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How to Build Muscle With Light Dumbbells at Home

April 4, 2020

intense back workout at home with light dumbbells

Can you really build muscle at home with just a pair of light dumbbells? It almost sounds like a trick question.

But hang in there with me. Because after you read this, you’re going to want to clear out a workout space in your home and train (so get your pre-workout ready!).

In this post, you’re going to learn how to build muscle with light dumbbells, even if all you have is a pair of light dumbbells.

I’m going to share 5 ways you can make your workouts at home more effective and more intense.

In fact, you’re going to be surprised how pumped your muscles are after doing a workout with these methods. You’re going to take your muscles to that furthest point and that’s where the muscle-building happens!

And the best part is you can do this from home. All you need is a pair of dumbbells and a bench.

I’m writing this during the time we’re on in quarantine and most gyms around the world are closed.

This post is not intended to knock lifting heavy weights. Rather, it’s intended for those times when you can’t make it to the gym or your gym is closed for whatever reason.

I’m teaching you ways to make your workouts at home more intense, even with lighter dumbbells.

Minimal Equipment You Need for Your Workouts at Home

Dumbbells - biceps - concentrated curls

You only need two pieces of home gym equipment to do the workouts and methods I’m going to show you below:

  • Dumbbells
  • Weight bench

It’s great to have 2-3 different sets of dumbbells. But it’s not necessary. With the techniques you’ll learn, you can get by with just one pair of light dumbbells.

You’ll need the weight bench for several exercises (mainly for chest and shoulders).

“What if I don’t have dumbbells or a weight bench at home?”

If you do not have any workout equipment, here are some helpful tips for buying gym equipment for your home, starting with the most feasible options:

  • Check local gym equipment stores for used gear (like Play It Again Sports)
  • Search online for used dumbbells and a bench on places like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace
  • Some pawnshops may have weight, but call around first
  • You can always buy new, but that’s the most expensive route

Note: Buying dumbbells can get expensive, so if you’re just starting out creating your home gym, just get one pair of light or moderate dumbbells. For men, a pair of 20’s will work just fine, and for women, start with 5’s or 10’s.

There’s no need to go broke trying to buy an entire rack of dumbbells. And you’ll see why below.

5 Ways to Make Your Workouts More Effective at Home

**In this video, I mentioned a pre-workout I’m taking called PreFierce.

You can read my full review and experience here: Jason’s PreFierce Results (and get my discount)

So, how exactly can you build muscle at home with just a light pair of dumbbells? First, you have to grasp this concept…

It’s not about how much weight you’re lifting; it’s about how hard your muscles are working.

The key is to force your muscles to work harder, no matter how much weight you’re lifting. And that’s the problem with lifting heavy; you’re focused too much on just moving the weight from point A to B. You’re not focused as much on working the actual muscle.

With lighter dumbbells, you can really focus on working those specific muscles, contracting them, and forcing them to move those weights. You’re not just mindlessly moving weight from point A to B.

Below are the 4 muscle-building methods you can try with your dumbbell workouts. I’ll explain each one and give you an example of how to use each in a workout routine.

1) Concentrated + Pump Reps

This first technique I want to share is combining 2 types of reps within the same set. I call this ‘concentrated + pump reps.’ This is my personal favorite for light dumbbell workouts, and here’s how they work together:

  • Perform 10-15 concentrated reps, smooth and controlled
  • Pump out 10-15 more reps (faster), or as many as you can do

*There’s no rest between these sets!

First, you’ll start with concentrated reps. The idea is to do the first 10-15 reps (depending on how much weight you’re using) with extreme control. This means taking longer to perform each rep, especially concentrating on the eccentric (negative) part of the rep.

You’ll also focus on the concentric part of the rep as well. Your goal is to have complete control of the weight, forcing your muscles to move the weight throughout the entire rep.

Concentrated reps increase the tempo and time under tension, which lengthens the muscle. This is going to change the way your muscles respond to exercise, ultimately leading to more muscle growth.

Remember, tension equals muscle growth. Slow down in general, get rid of the useless pauses, add some stretch emphasis where appropriate, squeeze hard and hold on peak contraction exercises and adjust your concentric and eccentric speeds to eliminate cheating and momentum.

