This upper-body dumbbell workout sculpts your shoulders, biceps, triceps and pecs in just 30 minutes

Man performing.a dumbbell bicep curl
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Supersets are efficient and effective ways to work muscles harder without spending hours in your local gym. But this upper-body workout with dumbbells takes it one step further — giant sets. 

If you’re unfamiliar with giant or cluster sets, the muscle-building method made it into our round-up of the 5 best ways to build muscle without lifting heavier weights. Instead of combining two exercises back-to-back, giant sets combine three or more. 

You only need one set of the best adjustable dumbbells and 30 minutes to hit your shoulders, arms, chest, back, shoulders and core muscles, increase strength, build muscle and improve muscular endurance. The workout is for all fitness levels, but if you’re returning from injury, check in with a qualified medical professional before giving it a go. 

a photo of a strong woman with dumbbells

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The 30-minute workout, designed by Caroline Girvan, is an upper-body giant set. You’ll work for 45 seconds per exercise, moving straight to the next without rest. Girvan adds, “We have 45 seconds rest between each giant set and perform each giant set for two sets.”

The workout starts by targeting the shoulder muscles, then Girvan hits your back and chest and finishes on arms and ‘more shoulders.’ There’s some kit involved — you’ll need a chair (or similar), one set of dumbbells and an exercise mat. We recommend doubling up the best yoga mats as exercise mats, as they generally have more grip and better padding.

Girvan switches between 15kg and 8kg dumbbells, but use what you have and perform each exercise with good form, lifting with control over your ego at all times.   

Watch Caroline Girvan’s ‘giant killer’ 30-minute upper-body workout 

We’re no strangers to Girvan’s workouts — here’s her dumbbell abs workout that only takes 15 minutes. Although we like to design and share our own workouts here at Tom’s Guide, we also love testing what’s out there in the fitness world — new and old. 

Girvan uploaded this workout to her YouTube channel in 2021, but it’s still racking up impressive views and currently sits shy of 1.5 million. Watch the video below to follow along, and check out the exercises listed below as guidance.

Here’s what to expect:

Giant set 1

Giant set 2

Giant set 3

Giant set 4

Finisher:

30/30/30/30 seconds

  • Dips
  • Alternating curls

Girvan teases, “So much volume! So many quality reps!” Phew, our muscles are tired just looking at it.

Remember to focus on quality and move with control. Ensure you exhale as your body meets the most resistance, for example, during the upward pushing-up phase of a push-up.

The 30-minute upper-body workout comprises four exercises per giant set, completed twice before moving on. The finisher supersets two moves for 30 seconds per exercise, twice through. It’s day 32 of the Epic Heat 10-week program, but it works as a solo workout on chest and back day. 

Caroline Girvan’s ‘giant killer’ 30-minute upper-body workout: Verdict 

Before engaging in any workout, prepare your muscles for exercise using quality mobility exercises. If you experience any pain or suffer from a shoulder injury, seek medical advice before jumping in feet first. 

Giant sets are popular because you can pack more exercises into one exercise regime by minimizing rest and keeping muscles under tension for longer — a method called time under tension. Anyone can adopt giant sets, but we recommend choosing lighter weights than you would with a strength program, as the high-volume reps will torch muscles faster. 

Here are a few tips for some of the more challenging exercises in the workout. 

You can do pike push-ups on the floor, but Girvan elevates her feet on a chair to provide a deficit. For beginners, we recommend starting on the floor to practice the movement pattern, graduating to a chair when you feel comfortable. 

Renegade rows can also be tricky to master, and we see enough swinging hips to rival the 60s during this move. Keep your hips square to the mat, in line with your shoulders, then row toward your back pocket, pulling the elbow back as far as possible. Engage your core throughout and avoid turning your body outward.

Pull-overs are a seriously effective shoulder exercise, but the most typical mistake involves overarching the spine, resulting in lower back pain. A slight arch is okay because your lower back doesn’t need to be flat on the floor or bench, but your core should stay engaged without flaring your ribcage. Practice tilting your hips toward your spine and focus on controlled movements.

People often complain they don’t get much engagement from Supermans, but a common mistake is to rush them. Pause and squeeze your back muscles at the top, and try holding very light weights to add intensity. If you’re new to the move, practice lifting your chest, then coordinate squeezing your glutes and lifting your legs. You should feel activation in your posterior chain muscles — the back, glutes and hamstrings.

Crucially though, Girvan encourages you to move from one exercise to the next without rushing, even when the clock is counting down. Set each one up for success, and do what you can. 

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Sam Hopes
Senior Staff Writer - Fitness

Sam Hopes is a level III fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and senior fitness writer at Future PLC, the publisher of Tom's Guide. She is also about to undertake her Yoga For Athletes training course. Having trained to work with mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and fitness, and their impact on performance. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and building sustainable training methods.  When she's not writing up her experiences with the latest fitness tech and workouts, you’ll find her writing about nutrition, sleep, recovery, and wellness.