bend over and spread your arms like a soaring bird) work the other heads of this muscle, leading to well-rounded shoulders. And when you stack all three together — say, 15 reps of each — that light weight gets real heavy real quick.
When you’re doing a plank on your side, what is your free arm up to? For most of us, it’s in the air or on our hip as we grit our teeth and wait for the exercise to be over. But if you’re looking for more of a challenge, you can use a dumbbell in that hand to make your core work even harder to stabilise your body.
You can simply hold the dumbbell steady, or you can do lateral raises while you’re in the plank position. Or make like this guy and do an entire dumbbell snatch (lifting it quickly from the ground to lockout) while in a side plank.
Fat grip dumbbell circuit
To work on your grip, thumb, and forearm strength, try this circuit using fat grips on the dumbbells. (Fat grips are a product you can buy, but you can also just wrap towels around the dumbbell handles.) For 20 seconds each:
- Tilt the dumbbells to tap the bottom of one on the top of the other
- Raise one dumbbell above the other to tap its bottom to the other’s top, mashed potato style
- Tap the bottoms of the dumbbells together.
The superman is a simple floor exercise: you lie on your belly, then pick your hips and shoulders up off the floor. (It’s great for the back muscles that are also part of your core, except you probably don’t work them as much because they’re behind you when you look in the mirror.) To make supermans more challenging, use small dumbbells. You can even move the dumbbells in a press type motion, like the person does in this video.
Shoulder external rotation
This is a rotator cuff exercise that is sometimes used as “prehab,” or in other words, an attempt to prevent injury by strengthening muscles that may not get a lot of direct work otherwise. You can perform it while lying on your side, with the elbow braced against your body, or seated as in this video.
Shoulder internal rotation
If we can do external rotations with a dumbbell, we can certainly do their opposite as well. This one can also be done in a variety of positions, so here’s the side-lying example. Do not let anyone question why you are bringing a pillow into the gym. It’s for your shoulder workout, ok??
After doing so many light, focused exercises, it’s time to get your whole body involved. The devil’s press is basically a burpee where, instead of jumping, you swing the dumbbells up over your head. That makes it a great option if an injury or a downstairs neighbour prevents you from jumping, but you still want to get a full body exercise. You don’t need to go super light on these, but you’ll need less weight than you might think. In truth, your own body weight provides most of the resistance as you squat and do the pushup; the dumbbells are just a fun extra to make sure you’re standing up explosively.