Here’s a fun idea. Let’s ask several of our contributors the same question and see how they answer.
You have one medium-weight dumbbell or kettlebell. What’s your workout?
Andrew Coates – Strength Coach
Here’s a simple kettlebell complex to cover your bases: upper body (push and pull) exercises, lower body (knee and hip-dominant) exercises, and a cardiovascular blast to keep you conditioned.
Hit each exercise for one minute, rotate through all four, then rest for one minute. Repeat each five-minute complex three to four times for an efficient and effective workout.
- Kettlebell Overhead Press: Do them single arm (30 seconds per side) or two-handed for the full minute if the kettlebell is too heavy.
- Kettlebell Goblet Reverse Lunge: Alternate sides.
- Kettlebell Three-Point Row: 30 seconds per side.
- Kettlebell Swing
Rest a minute, then start over.
Dr. Sam Spinelli – Physical Therapist, Strength Coach
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 one medium-sized dumbbell, but each exercise has a different progression principle.
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.
Here’s how you could put all these together:
- 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.
Brandon Holder – Strength Coach
A 30 to 50-pound weight should get the job done for this one.
Starting off, you can do any type of activity (treadmill, calisthenics, etc.) to raise body temperature and break the initial sweat, but once past that you’ll need to get more specific. Using your one weight, perform four movements in a circuit fashion for 2-3 sets:
- Dumbbell Weighted Ankle Rockers: 10 per side
- Dumbbell Goblet Squat: Prying 20 seconds each side
- Dumbbell Goblet Squat to Hamstring Stretch: 5 times
- Dumbbell Goblet Squat to Release: 5 times
The primary focus is to hit the major compound movements (press, pull, squat, hinge) in ways to still challenge you with the limited weight. Place more focus on unilateral movements since you’re only using a single weight.
- A1. Dumbbell Squat Jump with Pause: 5 x 5
- A2. Dumbbell Single-Arm Split Jerk: 3 x 5, rest 60-90 seconds
- B1. Dumbbell Single-Arm Skater Row: 3 x 10 each
- B2. Dumbbell Single-Arm Floor Press: 3 x 10 each, rest 60-90 seconds
- C1. Dumbbell Single-Arm Reverse Lunge: 3 x 10 each side
- C2. Dumbbell Goblet Cossack Squat: 3 x 5, rest 60-90 seconds
- D. Dumbbell Plank Pull-Through and Row Finisher: 1-2 sets, rest as needed
Christian Thibaudeau – Strength Coach
When I competed in Olympic lifting I often used a modified Javorek barbell complex. It was mainly to prepare my body for heavy lifting and acted as a warm-up. But it also had a positive effect on muscle mass and even conditioning.
The complex combined the following exercises. There was no rest between them. Each was done with the same bar without changing weights or even dropping the bar between exercises. I did 6 reps of each.
- Snatch-Grip High Pull From Hang
- Clean-Grip High Pull From Hang
- Squat Press (a front squat at the top of a military press)
- Good Morning
- Barbell Bent Over Row
You can use a similar concept with a moderate-size dumbbell or kettlebell.
I’d do both an upper and a lower body complex. Why two complexes instead of one? Since you’ll have to do both sides, a whole-body complex would be too long. It’d be easy to lose motivation and focus midway through. Some might gas out.
Normally in a Javorek complex, you do 6 reps per exercise. But that’s when you have the luxury of being able to change the load. If all you have is one dumbbell, 6 reps might be too easy, so I prefer to give you a range.
Don’t go to failure on any of these exercises. It should be tough, but the quality of the movement should remain high.
Upper-Body Complex (6-12 reps per exercise)
- Single-Arm Muscle Clean and Press
- Single-Arm Upright Row
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Snatch, from the hang
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Shrug, slight torso lean
- Single-Arm Bent Over Row, elbow out
- Single-Arm Bent Over Row, elbow tucked to your side
Here’s what each exercise looks like:
Lower-Body Complex (6-12 reps per exercise)
- Dumbbell Jump Squat
- Single-Arm Static Lunge, left leg
- Single-Arm Static Lunge, right leg
- Single-Arm Split Squat, left leg
- Single-Arm Split Squat, right leg
- Barbarian Squat
- Goblet Squat
Here’s what each looks like, minus the jump squat. (My ceiling was a bit too low.)
The difference between a lunge and a split squat? In a split squat, you go straight down. So in the low position, the front knee angle will be around 90 degrees (maybe a bit less depending on tibia length). In a lunge, you move the front knee forward when going down.
Go through both complexes two or three times, alternating between upper and lower body.
Here’s an example:
- Upper Body Complex Set One
- Rest 2-3 minutes.
- Lower Body Complex Set One
- Rest 2-3 minutes.
- Upper Body Complex Set Two
- Rest 2-3 minutes.
- Lower Body Complex Set Two
As you get stronger and the complex gets too easy, increase the reps. If you reach a point where you’re doing 12 reps on all the exercises, keep progressing by shortening the rest intervals between complexes.
The endpoint (few will get there) would be to do 3 sets of each complex for 12 reps per exercise with almost no rest between complexes.
This workout will provide for a pretty complete growth stimulus. It will also improve your conditioning, help you lose fat, and even improve explosiveness and power.