If you want a simple but effective 3-day workout routine that will build muscle, one that uses nothing but a couple of dumbbells and your own bodyweight to supply resistance, this page will show you what to do.
This 3 day dumbbell workout plan involves three different workouts – a push workout, a pull workout, and a full-body workout.
The default version of the push/pull/full-body split looks like this.
- Monday: Push Workout
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Pull Workout
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Full-Body Workout
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
The pushing movements are done on Monday and the pulling movements on Wednesday. Then you work all the major muscle groups in Friday’s full-body workout. Training frequency for each muscle group is twice a week.
However, you can also do the full-body workout first, turning it into a full body/push/pull split.
Here are the muscle groups you’ll be training in each workout:
Push Dumbbell Workout
Pull Dumbbell Workout
Full Body Dumbbell Workout
3 Day Dumbbell Workout Schedule
Dumbbell Push Day
- Bulgarian Split Squat 4 sets x 8-12 reps
- Dumbbell Bench Press 4 sets x 8-12 reps
- Goblet Squat or Dumbbell Hack Squat 3 sets x 10-15 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Press 3 sets x 10-15 reps
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press 2 sets x 5-8 reps
- Lateral Raise 2 sets x 15-20 reps
- Overhead Triceps Extension 3 sets x 10-15 reps
Dumbbell Pull Day
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift 3 sets x 10-15 reps
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Row 4 sets x 8-12 reps
- Sliding Leg Curl 3 sets x 10-15 reps
- Dumbbell Pullover 3 sets x 12-15 reps
- Dumbbell Face Pull 2 sets x 15-20 reps
- Standing Dumbbell Curl 3 sets x 8-12 reps
- Weighted Crunch 3 sets x 20-25 reps
Dumbbell Full-Body Day
- Push-ups 3 sets x 20-30 reps
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Row 3 sets x 8-12 reps
- Bulgarian Split Squat 3 sets x 10-15 reps
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift 3 sets x 10-15 reps
- Lateral Raise 2 sets x 15-20 reps
- Dumbbell Hammer Curl 2 sets x 10-15 reps
- Overhead Triceps Extension 2 sets x 10-15 reps
- Reverse Crunch 3 sets x 15-20 reps
How To Progress a 3-Day Dumbbell Workout
No matter how your training split is set up, it’s important to train hard and focus on improving your workout performance over time.
Do the same exercises, for the same number of sets and reps, while lifting the same amount of weight, for the next five years. Nothing much is going to happen.
That’s because the training you’re doing is a challenge your body has already adapted to. As a result, no new muscle mass will be gained.
I’m not saying you’ll make progress every time you train. To do so indefinitely would be impossible, and there’ll be times when you end up lifting the same amount of weight, for the same number of sets and reps you did before.
However, you should be pushing yourself to increase the amount of work your muscles are doing in the gym, whether that’s lifting heavier weights, doing more reps with the same weight, or doing more sets.
You need to give your muscles a reason to get bigger, or you’ll remain stuck at the same size you are right now.
So make sure to keep a training diary, write down your numbers, and always try to beat your previous workout in some way.
The rep ranges for each exercise aren’t set in stone, and can be adjusted to ensure that you’re pushing yourself hard in each set.
That is, as long as you take your work sets close to failure, muscle growth is very similar across weights and rep ranges.
While heavy weights and low reps tend to cause greater gains in strength, most research shows very similar gains in muscle size across a variety of rep ranges, just as long as you push yourself hard in each set.
And by pushing yourself hard, I mean taking each set close to the point of muscular failure, or the point where you’re not able to complete another rep using good technique.
You don’t need to reach the point where you’re physically incapable of doing another rep., but you do need to get reasonably close.
If you’re using a weight that you’re able to lift for 20 repetitions, but you only do 10, you’re unlikely to stimulate much in the way of muscle growth.
How to Warm Up
The number of sets listed are the actual work sets only, and don’t include warm-up sets.
It’s always a good idea, especially if you’re using heavy weights, to do several progressively heavier warm-up sets. This will prepare the joints, the muscles and the nervous system that controls those muscles for the heavy work to come.
In most cases, somewhere between 1-3 warm-up sets will do the job. However, the exact number of warm-up sets you do will vary depending on a number of factors, including the temperature of the gym you’re training in, how your joints feel, the amount of weight you’re lifting, and where that exercise is placed in the workout.
There have been times when I’ve been training in a cold gym, it’s early in the morning and my joints are feeling a bit stiff, where I’ve ended up doing 7-8 warm-up sets before getting into the heavy stuff.
