Dumbbells for Women: The Basics

Dumbbells for Women: The Basics

Intimidated by lifting weights? Don’t be! Here’s how to use them

Photo: Fit woman pushing dumbbell over head

There are plenty of misconceptions surrounding dumbbells, weight lifting, and women. But the fact is, unless you’re aiming for bulked-up muscles, pumping iron won’t leave you with bulging arms and shoulders.

“Women simply don’t have the hormone levels that men do to create muscle bulk. If you’re lifting at home or on your own, you’re not going to be lifting the kind of weight that would pack on the muscle. It’ll really just tone and trim up the body,” says Nicole Nichols, star of the Total Body Sculpting DVD. Dumbbell workouts are suitable for any fitness level, especially since you can add more weight as you progress.

Why Your Workout Needs Them
Dumbbells are generally used for strength training, Nichols says, and working with weights offers a wealth of health benefits. “There are plenty of benefits of strength training, from weight loss to helping strengthen the bones. Depending on how you structure the workouts, you can get a pretty good aerobic component as well." If you string together aerobic moves like squats, lunges, planks, and crunches, you can get your heart rate up, while creating a long, lean body.

Getting Started
If you’re newer to working out, try starting with a body-weight workout which focuses on no-equipment strengthening moves from squats to planks. After that, you can try adding weights to some of the moves like a squat or lunge. “Start with lighter weights first, it might even feel easy,” Nichols says.

Nichols recommends keeping two sets of weights at home: a lighter one (2 to 5 lbs) and a more medium to heavy one (10 to 12 lbs) so that you’ll be able to switch between them depending on what moves you’re doing. Generally, you’ll use lighter weights for arm moves, especially ones that go overhead, like triceps presses. Heavier weights are great for lower body moves where you aren’t actively lifting the weights, like squats or lunges.

To know how much weight you’ll need for a move, start with a lighter weight (2 lbs) and do 12 to 15 repetitions of an exercise. If you feel like you can keep going, consider adding more weight, a pound at a time. Don’t feel like you have to add a lot of weight. “It’s better to be safe than sorry,” Nichols says.

To get started lifting, Nichols recommends asking someone to help you spot your form. “If you’re using incorrect form, you’re more likely to injure yourself,” she says. If you have access to personal trainers at the gym, ask them for help, or try a general fitness class that uses lighter weights to learn proper form.

To incorporate dumbbell moves into your workout, try these suggestions from Nichols:

Bent-Over Row: This move will strengthen the upper back and shoulders and it can also help improve posture. Start with lighter weights for this, and move to heavier weights if it’s too easy.

Pick up your weights and let your arms hang to your sides. Stand with feet hip-width distance apart and make sure your back is perfectly straight the whole time. Pull your abs in to the spine to protect the back. Slightly hinge forward at the hips with a straight back. Bend as far forward as you can, while still keeping your back absolutely straight. For some people this will be practically parallel to the ground, for others it will be only a slight lean. Hang your arms directly underneath your shoulders down toward the floor, gripping the weights in your hands with the wrists facing in. Bend your elbows straight up and back and lift the weights up. As you lift, use your whole arm, from the shoulder down, so you’re not stressing out your wrists. Slowly return the weights back down by your side and repeat 12 to 15 times.

Back Squat with Overhead Press: This combination move works the upper and lower body while getting your heart rate going. Use lighter weights for this.

Stand with feet hip-width distance apart. Hold onto the weights and rest them on your hips with your elbows pointing away from your body and your wrists turned in. Hinge at the hips and the knees and lower into a squat. As you straighten up back to standing, press the weights up overhead until your arms are straight. When you return to the squat, bring your arms back to start. Repeat 12 to 15 times.

Key Tips

  • When you’re using dumbbells, try to focus on the muscles you’re actually working. Don’t tense up your shoulders or neck in the process.


  • Keeping a steady breath will relax you as you move through your exercises and provide much-needed oxygen for your hard-working muscles.

Talk to your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.