How to Use Dumbbells for Women

Woman lifting weights

Dumbbells are a great tool to use for strength training. Many women may be hesitant to lift weights because they are afraid to get "bulky," like some of the professional bodybuilders seen in the media. However, bodybuilders spend hours every day in the gym, and that kind of muscle size is the result of very advanced strength and conditioning programs. Basic strength training with free weights -- such as dumbbells -- are actually a key part of a proper exercise program aimed at achieving a lean, toned and feminine physique. Consistent strength training not only helps you lose body fat and build muscle, but it can also increase the ease of daily activities, contributing to a more enjoyable quality of life.

Upper Body

Grab a dumbbell in each hand and stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Perform a biceps curl by rotating your palms to face in front of you and bending your elbows to bring the dumbbells to shoulder height. Extend your elbows to bring the dumbbells back down to the starting position. Biceps curls focus on strengthening and toning the biceps, the main muscle in your upper arms.

With your palms facing down, lift the dumbbells out to the sides, stopping at shoulder height. Keep your elbows slightly bent. Your body should roughly resemble the letter "T." Slowly bring your arms back to the starting position. This is a lateral raise and it focuses on the deltoids, the major muscle that makes up the shoulder.

One of the best exercises to create definition in the back is a row. It focuses on the rhomboids and latissimus dorsi in the back, and also the shoulders and biceps. Perform a bent-over row by hinging forward at the hips, maintaining a flat back and slightly bending the knees. Let your arms hang perpendicular to the ground and pull the dumbbells up. Lead with the elbows and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Imagine trying to pinch a pencil between your shoulder blades. Straighten the arms and repeat.

Lower Body

Try a rear lunge by holding the dumbbells at your sides and taking a big step back, bending both knees. Keep the majority of your weight in the heel of your front foot. Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side. Lunges focus on almost all of the muscles in the lower body, but mainly the glutes and quadriceps -- two of the biggest muscle groups in the body -- resulting in a significant calorie burn.

Widen your feet to shoulder-width apart and hold the dumbbells so that they rest partially on your shoulders, keeping your elbows facing forward. Sit back into your hips and bend your knees, as if you were sitting in a chair. Extend your hips and stand up to finish. This is called a front squat and also works the powerful muscle groups in the lower body, burning fat and shaping the legs and posterior.

Stepups are another great way to strengthen and tone the thighs and glutes. Start by stepping up onto a step or bench with your right leg, driving up through your heel and coming to a standing position at the top. Then, slowly lower yourself back down, and repeat. Perform the same number of repetitions on the other leg. Add resistance by holding the dumbbells at your sides.


Start with light dumbbells and gradually increase the weight as you get stronger. A good place to start is with 5-pound dumbbells. As you become more comfortable with the exercises, choose a weight that is challenging enough so that you are only able to do two to three sets of 12 to 15 repetitions. The last two or three repetitions in each set should feel tough, but not so challenging that you are not able to maintain proper form.

Always begin strength-training workouts with a five- to 10-minute warm-up, gradually increasing your heart rate and getting your body moving. Examples include walking or jogging, an elliptical machine or bike, or dynamic movements such as jumping jacks.

Breathe out during the effort phase of each exercise, and breathe in as you return to the starting position.


A common mistake among exercisers is mimicking exercises or weights because they see someone else doing it. Your exercise level is unique, and it is important to listen to your body and make decisions based on your own abilities. Consult a fitness professional for assistance if available. Strength training for women has become more popular in recent years; check out the "Resources" links for more education and tips.