On the flip side, with some of the exercises that come later in the workout, the muscles being worked are already warm, so you won’t need many, if any, warm-up sets.
What about stretching?
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In most cases, there’s very little benefit in stretching, be it dynamic or static, as part of a warm-up.
While the adverse effects of stretching on strength and power have been exaggerated, most studies show that pre-exercise stretching does little for injury prevention and has no beneficial effects on lifting performance.
Can you stretch as part of your warm up? Yes. Do you have to? No. It’s certainly not mandatory, and many people will do just as well without it.You can read more about how to warm up for weight training here.
Nutrition for Muscle Growth
When it comes to building muscle and gaining weight, what you do in the gym is only part of the story. Without the right diet, much of your hard work will go to waste.
What should your diet look like if you want to build muscle?
First, make sure you’re getting enough food. Your daily calorie intake should provide somewhere between 250-500 calories over and above your maintenance calorie requirements.
That is, if you’re maintaining your weight on 2500 calories per day, you’d aim for somewhere between 2750 and 3000 calories per day.
It is possible to gain muscle while in a calorie deficit, but it tends to happen more slowly compared to being in a calorie surplus.
That’s because one of the things that slows muscle protein synthesis – the key driving force behind muscle growth – is a restriction in the availability of energy.
Once you’ve calculated what your daily calorie intake should be, the next step is to calculate your macros, the first and most important of which is protein.
Set your daily protein intake at roughly 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. That will do the job for most people.
Someone weighing 180 pounds, for instance, would aim for a daily protein intake of around 126 grams of protein per day (180 x 0.7 = 126). If you prefer metric, multiply your bodyweight in kilograms by 1.6.
Rather than getting all your protein in one or two large meals, it should be spread out throughout the day. Aim for a minimum of 3 protein-rich meals each day, with each meal containing somewhere between 20 and 40 grams of protein.
Ideally, you’ll get some protein within the first few hours after getting out of bed, before a workout, after a workout, and before going to bed.
As far as protein supplements are concerned, they’re not strictly necessary for building muscle. They do make it a lot easier to hit your protein targets for the day which is why I use them myself. But think of them as an optional extra, rather than a strict requirement.
Your fat intake can vary from 20 to 40 percent of total calories. Some days it might be a little higher, others a little lower. But on average, your fat intake should be set at around 30% of your total calorie intake.
Once protein and fat are taken care of, the rest of your calories will come from carbohydrate.
As fat intake goes up, carbohydrate intake will go down and vice versa. Some days you might eat a little more fat and less carbohydrate. Other days you might eat more carbohydrate and less fat.
As long as total calories and protein are set at the right level, it doesn’t matter too much.
Using these numbers, here’s an example of what a daily diet might look like for a guy weighing 175 pounds (79.5kg), with a maintenance calorie intake of 2500 calories per day.
- Calories: 2800 calories
- Protein: 123 grams
- Fat: 93 grams
- Carbohydrate: 368 grams
These numbers aren’t set in stone, but they do give you some ballpark numbers to aim for. The two most important numbers are calories and protein. As long as you’re hitting those targets, the carbs and fat can vary from day to day.
The Benefits of Dumbbells
Dumbbells have a lot of things going for them. They’re relatively cheap, don’t take up a lot of space, and can be used for dozens of different exercises that work your entire body.
With nothing more than a couple of adjustable dumbbells, you get a highly effective workout for all the major muscle groups without the need for lots of expensive equipment.
The fact dumbbells don’t require a lot of space makes them ideal if there’s no room in your house for a lot of gym equipment.
Not only does training at home save you money on gym fees, it’s also very convenient.
You just pull the dumbbells out from under your bed, or wherever they’re stored, and start training.
Even if you only have 10 or 15 minutes to spare, you can do a few exercises for this or that muscle group.
Then, later in the day, when you get another 10 or 15 minutes to spare, you can focus on another muscle group.
For some people, doing a bit of weight training here and there is a more practical way to fit weight training into their day, which means the workouts are far more likely to get done.
Dumbbells can also be an effective way to work around injuries, mainly because they give you a lot more freedom of movement.
If you find that certain free weight exercises cause your joints to flare up, doing the same exercise with a dumbbell may actually feel better, allowing you to work around any dings or dents that have built up over the years.
Pressing exercises performed with a barbell, for example, put your shoulders and arms in a fixed position, which can sometimes lead to pain in your shoulders, elbows or wrists.
But doing the same exercise with dumbbells gives you a lot more flexibility about how the exercise is done.