Tempo & Tension Maximization For Advanced Bodybuilders!‘ Tom Venuto, bodybuilding.com, Jan 22, 2019

Now it’s time for the ‘pump reps.’ After doing 10-15 concentrated reps, you’re going to immediately pump out 10 more reps, or as many as you can do.

These will be a little faster than your normal rep speed. Your goal here is to finish your set by exhausting the muscle and pumping more blood into the muscle.

Here’s an example of using concentrated + pump reps in a chest workout with dumbbells. And this can be done at home, or anywhere.

Incline dumbbell flyes10 concentrated reps
10+ pump reps
Incline dumbbell press10 concentrated reps
10+ pump reps
Dumbbell flyes10 concentrated reps
10+ pump reps
Dumbbell press10 concentrated reps
10+ pump reps

*You’ll rest about 45 seconds to 1 minute between exercises. Then you can repeat the circuit (and repeat it again!).

Chest Workout Video Using Concentrated + Pump Reps

Below is a chest workout video you can do at home with dumbbells. This is the same workout as above, but there are some extra exercises thrown in, making it even more intense!

You can read more about this specific chest workout in my post: Intense Chest Workout at Home with Light Dumbbells

2) Rest-Pause Sets

One method that will really intensify your workouts is rest-pause sets. Here’s how they work:

  • Perform a set
  • Rest 10-15 seconds
  • Perform another set of the same exercise, with the same weight

Rest-pause sets can be brutal. And they will force your muscles to work overtime.

The idea is to do a normal set for as many reps as you can do. At that point, you’ll rest anywhere for 10-15 seconds. Then you’ll pick up the same weight and do more reps.

Of course, you can expect to do far fewer reps on that 2nd set. But that’s the point. You’re pushing your muscles further so that they can grow.

Below is an example of using rest-pause sets with an arm workout:

Alternate curls15-20 total reps
Lying tricep extensions15-20 total reps
Hammer curls15-20 total reps
Overhead extensions15-20 total reps

Arm Workout Video Using Rest-Pause Sets

Below is a workout at home video using rest-pause sets for biceps and triceps. You’ll notice in the video that you’re also using the first method we talked about earlier.

If you’d like to read more about arm workouts you can do at home, read my post: Arm Circuit Workout at Home with Dumbbells: How to Maximize Your Pump

3) Supersetting Agonist-Antagonist Muscles

Another awesome way to build muscle at home using lighter dumbbells is by doing supersets. This method allows you to get more work done in a shorter amount of time.

And to make your workout even more intense, you’re not just doing regular supersets. There’s a specific strategy that includes working opposing muscle groups together; agonist and antagonist muscles.

*I have a post dedicated on teaching you how to work agonist and antagonist muscles together in an entire program here: Supersetting Agonist and Antagonist Muscle to Get Lean and Strong

Training chest and back together is a great example. And here’s how that will:

  • Chest exercise – superset with
  • Back exercise
  • Rest 30 seconds
  • Repeat with different exercises

Working opposing muscles together creates a different type of muscle pump. You will also burn more fat and improve your conditioning with this type of workout.

Here’s a chest and back workout below using supersets:

ExerciseSets x Reps
Dumbbell Press
superset with…
Bent-over Rows
1 x 10-20

1 x 10-20
Dumbbell Flyes
superset with…
Dumbbell Rows
1 x 10-20

1 x 10-20
Dumbbell Pullovers
superset with…
Reverse-grip Rows
1 x 10-20

1 x 10-20

*Once you complete the circuit, you can do another round or two.

Chest and Back Superset Workout Video

This is the workout video supersetting chest and back. You can change the number of reps to make it more challenging.

You can read more about the chest and back workout in the video here in this post: Chest and Back Circuit Workout with Dumbbells at Home

4) High Rep Sets

Now we’re going to talk about extremely high rep sets. This is going to give you a major pump in whatever muscles you’re training.

You’re also going to use 2 other weight training methods to help you get those reps.

