You don't need the gym to build upper body muscle — just these 5 moves and a pair of dumbbells

a woman doing a dumbbell press on the floor
(Image credit: Getty Images)

On the hunt for an upper body workout that targets more than just your arms and shoulders?  We've found a strength-based routine designed to target the entire upper body including the muscles in your back, arms, chest and shoulders. All you'll need is a pair of the best adjustable dumbbells to get going.

We suggest using adjustable dumbbells as the weight can easily be amended as you move through the workout. Some of the upper body exercises are more challenging than others, for example, the isolation exercises will put the demand of the movement on one muscle. So, it's likely you will appreciate the option to move down weight size to effectively complete each move. 

However, if you're using this routine at a gym or you own your own selection of dumbbells then you can simply select a few weight sizes to work with for this upper body pump.

You can view video demonstrations of each exercise below performed by fitness trainer, Angie Ward, the fitness trainer behind this five move routine. If you're new to training with weights, don't hesitate to seek help from a professional trainer who will be able to offer helpful pointers on form and safety while exercising with weights.

What is the 5-move upper body workout?

There are five exercises to work through and it's up to you how you want to structure the routine. 

You might like to format the moves into a High Intensity Resistance Training (HIRT) routine. A HIRT workout involves completing intense intervals of exercises with weights followed by shorter rest periods. This will place a greater focus on burning fat and improving overall endurance. 

Alternatively, if you're more interested in building muscle then you should consider working with sets and reps. Working with a rep range of anything between 8-12 is a good starting point and aiming to complete at least three sets will give you a solid workout. 

There is a list of the exercises below, followed by Ward's demonstrations. 

  • Dumbbell reverse fly and curl
  • Dumbbell palms in press
  • Dumbbell curl and press
  • Dumbbell skull crusher
  • Dumbbell see saw row

Can you get a good upper body pump just with some dumbbells and no other equipment? Yes, you certainly can. 

As the range of exercises above hopefully demonstrates, you can add a lot of variety to your strength training with this style of weight. With the ability to add resistance into a variety of moves such as presses, curls and rows, dumbbells will assist in developing muscle in the chest, shoulders, back and arms.

Is it worth devoting a whole workout to your upper body? Yes, again. While full-body workouts are a great way to work out more efficiently, allocating set workouts in your fitness regime to just focusing on the upper body is worthwhile.

Maintaining a strong upper body can contribute to better posture, joint stability, and help to prevent injury. Plus, a well trained upper body can improve performance in other forms of exercise such as sports or hobbies that require throwing, lifting, or pushing movements.

However, although dumbbells alone can be sufficient for building muscle, incorporating other equipment such as some of the best resistance bands can provide additional variety and challenge to your workouts. Resistance bands can add variable tension throughout the range of motion, stimulating muscles in new ways. 

If you'd like to continue making strength gains, it's a good idea to look beyond completing the same workout over and over again, no matter how much you enjoy it. You'll find some alternative workouts to try below.

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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.