This dumbbell workout builds your entire body in just 20 minutes

this woman holding a dumbbell workout
(Image credit: Getty/Cavan Images)

So you’re looking for a dumbbell workout you can do from just about anywhere? The good news? I’ve found it. The bad news — it’s a full-body workout that will work you hard. Ready to get started? Grab a set of the best adjustable dumbbells and your workout mat, and get ready to sweat. 

The workout, created by Caroline Girvan — a personal trainer with over 2 million subscribers on YouTube, uses compound exercises to work the body hard. A compound exercise is one that targets more than one muscle group at a time, for example, a squat, or a deadlift. There are 20 different exercises, none of which repeat, so you can put your all in knowing you won’t have to do another circuit later in the workout. 

You’ll work for 40 seconds, then rest for 20 seconds. Girvan uses a set of 15kg dumbbells for most of the exercises in the workout, but you should select a weight that is right for you and your body. As a reminder, the right weight will feel challenging by the final few reps, without compromising your form. If you’re new to any of these exercises or returning to exercise post-injury, it’s a good idea to select a lighter weight or check with a personal trainer to ensure you’re moving with the correct form. 

What is the 20-minute dumbbell workout?  

You can follow along with Girvan during the workout — there’s a countdown timer in the top right corner of the screen allowing you to countdown the 40 seconds of work. That said, if you like to know what you’re getting into beforehand, here’s a snapshot of a few of the exercises: 

This is a great 20-minute workout that proves you don’t need to spend hours lifting in the weight room to get results.

Single arm bent over row: For a single-arm dumbbell row, reach down and pick up the dumbbell with your right hand. Keep the grip neutral, so that your palm is facing your body, and keep your arm outstretched. Slowly, and with control, bring the dumbbell up towards your chest, hinging at the elbow. The movement should come from your back and shoulder muscles, not from your arm. Pause at the top of the movement, before lowering the dumbbell back to your starting position. Read more about how to do a single arm bent over row here. 

Close stance squat: For this exercise, get into a squat position, but bring your feet close together underneath your body. Squat down, keeping your feet pressed into the floor. In a pop-up on the screen, Girvan says, “keep looking ahead throughout, ensure your heels stay on the ground at all times, and try not to severely lock out every rep!”

Upright row: Start by holding a dumbbell in each hand, close to your upper thighs with your palms facing inwards. Make sure your elbows are soft and shoulder blades pulled back. Start to guide the barbell/dumbbell up towards the chest area, leading with your elbows high and away from the body. Pause once you reach shoulder height and focus on squeezing your traps. Then slowly lower the weight in a controlled manner back down the body to the start position. Keep your stomach and back muscles engaged throughout the exercise. Here’s more on how to do an upright row, and the variations to try. 

Alternating dead bug: For this exercise, Girvan performs a dead bug holding a 7.5kg dumbbell in each hand. Start by lying on your back, keeping your lower back pressed into the mat — think about sucking your belly button into your spine. Raise your arms straight above you, and your knees into table top position.

Slowly lower your right arm to a couple of inches off the floor behind your head, as you do so, stretch your left leg away from your body and lower that to just above the floor. Pause, then return to your starting position and repeat on the opposite side. Here’s more on how to do a dead bug, plus what happened when I did 100 dead bugs a day for a week

I tried this 20-minute dumbbell workout — here’s what happened 

Caroline Girvan Dumbbell workout on YouTube

(Image credit: Caroline Girvan/YouTube)

To find out more, I grabbed two sets of dumbbells — 10 pounds and 15 pounds —and followed along with Girvan as she cycled through the different exercises. I enjoyed the format of working for 40 seconds, then having a short break to re-set — 40 seconds was long enough to feel the work but short enough to really push myself and pick up the heavier dumbbells. 

More often than not, my strength training routines involve a lot of circuits, so I appreciated that this one didn’t repeat any exercises. It also worked all of the major muscle groups in my body and elevated my heart rate. The next morning, I felt a twinge that told me I’d targeted muscles I normally neglect. 

This is a great 20-minute workout that proves you don’t need to spend hours lifting in the weight room to get results. What are you waiting for? Grab a set of dumbbells and give this one a go. 

Looking for more workout inspiration? Here are the best 10-minute ab workouts you can do from anywhere, plus a 15-minute dumbbell abs workout. Also check out how I did 100 kettlebell swings a day for a week — here’s what happened. And read about how to fix doing pull-ups.

Jane McGuire
Fitness editor

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past five years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.