Forget pull-ups — build upper-body strength with a set of dumbbells and these 8 moves

a woman with a defined core is lifting two light dumbbells
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

You don't have to be a master at pull-ups to develop upper body strength. You just need a solid selection of upper body specific exercises and a pair of dumbbells — we've got just the workout to get you started.

If you prefer to train at home then it's worthwhile investing in a pair of the best adjustable dumbbells as this style allows you to work with a wide range of weight sizes from one set of dumbbells. 

However, a standard set of dumbbells will do. Just make sure it's a size you feel comfortable working with for all eight exercises included in this upper body session designed by Britany Williams.

There are eight moves to familiarise yourself with but you only need to select five or six. The aim is to complete 10-12 reps of each and three sets in total. 

Some exercises include two dumbbells, some include one dumbbell and the rest rely on just your body weight. 

Williams has based a lot of the exercises on a kneeling stance or lying down so be sure to roll out something padded like one of the best yoga mats before you begin the workout and this will help protect your joints.

What is the 8-move dumbbell upper body workout?

You might look at people in the gym grunting through barbell bench presses and convince yourself they'll get better results than you will with a pair of dumbbells. But, if you're nailing good form, dumbbells hold their own as an excellent muscle building tool. This is because they require more stabilization and this in turn activates more muscle fibers. 

Plus, the dumbbell exercises included in Williams' workout can be considered functional training because they involve compound movements that mimic real-life activities and engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously. Why is this useful? Incorporating functional training into your fitness regime can contribute to improved strength, stability, and mobility in your body.

Another great thing about the series of dumbbell exercises above is that you needn't perform all eight moves in one session. So if you plan on completing this upper body session regularly, you can keep things fresh by switching around which moves you work with each time. Or you might like to select two or three from this routine to form part of a full body workout.

You're in luck if core training is also something you also like to pay attention to in your workouts. As you'll notice in Williams' demonstrations above, some of the upper body exercises which are typically performed standing up or on a bench are instead performed kneeling down in this routine. 

Kneeling can engage the core muscles more effectively than standing because it requires greater stability to maintain balance. This greater demand on the core muscles helps improve core strength and stability, this is essential for maintaining proper posture and stability during exercise and daily activities.

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Jessica Downey
Fitness Writer

Jessica is an experienced fitness writer with a passion for running. Her love for keeping fit and fueling her body with healthy and enjoyable food quite naturally led her to write about all things fitness and health-related. If she isn’t out testing the latest fitness products such as the latest running shoe or yoga mat for reviewing then she can be found writing news and features on the best ways to build strength, active aging, female health, and anything in between. Before then she had a small stint writing in local news, has also written for Runners World UK (print and digital), and gained experience with global content marketing agency, Cedar Communications.

Born and raised in Scotland, Jessica is a massive fan of exercising and keeping active outdoors. When at home she can be found running by the sea, swimming in it, or up a mountain. This continued as she studied and trained to become a PPA-accredited magazine journalist in Wales. And since working and living in London, she splits her time between weight training in the gym, trying new fitness classes, and finding scenic running routes. Jessica enjoys documenting this on her fitness-inspired Instagram page @jessrunshere where she loves engaging with like-minded fitness junkies.

She is a big fan of healthy cooking and loves learning more about this area with expert nutritionists she has met over the years. Jessica is a big advocate for building healthy relationships with food rather than building restrictive attitudes towards it. When she isn’t eating or running she also enjoys practicing yoga in her free time as it helps her to unwind and benefits her performance in other sports.