You don’t need the gym to build upper body muscle — just 8 exercises and a set of dumbbells

a photo of a woman performing dumbbell curls
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Quit worrying about using fancy gym equipment and machinery to train your upper body and trust in the mighty dumbbell to build muscle across your shoulders, chest, back and arms. 

Shared in an Instagram video, this dumbbell routine relies on eight exercises to strengthen, tone and build muscle in your upper body, and it's all thanks to fitness coach Caroline Idiens. Idiens works with two sizes of dumbbells in this workout - we recommend investing a set of the best adjustable dumbbells as they allow you to move up and down weight from one device.

When you are training with weights, try to avoid getting caught up with how heavy you can lift as ultimately it is proper form that will help you progress quicker, increase your strength gains and avoid injury. Bear this in mind as you work through the following eight exercises. 

8-move upper body workout

This upper body workout involves completing eight exercises with the number of reps varying between exercises and is structured into four sets. Just be sure to allow yourself rests between each exercise to give your muscles time to recover.

Be sure to take advantage of Idiens demonstrations of each move below.

Incorporating these dumbbell exercises into your exercise routine will help you to target and strengthen a variety of muscle groups, spurring you toward improved overall upper body strength and muscle definition. Let's take a closer look into what muscles each exercise will target.

Lateral Raises
Lateral raises are a great dumbbell exercise for training your deltoids. This move will help to strengthen and define your shoulder muscles. It can also improve posture, making you stand taller and more confidently.

Arnold Press
Fancy channeling your inner Arnold Schwarzenegger? Named after the legend himself, the Arnold Press works your shoulders, traps and triceps. It provides a full range of motion, helping to enhance your shoulder strength and stability. Our writer wrote about what happened to her shoulders when she tried out Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2-move 360-rep bodyweight workout.

Chest press
This one is for the pecs. The chest press will target your chest, shoulder and tricep muscles. Not only does this exercise help to enhance chest definition and size but it will also boost your upper body pushing power. 

Skullcrusher
If building strong and toned arms is on your upper body checklist, then skullcrushers are not to be skipped. They will help to isolate and strengthen your triceps which sit at the top end of your arm and play a key role in push movements, whether that be in the gym or in everyday activities.

a man performing dumbbell skullcrushers

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Pull Overs
Now it's time to give your back and chest some attention. This exercise works your lats, chest, and triceps. Strengthening your back and chest muscles will play a key part in building a strong and balanced upper body.

Bicep curls
As you probably guessed right, this exercise focuses on your biceps, helping you build some impressive arm muscles. But it's not all about aesthetics, increasing strength in your biceps will help make everyday tasks easier to complete, such as carrying groceries.

Tricep dips
Tricep dips can increase definition in your arms enhance and improve your overall upper body pushing strength.

Shoulder Press
You'll be working your shoulders, traps and triceps with the shoulder press exercise. Keeping the elbows up as you do this move, like Idiens does, increases the challenge, pushing your shoulders to work even harder.

From shoulder raises to chest presses and tricep dips, each exercise in this upper body circuit engages different muscles, ensuring a balanced workout. Plus, with the option to implement progressive overload and a mix of compound and isolation exercises, you will be on your way to effectively stimulate muscle growth and strength gains.

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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.