By that, I mean you’re able to make small adjustments to the movement pattern, altering the position of your arms in such a way that any joint pain is significantly reduced, or even eliminated completely.
You’re still working the same muscles, but you’re doing so in a way that’s a lot easier on your joints.
Let’s take the overhead press as an example.
When you press a barbell over your head, your palms will naturally face forward, known as a pronated grip.
But with dumbbells, you have the option of using a neutral grip, where your palms face each other.
For many people, switching to a neutral grip, and bringing your elbows in (rather than flared out to the side) will often make the overhead press feel easier on your joints.
With a dumbbell, you can also perform the exercise one arm at a time. Doing so makes it easier to adjust the path of the dumbbell, the position of your elbows and range of motion in such a way that it doesn’t cause you any pain or discomfort.
It’s also easier on your back as well. Pressing a 40-pound dumbbell over your head will impose less compressive load on your spine than an 80-pound barbell.
Some people have one side of their body that’s weaker than the other, which dumbbells can help to correct.
A small difference in strength between your left and right side is perfectly normal, and isn’t something that most people to worry about.
But if there’s a large imbalance in strength, the stronger side tends to dominate during bilateral movements, which can set you up for injury further down the line.
Unilateral training with dumbbells can help to identify and eliminate any strength imbalances that might exist, creating a better balance of strength.
Dumbbells also offer some benefits in terms of safety, especially if you’re training alone. It’s far better to drop a couple of dumbbells and damage the floor than get crushed by a heavy barbell and damage yourself.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I do HIIT on my recovery days?
You can do HIIT on a couple of your recovery days, but not every day. Doing HIIT four times a week and lifting weights on the other three will seriously impair your ability to recover and grow. If you want to do HIIT, a couple of days a week is plenty.
How long should I rest between sets?
To build muscle, you want to give yourself at least two minutes of rest between each set. If your rest periods are too short, fatigue from the previous set ends up bleeding into the next one. This means you won’t be able to do as many reps, which has the knock on effect of reducing the stimulus for growth.
But you don’t have to sit around twiddling your thumbs between sets. Instead, just do a set for another muscle group.
In the first push workout, for example, you can do a set for your lower body (split squats), catch your breath, followed by a set for your upper body (dumbbell bench press).
The same thing applies in the pull workout. That is, do a set for your lower body (Romanian deadlifts), catch your breath, then do a set for your upper body (bent over dumbbell rows). It’s a much more efficient use of your time.
Can I do cardio on my rest days? Or will it interfere with muscle growth?
Provided you don’t go overboard on the volume, frequency and intensity, there’s no need to worry about cardio negatively affecting muscle growth.
Here are some general guidelines that will minimize the extent to which cardio interferes with your gains.
- First, cap the amount of moderate- to high-intensity cardio you do to a couple of hours a week.
- Avoid any intense cardio immediately before lifting weights. You’re better off doing it once the heavy training is out of the way, or even on a separate day.
- I’d also suggest that you focus mainly on low-impact cardio, such as cycling, swimming, climbing stairs, rowing or even incline treadmill walking, rather than running.
Running tends to cause a lot more muscle damage than something like swimming, cycling, or even incline treadmill walking. There’s also a lot more wear and tear on your joints.
As a result, running has a much greater potential for impeding recovery and slowing muscle growth.
Will a dumbbell-only workout routine give me the same results as training in a gym?
In most cases, probably not.
Training with nothing but a couple of adjustable dumbbells will almost certainly mean that compromises are being made in terms of progress.
That’s not to say you won’t see results. Plenty of people have made tremendous gains in muscle size using nothing but a couple of dumbbells.
However, you’re not going to build muscle as quickly compared to doing all your training in a commercial gym, or even a well-equipped home gym.
One of the main downsides of a dumbbell-only workout is the fact that exercise selection is relatively limited.
Let’s take the back as an example.
Most exercises for your back can be put into one of two categories:
- Vertical Pull
- Horizontal Pull
Exercises like lat pulldowns, pull-ups or chin-ups are referred to as vertical pulling exercises. That’s because they involve working the back in a vertical plane.
Barbell or dumbbell rows, on the other hand, are referred to as horizontal pulling exercises. They involve working the back in a horizontal plane.
For complete development of all the muscles in your back, you want to include both vertical and horizontal pulling exercises in your training program.
Problem is, vertical pulling exercises require either a cable machine or a pull-up bar. You can’t do them with dumbbells. That means you’re limited to movements like bent over dumbbell rows and pullovers.
And even then, a horizontal pulling exercise is not a direct one-for-one replacement for a vertical pulling exercise.
Other Dumbbell Workout Plans
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