Method 1: Using one exercise

  • Set a goal for the number of reps you want to aim for
  • Do as many as you can to get to that goal
  • If you don’t make it, use the rest-pause method (rest 10 seconds) and pump out more
  • If you still don’t make your target rep goal, do another rest-pause

Method 2: Using multiple exercises

  • Pick 3 exercises for that muscle
  • Choose a modest target rep range for each exercise
  • Superset those 3 exercises

*You’ll see exactly how to use both methods for a shoulder workout below.

In fact, here’s a conclusive study of how high reps can lead to more muscle growth:

These results suggest that low-load high volume resistance exercise is more effective in inducing acute muscle anabolism than high-load low volume or work matched resistance exercise modes.

Low-load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise in Young Men‘ U.S. National Library of Medicine, PubMed.gov

It’s important to note that this method is different from the others. You will not be doing any concentrated reps here. It’s all about pumping more blood into your muscles.

Those light dumbbells are going to feel a lot heavier when you get to the end of your set.

But don’t get sloppy on your reps. Make sure you’re still focusing on making your muscles work harder by contracting them throughout each rep.

Here’s a high rep shoulder workout you can try. Start with ‘method 1’ as described above. Then finish with ‘method 2.’

Method 1: 50 reps with rest-pause sets

Seated dumbbell press50 total reps

Realistically, your set will look something like this:

  • 25 reps, rest for 10 seconds
  • 15 reps, rest for 10 seconds
  • 10 reps to complete 50 total reps

Method 2: 30 total reps supersetting 3 exercise

Bent-over raises10 reps
Front raises10 reps
Lateral raises10 reps

Do not rest between these sets. They need to be true supersets.

So the first exercise may feel light but that’s okay. By the time you get to the 3rd and final exercise, those light dumbbells are going to feel heavy.

High Rep Shoulder Workout Video

Here’s a video using high-rep sets for shoulders based on the workout above. Get ready for an extreme muscle pump!

You can also try my shoulders and legs workout in this post: Shoulders and Legs at Home: Superset Dumbbell Workout

5) Unilateral Sets

Another awesome way to make your workouts at home more effective is by doing unilateral sets. This method is going to greatly increase time under tension, which is a key to making your muscles grow.

This can be done with many upper body exercises. You’ll perform a rep with one arm while the other arm is maintaining resistance.

Let’s use seated dumbbell press as an example…

  • You’ll press both dumbbells up over your head
  • Lower one dumbbell while maintaining the extended position with your other arm
  • Once you press the working arm back up, repeat with the other arm
  • That makes 1 rep

You can also do this with dumbbell bent-over rows, dumbbell press (flat and incline for chest), dumbbell curls, and several other exercises.

Now, you probably would not do an entire workout using unilateral sets. But you can certainly mix this method with a regular workout.

Here’s a shoulder workout that uses unilateral sets (for seated dumbbell press).

ExerciseSets x Reps
Lateral Raises3 x 12
Unilateral Seated Dumbbell Press4 x 12
Bent-over Raises3 x 12
Front Raises3 x 12

Unilateral Explained in Video

This is the first video posted above in this article, but it starts right at the unilateral section:

After the unilateral example, you hear me talk about a new pre-workout I’m taking called PreFierce by TruFierce.


Making Light Dumbbells Feel Heavy

The key to building muscle isn’t so much in how much weight you use (or don’t use). It’s how hard you force your muscles to work.

You can actually grow more quality muscle using these methods I gave you. And this will allow you to make light dumbbells feel heavier.

Again, this is not knocking heavy lifting. There is indeed a place for that. But if you’re training at home with limited weight and equipment, this is the next best thing.

And remember, your goal is not to mindlessly move weight from point A to B. It’s to build and shape your muscles. You can do that with lighter dumbbells at home using these techniques.

Lastly, you’ll need to make sure you develop a strong mind-to-muscle connection. Building muscle has everything to do with how you focus and concentrate of each rep, making your muscles do the work, not just moving weights.

Excuses Don’t Build Muscle,


About the author

Jason Stallworth

Hi, I'm Jason Stallworth and I created The Muscle Program in 2010 for the purpose of helping you build muscle. I know first-hand how weight training and being in the gym has shaped my life in more way than one. And here is where I share that experience with you so that you can continue pushing yourself and becoming the best version of yourself each day!