For most lifters, the go-to option to make an exercise harder is to slap on more plates. However, if you don't have access to a barbell and tons of weights, that's not a viable option.
The following workout is centered around using just one medium-sized dumbbell, but each exercise has a different progression principle.
- A1. Dumbbell Snatch: 3 sets of 5 per side
- A2. Goblet Skater Squat: 3 sets of 5 per side
- A3. One-Arm Floor Press Flye Combo: 3 sets of 8 per side
- A4. Foot-Elevated Single-Leg Hip Thrust: 3 sets of max reps
- A5. Bridge Dumbbell Pullover: 3 sets of 8 with a big stretch
- A6. Dead-Stop Russian Twist: 3 sets of max reps
Rest about 90-120 seconds between sets and focus on dialing in your technique before ramping up the effort.
1. Dumbbell Snatch
This works the thighs, hips, back, and shoulders. You can take the same weight and focus on lifting faster to make it more challenging and get a bigger stimulus.
Keep the dumbbell close to your body, drive the elbow high, and turn it over by exploding. This is not a clean and press.
The clean and press is a good exercise, but it's easier. If you want to really challenge yourself with limited weight, you've got to explode to get the weight overhead instead of pressing it.
Do 2-3 sets of 5 on each side, resting 90-120 seconds between sets to maximally recover.
2. Goblet Skater Squat
I love squats, but there's just no way a medium-sized dumbbell is going to be challenging for most trained people.
Instead, switch to a single-leg version so you can hit the quads appropriately. I like using a goblet load because it acts as a counterbalance and encourages you to keep your hips more forward to load the quads.
If you struggle, either lower slowly and use your other leg to stand up, or just hold onto something for balance. The hand-supported skater squat can be an effective option to help with balance and load the legs:
Do 3-4 sets of 5-8 on each side, leaving 1-2 reps in the tank each set. Rest briefly between sides, then give yourself a couple of minutes between sets.
3. One-Arm Floor Press Flye Combo
Press up, then do the flye on the way down. You can make it better at developing the chest by going to a floor press option (more stable).
4. Foot-Elevated Single-Leg Hip Thrust
If you want to hit your posterior chain, some kind of hip hinge is key. Deadlifts and their variations are usually at the top of the list, but one dumbbell isn't going to deliver the challenge you need. But a deep range of motion, single-leg hip thrust can be a real butt-kicker.
This layers on more range of motion and a movement pattern which is more taxing to the muscles. Having your shoulders and foot elevated will allow you to get a good stretch, which can be beneficial for hypertrophy. Even a light to moderate weight requires a lot of effort.
Sink it low, get a pause in there for an added challenge, and then drive up to a full range of motion.
5. Bridge Dumbbell Pullover
Hitting the lats effectively with a medium dumbbell can be challenging if you focus on using traditional exercises like rows. Instead, we can target them better if we look at one of the lats' main functions – shoulder extension – and manipulate lever arms and our muscle length.
That's where this comes in. Keeping your elbow straight while doing a shoulder extension will make the same weight more challenging. By going to a bridge position, you can make the relative angle you work through for shoulder flexion and extension place more emphasis on the lats.
6. Dead-Stop Russian Twist
If you've ever done pause squats, you know that stopping your momentum and having to generate force out of a deep position can quickly make any weight feel heavy. This applies that method to the trunk and can light up your obliques.