All you need for this 6-day dumbbell-only workout routine is a couple of adjustable dumbbells and a bench. It’s ideal if you train at home, or travel a lot and don’t always have access to a well-equipped gym.
The default version of the program (known in some circles as the Arnold Split) involves training six days a week on set days – Monday through Saturday. Sunday is a rest day.
Here’s what it looks like:
- Monday: Chest/Back
- Tuesday: Shoulders/Arms
- Wednesday: Legs
- Thursday: Chest/Back
- Friday: Shoulders/Arms
- Saturday: Legs
- Sunday: Off
This schedule isn’t set in stone, and you can move your rest day around depending on your schedule.
One week you might be able to train six days straight before taking a day off. The following week you might train three days in a row, take a day off, then train for another three days.
Some weeks you might only do five workouts, other weeks you might manage six.
But the basic workout schedule remains the same – you train chest and back, followed by shoulders and arms, followed by legs, then rinse and repeat.
6 Day Dumbbell Workout Routine
Workout 1: Chest & Back
- Push Ups 4 sets x As Many Good Reps As Possible
- Incline High Row 4 sets x 8-12 reps
- Flat Dumbbell Bench Press 4 sets x 10-15 reps
- Dumbbell Pullover 4 sets x 12-15 reps
- Weighted Crunch 3 sets x 15-20 reps
Workout 2: Shoulders & Arms
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press 4 sets x 8-12 reps
- Lateral Raise 4 sets x 15-20 reps
- Triceps Kickback 2 sets x 15-20 reps
- Overhead Triceps Extension 2 sets x 10-15 reps
- Dumbbell Preacher Curl 2 sets x 12-15 reps
- Hammer Curl 2 sets x 8-12 reps
Workout 3: Legs
- Bulgarian Split Squat 4 sets x 8-12 reps
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift 4 sets x 10-15 reps
- Dumbbell Leg Extension 4 sets x 10-15 reps
- Sliding Leg Curl 4 sets x 10-15 reps
- Incline Reverse Crunch 3 sets x 15-20 reps
Workout 4: Chest & Back
- Low Incline Dumbbell Press 4 sets x 8-12 reps
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Row 4 sets x 8-12 reps
- Dumbbell Flyes 4 sets x 12-15 reps
- Dumbbell Pullover 4 sets x 8-12 reps
Workout 5: Shoulders & Arms
- Chest-Supported Y-Raise 3 sets x 8-12 reps
- Bent Over Lateral Raise 3 sets x 8-12 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Curl 4 sets x 8-12 reps
- Triceps Kickback 2 sets x 15-20 reps
- Overhead Triceps Extension 2 sets x 10-15 reps
- Incline Reverse Crunch 3 sets x 15-20 reps
Workout 6: Legs
- Goblet Squat 4 sets x 10-15 reps
- Deficit Reverse Lunge 4 sets x 8-12 reps
- Hip Thrust 4 sets x 10-15 reps
- Dumbbell Leg Curl 4 sets x 12-15 reps
How to Train for Muscle Growth
Any training program designed for muscle growth should be based on these six key principles.
1. Use a variety of exercises. Using different exercises for the same muscle group leads to more complete development compared to doing the same exercise all the time. If all you do is a handful of compound lifts, you’re almost certainly leaving gains on the table
2. Do enough sets per week. For maximum muscle growth, aim for 10-20 sets per muscle group per week, spread across 2-6 training sessions. Beginners can make impressive gains with less, while more advanced lifters may well need even more work to keep the gains coming.
3. Train in the hypertrophy rep range. To build muscle, most of your training should be done in the 5-20 rep range. That’s heavy enough to put plenty of tension on the muscle, but not so heavy that you can’t control the weight.
4. Get sufficient rest between sets. To recover properly from one set to the next requires upwards of 2 minutes rest. Without enough rest from one set to the other, you won’t be able to do as many reps, which has the knock on effect of reducing the stimulus for growth.
5. Train often enough. To gain muscle as fast as humanly possible, train each muscle 2-4 times every seven days. A muscle will still grow with less frequent training, but for optimal results you want to hit each muscle group at least twice every seven days.
6. Train hard. The last 1-2 reps of every work set should be extremely difficult. Those are reps that take a muscle out of its comfort zone and make the largest contribution to muscle growth. You don’t need to take each to failure, or the point where you’re unable to complete another rep, but you want to get close.
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?
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.
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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 build muscle with dumbbells only?
You most definitely can build muscle with just dumbbells. A muscle grows when the fibers inside that muscle are exposed to a certain level of tension, irrespective of where that tension comes from.
Resistance is resistance, whether it’s provided by dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, weight machines or your own body.
Is it good to lift dumbbells every day?
In most cases, you’re better off working out with dumbbells a maximum of 5-6 days a week, rather than every day. Training 7 days a week, every week for months on end is going to be too much for most people to recover from.
What are the signs of overtraining?
One of the early signs you’re doing too much is that your performance in the gym takes a dip.
And by your performance in the gym, I’m talking about the number of reps you’re able to do with a given weight, or the amount of weight you’re able to lift for a given number of reps.
If you’re consistently getting weaker rather than stronger, it’s a sign you’re overdoing things relative to the amount of recovery you’re getting.
The solution is to a) reduce the amount of work you’re doing in the gym and/or b) upgrade your recovery, which typically involves eating a better diet, getting more sleep and reducing (or at the very least finding alternative ways to deal with) unwanted sources of psychological stress.
Entering a true overtrained state (known in the scientific literature as overtraining syndrome) is relatively uncommon, at least among the average recreational exerciser. Which is good news, because it’s not a pleasant experience.
Overtraining syndrome is characterized by a constant state of fatigue, exhaustion, and depressed mood that can take months to recover from.
One guy I was reading about, who’d been diagnosed with overtraining syndrome by a team of researchers from Finland, was unable to carry on playing his sport due to constant fatigue and exhaustion.
He couldn’t sleep properly, and was getting by on only 3-4 hours of sleep each night. Despite the fact he was only in his mid twenties, his testosterone levels were low, his brain chemistry was abnormal, he was suffering from tinnitus (the perception of noise or ringing in the ears), and a psychiatric examination showed that he was suffering from major depression.
That’s overtraining syndrome. Feeling a bit tired for a day or so after a hard workout isn’t.
Once you’re in a true overtrained state, it can take months (possibly years) of rest and recovery before you get anywhere close to normal again.
Is 2 hours at the gym too much?
For most people, a 2-hour workout is far more than you need. As long as your workout is set up properly, chances are it won’t take than 45 to 90 minutes to get the job done, especially if you’re training 6 days a week.
However, there are instances where longer workouts can be beneficial. For example, if you’re an advanced lifter with multiple years of training experience, doing heavy strength work, resting for 3-5 minutes between sets, and training in a cold gym (which will necessitate a longer warm-up period), you’ll need more time in the gym.
Other Dumbbell Workout Plans
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