The dumbbell is a type of exercise equipment used in weight training. Specifically, dumbbells are weights used without exercise machines. Dumbbells are sometimes also called hand weights and free weights—those used “free” of such equipment. Most dumbbells are designed with a narrow bar in the middle and two wider discs at each end. Some dumbbells are very light in weight (only a few pounds) while others are very heavy (50 pounds or more). They can be fixed in weight or variable. Specifically, dumbbells can vary in weight due to discs that can be added or removed from the bar by quantity and size (weight). In addition, dumbbells can be used individually (a dumbbell in one hand) or in pairs (one in each hand).


The purpose of dumbbells is to strengthen the body and to tone the muscles, along with increasing their size. Bodybuilders, powerlifters, and other athletes often use them within their workouts or exercise routines. Various exercises have been created for the use of dumbbells, each designed to exercise a specific group of muscles. As a group, dumbbell exercises, if performed properly and regularly within a comprehensive exercise routine, have the potential to help build broad shoulders, strong arms, shapely buttocks, large chest, strong legs, and well-defined abdominals.


Before the term dumbbell came into being, the ancient Greeks (around the fifth century B.C.) used the word “halteres” to mean the lifting of weights. In fact, they used handheld weighted objects similar to dumbbells to strengthen their muscles. Several thousand years ago, a club-shaped device called a “Nal” was used in India for the purpose of lifting weights. Over many later centuries, heavy metal plates called plummets and lead plugs covered with wood were used just like dumbbells are used today. Throughout this time, physicians saw the value of using these objects for exercising in order to live a healthier lifestyle.

The word “dumbbell” originated in England somewhere after the eighth century in reference to the practice of pulling the rope for the ringing of heavy church bells high in church steeples (“bellringing”). It took much strength and practice to ring heavy church bells, so inexperienced bellringers were taught without the use of the clappers within the bells (no doubt, so the sound of the bells would not aggravate people located near the churches). Some English people came to associate the word “dumb” for the noiseless ringing bells. Eventually, the apparatus used to practice bellringing—the rope connected to a rounded metal weight (a clapperless bell)—came to be known as a “dumbbell.”

Later, around the sixteenth century, men found that they could improve their physique by working with these dumbbells attached to ropes. In the nineteenth century, the original rope and weighted bell-like object was replaced with a short bar and rounded weights on each end. These early dumbbells evolved over the next many centuries to the model used today.


Dumbbells, or free weights, are a type of exercise equipment that do not require the use of exercise machines. Dumbbells are used to strengthen and tone muscles.

Dumbbells, or free weights, are a type of exercise equipment that do not require the use of exercise machines. Dumbbells are used to strengthen and tone muscles.

In addition, a fixed or adjustable position workout bench is also part of the equipment often needed for dumbbell exercises. A dumbbell stand is usually included for work with dumbbells. A stand for dumbbells prevents the user from having to pick up dumbbells off the floor every time they are needed. It is also a good way to store dumbbells.

The major muscles that can be exercised with dumbbells include those in the arms, back, chest, shoulders, and legs. Two exercises for the arms that can be done with dumbbells include:

Men work out with dumbbells, also called hand weights or free weights. While there are many benefits to using dumbbells as part of a strength-training regimen, there are also risks.

Men work out with dumbbells, also called hand weights or free weights. While there are many benefits to using dumbbells as part of a strength-training regimen, there are also risks. Attempting to lift too much weight can cause muscle strains or more serious injuries, like muscle tears.

Other dumbbell exercises for the muscles in the arms include the palms-up wrist curl and palms-down wrist curl.

Dumbbell exercises for the back include the following:

These exercises target the lower and upper back as well as latissimus dorsi muscle, commonly called the “lats.” Other dumbbell exercises for the back include the kneeling one arm row and stiff-legged dead lift.

Dumbbell exercises for the chest include the following:

A muscle with two attachment points: the biceps brachii in the upper arm and the biceps femoris in the back of the thigh.
The shoulder muscle; a thick triangular-shaped muscle that covers the shoulder joint.
Latissimus dorsi—
A triangular muscle located on the back.
Also called polychloroprene, a group of synthetic rubbers produced by the polymerization of chloroprene.
The chest muscle.
The large muscle located along the back of the upper arm.

Dumbbell exercises for the shoulders include the following:

Other dumbbell exercises that exercise the shoulders are the upright row and seated shoulder press.

Dumbbell exercises for the legs include the following:

Other dumbbell exercises that exercise the legs are the squat and stationary lunge.


Dumbbells are very useful for strengthening muscles; in particular, for concentrating on specific muscles for each type of exercise.

Although dumbbells are simple devices for lifting weights when compared to the complicated machines and devices used in the modern-day gymnasiums and weight rooms, the dumbbell is considered by sports enthusiasts and sports researchers alike as one of the most effective ways to strengthen muscles and produce a powerful and muscular body.

Dr. Jan Todd, a professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas (Austin), teaches classes in sports history. Todd, the author of From Milo to Milo: A History of Dumbbells, Barbells, and Indian Clubs (and a former world-class power-lifter and member of the International Powerlifting Hall of Fame), states: “Almost all sports scientists consider them [dumbbells and barbells] superior to machines for building athletic power.”


Although there are many benefits when using dumbbells, there are also serious risks. Many strains, sprains, and other such minor injuries can occur when dumbbells are used improperly. It is very important to be taught the proper way to use dumbbells, which can be done with supervision from a personal trainer or other knowledgeable person.


Dumbbells can be easily dropped on toes, ankles, and feet. To reduce the risk of dropping dumbbells, make sure that hands are dry before lifting them up. Special weightlifting gloves are available for purchase to help grip the handles and prevent slipping. They also protect the fingers. A dry towel can help, too. Special anti-slip grips are included in many dumbbells, which makes it less likely for them to slip out of one's hands. If one is tired, it may be best to end the workout before an injury occurs.

Persons should talk with a healthcare professional, such as the family doctor, before starting any new exercise program, including lifting weights with dumbbells. When starting a workout routine with dumbbells, a personal trainer can help to properly educate on the correct way to use the equipment. The personal trainer may also be able to provide advice on specific exercise routines to match stated goals and fitness levels. Stretching the muscles before and after the workout is also advisable to avoid injury.

See also Weightlifting .



Murphy, Myatt. Men's Health Ultimate Dumbbell Guide: More than 21,000 Moves Designed to Build Muscle, Increase Strength, and Burn Fat. New York: Rodale, 2007.

Plowman, Sharon A., and Denise L. Smith. Exercise Physiology for Health, Fitness, and Performance, 4th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.

Schoenfeld, Brad. Women's Home Workout Bible. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2010.


Todd, Jan. “From Milo to Milo: A History of Barbells, Dumbbells & Indian Clubs.” Iron Game History 3, no. 6 (April 1995): 4–16. http://www.la84foundation.org/SportsLibrary/IGH/IGH0306/IGH0306c.pdf (accessed January 23, 2017).


Emerick, Jaclyn. “Body-Toning Dumbbell Exercises from Autumn Calabrese.” Shape. June 1, 2015. http://www.shape.com/fitness/workouts/body-toning-dumbbellexercises-autumn-calabrese (accessed January 23, 2017).

Mulrooney, Marie. “Powerblock Dumbbells vs. Bowflex Dumbbells.” Livestrong. com. November 21, 2011. http://www.livestrong.com/article/127739-powerblock-dumbbells-vs.-bowflex-dumbbells/ (accessed January 23, 2017).

Zinczenko, David. “The Genius Dumbbell Workout.” MensHealth.com . September 25, 2006. http://www.menshealth.com/fitness/dumbbell-exercises-3 (accessed January 23, 2017).


American Council on Exercise, 4851 Paramount Dr., San Diego, CA, 92123, (858) 576-6500, (888) 825-3636, Fax: (858) 576-6564, support@acefitness. org, http://www.fitness.gov .

National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity, 1150 Connecticut Ave. NW, Ste. 300, Washington, DC, 20036, (202) 454-7521, ayanna@ncppa.org, http://www.ncppa.org .

President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, 1101 Wootton Pkwy., Ste. 560, Rockville, MD, 20852, (240) 276-9567, Fax: (240) 276-9860, fitness@hhs.gov, http://www.presidentschallenge.org .

SHAPE America, 1900 Association Dr., Reston, VA, 20191-1598, (800) 213-7193, Fax: (703) 476-9527, http://www.shapeamerica.org .

William A. Atkins, BB, BS, MBA

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.